BROTHERS IN ARMS: Russian President Vladimir Putin greets South African President Jacob Zuma. The Brics story has soured of late but there is still value to be unlocked.Picture: Reuters
Few concepts did more to change the way global politics and economics were perceived in the last decade than Brics. Initially, it was an acronym for the rising global economic power of Brazil, Russia, India and China and they were later joined by South Africa to become Brics. But analysts are worried their heyday with investors has long passed.

Jim O’Neill, former chief economist at Goldman, in a paper titled “Building Better Global Economic Brics”, noted the real GDP growth among the original quartet (Bric) had surpassed that of the G7 group of mature economies. Five years later, Goldman’s Bric fund was born, investing at least 80 percent of its net assets in Bric equities.

O’Neill envisaged Bric as the future engine of global growth. Members were large in terms of both size and population, had rapidly expanding domestic markets and an untapped labour pool.

At the time, there was just one problem – no African countries were included, which suggested that the continent was not economically relevant.

According to a note written by Jakkie Cilliers, head of African Futures and Innovation, Institute for Security Studies, “it is not clear which developments led to the decision by the Bric group to invite South Africa to be a member". However, he acknowledges membership of Brics propelled the country into the big league, where it can rub shoulders with the alternative global leadership.

Though not widely mentioned, the China factor played a role in South Africa’s entry into Brics. Critics saw this invitation as a political initiative, aimed at expanding the geographic and intercontinental reach of the group into the continent.

“Jim O'Neill was quite vocal at the time, saying South Africa didn’t deserve to be part of Brics, as it didn’t meet the criteria of these enormous and significant countries,” says Glenn Silverman, co-author of Half Way There.

South Africa is seen by many as a gateway to the African market. But how much is the continent benefiting from the emerging markets in the group?

“Brics is about Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. People should, first of all, focus their attention on those countries. It is really not about Africa,” says Tito Mboweni, a non-executive director of the Brics New Development Bank and a former governor of South Africa’s central bank.

As the emerging markets began to show signs of a slowdown, Goldman closed its Bric fund after assets dwindled to $100 million, from a peak of more than $800m at the end of 2010. The fall in commodity prices that wiped off one-third off their value in the past two years and deepening problems dealt a blow to faith in the Bric hypothesis.

It became apparent the Brics grouping was misleading mainly because they were showing differing characteristics and some investors didn’t include South Africa in their assessment.

“Today, in a world where is a lot more uncertainty, investors are a little more nuanced. I think smarter investors are a little cleverer about which emerging market (they choose), rather than putting them in one bucket,” says Paul Clark, portfolio manager at Ashburton Investments.

“In their own right, (Brics countries) are still very relevant but they have lost some ground and, in fact, all of them are struggling at varying degrees,” says Silverman.

But the Brics members are not completely in bad shape. With a joint estimated GDP of $16 trillion, the five nations set up their own development bank, aimed at meeting the funding requirements of the members. The group has plans to set up an independent rating agency.

Although the Brics promise of rapid and sustainable growth has been challenged over the past five years, Goldman Sachs is urging investors not to lose faith. It is placing its bets on the currencies of Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa.

Silverman believes India and China, two of the world's fastest growing countries, look promising. “As the US influence decreases and it starts looking inward, we need China to take up the reins. There is no question the Brics story turned very sour and the significance of the group has seemingly waned but there are structural changes in many of the economies that will continue to unlock value."

Much depends on trade policy as many emerging markets are export-dependent on the US. A world of heightened trade and regulatory uncertainty does not bode well for emerging market free trade.

Although hindsight suggests observers and investors should have been wary of the Brics story, Silverman says if the countries address the critical issues at macroeconomic policy level, they will succeed.