What Is a Developing Country?

•••  Getty Images/Oliver Burston

International investors often classify countries around the world based on their level of economic development. Several classification levels exist, and these use a number of economic and social criteria, ranging from per capita income and life expectancy to literacy rates. Developing countries, less-developed countries (LDCs), or emerging markets are those with lower ratings based on these statistical criteria.

Countries deemed more developed than LDCs are called "developed countries," while those less developed are known as "less economically developed countries" (LEDCs) or "frontier markets." While these terms have been the subject of criticism, they remain commonly used in many circles, including among international investors and international organizations.

Country Classifications

Developing countries, just below "developed countries" and above "less economically developed countries," (LEDC) are countries with economies that have high gross domestic product (GDP) per capita and a good general standard of living.

LEDCs exhibit the lowest indicators of socioeconomic development. According to United Nations standards, these countries have low incomes, human resource weaknesses, and economic vulnerabilities that include weak natural resources or population displacement.

As a result, these tend to be riskier investments, as there's a much higher level of uncertainty, however, they may be suitable for a well-diversified portfolio.

Measuring a Country's Development

Institutions measure a country's development in many ways. The United Nations has conventions for distinguishing "developed" and "developing" countries, while the World Bank has stopped using such terms in favor of low-income economy, lower-middle-income economy, and so on based on gross national income (GNI) per capita. 

The International Monetary Fund's (IMF) definition is often considered to be the most comprehensive measure, as it takes into account per capita income, export diversification, and the degree of integration into the global financial system.

In 2011, the organization published a research report on the topic of development classification titled "Classification of Countries Based on Their Level of Development" that outlines its methodologies for classifying a country's level of development.

The World Bank has a more concrete methodology that considers countries with a per capita income of less than $1,025 in 2018 as low-income economies. High-income economies are those with a per capita GNI of $12,376 or more.

Typically Recognized Developing Countries

Various organizations use different measures to determine how companies are classified, but a few common denominators appear in the mix. For instance, Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) are generally considered developing countries.

Other developing countries include 10 newly industrialized countries, which are the BRICS countries, not including Russia, as well as the following six:

  • Indonesia
  • Malaysia
  • Mexico
  • Philippines
  • Thailand
  • Turkey

Investing in Developing Countries

You can invest in developing countries easily with exchange-traded funds (ETFs) focused on emerging markets. While these investments aren't as safe as those in developed countries because of their volatility, they tend to have higher rates of return over the long-term, simply because developing economies often grow at a faster rate than developed ones.

This makes them an important component of an investor's portfolio, particularly if they have a long-term horizon.

A secondary benefit of these emerging markets is diversification, which spreads out investment risk so that exposure to any single asset is limited. Emerging markets provide investors with diversification from both domestic and developed market equities that tend to account for most of a portfolio.

For example, the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (EEM) has a correlation coefficient of just 0.5619 compared to the SPDR S&P 500 ETF (SPY) between January 2004 and July 2017, which means changes to the EEM were not strongly correlated to changes to the SPY.

Some popular emerging-market ETFs include:

  • iShares MSCI Emerging Market Index ETF (EEM)
  • Vanguard MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (VWO)
  • BLDRS Emerging Markets 50 ADR Index ETF (ADRE)
  • SPDR Portfolio Emerging Markets ETF (SPEM)

Alternatively, investors can purchase American Depository Receipts (ADRs) trading on U.S. exchanges to easily gain exposure to specific companies within these developing countries. Keeping a diverse portfolio across multiple developing countries can provide a great, diversified portfolio of international opportunities.

Those seeking even more specific returns can also consider purchasing stock on foreign stock exchanges, although this entails some unique taxation and regulatory risks.

The Bottom Line

Investors like to use classification systems in order to simplify the investment process. When it comes to regions of the world, developing countries have not quite reached maturity, although there's a wide array of different definitions. International investors may want to be cognizant of these different criteria when evaluating the risk and return potential of their portfolio.

Article Sources

  1. International Monetary Fund. "Classifications of Countries Based on Their Level of Development: How it is Done and How it Could Be Done," Pages 5-7. Accessed April 9, 2020.

  2. International Monetary Fund. "Classifications of Countries Based on Their Level of Development: How it is Done and How it Could be Done," Page 3. Accessed April 9, 2020.

  3. United Nations. "World Economic Situation and Prospects," Page 169. Accessed April 9, 2020.

  4. IPE. "Frontier Markets: Exploring New Frontiers." Accessed April 9, 2020.

  5. The World Bank Group. "Should We Continue to Use the Term “Developing World”?" Accessed April 9, 2020.

  6. United Nations. "LDC Identification Criteria & Indicators." Accessed April 9, 2020.

  7. United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. "Classifications." Accessed April 9, 2020.

  8. The World Bank Group. "How Does the World Bank Classify Countries?" Accessed April 9, 2020.

  9. International Monetary Fund. "World Economic Outlook (WEO) - Q. How Does the WEO Categorize Advanced Versus Emerging Market and Developing Economies?" Accessed April 9, 2020.

  10. International Monetary Fund. "Classifications of Countries Based on Their Level of Development: How it is Done and How it Could be Done," Pages 16-18. Accessed April 9, 2020.

  11. The World Bank Group. "World Bank Country and Lending Groups." Accessed April 9, 2020.

  12. United Nations Industrial Development Organization. "Cooperation with BRICS." Accessed April 9, 2020.

  13. United Nations. "Standard Country or Area Codes for Statistical Use (M49)," Select "Developing Regions." Accessed April 9, 2020.

  14. BlackRock. "What Are Emerging Market Equity Funds?" Accessed April 9, 2020.

  15. The Vanguard Group. "Vanguard International Bond & Stock ETFs." Accessed April 9, 2020.

  16. BlackRock. "iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF." Accessed April 9, 2020.

  17. The Vanguard Group. "Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF (VWO)." Accessed April 9, 2020.

  18. Invesco. "ADRE - Invesco BLDRS Emerging Markets 50 ADR Index Fund." Accessed April 9, 2020.

  19. State Street Global Advisors. "SPDR Portfolio Emerging Markets ETF." Accessed April 9, 2020.

  20. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "American Depositary Receipts (ADRs)." Accessed April 9, 2020.

  21. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "International Investing." Accessed April 9, 2020.