My recent trip to India brought real meaning to everyday terms like "Holy Cow!" or "the camel's nose in the tent" or "the elephant in the room." It's difficult to describe in a few words what it's like to experience the world's largest democracy with its 1.2 billion people, but my best attempt would be the term, "functioning anarchy."
Just driving on the roads offers a good path to understanding. The center line, as it turns out, is just a waste of paint. Driving (or riding) on a two—lane road offers the purest expression of what promises to be a continual demolition derby -- but without the crashes. Somehow, Indian driving classes teach student drivers how to pass by veering into the oncoming traffic and avoiding a head-on collision by swerving back in line at the very last minute. Everyone manages to adjust. In city driving, the lanes mean nothing to the thousands of three-wheeled taxis, motorcycles or trucks, and in three weeks of traveling thousands of miles in a small van on roads that were just packed, we saw no crashes or even rear-enders. Somehow, it all functions.
To imagine the general scene, consider the typical American shopping mall with a few anchor stores and the usual array of shops with their storefronts on a walkway. In the Indian equivalent, forget the anchor tenants and assume that instead of one shop there are several shops, each having about 10 to 15 feet of frontage space -- the spice shop, the raw wool shop, the tire repair shop -- and the shop selling just gum and snacks taking up about 5 feet. India's equivalent of our delivery vans could be hundreds of small three-wheeled trucks or pedal bikes, plus carts pulled by donkeys, water buffaloes or (get this) possibly even a camel right in downtown Delhi.
Meanwhile, imagine the typical-sized American mall with about 50 cows milling around in the pedestrian walkway. Cows, a sacred animal in India, spend the day lying down, interacting with people, or grazing in vacant lots or parks, but they return to their homes in the evening. Having worked on a Vermont dairy farm, I didn't need to be reminded that cows are very smart and that they would have no trouble remembering where they need to go at night to be fed and, if need be, milked. These cows, plus lots of off-leash dogs, just add to the mayhem, but for me as an animal lover, it all just enhanced the charm of the surroundings. It was unique in my traveling experience.
But enough of the travelogue. Considering the fact that India is part of the so-called "emerging markets" investment category, and more specifically, one of the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China), I was curious as to how the investment opportunities appear from a comparative standpoint. Emerging markets in general offer promising results right now for fundamental reasons that include, for example, the fact that undeveloped countries owe less money as a percent of their gross national product than most developed nations. Overall, the BRIC subset of emerging markets has been brought down by Russia, China and Brazil with their different and even unique problems, so there's India with, comparatively speaking, "no problem."
Just a look at emerging markets overall shows that the big problem countries with their large proportionate share of the totals have an adverse impact on the averages. India, by comparison, has held up well. While the emerging markets overall showed an average annual loss of about 4 percent per year for the past five years, some actively managed India funds earned about 5 percent per year during the same period. 2014 was an especially good year for India when some of the funds were up as much as 60 percent.
For a contrarian investor looking for something inversely correlated to the American stock market, this "functioning anarchy" just 15,000 miles away might be the answer. Their equivalent to our S&P 500 is called the "Nifty," which has a nice confidence-inspiring ring.