Investing in Newly Industrialized Countries (NICs)

These are important markets for international investors

The famous Great Wall of China at Mutianyu in NIC China

David Henderson / Getty Images

The term "newly industrialized country" (NIC) is an economic classification used by economists to describe economies that fall somewhere between a developed country and a developing country. The countries falling under this categorization are characterized by rapid export-driven economic growth and a secular migration of workers from rural to urban areas.

Some examples of NICs include China, India, and Brazil, although definitions of NICs vary between economists. The one thing most economists can agree on is that NICs tend to be attractive investment destinations given their strong economic growth rates, which makes them very valuable for international investors. 

Key Takeaways

  • NICs may have low living standards, but they're also characterized by increasing economic freedoms, personal liberty, and a transition from agriculture to manufacturing.
  • There is no single definition of an NIC, so economists may differ on which countries they include in this category.
  • China may be considered the largest NIC, alongside other major NICs like Brazil, India, and South Africa.

Characteristics of NICs

Developing countries are often classified as those with a low living standard, an under-developed industrial base, and a low Human Development Index (HDI) relative to other countries with more advanced economies. NICs share some of these characteristics but tend to be heading in the direction of becoming a freer and stronger developed market country.

Some common attributes seen in NICs include increased economic freedoms, increased personal liberties, a transition from agriculture to manufacturing, the presence of large national corporations, strong foreign direct investment, and rapid growth in urban centers resulting from migration from rural areas into larger and more populated city centers.

Many emerging markets fall under the NIC categorization, as opposed to frontier markets that tend to be a lot earlier-stage. For instance, many frontier markets still have a relatively unstable government that entails a higher level of political risk or dependence on a single commodity or industry.

Commonly Cited NICs

Economists and investors commonly use the term NIC, but there is no single agreed-upon definition. As a result, many different countries are considered NICs, but not everyone agrees on what those countries are. Moreover, the classification can rapidly change over time, depending on a country's economic conditions. Countries that have moved beyond NICs to developed countries in the 1970s and 1980s include Singapore and South Korea, as their economies have matured.

Some countries may also be demoted from NICs to frontier markets if their economies have regressed due to deteriorating economic or political environments. For example, some countries have made strides in installing a democratic government but have slipped with an autocrat taking power. The lack of strength in their institutions could result in a demotion of their economic status.

Investing Options

International investors seeking exposure to this fast-growing classification of countries have numerous options. The easiest way to invest in these countries is by using exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that offer broad exposure to these economies in a single security that can be easily traded on U.S. stock exchanges without the risks associated with trading on foreign exchanges. Some NIC ETFs to consider include:

iShares MSCI BRIC Index Fund (BKF)

Brazil, China, and India are three NICs, making BRIC ETFs like this one a good option.

iShares FTSE/Xinhua China 25 Index (FXI)

China is the largest NIC, making this a large and popular ETF for those looking for exposure.

iShares MSCI South Africa Index (EZA) 

South Africa is one of the most non-correlated NICs, making this ETF a good option for investors looking to diversify.

International investors may also want to consider one of many country-specific ETFs, like the two mentioned above for China and South Africa, or American Depository Receipts (ADRs) to target specific companies within these countries. ADRs are U.S.-traded securities representing fractional ownership in foreign equities traded on international exchanges.

Important Considerations

The term NIC is very broad and ill-defined, meaning that international investors should be careful when using it. Many countries falling under this categorization also face numerous hurdles associated with their economic development, such as China's economic struggles or Brazil's political turmoil in 2015 and 2016.

However, NICs shouldn't be ignored. China is expected to become the largest economy in the world by 2028, while India isn't very far behind, which makes these countries very important for global growth. International investors should carefully build exposure to these areas in their portfolios while taking into account the risks.

The Bottom Line

NICs are important markets for international investors. While they aren't as safe as developed countries, they are significantly less risky than developing countries and offer compelling growth rates. Investors should carefully analyze these opportunities and build them into a diversified portfolio.