Geopolitical tensions cloud tactical moment in the sun for China equities
With China’s emergence as a strategic competitor in the eyes of the U.S., tensions between the two countries will persist for years to come, said Jessica Tea, a Hong Kong-based investment specialist with BNP Paribas Asset Management Asia’s Greater China equities team.
Still, Matthews’ Mr. Rothman said U.S. policies focused on containing China could end up boosting demand from some U.S. investors for locally focused A-shares companies listed in Shanghai and Shenzhen.
“For American investors who disagree with the Biden administration’s characterization of China, and who see opportunities in a country that drives global growth and is home to some innovative companies, the A-share market is an opportunity to avoid U.S.-listed Chinese stocks whose valuations have been depressed by bilateral political tensions,” he said.
Looking further out on the risk spectrum, however, investors can’t entirely ignore the potential for a worse outcome, such as the two sides stumbling into a confrontation, with the absence now of dialogue and trust raising the chances of a crisis neither country desires, Mr. Rothman said. That’s “a very low risk” but one worth noting, he said.
Money managers, meanwhile, say opinions among institutional investors on whether and how to access China’s markets continue to defy consensus.
“There’s a huge diversity of views,” said Jack Nelson, a portfolio manager in Sydney with Stewart Investors, a $24.7 billion money manager with a bottom-up approach that’s left the firm with a weighting to Chinese equities well below that of leading emerging markets benchmarks.
That relatively light exposure partly reflects a vetting process that places a lot of weight on how companies navigate through market crises. With most Chinese companies quite young and the market having enjoyed “a really good quarter-century,” it’s been tough for Stewart’s team to get a sense of how those companies would respond to periods of adversity, he said.
Whatever the cause, “some people see the fact that we don’t have a lot of exposure to China as a real positive. Others see it as a critical weakness,” Stewart’s Mr. Nelson said.
The past year or so, meanwhile, has given China bulls and bears alike grist for their mills.
“If you were predisposed to (the) narrative that China is a very fragile economy, that President Xi Jinping will invade Taiwan, that any company executive can be arrested tomorrow, etc., etc., a lot of the news flow — whether it’s around Taiwan, or Alibaba, or Evergrande and the property market — have probably given succor to that narrative … and likely made that conviction higher,” Stewart’s Mr. Nelson said.
“Conversely, if you’re of the opposite perspective that there’s an opportunity, you’re probably even more excited because it’s still an incredibly deep, wide market with … valuations more modest than they’ve been for a while,” he said.
Charles Van Vleet, chief investment officer and assistant treasurer of Providence, R.I.-based Textron Inc., a maker of business and defense-related aircraft, counts himself among those spying opportunity now.
In May 2021, Textron hired J.P. Morgan Asset Management as a dedicated manager of A-shares stocks listed on the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges, lifting its China allocation to a neutral 1.2% of the company’s $7.7 billion defined benefit plan portfolio.
“We provided seed capital for a commingled product,” with search criteria that included “boots on the ground” and research in English so “I can personally accelerate learning the market,” Mr. Van Vleet said.
Textron’s team has been rewarded over the past few years for maintaining a 1% portfolio allocation to emerging markets, sharply below its 3% internal target, but Mr. Van Vleet said he had grown less and less comfortable being underweight China, which accounts for roughly 40% of that emerging markets weighting.
As the only major economy easing monetary policy now, “I think China equity will be the 2022 upside surprise,” with good prospects for the coming decade as well, he predicted.
“We have continued to incrementally add” to Textron’s China exposures, Mr. Van Vleet said.