Global Investing

Asia’s path to prosperity and investment opportunities

Investors have been worried about the effect of a Chinese slowdown on Asian emerging markets, but the long-term growth story is still intact, according to specialist investment manager Matthews Asia.

Consumption is one of the key areas of growth. Illustrating the divergence of Asian economies and their path to prosperity, here’s an interesting chart from Matthews which shows the standard of living of various Asian countries, expressed by applying Geary-Khamis dollars — the concept of international dollars based on purchasing power parity — to today’s Japan.

For example, the living standards of North Korea and Mongolia are at around that of Japan in the 1890s — when Japan and China fought in the Sino-Japanese war and Wilhelm Rontgen discovered x-rays — while China’s is equivalent of an early 1970s Japan and Malaysia and Thailand are a step ahead at the mid-1970s.

This means a lot of countries have further to go until they reach the present economic status enjoyed by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, giving investors huge opportunities.

“There’s a vast opportunity set for you to participate in the consumer story. Development of the services sector is a driving factor going forward,” says Lydia So, U.S.-based portfolio manager of Matthews.

Emerging stocks lose again in November

By Shadi Bushra

After years of basking in their reputation as high-return hot spots, 2013 could be the year emerging equity markets finally lost their magic touch. Last month continued the litany of losses — seventeen of the 20 emerging markets listed on S&P Dow Jones indices ended November in the red, the index provider says. Contrast that with developed markets’ fortunes last month– 18 of the markets listed by the index rose, while eight fell.

So last month’s scores: Emerging stocks – down 2 percent; Developed stocks – up 1.6 percent. And for 2013 as a whole, emerging stocks are down 3 percent while developed markets are up a whopping 22 percent, approaching their 2007 peaks, according to S&P Dow Jones.

While each of the emerging market countries has their own unique cauldron of political and economic issues affecting their stocks’ performance, there is common ground too – the expected tapering of U.S. monetary stimulus.  The hardest-hit emerging countries were those that have too much exposure to investors in developed countries, who may move their money from the developing world once the cheap money begins to dry up.  Worst off was Indonesia where equities fell nearly 13 percent in November, and on the year they are down more than 23 percent.

When Japan was an emerging country

Recent wild swings in Japan’s financial markets — stocks, bonds and the yen — make Japan look almost like an emerging country.

Back in the 19th century, Japan was an emerging country, with its feudal society based largely on farming.

According to a paper by U.S. based researchers Chiaki Moriguchi and Emmanuel Saez, Japan’s GDP per capita in 1890 was at the level of U.S. GDP per capita in 1790, or about $1,200 in 2004 dollars. According to them, this is roughly comparable to the GDP per capita of the less developed countries today.

The only game in town

The extent of the surge to Japan by equity investors is written in sparkly 50-foot-high neon letters by the latest flows data out from Lipper.

We all know that Abenomics has, thus far, cast a spell over markets; the Nikkei is up about 80 percent since the middle of November, when Shinzo Abe first started looking like a bona fide challenger to win power. But it is still startling to see how flows into Japan have dominated investment behaviour.

In April alone, Japan equity funds and ETFs accounted for $9.1 billion of net inflows in a month when total net inflows across all sectors was just $9.9 billion. The money pouring into the Tokyo markets was also more than three times greater than the net inflows at the next best sector. Add the Japan Small and Midcaps sector as well as Asia Pacific funds (heavily weighted to Japan) and April net inflows inspired by the BOJs aggressive monetary policy easing reach $11.2 billion.

Weekly Radar: Draghi returns to London

ECB chief Mario Draghi returns to London next week almost 10 months on from his seminal “whatever it takes” speech to the global financial community in The City  – a speech that not only drew a line under the euro financial crisis by flagging the ECB’s sovereign debt backstop OMT but one that framed the determination of the G4 central banks at large to reflate their economies via extraordinary monetary easing. Since then we’ve seen the Fed effectively commit to buying an addition trillion dollars of bonds this year to get the U.S. jobless rate down toward 6.5%, followed by the ‘shock-and-awe’ tactics of the new Japanese government and Bank of Japan to end decades.

And as Draghi returns 10 months on, there’s little doubt that he and his U.S. and Japanese peers have succeeded in convincing financial investors of central bank doggedness at least. Don’t fight the Fed and all that – or more pertinently, Don’t fight the Fed/BoJ/ECB/BoE/SNB etc… G4 stock markets are surging ever higher through the Spring of 2013 even as global economic data bumbles along disappointingly through its by now annual ‘soft patch’.  Looking at the number tallies, total returns for Spanish and Greek equities and euro zone bank stocks are up between 40 and 50% since Draghi’s showstopper last July . Italian, French and German equities and Spanish and Irish 10-year government bonds have all returned about 30% or more. And you can add 7% on to all that if you happened to be a Boston-based investor due to a windfall from the net jump in the euro/dollar exchange rate. What’s more all of those have outperformed the 25% gains in Wall St’s S&P 500 since then, even though the latter is powering to uncharted record highs. And of course all pale in comparison with the eye-popping 75% rise in Japan’s Nikkei 225 in just six months!! Gold, metals and oil are all net losers and this is significant in a money-printing story where no one seems to see higher inflation anymore.

But with both Fed and BoJ pushes getting some traction on underlying growth and the euro zone economy registering it’s 6th straight quarter of contraction in the first three months of 2013, maybe Draghi’s big task now is to convince people the ECB will do whatever it takes to support the 17-nation economy too and not only the single currency per se. Last year’s pledge may have been a necessary start to stabilise things but it has not yet been sufficient to solve the economic problems bequethed by the credit crisis.

Japan’s big-money investors still sitting tight

More on the subject of Japanese overseas investment.

As we said here and here, Japanese cash outflows to world markets have so far been limited to a trickle, almost all from retail mom-and-pop investors who like higher yields and are estimated to have 1500 trillion yen ($15.40 trillion) in savings. As for Japan’s huge institutional investors — the $730 billion mutual fund industry and $3.4 trillion life insurance sectors — they are sitting tight.

If some are to be believed, the hype over outflows is misguided. Morgan Stanley for one reckons Japanese insurers’ foreign bond buying may rise by just 2-3 percent in the next two years, amounting to $60-100 billion. Pension funds are even less likely to re-balance their portfolios given large cash flow needs, the bank said.

But a Reuters survey last week revealed several insurance companies are indeed considering boosting unhedged foreign bond holdings.  Insurers currently hold almost half their assets in Japanese government bonds and risk being crowded out of the JGB market as the central bank ramps up purchases.  A recent survey by Barclays also showed Japanese investors keen on overseas debt.

Show us the (Japanese) money

Where is the Japanese money? Mostly it has been heading back to home shores as we wrote here yesterday.

The assumption was that the Bank of Japan’s huge money-printing campaign would push Japanese retail and institutional investors out in search of yield.  Emerging markets were expected to capture at least part of a potentially huge outflow from Japan and also benefit from rising allocations from other international funds as a result.  But almost a month after the BOJ announced its plans, the cash has not yet arrived.

EM investors, who seem to have been banking the most on the arrival of Japanese cash, may be forgiven for feeling a tad nervous. Data from EPFR Global shows no notable pick-up in flows to EM bond funds while cash continues to flee EM equities ($2 billion left last week).

Tokyo Sonata calls the tune for investors

The jury may be out on whether Messrs. Abe and Kuroda will succeed in cajoling the Japanese economy from its decades-long funk but the cash is betting they will. Domestic and foreign investors have stampeded for Tokyo equities, and Morgan Stanley has been crunching the numbers.

Since 2005, Japanese investors built up a 14 trillion yen (over $140 billion) portfolio of foreign equities. But between January-March 2013, they offloaded a third of this — about $39 billion.  Going back to July 2012 when they first started bringing cash home, the Japanese have sold $53 billion in foreign equities, or 36 percent of equity holdings.

If one were to include all foreign portfolio investments, they sold a net $74 billion worth of assets in the first three months of 2013. Morgan Stanley says this is the the most since 2005. You can see their graphic below (click on it for a bigger version).

No one-way bet on yen, HSBC says

Will the yen continue to weaken?

Most people think so — analysts polled by Reuters this month predict that the Japanese currency will fall 18 percent against the dollar this year. That will bring the currency to around 102 per dollar from current levels of 98. And all sorts of trades, from emerging debt to euro zone periphery stocks, are banking on a world of weak yen.

Now here is a contrary view. David Bloom, HSBC’s head of global FX strategy, thinks one-way bets on the yen could prove dangerous. Here are some of the points he makes in his note today:

–  Bloom says the link between currencies and QE (quantitative easing) is not straightforward. Note that after three rounds of QE the dollar is flexing its muscles. The ECB’s LTRO too ultimately benefited the euro.

Less yen for carry this time

The Bank of Japan unleashed its full firepower this week, pushing the yen to 3-1/2 year lows of 97 per dollar.  Year-to-date, the currency is down 11 percent to the dollar. But those hoping for a return to the carry trade boom of yesteryear may wait in vain.

The weaker yen of pre-crisis years was a strong plus for emerging assets, especially for high-yield currencies. Japanese savers chased rising overseas currencies by buying high-yield foreign bonds and as foreigners sold used cheap yen funding for interest rate carry trades. But there’s been little sign of a repeat of that behaviour as the yen has fallen sharply again recently .

Most emerging currencies are flatlining this year and some such as the Korean won and Taiwan dollar are deep in the red. The first reason is dollar strength of course, but there are other issues. Take equities — clearly some cash at the margins is rotating out to Japan, where equity mutual funds have received $14 billion over the past 16 weeks.  While the Nikkei is up 21 percent, Asian indices are broadly flat. In South Korea whose auto firms such as Hyundai and Kia compete with Japan’s Toyota and Honda, shares are bleeding foreign cash. The exodus has helped push the won down 5 percent to the dollar in 2013.