Still wary of China stocks

AS China greets its new political leaders, which were appointed at the Communist Party's 18th National Congress in Beijing recently, hopes are on the rise for more fiscal and monetary measures next year to boost the flagging Chinese economy after a temporary lull this year, owing to the once-in-a-decade leadership transition.

Indeed, even long-time sceptic Martin Lau, who has been cautious on China and its equities in recent years, is becoming slightly more sanguine of late. Many analysts are expecting new stimulus packages to be rolled out and the policy-easing button to be pushed again in the world's second-biggest economy over the next 12 months.

"Over the short term, the effects [of a successful leadership transition in China] will be good as it will clear off some uncertainties, even though people already know the [outcome of the Chinese Congress meeting]. The significance of it is not so much who will become the leaders, but that after the transition, things would be smoother and quicker in terms of decision making," says Lau, a prolific fund manager from First State Investments, who manages the best-performing Singapore-registered Greater China equity fund over one, three and five years.

"Next year, they could come up with more significant fiscal measures and there is a fair chance of interest rate cuts. But it depends on how slow China's economic growth becomes," says the Hong Kong-based Lau in an interview with Personal Wealth when he was in town recently.

Still, Lau isn't expecting a big bull run in the Chinese stock market next year. "We are still a little more to the negative side," he reveals. "If rates are cut because the Chinese economy is bad, that will be bad news for the market. Overall, my key concern isn't about China's economy slumping into negative territory. It is about how companies in China react to that prolonged economic slowdown."

As he sees it, long-lasting economic growth of below 8% in China could continue to hurt the earnings of many Chinese companies, whose business models are still not fully adjusted to a slow growth environment. "In the past, earnings of Chinese companies used to grow on average at 30% to 40% a year," Lau notes. But those high-growth periods for Chinese companies are now over. "Over the past one or two years, a lot of companies have reported very disappointing earnings. That is one of the reasons why the stock market in China has been so weak — companies' earnings haven't been great."

Lau observes that the aggressive growth business models of many Chinese companies such as sportswear makers and car manufacturers, in particular, have still not adjusted to the slowdown in demand. "If things start slowing down, it is quite difficult to absorb the excess capacity. You have inventory oversupply in those sectors. Just look at the sportswear companies. They have been a disaster this year." Shares of leading Chinese sportswear maker Li Ning, which is listed in Hong Kong, are down nearly 30% this year as revenues and profits for the company fell as inventories piled up. In August, the company reported that 1H profits fell 85% and warned that it may post a loss this year.

Cyclical sectors in China such as steel-making and shipping aren't faring any better, says Lau. "All the steel companies in China are making losses and most of the shipping firms are incurring losses too these days. At the extreme, all the solar companies in China are operating on huge losses." China, unlike other smaller emerging-market countries, will have a problem exporting its excess capacity, even at cheaper prices, says Lau. "When Thailand went into financial crisis in 1997 and there was an oversupply of cement, it exported to the US and neighbouring countries. But in China, if there is an oversupply of cement, there is nowhere to export it because China is where the demand is," he explains.

That's why Lau reckons that over the next few quarters, Chinese equities could continue to be weighed down by weak corporate earnings on the back of the nation's sluggish economic growth. The world's second-largest economy grew at 7.4% in 3Q2012 from a year ago, marking the seventh consecutive quarter of slowing growth. To be sure, there are signs that the Chinese economy may have bottomed out over the past quarter. Even if economic growth in China stabilises, companies there will have to deal with the potential of oversupply and pricing pressure, cautions the First State fund manager.

Indeed, mainland Chinese equities — measured by the Shanghai Composite Index — were among the worst-performing groups of stocks in Asia this year, slumping more than 4% as at Nov 7. Last year, the index was down nearly 22%. The multiple-year bear market in China, however, has brought investors' expectations on Chinese equities down. And that's a healthy development in the Chinese stock market, which is still "very momentum-driven", Lau says. "Compared with sentiment two years ago, now there is healthy scepticism in the market on China and Chinese stocks. People are aware that China A-shares have generated negative returns over the past 10 years. These are positive developments in terms of bringing down expectations."

Consistent top performance

But regardless of how the stock markets of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan perform, Lau, who invests in these Greater China markets, has had a knack of turning in consistently good returns for his fund investors. On a three-year basis, for instance, his First State Regional China Fund was the only Singapore-registered Greater China equity fund to turn in positive gains. While the average returns for funds in that category was down 8.12%, his fund generated handsome gains of 15.3% over the three-year period as at Nov 2, according to fund performance numbers of Lipper.

Lau says his fund's outperformance is largely due to his "non-benchmarking" approach, which involves picking stocks on individual merits. "Our performance has been okay over the longer term," says the modest fund manager, who is also director of Greater China equities at First State. "We don't look at our benchmarks and we pay very little attention to our one-year performance. We focus more on our stock holdings over the long term. That's why our funds' turnover is very, very low," says Lau, who reveals that his team's bonuses and monetary incentives are based on their three- to five-year performance.

Lau, who has a substantial amount of his own money invested in the First State Regional China Fund, is also incentivised to perform well. "The team has money invested in the fund. We try to encourage our colleagues to look at the fund not in terms of managing other people's money but our own money. So, when we invest, we become more careful as well."

Lau, who holds a Bachelor and Master's in engineering from Cambridge University, revealed in an interview with Personal Wealth in 2010 that he quit his budding engineering career for fund management in the mid-1990s when he joined Invesco Asset Management because he refused to "conform to the norms" of the engineering industry. "I did try out a couple of engineering jobs but I didn't quite enjoy it. A lot of engineering jobs in Hong Kong were about following the standard. If you build a bridge, for instance, you would have to go with the British standard, which tells you how big the columns need to be and how thick the cables ought to be. It is not an innovative type of job," he told Personal Wealth.

After his stint with Invesco, Lau joined First State in 2002, which is owned by Commonwealth Bank of Australia. In his current role, he is basically given the freedom to manage money his own way. Over the past decade, he has certainly repaid the faith his firm has given to him by turning in stellar performance for his investors.

Despite his impressive long-term track record, Lau is quick to point out that his fund would suffer periodic short-term underperformances, especially in a strong bull market. "In a strong market run up, we will underperform for sure," admits the bottom-up, individual-stock-focused manager who often gives contrarian market views on China.

Cheap, but unattractive

While many bargain hunters are becoming positive on China stocks, many of which are looking cheap on a historical valuation basis, Lau says he continues to adopt a cautious approach to stock-picking in China. "We have taken a view that China is entering a prolonged period of slower growth. The market is still not fully aware that the Chinese economy needs to slow down. People's mentality is still trying to catch the bottom for the Chinese economy. But I think the economy is now no longer in the high growth phase."

To be fair, the downturn in Chinese equities in recent years has driven the valuations of stocks in cyclical sectors such as banking, commodity-related and shipping to record low levels. Equities of other sectors such as consumer-related ones, however, are still looking lofty in terms of valuations, says Lau.

"Valuations are very polarised. The consumer staple names are still quite expensive. The cheap ones are really the cyclical commodities and the banks. Outside of these sectors, valuations aren't that cheap." China's leading food and beverage company Tingyi Holding Corp, for example, is still trading at a forward price earnings of more than 30 times, says the fund manager, who remains unconvinced about the attractiveness of many cheap cyclical companies in China.

"If you focus purely on valuations without looking at fundamentals, you will end up with a lot of cheap companies in the cyclical commodity areas or the banks and to a certain extent, the property counters. Stocks are cheap for a reason. As a team, we are still nervous about commodities in general. Even though they are cheap on paper, we believe that China is going to slow down over a prolonged period, so there is plenty of excess in the commodity industry."

A-share bets

Nevertheless, there are pockets of attractive stocks in the beaten-down China A-share market, where there are "signs that Chinese retail investors have given up on the market", he says. Market turnover of China A-shares has been low of late and Lau reveals that he and his team have had "a closer look" at these out-of-favour stocks in recent months. And in certain sectors, the valuations of A-shares are indeed looking more attractive than the Hong Kong-listed H-shares, he admits. "Banks, insurance companies as well as department stores on the A-share market are cheaper."

The A-shares of Chinese supermarket operators are trading at 10 to 12 times PER on average, whereas the Hong Kong-listed H-shares of the grocery companies are hovering at higher valuations of about 17 and 18 times, Lau observes. "Investors are taking a slightly different approach. Outside of China, investors like to look at supermarkets and consumer stocks because they can see their long-term outlook and they tend to be quite expensive. Local Chinese investors, on the other hand, tend to focus on momentum. As of today, retail sales have been very sluggish. That's why they have sold down the department stores and supermarket operators to a lower PER of 10 to 12 times, which is a lot cheaper than their H-share counterparts," Lau explains.

Similarly, A-shares of Chinese banks and insurance companies are trading at a discount of 20% to 25% to their H-shares. "If you are taking a long-term view, I think [the price disparity of A- and H-shares] looks quite interesting. For instance, you may want to buy China Merchant Bank, which is trading at 20% to 25% cheaper on the A-share market."

Lau says he is only willing to bet on the shares of China's industry leaders that are listed in the A-share market. "We are strong believers in industry leaders and the A-share market does give you a broader choice to the industry leaders of China," says Lau. His fund is currently invested in the stocks of China's industry leaders such as air conditioner maker Gree Electric Appliances Inc, consumer electronics and home appliances manufacturer Haier Group, steel-maker Baoshan Iron & Steel, "which is the best steel company listed on the A-share market" and Jiangsu Hengrui Medicine, which he terms as the "best pharmaceutical company" in China. "Valuation aside, these are the quality names to own in the domestic market."

Energy plays

A-shares aside, Lau is also sanguine on some of the Chinese gas and energy companies, which are listed in Hong Kong. "There are still quite a few key areas which we are excited about. For example, we have always been quite keen on the gas consumption story in China." The growth and demand for gas in China is more a structural story than a cyclical one, he explains. Chinese gas stocks, which Lau is bullish on, include gas producer and distributor Hong Kong & China Gas, which is replicating its successful Hong Kong business model in China. He is also bullish on Chinese natural gas distributor ENN Energy Holdings, which is another H-share listed in Hong Kong.

The main risk for gas operators in China is that they could come under more government regulations going forward, and that could constrain their profitability, says Lau. "There could be a regulatory risk somewhere down the road but in terms of demand, we are quite confident that it will continue to be strong, growing at 10% to 15% over the next few years." Stocks of Hong Kong & China Gas and ENN Energy Holdings had done well this year, surging 27% and 34% respectively, on a YTD basis as at Nov 7.

Other China energy stock plays that Lau likes include national oil giant CNOOC and its subsidiary China Oilfield Services, which is an offshore oil service provider. Both stocks are traded in Hong Kong. "For CNOOC, we are still positive on its production growth." The production growth of the China oil giant averages 15% over the past five years but in recent years, growth has slowed significantly, Lau admits.

"The stock market tends to extrapolate its recent performance but we believe that CNOOC's deep sea oil exploration in China has a lot of potential. Production growth going forward may not be 15% but may be 8%. Oil price is debatable but we do believe that the potential growth for CNOOC is quite attractive and the return on equity [ROE] from this company is very high." ROE of CNOOC is about 27% and shares of the oil company, which were up 22% on a YTD basis as at Nov 7, are currently trading at a forward PER of less than 10 times.

Meanwhile, China Oilfield Services has seen a surge in overseas revenues in recent years, driven by demand for its services in Indonesia, West Africa and the Middle East. "China Oilfield Services started doing the lower-end services in the offshore exploration industry and it has done very well of late. It has also helped CNOOC to grow its deep-sea business," says Lau, who remains bullish on the stock, which had surged 16.5% this year as at Nov 7.

Like China Oilfield Services, Chinese medical equipment maker Mindray Medical, another stock which Lau likes, is growing its overseas business. "Mindray has been penetrating the US, EMEA [Europe, Middle East and Asia] and emerging markets. I wouldn't call it a very sophisticated medical equipment maker, which it is not. The case for Mindray is that it makes affordable medical equipment with decent quality and it is gaining market share in the export market," says Lau. Meanwhile, Mindray's home market business is also growing, he adds.

"Its China business is growing but it is quite a competitive industry with Philips and GE competing in the market. But the company is benefiting from the strong demand in China, which is short of hospitals. And when the country is building more hospitals, it will need more medical equipment."

Other stock holdings

Although Taiwanese stocks aren't looking as cheap as those traded in China, Lau says Taiwan still offers a deep universe of good technology-related names such as chip-maker TSMC, which is among his fund's top holdings. The fund manager concedes that the Taiwanese foundry is currently a hot favourite among many Asian fund managers. Still, it is a "very well-managed" company with a good dividend yield, he says. "It is also very profitable, riding on the smart phone story. Up to 40% of its revenues are from smart phones these days and it is growing steadily. We like industries where the industry leaders are making 90% of the industry's profits and in foundries, TSMC is making 90% of the industry's profits," explains Lau, who is also invested in Uni President Enterprises Corp, which is the largest food production company in Taiwan.

Uni President has 60% to 70% of its profits coming from China and in recent years, the Taiwanese instant noodle-maker has actually been gaining market share in China while market leader Tingyi has been losing market share, Lau observes. "As a result, the stocks have also done very well." Shares of Uni President had been up 26% on a YTD basis as at Nov 7. The company, which has a subsidiary called President Chain Stores that operates grocery stores in Taiwan, is also an interesting play on China and Taiwan consumer demand, says the First State fund manager.

Other stocks that Lau holds include Singapore-listed conglomerate Jardine Matheson, Hong Kong-based soymilk drink-maker Vitasoy and Hong Kong property giant Cheung Kong Holdings. "Vitasoy has a strong franchise in Hong Kong. People know the brand. We like companies which have a proven business model in Hong Kong and, hopefully, replicate it in China, which is big."

Despite having surged 26% this year as at Nov 7, Cheung Kong's shares are still looking cheap, says Lau, pointing out that the property stock is currently trading at a price-to-book value of just 0.8 times. "We still like it because [its founder and chairman Li Ka-shing] is still buying the stock. We often take a strong interest in insider activities because we believe that the management knows the company better than us. So, when the insiders are selling, you really need to be careful about the company."

At the same time, quantitative easing by central banks and low interest rates in Hong Kong will continue to put pressure on Hong Kong real estate prices and that would benefit Cheung Kong, says Lau. "Another factor is that China over the next 10 years is going to become an exporter of capital. China will use its financial strength to acquire companies overseas. And when that happens, a lot of capital will have to go through Hong Kong. So structurally, that is good for asset prices there."

Making money in the Greater China markets has certainly been tough over the last couple of years. Nevertheless, Lau has managed to do better than his peers by recognising the growing problems faced by Chinese companies and eschewing those that are facing overcapacity and pricing pressure. "We have always been cautious," says Lau. "We always believe that the best way to invest is to think about the negative things, identify the risks and [determine] whether they have been priced into the market."

Should China-related stocks continue to struggle over the next 12 months as predicted by Lau, his cautiously-positioned Regional China Fund will likely continue its winning streak. But on the flipside, should China stocks rebound in a big way, Lau admits that his fund will struggle to beat the gains achieved by its benchmark. "In a strong bull run, we will underperform because the banks and commodity stocks and other high beta names will most likely move up. And we are light on those counters," he says.

This story first appeared in The Edge Singapore weekly edition of Nov 12-18, 2012.

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