Portfolio Manager, Archie Hart, looks at emerging market equities and discusses the ongoing US/China trade talks.
Lindsay Williams: Emerging market equities have had a pretty good time of it recently and we want to find out why and what the prospects are for the rest of this year and, indeed, beyond. On the telephone now with me is Archie Hart, who runs the 4Factor Emerging Market Equity Strategy for Investec Asset Management.
It really did look as though to me, Archie, particularly from a South African perspective and other emerging market perspectives, that when October came along we were going to have a pretty bad time of it but things have turned around quite nicely.
Archie Hart: Yes. As you know, 2018 was a poor year in all capital markets. Essentially, the only asset class which showed a positive return I think was cash and developed market equities were down 10%, emerging equities were down 15% and actually half of that fall in emerging equities happened in Q4. So we saw quite a lot of disruption and volatility in Q4, the most volatile quarter in 3 years.
So I think it is obviously positive to see some signs of recovery in January but also I think Q4 might have sown some positive seeds for the future as well. It is a strange thing to say but that is sort of how I interpret it.
Lindsay Williams: What has caused the turnaround? I think, after what happened with the US Federal Reserve last night, that is where we must start because suddenly there doesn’t seem to be 2 or 3 interest rate hikes in the United States emerging for 2019 and therefore that has all sorts of implications for emerging market assets.
Archie Hart: Well, I think that is right. So if you look at the reason for weakness across asset classes generally last year, I think there were broadly 3: the Fed and its hiking cycle, China and worries about growth there and trade generally but particularly between China and the US. As to the Fed, you are right, the Fed has certainly paused its interest rate rises going forward and I think really what is happening here is the Fed is operating in this pre-Global Financial Crisis paradigm where you tweak rates, that calibrates economic activity and inflation and that is how the central banking model worked for 50 years.
The trouble with that is post the Global Financial Crisis, well, that no longer works. Why is that? Well, that is because debt has gone up from 160 trillion pre-GFC to 250 trillion now, so about 50%. In a world where debt is that enormous, the world becomes very sensitive to small changes in interest rates and I think that is what we saw in 2018. I think the Fed was quite shocked but they have now decided to stand while they are trying to understand what is going on.
I think it is also interesting that the markets moved on and said okay, interest rate rises are one thing but the other thing the Fed did was reduce the size of its balance sheet by $500 billion last year, which is quite a big sucking sound of liquidity out of global markets. The Fed would argue well, that was only 10% of our balance sheet but, if you look in a pre-GFC world, that would be sort of half of their balance sheet. In the real world, $500 billion is actually quite a lot of money and I think what we might see as we get later on into the year is the Fed saying well, perhaps we need to think about how rapidly we shrink our balance sheet because that is clearly causing turbulence as well.
Lindsay Williams: The Chinese economy is the second thing that you flag here and you say why has the Chinese economy been slowing in 2018 and it really has started to accelerate to the downside although still positive, of course, and you say it is because the government made a mistake. What do you mean?
Archie Hart: So in mid-2016 the Chinese government became alarmed about the increase and accelerating increase in debt in their economy, which got to 250% of GDP and the government became more concerned about the indications for economic, financial and, latterly, social stability with those accelerating and uncontrolled levels of debt.
So since mid-16, the Chinese government has been aggressively moving to control debt, so closing down three-quarters of the peer-to-peer lending industry, shutting down some of the more egregiously managed, highly indebted companies like Anbang, for example, really regulating the banking sector much more effectively and taking out shadow finance. The issue with that though is that it began to impact the real economy. It started to squeeze growth out of the real economy.
It was only really latterly in Q4 of last year that the Chinese government woke up to its major policy error. So what we are seeing is for the last 2 or 3 months the Chinese government, which is not only reversing course but changing emphasis, saying we need to stimulate more now. So $100 billion programme is investing in 7,000 km more of railways, more city mass transit lines, $100 billion injected into the bank system, etc. So that pivot towards more stimulus and away from a mistakenly too contractionary policy I think is again a positive seed sown in Q4.
Lindsay Williams: I think it is very positive as well that they have managed to recognise their mistake and correct it. I mean it is a big economy and it is not going to be overnight but, certainly sentiment-wise, the market did embrace that. I wonder if they will be embracing a resolution of the trade war between the United States and China. I know that, as we record this, they are probably sitting down and starting their latest round of trade talks. I think it is day 2 and I also think that President Trump is going to be meeting the Vice-Premier of China at some stage in Washington over the next 24 hours. Are you hopeful that these talks can come to fruition, satisfactorily that is?
Archie Hart: Well, of course, this is the $64 billion question I suppose. What I would say is, if you look at the issues in those trade talks and there were many, there are perhaps sort of 4 main issues. One is the dollar trade balance and I think there that is an easy one. China is so happy to buy a few more Boeings and a few more ships full of soybeans and that is something that they can agree to sort of massage down.
I think foreign investment is another issue and the foreign investment restrictions into China and again China I think is realising that it has operated a very highly restrictive policy on foreign investment and you are now seeing relaxation there. For example, BMW is the first car company to be able to majority-own its car manufacturing plants in China. Tesla has broken ground on 100% owned electric car plant in China. AXA has been the first company to get 100% owned foreign insurance licence. I think they are prepared to write in much more open foreign investment rules than previously.
The US government wants better IP protection in China. Strangely, that is something the Chinese are probably more open to than in the past as well and the reason for that is simply that they want to upgrade their economy into a more knowledge-intensive, technology-intensive, brand-intensive economy. Therefore, actually greater IP protection really puts them in a good place for where they want to go with their economy as well.
However, the remaining major issue is China’s industrial policy. China has a plan for everything. They have a “Made in China 2025” plan which has targets and detailed plans to grow robotics, artificial intelligence, big data, cloud, electric cars, etc. Now, if you are Chinese, you think this is a perfectly natural thing that the government has plans to develop all these things. It is what China has already always done, if you like.
To the US, you look at this as a major government plan to take over these great new growth industries and you are very concerned about that state-directed planning because, obviously, in America you have complete laissez-faire. So part of the difference here is the different economic systems, mutual incomprehension and I think China is very unlikely to give up control of its major industrial policy to the US.
So the US won’t get 100% of what it wants there but perhaps there might be some compromise around that, that the state supports some of these schemes is at least sort of watered down and, if we look at the experience of the US administration, they have drawn lines in the sand time and again. For example, NAFTA was going to be cancelled. In fact, NAFTA was rolled over into a new agreement. North Korea, in fact, there have been negotiations and an agreement signed and again, with the government shut-down, for example, was something where the US government pushed things to the brink and then walked back over a few weeks. So I think the trade negotiations are very tough to call but I certainly think the possibility of a deal is significant.
Lindsay Williams: Well, the fact they are sitting around the table is a start as well and I do like your phrase “mutual incomprehension”. Hopefully, they will comprehend each other a little bit better in the future. Let’s put all this together, if we can, Archie, and please share with us your positioning for 2019.
Archie Hart: As I said, I think for the markets to be very good in 2019, we need 3 things to happen. One is the Fed to remain in waiting mode, the second is the stimulus in China starting to impact growth there and the third would be a China/US trade deal.
Now the positive thing is we don’t need all 3 of those things to happen for it to be a better year and the reason I say that simply is that the markets have been pretty beaten up already. So if I look at examples, nearly a third of the companies in Asia currently trade below their own book values. That has never been worse apart from the Global Financial Crisis. Equally, earnings revisions have never been more negative in emerging markets apart from the Global Financial Crisis.
So really the market is already discounting quite a lot of bad news so I think, if we get 1 or 2 out of those 3 positives, that should lead to a better market environment over 2019 but, as yet, we have to wait and see whether we have any of those 3 we see come through. So we remain broadly positive on emerging market equities and again that is because perceptions, we think, relative to the downbeat, expectations are relatively low, valuations are pretty cheap. We have a portfolio which is on under 10 times earnings and again we think we have a bunch of very high quality companies which are very cheap and well-positioned for any rebound if it eventuates.
Lindsay Williams: Can I clarify then your geographic favourites? You are very much led by valuations. As you say, round about a third of Asian stocks now trade at a discount to their book value. That is what you are looking for, not the fact that it is in a region that you happen to like.
Archie Hart: We are very bottom-up so we are just looking for the 70-80 best companies we can find in emerging markets. At the moment, we are spoiled for choice in terms of valuation. Many of our companies are telling us that operationally it is tougher than it was a year or 2 ago but growth continues.
I think, if we look at perhaps China, for example, some of the companies we speak to in China are actually still looking very much at double-digit growth. For example, Apple are saying they are quite pessimistic on the smartphone market in China. Maybe that is because their market share has gone from 14% to 7% over the last 3 years. So some of the foreign companies that are struggling in China are frankly being out-competed by the local companies in a difficult environment. So we certainly think there are selectively still interesting companies performing well within a difficult backdrop.
Lindsay Williams: Archie, thanks so much for your insight. That is Archie Hart, who runs the 4Factor Emerging Market Equity Strategy for Investec Asset Management, speaking to us from London.
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