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Asian equities were among the top global performers in 2017. Local bonds – sovereign, investment grade and high yield – also offered some of the most attractive yields. The political outlook in the region is more stable following recent elections, and corporate earnings are likely to remain strong thanks to buoyant domestic economies, where consumption and infrastructure spending are on the rise.
Year to 21/06/2018, indices in USD. Source: Thomson Reuters, Fidelity International, June 2018.
However, some of the tailwinds for Asian economies are weakening. The MSCI Asia ex-Japan index gained an impressive 39 per cent in 2017, but it has stalled so far in 2018. Growing US protectionism could disrupt global trade and pose risks to the entire region, while rising US yields and a strong dollar have put pressure emerging market currencies. Slowing growth in China as a result of tighter financial conditions is also a concern for the region, along with signs that the tech cycle might be rolling over, hitting demand for manufacturers.
With much of the good news already priced in, the key challenge for investors is to find value in a more volatile environment. A recent rise in dispersion shows how important it is for investors to be active and nimble in the current environment. A more selective approach to asset allocation will be vital in the coming year for investors to capture the best growth and income opportunities while avoiding bumps along the way.
Chart shows 3-month trailing average daily stock dispersion for constituents of the MSCI AC Asia ex Japan. Daily dispersion calculated as √(∑ wi (ri-P)^2) where ri = daily total return of stock i and P = daily total return of the index, wi = weight of stock i. Source: Thomson Reuters, Fidelity International, June 2018.
1. The upside promise for ASEAN equities
Asia is not a monolith. Despite very strong equity returns across the region last year, performance varied. So far in 2018, South East Asian equities have been particularly weak, led by Indonesia and the Philippines. It proves that although these markets are typically more defensive than the broader Asian market, they are not immune to bouts of volatility, in this case largely due to concerns about a stronger dollar. The domestic outlook for ASEAN countries is improving, however, with many expected to see GDP growth over 5 per cent in 2018 and 2019, which should help strengthen corporate earnings and the quality of financial assets.(1) Valuations are relatively cheap compared to five-year averages and this could be an attractive entry point for investors who believe there is a limit to how far the dollar will strengthen.
Indices in USD. Source: Thomson Reuters, Fidelity International, June 2018.
2. The need to decouple from market weightings
Basing equity allocations on index weights tends to concentrate risk in highly valued securities, sectors and regions. Investors who allocate according to market weightings are now likely to be overweight in Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong equities, and within these markets, they are likely to be favouring tech, banking and real estate stocks. The tech sector now represents almost a third of the MSCI AC Asia ex-Japan index, thanks to the market cap of internet giants such as Tencent, Alibaba and Samsung. Instead of allocating based on performance so far, there is real value to be found from delving a little deeper into the opportunities on offer. Could this be the moment to break away from the pack? We are inclined to think it is.
Asia can also be both a source of stable income for traditional investors and higher returns for income seekers. By fine-tuning asset allocation, investors have the opportunity to spread risk and obtain a range of different outcomes. Domestically-focused sectors that are likely to benefit from growing consumer confidence look attractive compared to the valuations of tech and financial stocks. These include retailers, hotels, cosmetics, healthcare and luxury goods. In addition, a focus on corporates that are adopting more generous dividend policies might provide an income windfall for investors.
3. Deepening investment markets in China
China’s domestic (onshore) equity and bond markets are opening up, offering investors an interesting new source of yield and opportunities. China onshore bonds have recently exhibited a very low correlation with other global defensive assets making them a particularly useful diversification tool for investors. In addition, Chinese dim sum bonds (bonds issued outside China but denominated in renminbi) have a low sensitivity to interest rates, reducing volatility compared to many other global bonds, as well as attractive yields and positive supply and demand dynamics caused by the growth of the onshore bond market.
The downside, of course, is the currency risk of renminbi denominated instruments. Nevertheless, the liberalisation of China’s asset markets – the equity market is the world’s second largest by market cap – can only be good news for global investors.(2) The initial addition of onshore Chinese securities to both major global equity and bond indices is a key first step for opening access to a fuller range of opportunities in China.
Time to be selective
Economic and political stability in Asia provide a supportive environment for both equity and bond markets. The earnings trend remains positive, but investors should aim to be more selective in their stock selections and fixed income strategies while uncertainties linger over the effects of trade wars and tighter US monetary policy. A focus on corporates with further growth potential, in sectors that are shielded from potential disruptions to global trade, and in ASEAN markets that are trading at a discount to their regional peers, offers an attractive strategy to extend outperformance in the region.