Job creation–or the lack thereof–has taken center stage throughout much of the developed world, emerging as one of the most substantial hurdles to economic growth and potential catalysts of a double dip recession. The jobs situation in the U.S. is shaping up to be the central issue in the next presidential election, sticking out as a critical failure of the current administration and hot topic in recent debates.
The stubbornly high unemployment rate in the U.S. is hardly abnormal in the current environment, especially among developed markets. In Spain more than 21% of the labor force is unemployed, and the youth unemployment rate has been reported to be close to twice that level. Greece and Ireland are among the other euro zone members that have seen unemployment rates skyrocket over the last couple of years, depressing equity markets and battering consumer confidence.
But there are a number of nations around the globe with robust labor markets that have largely been unaffected by the factors that have plagued the U.S. and much of Western Europe. It’s fairly simple to formulate an investment thesis around countries with low unemployment rates, as these markets can be expected to generally exhibit strong levels of consumer spending and relatively stable fiscal footing. For investors looking to tap into the contenders for the “most employed country” title, there are a number of ETF options.
Thailand, a heavily export dependent economy, is home to one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world. The unemployment rate at the end of 2010 was just 1.2%, and that figure is expected to slide to 1% by next year. Those numbers are obviously impressive given the dire hiring situations in the rest of the world, and coupled with the strong GDP growth in Thailand it’s no surprise that the Thai stock market has been one of the best performers over the last few years.
There are a number of ETFs that include exposure to Thai equities, but only one pure play option: the iShares MSCI Thailand Index Fund (THD). That ETF includes roughly 90 Thai stocks, and like many international equity ETFs, makes its largest allocation to the financials and energy sectors. THD has been one of the best performers in the Emerging Markets Equities ETFdb Category in 2011, trailing only a pair of Indonesia ETFs.
Malaysia is another rapidly expanding Asian economy with a rock bottom unemployment rate; as of June 2011 the jobless rate was just 3.2%. That’s slightly below the average since 1998 (which comes in at about 3.4%), and actually a slight increase from the previous reading released in May (unemployment had previously been 3.0%).
The iShares MSCI Malaysia Index Fund (EWM) is the best ETF option for tapping into this market. That fund holds about 45 Malaysian stocks and allocates about 30% of the portfolio to financials. EWM has consistently been one of the top performers in the equity ETF universe in recent years; the fund has more than doubled over the last five years [also read Emerging Market ETFs: Seven Factors To Consider].
Thanks to a red hot technology sector, South Korea boasts an unemployment rate that is one of the lowest in the developed world (some index providers still consider South Korea to be “emerging” even though the IMF upgraded it to developed status decades ago). South Korea isn’t growing as quickly as some Asian powerhouses on this list, but continues to expand at a moderate rate; the Bank of Korea expects growth of about 1.5% in both the third and fourth quarter.
Investors seeking South Korea exposure have a couple of options; the iShares MSCI South Korea Index Fund (EWY) focuses primarily on large cap stocks, while the IQ South Korea Small Cap ETF (SKOR) holds equities of smaller Korean firms [compare EWY and SKOR head-to-head].
Thanks to some aggressive growth plans begun in 2006, Vietnam has become of of the leading job creators in Asia. Ho Chi Minh City has emerged as an economic hub in the region that is adding millions of jobs each year, many of them in the technology sector. The country still has a long way to go in terms of implementing economic reforms, but the strong job growth has contributed to an impressive pace of expansion [read Can The Vietnam ETF Bounce Back From Currency Devaluation?].
Singapore has long been one of the most robust advanced economies in the world, and the city-state is also home to one of the lowest measures of unemployment. A recent survey of analysts showed that the economy is expected to grow by about 5.3% this year and that the unemployment rate will finish 2011 at just 2.2%.
While much of the euro zone faces elevated levels of unemployment, some countries in the region that maintained their currency independence stand out as bright spots. Swiss unemployment was just 2.8% in August, well below the double digit readings turned in by many members of the Euro zone.
The sturdy Swiss economy can be accessed through EWL, another iShares ETF that features a weighting of about 22% to Nestle SA and includes about 40 Swiss stocks in total. EWL has struggled mightily as of late thanks primarily to weakness in the now-pegged Swiss franc. For investors bullish about the long term potential of a strong and stable economy, the recent slide could make for an attractive entry point to this ETF [see Safe Haven No More: Swiss Franc ETF Collapses On Peg To Euro].
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Disclosure: No positions at time of writing.