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Emerging Perspectives

Notes from the road: reasons to be cheerful about China

16 December 2019
Author: Mark EvansAnalyst

The quick view

  • Although its growth rate continues to decline, China looks set to meet its 10-year goal of doubling GDP per capita next year.
  • Policymaking remains pragmatic, and easing measures carefully considered – China won’t risk a repeat of property market over-heating.
  • The country knows it’s lagging on environmental issues and it’s taking significant steps to address this.
  • China’s businesses continue to grow stronger and some of its state-owned enterprises are undergoing impressive transformational reforms.

On a recent trip to China, Mark met with a variety of officials and experts in Beijing, Xi’An, Chongqing and Shanghai. Here are his key takeaways.

Set to meet its growth targets

China’s economic growth rate continues to decline – it’s expected to be between 6.1% and 6.2% this year. Assuming there is neither a comprehensive trade deal with the US (beyond the recently announced interim deal) nor a meaningful easing of policy within China, growth will likely soften further, as the tailwind from this year’s tax cuts recedes and the impact of tariffs weighs more heavily.

Yet investors have reason for some seasonal cheer. Our trip left us with the view that China’s ambitious 10-year goal of doubling GDP per capita – set in 2010 – is still achievable.

Based on our meeting with a government think-tank, we think China will target 2020 growth of “around 6%” when it announces its economic ambitions in March. This would give it a bit of room to undershoot 6% without that being cause for alarm.

Pragmatic and targeted policy-making

If annual growth of 6% remains the goal and a comprehensive, long-term trade deal fails to materialise, investors should expect more expansionary policy. That said, unless growth momentum falls towards 5%, major stimulus measures seem off the cards.

Either way, during our trip it was very clear that when considering the scope and design of policy easing, two key priorities for policymakers are property market stability and the environment.

As we wrote earlier this year, China has learned from past mistakes, whereby a focus on quantity of growth over quality led to overheating and culminated in a painful correction.

As for environmental policy, China has ramped up considerably its efforts in the past few years, with tightly policed restrictions aimed at getting businesses to clean up their act quickly. This demonstrates China’s recognition that environmental standards are a key area of weakness and its seriousness in addressing this. We think that is further reason for investor optimism.

Strengthening businesses

All the companies we met during our visit demonstrated an impressive improvement in their leverage over the last three years, with debt-to-asset ratios down across the board. It feels like they have reached levels they are generally comfortable with now, so the pressure to de-lever should reduce.

This is consistent with a view our colleague Victoria Harling shared recently: while many developed market companies have continued to increase their indebtedness, leaving them vulnerable to a downturn in fortunes, emerging market companies have done exactly the opposite over recent years.

A blueprint for future development

We also came away from China really impressed by the transformational reforms we saw among its state-owned enterprises.

One major metals producer we met with had been loss making a few years ago with a debt-to-asset ratio of over 100%. Following a takeover in the form of a joint venture – with the financial backing of a major foreign private equity firm – this has shrunk to below 30%. The organisation has also implemented a more flexible labour policy, along with a management stockholding scheme to better align the interests of management and shareholders. 

We think this SOE turnaround model could well be rolled out more widely across China, to the potential benefit of both debt and equity investors.


Emerging market: These markets carry a higher risk of financial loss than more developed markets as they may have less developed legal, political, economic or other systems.

The value of investments, and any income generated from them, can fall as well as rise.

Mark Evans
Mark Evans Analyst

Important information

This content is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as an offer, or solicitation of an offer, to buy or sell securities. All of the views expressed about the markets, securities or companies reflect the personal views of the individual fund manager (or team) named. While opinions stated are honestly held, they are not guarantees and should not be relied on. Investec Asset Management in the normal course of its activities as an international investment manager may already hold or intend to purchase or sell the stocks mentioned on behalf of its clients. The information or opinions provided should not be taken as specific advice on the merits of any investment decision. This content may contain statements about expected or anticipated future events and financial results that are forward-looking in nature and, as a result, are subject to certain risks and uncertainties, such as general economic, market and business conditions, new legislation and regulatory actions, competitive and general economic factors and conditions and the occurrence of unexpected events. Actual outcomes may differ materially from those stated herein.
All rights reserved. Issued by Investec Asset Management, December 2019.

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