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India on the rise with economy Booming

India  Stock markets , shares , funds on A rapid growth cycle

The world's most populous democracy has jumbo growth prospects. Here's how to invest now.

(FORTUNE Magazine)

EIGHT YEARS AGO, WHEN BHIM Asdhir started a fund focused on investing in India, he says he had a hard time getting people to listen to his pitch. Today he gives two seminars to investors each week and fields up to 1,000 calls a month from folks interested in putting money in South Asia. "As an investment, it has turned a corner," says Asdhir, CEO of Tired WomanOntario-based Excel Funds. "Thank you, India."

Asdhir isn't the only one singing the praises of the subcontinent. For the 12 months ending March 31, 2005, foreign investment in India was an estimated $13.5 billion. That's on top of $16 billion invested in the same period a year earlier. Private-investment giant Blackstone Group has announced plans to open an office in Mumbai and invest up to $1 billion in India. And the Sensex, the index of the Mumbai stock exchange, has surged 72% over the past year.

What's behind the rising interest in India? Some cite the rapid growth in outsourcing, the practice of hiring third-party companies to handle functions that companies used to manage in-house. Indian companies such as Infosys and Wipro have turned the outsourcing trend into an offshoring boom--and attracted U.S. investors starved for growth. Sales and earnings at Infosys, for example, grew more than 40% in its last fiscal year, and its American depositary receipts--ADRs are certificates that trade on a U.S. exchange and represent foreign shares--are up 12% this year.

The outsourcing phenomenon has, in turn, created good jobs in India and given a boost to a growing middle class of consumers who are buying homes, cars, and expensive consumer goods--a big change for the world's second-most-populous nation. Samir Mehta, who manages the Eaton Vance Greater India fund, says that just ten years ago college grads lived with their parents, rarely owned cars, and paid for everything in cash. Now, he says, young professionals are taking out mortgages and acquiring credit. And because India is a young, educated country--half the population is under the age of 25--analysts expect demand for goods and services such as banking, telecommunications, and cars will grow dramatically in the next ten to 15 years.

And while China continues to be the world's fastest-growing major economy--its gross domestic product rose more than 9% last year--India is no slouch: GDP has been growing 6% to 7% annually. Moreover, many investors think India's democratic government and huge English-speaking population will give it an edge over China and other rising nations in doing business with Western corporations. "Everybody knows about the terrific growth," says Prakash Melwani, a senior managing director with Blackstone. "In India, one has the rule of law, the democracy. We felt we had real downside protection." celina in saree

Individual investors have a couple of ways to bet on India. The government limits direct investment in shares of Indian companies to registered investors. That means that most individuals must either invest in a fund that buys Indian stocks (more on that in a moment) or buy one of a handful of Indian stocks with ADRs. Money-management professionals say investors interested in the latter strategy should consider a pair of financial institutions that offer a simple way to bet on the continued growth of the overall Indian economy: HDFC Bank (HDB, $48) and ICICI Bank (IBN, $22). Both companies are benefiting from Indians' desires to own homes and establish credit.

HDFC started out as a corporate bank, but it began lending to consumers three years ago and has been adding more than 100 branches a year. Eaton Vance's Mehta says the company is managed much more like an American bank--a number of its founding executives came from Citibank--than a government-run entity. He admits the stock is not cheap: It trades at about 3.3 times book value and roughly 20 times estimated earnings for fiscal 2006. However, HDFC has consistently delivered 25% to 30% earnings growth, a trend Mehta expects to continue for the next three to five years.

But ICICI may be the better bargain. A consumer-oriented bank, it too is riding India's newfound consumerism and frenzy for real estate. Fiscal-fourth-quarter earnings increased 35%, thanks to strong lending growth and a big income boost from banking and other fees. But the stock trades at just 15 times 2006 estimated earnings--a price/earnings ratio closer to those of less entrepreneurial state-owned banks. This "is unrealistic," a recent Morgan Stanley note said, "given ICICI Bank's better quality income stream."

For those looking to cash in on outsourcing, most analysts recommend buying software and services giant Infosys Technologies (INFY, $77). Indeed, fund managers liken it to General Electric and other U.S. stalwarts: It is simply a must for any India portfolio. And while the company is trading at a lofty 38 times estimated earnings for fiscal 2006, fans say it still isn't too late to buy in. "It is the bellwether stock of the Indian market and one of the best- managed companies in the tech sector," says Nishid Shah, chief investment officer of Birla Sun Life Asset Management Co., which manages the Excel India fund.

Offshoring has come under attack from unions and politicians in the U.S., but analysts believe U.S. companies will continue to look for ways to reduce costs by shipping work overseas. Perhaps the biggest risk for Infosys is price competition from rival Indian outsourcing companies. Indeed, Mark Bickford-Smith, co-manager of the T. Rowe Price International Stock fund, likes Infosys. But he favors shares of rival I-flex, a smaller tech company that Bickford-Smith thinks has greater growth potential. Most of us can't buy I-flex directly, though, because it is one of the many up-and-coming Indian companies that don't yet have ADRs trading on a U.S. exchange.

To get exposure to these lower-profile but fast-growing firms, investors should use a mutual fund. The question is how big a bet to place on India. "People don't need a fund devoted to just one country," says Arijit Dutta, a mutual fund analyst for Morningstar. He likes T. Rowe Price New Asia fund (PRASX), which invests about 20% of its assets in India--enough to benefit from the economic growth but not so much that its performance is volatile. Its three-year annualized return is a healthy 20%, and its expense ratio is about half that of the average fund in its category.

If investors really want to embrace India fully, however, Dutta suggests Mehta's Eaton Vance Greater India (ETGIX), which invests at least 80% of its assets in the subcontinent. The fund has a steep 2.77% expense ratio but boasts a three-year annualized return of 40%. Another all-India portfolio with a similar record is the Morgan Stanley India Investment fund (IIF). The closed-end fund typically holds shares in some 40 Indian companies and trades like a stock on the New York Stock Exchange.

As hot as India is right now, is it a good idea to jump in right away? Ridham Desai, an Indian equity strategist for Morgan Stanley, thinks the Indian market is a bit overheated. He says there's a good chance it will come down 15% or so in the next year. "In my view, investors don't have to pull the trigger tomorrow morning," he says. "I think it may be a good time to visit ideas and prepare for better prices to come." But for investors who don't feel comfortable trying to time such a swing, there may be no moment like the present to make a long-term bet on India.

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