Technology’s potential to ‘emerge’ markets

Earlier this year, one of the largest remaining ‘closed’ emerging markets, Iran, followed Saudi Arabia in opening up its stock market to foreign investors as financial sanctions were officially lifted following last year’s breakthrough nuclear deal between Iran, the US and other world powers.

Emerging and frontier market fund managers are now looking closely at Iran to evaluate its investment potential, as shown by the rapidly growing number of Iran-focused funds as well as the increase in investor travel to Tehran during the last six months. The Tehran Stock Exchange already has a large, diversified and liquid stock market with more than 400 listed companies and a market capitalization of around $90bn. On top of this, the country’s IPO pipeline is potentially as large as $100bn, an enticing prospect for international investors looking for growth opportunities.

Before they are able to invest substantially in Iran, investors must first satisfy internal compliance teams by getting to grips with a market where investor relations and corporate governance standards still have a lot of catching up to do. This is usually a long and fairly painful process as investors, companies and regulators move at different speeds, speak different languages and follow different practices.

Technology could play a vital role in helping companies in countries who are entering the global capital markets arena for the first time, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, to integrate and engage with the international investment community. It’s probably fair to say that the success of technological innovation in this area will be based largely on its ability to help companies to level the playing field between global investors and local investors.

The investor relations community has been slow to embrace innovations which are already revolutionising other industries. A Google Street View of the Emirates Airbus A380 for example gives travellers a full virtual product tour of the plane from their desks. Bernie Sanders used the 360 interactive video to great effect at his rally in the run-up to the Iowa caucus.

For most fund managers, there is no substitute for a face-to-face meeting or a company site visit, during which they can see the whites of management’s eyes and walk around the corridors of the company’s headquarters. But as global portfolios become more and more diversified, technology could help investors to cover more ground by increasing the effectiveness of ‘remote’ engagement at a fraction of the cost. Forward-thinking IR teams could adapt 360 technology to enable analysts and investors to interact not only with company premises, but also with senior executives and product managers. In a few years, the Oculus Rift headset could take this idea a step further to provide an even more immersive experience.

Simple smartphone applications allow ordinary consumers to order taxis, find dates, book flights, order takeaways and operate their central heating from the office. They allow warehouse managers to control stock and doctors to monitor patients’ blood pressure. At the same time, IROs and fund managers still rely heavily on emails, phone calls and business trips to conduct most of their daily tasks, which require time, money and organisation. In this environment, it is perhaps unsurprising that the process of building knowledge, trust and confidence in a company or market takes as long as it does.

For innovation to be embraced, it must make the fund manager’s job more efficient without forcing him to surrender his competitive edge or limiting his access to the company in any way. It must help the IRO to tell the company story more efficiently and to a wider audience. The opportunity for such a solution is perhaps greatest in emerging and frontier markets given the lack of existing IR infrastructure and desire for short-term international growth. Despite still being relatively undeveloped from a global capital markets point of view, countries such as Iran, China and Indonesia boast increasingly tech-sophisticated consumer markets, which perhaps bodes well for their respective corporate counterparts.

Technology innovations could offer open-minded IR teams in emerging and frontier markets a unique chance to quickly close the gap between them and their richer, more experienced developed market rivals. The lack of an existing process for engaging with international investors may even give them an advantage over established companies reluctant to think outside the box and adapt.

This article first appeared in the spring edition of UK IR Society’s magazine ‘Informed’.

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