Will South Korea Finally Become a Developed Market?

If history is any guide, the short answer is “no,” but index geeks will get another chance to debate the status of Asia’s fourth-largest economy this evening when index provider MSCI (NYSE: MSCI) reveals its annual market reclassification.

On six previous occasions, South Korea has been up for a promotion to developed market status. All six times, MSCI has opted to keep South Korea as part of the MSCI Emerging Markets Index. That also means with $4.4 billion in assets under management, the iShares MSCI South Korea Capped ETF (NYSEArca: EWY) is one of the larges single-country emerging markets ETFs.

“Reclassifying South Korea is potentially a big deal for the country’s stocks because trillions of dollars in investor cash is benchmarked to MSCI indexes. Two of MSCI’s competitors have already upgraded South Korea to developed-market status, including FTSE Group in 2009,” reports Nicole Hong for the Wall Street Journal.

FTSE upgrading South Korea to developed market status means the Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF (NYSEArca: VWO), the largest emerging markets ETF by assets, does not include South Korean equities in its lineup. However, VWO’s primary rival, the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (NYSEArca: EEM) allocates almost 15.6% of its weight to South Korea, making the country EEM’s second-largest country weight behind China. [Vanguard ETFs See Inflows Following Index Changes]

There is precedent for a country-specific ETF performs after the nation it tracks is promoted to developed from emerging status. As the Journal notes, Israel landed that promotion in 2010. Over the past four years, the iShares MSCI Israel Capped ETF (NYSEArca: EIS) is up 7.7% while the iShares MSCI ACWI ETF (NasdaqGM: ACWI) is up 53.1%.