The best way to play emerging markets

November 16, 2011, 11:34 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Ever since the great crash of 2008, when emerging markets plummeted more than 50%, one strategy has jumped in popularity: buying multinationals to play the fast-growing markets. Giants like Coca-Cola rarely collapse like their developing markets-based competitors. They sell into all the hottest markets such as Brazil, India, and China. And nowadays, multinational CEOs seem to begin every conversation with a story about these far-flung markets.

Goldman Sachs strategists came out with an endorsement two years ago. They composed two baskets of stocks and called them the BRICs Nifty 50. One includes emerging market companies; the other has multinationals with exposure to emerging markets. The strategists concluded that you could hop back and forth between the baskets, depending which stocks offered better relative value or growth prospects. And over the past five years, both groups have risen nicely.

But now, with European economies in shambles and the U.S. undergoing a slow recovery, investors are turning that wisdom on its head. The myth of multinationals, says Robert Holderith, founder of Emerging Global Advisors, is that they provide investors an alternative path into explosive growth markets. The truth is that when you buy multinationals for emerging markets, you also buy their sagging developed markets businesses. “It’s too watered down,” he argues.

Holderith’s point is that emerging market success stories from companies like Yum! Brands and Coca-Cola (KO) have blinded investors. Take Yum (YUM), parent company of fast-food restaurants including KFC and Taco Bell. Over the past five years, its sales in China have grown by 20% annually. “And we’re just on the ground floor of growth in China,” reads its latest annual report.

The problem is that in the same time frame, Yum’s U.S. sales fell by 6% annually — from $5.6 billion to $4.1 billion. The overall result: a middling, single-digit sales growth rate. Yum shares have rocketed upward. But in the future can you trust its overseas growth to make up for its slowing home market? Moreover, can you consistently pick the best multinationals?

Broader indexes make clearer the argument for direct exposure, says Alan Ayres of Schroders’ emerging markets group in London. Two stock indexes, the FTSE Multinationals index, which comprises companies with at least 30% of sales earned outside their home market, and the FTSE emerging market index, which includes companies based directly in several developing markets, each paid investors well over the past decade. But investors who bought emerging markets companies earned 13 more percentage points annually over the period, for a 19% annual gain. “Developed companies with that bias towards emerging markets do better than normal developed companies,” Ayres says, “but not as well as emerging [market] companies.”

Cheap and less volatile

Both Holderith and Schroders market funds based on emerging markets, so their opinions aren’t without biases. But whatever side you agree with, three things aren’t debatable. First, emerging market indices are cheaper than developed market ones like the S&P 500. Second, emerging market stocks are far less volatile than they were just a decade ago. Third, dividends are growing nearly three times as fast in emerging markets than in developed ones.

After slumping for the past year, the MSCI Emerging Markets index trades at 9 times expected earnings over the next 12 months compared to 12.5 times for the S&P 500. The data alone aren’t a case to buy. Investors are still plenty worried about markets in China and Brazil, and the effect massive deleveraging in developed countries will have on emerging countries.

“Valuations of emerging markets assets are not cheap enough to suggest that investors should look through the crisis,” HSBC strategist Pablo Goldberg writes in a recent report. Still, reduced valuations do offer new investors a reduced entry point into formerly skyrocketing markets. Goldberg also offers some hope. “Yet not all is bad news out there. US economic data have surprised on the upside but recession risks remain, fears of a China hard landing are exaggerated and emerging market policymakers are reacting to a weaker economic backdrop.”

The second point is that emerging markets are much less volatile than they have been in recent history. A stock’s volatility is roughly approximated by its beta, a calculation of its relation to the broader market. If the market rises by 10%, and a stock rises by 20%, it’s said to have a beta of 2. Emerging market indexes historically recorded a beta of roughly 1.8 times that of the S&P 500. Today it has fallen to 1.2 as developing businesses mature, governments improve, and more sophisticated investors enter markets.

Third, skyrocketing dividend growth rates in the developing world aren’t even close to those in developed markets. Over the past 10 years, the MSCI Emerging Market index has grown dividends by 15% annually compared to 5% in the S&P 500. It now yields 3.5% vs. the S&P’s 2.1%. And in the past three years dividend growth in developing markets has stayed positive as the S&P 500’s dividend payment has dropped by 5%.

There are a couple ways regular investors can play it. Exchange-traded funds offer broad baskets of stocks and charge a management fee that’s often just a fraction of those at mutual funds. The most popular ETF is Vanguard’s MSCI Emerging Markets ETF, which holds large cap stocks such as Samsung Electronics of South Korea and China-based Tencent. It charges a fee of 0.22%. The PowerShares FTSE RAFI Emerging Markets Portfolio is similar to Vanguard’s fund, except it weighs emerging market companies according to their book value and cash flow instead of market capitalization. That protects against holding too many bubble-type stocks. It charges 0.85%. Holderith’s firm, Emerging Global Advisors, runs an ETF called focused on emerging market consumer spending which includes 30 leading companies in countries like Mexico and India. It charges 0.85%.

For now, the argument whether to own emerging markets seems over: they offer growth found nowhere else. The fight over the best way to tap into it might just be heating up.