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What are we looking for?

How emerging market equity funds have fared so far this year.

Fast-growing economies in Brazil, Russia, India and China (the "BRIC" countries) used to be thought of as engines of growth that could drive the world forward, but lately these countries have struggled to maintain their momentum.

The screen

We examined the eight best and worst performers among emerging market equity funds from the start of the year to Aug. 27. U.S. dollar, segregated, pooled and duplicate versions of the funds were excluded, as well as those sold as part of a portfolio of funds, made up of other funds, or closed to new investors.

Emerging markets equity funds need to invest at least 90 per cent of their equity holdings across many developing countries.

What did we find?

Even the leaderboard was filled with laggards.

The only fund to post a positive return in the period was the Mackenzie Cundill Emerging Markets Class Series A with a diminutive return of 1 per cent in the period. The fund made its gains in the first part of the year, but has been tested in recent months.

Investing opportunities in emerging economies are changing from a focus on speedy growth to the hunt for continual growth, noted James Morton, the fund's portfolio manager, in a recent round of commentary. "The key for success in emerging investing … has to be identifying solid businesses that can achieve reasonable and sustainable growth," he wrote. He added that the companies also need strong balance sheets and cheap valuations.

But finding such companies could prove challenging. Countries such as Brazil and India have been hit hard this year as investors pulled hundreds of billions of dollars out of emerging market equities.

And the inflows to emerging economy equities and bonds are projected to decline through the rest of the year and into 2014, according to the Institute of International Finance. The IFF is calling for inflows to fall by up to $1.1-trillion (U.S.) by the end of the year.

The Mackenzie fund was especially affected by underperformance in Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines in the second quarter of the year.

One of the biggest problems for emerging market equities this year has been indications by Ben Bernanke, the U.S. Federal Reserve chairman, that he will soon start to taper the Fed's asset-purchase program, which led to rising rates on U.S. Treasuries. This has offered less incentive for yield-hungry investors to hang around in higher-risk investment classes.