Markets in Africa and the Middle East fell in the fourth quarter of 2015, as commodity prices remained under pressure and weak currencies in the region reduced returns in U.S. dollar terms. Equities in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries declined as oil prices dropped to multiyear lows below $40 per barrel. South African stocks slid more than 10%, as the country's economic outlook remained poor and the rand fell to record lows after the unexpected dismissal of the country's finance minister and a slew of credit ratings downgrades. Shares in Egypt, which is receiving financial aid from the GCC countries to help its economy recover, fell 8%.
The Africa & Middle East Fund returned −6.27% in the quarter compared with 0.54% for the Lipper Emerging Markets Funds Average and −8.33% for the S&P Emerging/Frontier ME & Africa BMI ex IL. For the 12 months ended December 31, 2015, the fund returned −19.19% versus −14.08% for the Lipper Emerging Markets Funds Average and −19.35% for the S&P Emerging/Frontier ME & Africa BMI ex IL. The fund's average annual total returns were −19.19%, 1.97%, and −0.62% for the 1-, 5-, and Since Inception (09/04/2007) periods, respectively, as of December 31, 2015. The fund's expense ratio was 1.42% as of its fiscal year ended October 31, 2014.
For up-to-date standardized total returns, including the most recent month-end performance, please click on the Performance tab, above.
Current performance may be lower or higher than the quoted past performance, which cannot guarantee future results.
Share price, principal value, and return will vary and you may have a gain or loss when you sell your shares.
The Africa & Middle East Fund charges a 2%
redemption fee on shares held 90 days or less.
The performance information shown does not reflect the deduction of the redemption fee;
if it did, the performance would be lower.
Stock selection, particularly in South Africa, helped the fund's relative performance. We increased our South Africa allocation as we took advantage of broad market weakness to add to several high-quality names. While economic growth is uninspiring, low-end consumers are, by some measures, in the best financial shape in several years, helped by lower energy costs, and we believe certain companies are poised to benefit. On the other hand, we reduced our exposure to Saudi Arabia, which has thus far weathered the steep decline in oil prices by using its strong reserve base to protect investments in certain strategic areas of the economy. Nevertheless, the kingdom earns about 90% of its income from oil exports, so the oil price drop is pressuring the economy and government revenues.
The Africa and Middle East region has struggled along with other emerging regions as oil prices have fallen sharply since mid-2014. While oil exporters in the GCC and in sub-Saharan Africa are clearly facing headwinds, oil-importing countries, including South Africa, are benefiting from reduced inflation pressure and the ability of consumers to increase their discretionary spending. While we have made some adjustments to reflect the likelihood that oil prices will remain "lower for longer," we still believe that there is much more to Africa and the Middle East than just oil. We believe the region has a robust long-term outlook, driven by attractive demographics, rising urbanization and infrastructure investment, and a strong asset base in natural resources. As always, we would like to remind our investors that this fund can be extremely volatile and should represent only a small portion of a long-term investor's well-diversified portfolio.