Co-portfolio manager, Wenchang Ma, believes it’s time to change the conversation when it comes to China.
Lindsay Williams: I received a body of work a couple of days ago which says “Why China Now”. That is the headline and then after that it says: “Investment opportunities don’t come much bigger than China currently.”
With me is Co-Portfolio Manager at Investec Asset Management based in Hong Kong and that is Wenchang Ma. That is quite a statement, Wenchang. I mean it really does sort of encapsulate what the China story is because last year the All China Index, the MSCI All China Index fell by 27% in dollar terms but you are saying that this is the opportunity of a lifetime almost.
Wenchang Ma: Yes. I think actually, with the market drawdown last year, value has definitely become something that was very, very attractive on the China market. Even as we speak today, the China market has already recovered by about 30% year-to-date. That is combining the onshore and the offshore portions both. So that only is bringing the market back to the June 2018 levels, meaning the market has only just recovered what it has lost in terms of the groundin the second half of 2018.
If we look at the Chinese market now, we do think it is a very attractive market and the reasons there are quite obvious to us. One is that there are very attractive growth opportunities out there in the Chinese economy and at a reasonable valuation. We are looking at about 12.4 times forward price to earnings multiples and that is slightly above the 11.7 times the 10-year historical average of that market.
On top of that, the Chinese market is increasingly important as an asset class in the global investors’ portfolios. That is supported by the MSCI’s decision to include China A-shares further within 2019 from its initial 5% inclusion factor to 20% inclusion factor.
Last but not least, the retail-driven market on the A-share market actually has a lot of biases and those biases actually create great opportunities for disciplined fundamental investors such as ourselves who actually have a long-term investment horizon. So with all those reasons, we actually think the Chinese market is a very, very good opportunity for global investors for the long term.
Lindsay Williams: Yes, it is and you have been talking about top-down and bottom-up stuff during the last couple of minutes of your excellent answer but you say: “In the wake of a tumultuous year that saw the MSCI All Share Index fall by 26.6%, we believe that proactive steps taken by policy-makers have started to bear fruit.”
So you are not just talking about the valuations here. You are talking about policy-making issues that the Chinese authorities have – they have taken them by the scruff of the neck, to use an English phrase.
Wenchang Ma: Well, we think, if we look at the drawdown last year, actually a lot of that was driven by the Chinese government actually pushing a little bit too hard on the liquidity side in terms of the policy whereas they have been actually making the corrections since the end of last year and this year the policy-making is getting a lot smarter.
What we have seen is that the government announced that they want to be more proactive in fiscal policies and they want to be prudent on the monetary policies at the same time. So, in terms of the fiscal policies, there have already been a lot of initiatives being launched, such as increasing infrastructure investment, cutting of VAT tax, cutting of social insurance contribution of corporates.
Those have actually released quite a lot of fire power into the economy and, in terms of the monetary policy, they said that they want to avoid aggressive stimulus on the monetary side but what they want to do is actually to make the transmission of monetary policy into the economy smoother, so to remove some of the obstacles that historically have remained in the system. So that way we actually have seen the market respond quite positively on those policy fronts and we have started to see some of the macro indicators showing some positive signs as well.
Lindsay Williams: I think you have got to dispel a few myths about the trade wars between the United States and China because that is obviously something that is headline news for some of the more popular television stations around the world but what do you think about it? It is dragging on. Is that a good sign or a bad sign?
Wenchang Ma: Right, so there have already been 9 rounds of negotiations that have happened between the two countries and, according to the latest news, the two countries have made some progress on some of the most difficult questions. So there actually might be a deal in a month or two.
As fundamental, bottom-up investors, we do not try to predict what the outcome of the negotiations are going to be or we do not try to forecast the policies. Realistically, both countries will probably need to make some sort of compromise. For China, there may be some short-term pain in certain areas of the economy but it might also be an opportunity to push for the reforms in some areas it has found very hard to make in the past.
I think in the end trade is one piece of the big puzzle here. The key is really still how the Chinese government manages to transition the economy from an export manufacturing-driven economy to a consumption-driven economic model. Continuing to push for the reforms and encourage innovation in the economy are still at the centre of that transition.
Lindsay Williams: One of the great phrases from the piece that you kindly sent me is the following. The headline is “Time to change the conversation” and you go on to say: “In the light of China’s willingness to address potential headwinds head-on and in a prudent, targeted way and with the market now on a more stable footing, we believe (Investec Asset Management believes) that conversations about the country will once again focus on the longer-term opportunity that this emerging super power could offer equity investors.” When I read that, I think to myself are people under-invested in this emerging super power?
Wenchang Ma: Yes, that has been the case over the past decade and that remains the case even as we speak today but year-to-date we have seen actually the north-bound (indistinct) through Stock Connect Programme via Hong Kong to Mainland China has already been quite strong and that remained the case since the launch of the Stock Connect Programme at the end of 2014.
So global investors have been increasing their allocation into China but still, in the broad scheme of things, the overall allocation into China versus how much China represents in terms of the global economy and in terms of its representation in the emerging market indices, global investors are still quite under-invested into the Chinese equity market.
Lindsay Williams: Is there any particular sector that one should be looking at? I don’t want to get too specific. I don’t want you to get company-specific but I would like you to give us an overview of maybe some areas that are overhyped or overvalued and some that are undervalued. Maybe you could give a brief synopsis of that.
Wenchang Ma: I think, in terms of the sectors, we do not try to make any top-down calls. We are actually very bottom-up driven in terms of our stock selection. So even in some of the sectors where our 4Factor screen is showing negative steers, there can be very attractive investment targets. So I think it will be a little bit too broad to mention sector specifics.
At the moment, our 4Factor screen does like industrials, it does like communication services, energy and utilities but we have also found very attractive investments in sectors like consumer staples and discretionary, we have found companies in real estate, etc.
Lindsay Williams: Yes, you do say – at the end of the piece you say: “We also think that our unrestricted All China approach makes the most sense for investors. Domestically listed A-shares offer a much broader exposure to China’s domestic growth drivers than the offshore listed H-shares and ADR’s used in previous years and therefore provide a better representation of the Chinese economy” – in your view you say right at the end.
When I read that paragraph, it tells me that some people might get a little bit confused about investing in the Chinese equity market, China’s equity market but All China Equity at Investec Asset Management obviously simplifies this matter.
Wenchang Ma: I think the best way is to take an All China approach, looking at the best opportunities that the Chinese economy has to present irrespective of where those companies are listed, be it onshore or offshore listings. I think the Chinese economy is such a vast and diversified one and you can find these attractive opportunities in both listing locations, both onshore and offshore. So it is best to take a fundamental bottom-up view and really try to find the best quality companies at attractive valuations with the improving operating momentum and technical signals.
Lindsay Williams: Wenchang, thanks so much for your insight. That is Wenchang Ma, who is Co-Portfolio Manager at Investec Asset Management in Hong Kong.