Investors overlook SE Asia indexes as they lack tech stocks

SINGAPORE • As markets around the world piggyback on technology shares to ride a startling rebound from their pandemic lows, stock investors in South-East Asia are proving to be mere spectators.

Laden with so-called old-economy stocks such as those in the finance and real estate sectors, the MSCI Asean Index is down 19% in 2020 even as similar gauges for Asia Pacific and world equities have wiped out their year-to-date losses. The poor show has also put Asean shares on course for their worst annual performance relative to global peers since 2013, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“Asean is getting overlooked by some investors as it doesn’t have any big tech names like the US and China,” said Nirgunan Tiruchelvam, head of consumer equity research at Tellimer Research. “As long as tech rally lasts, South-East Asia will continue to underperform due to a lack of those companies.”

Technology stocks have been at the forefront of the worldwide equity rally from March lows as the virus outbreak accelerated the global shift toward automation, and locked- down consumers fuelled demand for everything from video games to e-commerce. Asean is missing out as the tech and communication sector accounts for just about 11% of the region’s MSCI gauge. That’s versus a weighting of more than a third in the S&P 500 Index and about a fourth in the MSCI Asia Pacific Index.

Further, excluding telecommunication firms (telcos) leaves the technology space with just one company — Singapore’s Venture Corp — with a less than 0.8% weight in the South-East Asia measure. Financials and real estate make up about 42% of the index.

“Given the high representation of cyclical stocks in the mix, short-term under-performance could sustain,” said Jingyi Pan, a market strategist at IG Asia Pte Ltd. Investors will “go about cautiously with these names amid the uncertainties,” she said.

That said, the stark underperformance of the broader Asean market belies the meteoric gains in some individual names that count among the world’s hottest shares this year. Their weighting in the index, however, has been small.

These include Malaysia’s Top Glove Corp Bhd, which has jumped more than 400%, and Philippines’ largest telco PLDT Inc, which has risen 40%. They carry a weighting of less than 2% each in the MSCI Asean index.

Further, Sea Ltd, a Singapore-based gaming, e-commerce and payments company, whose New York-listed shares have more than tripled in 2020, isn’t a part of the gauge.

To be sure, the recent optimism around the development of a vaccine can provide some support to battered South-East Asian markets. The region’s cyclical stocks can benefit from economic reopening and a potential rotation toward value style of investing.

“Once a viable vaccine is available for safe and mass global use, we believe that cyclical stocks will come back into focus,” said Carmen Lee, head of investment research at Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp. Asean’s financial stocks will recover as and when the economies do, she said.

For now, the Philippines and Singapore are hurting the most, with benchmark gauges in the nations each down more than 20% this year.

“The Philippines will remain a laggard” during the pandemic as the nation does not have significant technology and healthcare stocks, said Rachelle Cruz, an analyst at AP Securities Inc. — Bloomberg