De-merging Nations

Put your passport in an envelope, put the envelope in a lockbox, stash the lockbox in a safe-deposit box at your bank, give the key to a friend with instructions that no matter how much you beg, plead, cajole, or threaten - no key.

Resist the temptation of travel to the exotic lands in search of spice in your investment cuisine.

Emerging markets such as Asia or Latin America? Don't go there. Buy a bus ticket to Ohio.

Risk is out.

And not just the risk of developing countries. Any risk. The risk of investing in the stocks of small companies. The risk of too much investment in stocks of big companies.

The markets are signaling low tolerance for investments with a high level of risk, regardless of their fundamental values.

Emerging markets tell that story with painful clarity.

Turn to Page 12 for an eye-opener - lists of the best and worst performing such mutual funds.

It's a good news/bad news arrangement - minus the good news.

Even the winners were losers in 1998. And as Guy Halverson's stories note, the outlook is not good.

"At no time since the depths of the LDC (lesser developed country) debt crisis of the 1980s has the outlook for emerging markets appeared so bleak."

That comes from Leila Heckman and Brian Gendreau, investment strategists with the Salomon Smith Barney investment firm in New York.

So don't go there, unless you have a well-researched strategy.

And if you've got one, you must be some kind of walking brain trust.

The international financial crisis has more legs than virtually anyone thought. The investment fund run by George Soros, one of the world's best investors, lost $2 billion in the Russian economic collapse, an event that, in hindsight, seems as obvious as the chaos that has encompassed and encumbered Boris Yeltsin's government since its beginnings.

Mr. Soros, last week, told Congress about a global credit crunch, in which investors, and banks, lump all emerging markets together and dump them.

He urged Congress to pump more money into the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in hope of stabilizing those increasingly fragile economies.

He was followed by Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, who both threw the same pitch: a global meltdown if the House does not approve new funds for the IMF.

Mr. Rubin said: "I don't think there has ever been a time when full IMF funding is as imperative as it is now."

Read the rest of Guy's stories. Asian problems show few signs of easing, and the rhythm of Latin America echoes the sounds of dissonance.

Of course, most or all of these markets will recover and eventually prosper, and we'd all like to buy at the bottom.

But where is it? Here or next year? No one knows, so investors and lenders are increasingly reluctant to give emerging markets the benefit of the doubt.

That paints an uncomfortable picture of a downward spiral, even for the emerging markets - such as Eastern Europe and the Middle East - that still hold promise.

They risk getting caught in the backwash as investors run away from risk.

This column, in recent months, has extolled the virtues of caution when it comes to investing money, and we still like it.

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