These Asian markets are becoming investor darlings

Asia ex-China preference emerges in recent strategist actions 

AS FRUSTRATION over China’s equity performance increases, some of Asia’s other major markets are emerging as more attractive alternatives for global investors. 

The divergence has been on full display last week. A key Chinese stock gauge saw losses from its recent peak reach 20% just as South Korea’s Kospi flirted with a bull market and benchmarks in India approached all-time highs. Japanese stocks hit a three-decade high earlier in May while Taiwan continues to outperform most stock markets around the world. 

A shift in Asia-focused portfolios seems to be underway as major markets decouple from China, surging despite concerns that a slump in the region’s largest economy will drag on equities elsewhere. Glowing prospects for world-leading chipmakers in Korea and Taiwan, a revival of inflation in Japan and India’s booming consumption are among the tailwinds boosting their stocks just as China indexes become global laggards. 

“There are absolutely numerous opportunities within Asia outside of China,” said Christina Woon, investment director of Asian equities at abrdn plc. “Korea gives you exposure to a great number of companies within the battery and tech supply chain, Taiwan is home to more than just Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC), and Japan gives you access to global leaders in their fields.” 

Overseas inflows into Japan have continued for seven straight weeks through mid-May, while Korea and Taiwan have netted at least US$9.2 billion (RM42.42 billion) each this year, reversing outflows of 2022. By contrast, global fund allocations for China have dropped back to October levels, according to HSBC Holdings plc. Fund sales to domestic customers in May slumped to their lowest since 2015. 

Bullish Wall Street calls on China — dominant until a few months ago — are falling flat as a faltering economy and geopolitical tensions turn-key gauges into global underperformer. Manufacturing activity continued to slump in May, adding to the bleak outlook. 

The outperformance of other markets may be more structural as China’s population shrinks and industries mature, with Beijing’s regulatory uncertainties making any big bet a risky one. Stocks in Japan, India and Korea have beaten China peers more often than not since 2020. 

“A re-allocation away from China may in fact have catalysed a wider rally across largely dispersed parts of Asia,” said Aninda Mitra, head of Asia macro and investment strategy at BNY Mellon Investment Management. The macro picture in emerging Asia is helping, with peaking interest rates, more pressure on the US dollar and resilient Western demand, he added. 

Corporate reforms underway in Japan and an endorsement by Warren Buffett have stirred excitement for the nation’s under-valued stocks. The Topix and Nikkei indexes boast double-digit gains this year, handsomely beating an Asia benchmark. 

The tech-heavy markets of South Korea and Taiwan are rallying as demand surges for all things AI and as the chip cycle is seen turning a corner. Benchmarks there too have gained at least 15% this year. In India, a growing retail investor base and solid earnings are adding to the appeal of equities with foreign funds piling in, helping drive the Nifty 50 Index to less than 2% away from an all-time high. 

“Korea is our current favourite due to its about 60% semiconductor, component and tech exposure,” said Hartmut Issel, Asia Pacific head of equity and credit at UBS Wealth Management. “Prices have already touched cash costs, the inventory digestion process is underway” and the sector is cutting capex plans, he added. 

The Asia ex-China theme has been evident in recent strategist recommendations. BNY Mellon Investment Management turned neutral on China last two weeks, preferring markets that benefit from Chinese consumption such as Korea, Thailand or Singapore. Citigroup Inc’s global allocation team on May 26 changed its call to ‘Neutral’ from ‘Overweight’ citing a lack of stimulus measures. It upgraded the rest of emerging Asia, and noted the outperformance in tech stocks. 

To be sure, pockets of the Chinese market have seen sharp rallies such as state-owned enterprises as well as semiconductor and artificial intelligence (AI) names. And as the November-January reopening euphoria shows, losing out on a rebound can be painful. 

“The Chinese market is already pricing in a lot of the negative outlook, which creates more opportunities in China at this stage,” said Robert Secker, a portfolio specialist for T Rowe Price Group Inc. The recent selloff has “unveiled opportunities in sectors with secular tailwinds and potential to consistently compound earnings over time,” he added. 

Benchmarks in Hong Kong and China climbed last Thursday as a private survey showed manufacturing activity expanded slightly in May. 

As money chases markets that have momentum, valuations have become less of a concern. Korea’s Kospi and Japan’s Nikkei 225 are trading at a 23% and 15% premium, respectively, to their average price-to-forward earnings multiple over the past 10 years. Indian gauges, a perennial bugbear for being richly valued, are trading at close to 19 times, also above their historical trend. 

For now though, the perennial volatility and unpredictable regulatory environment for China means investors are being more picky. 

“You need to be much more specific and targeted in terms of how you are investing within” China, Timothy Moe, chief Asia-Pacific equity strategist at Goldman Sachs Group Inc, told Bloomberg TV. “There’s a great deal of skepticism about the longer-term outlook for China, then that suggests investor appetite for China in the near term is still going to be subdued.” — Bloomberg 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition