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Still listening to the Asian growth story

Publication Date : 08-12-2013

 

Asia's booming economy and burgeoning population have given investors much cause for celebration in the past few years.

With Europe rocked by its sovereign debt crisis and the United States' stuttering economy hampered by a deadlocked Congress, Asia's higher growth has helped to boost stocks' performance.

Still, as some of the doomsday scenarios in Europe and the US recede, Asian stocks seem to have lost a little of their lustre - the MSCI Asia excluding Japan index was up by just 1.4 per cent for the 11 months to the end of last month.

Contrast that with the MSCI Europe index, which has shot up 17.7 per cent, and the MSCI US index, which has soared 26.8 per cent over the same period, and it is easy to see why Asian stocks are no longer favoured.

But Ms Madeleine Lee, founder and managing director of home-grown fund management firm Athenaeum, is staying focused on the region.

She is adamant that Asian stocks offer good value for money and she is selling the Asian growth story to Europe.

Italian independent asset manager Azimut Group bought a majority stake in Athenaeum in October for an undisclosed price and will market the firm's products to its largely European network.

Azimut's assets under management are around 21 billion euros (US$28 billion).

Athenaeum's flagship Asian Equities Fund, launched in 2008, has beaten the MSCI Far East excluding Japan index by some 23 per cent since the fund's inception in 2008 at half the market volatility.

Q: How do you translate that confidence in the economy to stock picks?

We choose companies along five themes, our "ABCDE" guide to tap the long-term growth of Asia.

A stands for "affluence". There is growing household income in the region, not just consumer stocks, but also a change in lifestyle, the kind of services needed or the change in affluence from an ageing population.

B is "best of breed", which are stocks where companies are so far ahead of No. 2 that it is very difficult in several business cycles to see them come off the perch, like Samsung or Keppel Corp.

C is "commodities and consumer price index hedges", D is "dividend-yielding firms". E is "energy and environment" - basically we're talking alternative energy.

It's about companies with sound, fundamental growth. They don't have the highest earnings per share growth stocks, but they are the ones growing consistently between 8 per cent and 10 per cent a year.

Q: Which were some of the stocks that have surprised on the upside?

China banks have surprised, although only in the last few weeks. For nearly two years, we have been worried about the potential implosion of the shadow banking and the state-owned enterprises' loans.

While this problem has not gone away, the reaction after (China's just-concluded third policy) plenum was one of optimism, that the central government would take care of things if they went wrong.

Being under-invested in the sector, investors piled back into the bank shares and prices rose about 20 per cent in a very short while. We remain sceptical.

Q: What's your view of the performance put in by Asian markets in 2013?

2013 was a year of two halves - almost. Everything was dandy till May and then we got "tapered".

In another sense, it was also a year of two halves in geographic terms.

The northern half - North Asia - performed reasonably well, the exception being China, which was stuck in a growth-or-no-growth conundrum until the recent plenum last month.

The southern half - Asean - had a miserable year, especially in the second half when current account deficit concerns led to a run on currencies such as the rupiah and baht and a corresponding rout on the stock market.

Singapore was hit by being heavy on real estate investment trusts and financial stocks, sectors sensitive to talk of rising rates.

Q: How should investors position themselves for the new year, given a likely tapering of the Fed stimulus in the months ahead?

On a macro level, the era of ever lower rates is now past. Interest rates will move up, even if not too drastically, next year. It is a paradigm shift in the world of investment.

In terms of global growth, the recovery is visible in the US and euro zone, albeit slight and with some exceptions. In Asia, China and Japan will continue to power the region. China, from sheer policy will in the transformation of the economy from exports to more consumption, and Japan through its "Abenomics" and quantitative easing.

In this context, North Asia will continue to benefit - through export stocks, consumption plays. Asean will find 2014 a year of reckoning. Having powered ahead in the last two to three years, some countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines will slow.

Political factors will come to the fore in Thailand and Indonesia, all adding to the risks of the region. Singapore, too, will struggle to find sources of top-line growth, and even if that were possible, there is the spectre of rising wage costs and rising rates.

In short, a very careful stock-picking year.


 

 

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