Asian financial markets outlook

Thomas Mucha, Geopolitical Strategist
Philip Fan, Equity Portfolio Manager
Ross Dilkes, CFA, Fixed Income Portfolio Manager
2023-11-30T12:00:00-05:00  | S2:E19  | 29:03

The views expressed are those of the speaker(s) and are subject to change. Other teams may hold different views and make different investment decisions. For professional/institutional investors only. Your capital may be at risk.

Episode notes

Portfolio managers Philip Fan and Ross Dilkes join host Thomas Mucha to share their latest views and projections for Asian equity and fixed income markets.

1:50 Career paths and personal experiences

4:50 Geopolitical tensions impact on Asian equities

7:20 Globalization impact on Asian fixed income markets

8:55 China’s economic challenges and positive path forward

11:20 Asian market sectors with highest potential

13:10 Opportunities in artificial intelligence 

15:44 Chinese real estate and credit sectors

19:20 Value investing and long-termism in Asia

22:10 Market inefficiency and alpha generation 

24:00 Biggest misperceptions about Asian markets



PHILIP FAN: The competitive nature in China is almost Darwinian. And this competitiveness allows a lot of the Chinese companies to not only take market share in China from previously imported products. But now they are able to take share across the world. 

THOMAS MUCHA:  Nothing dominates headlines right now more than the world’s current geopolitical challenges. Wars on two continents have produced devastating humanitarian impacts, and, to a varying degree, have roiled capital markets. Meanwhile, geopolitical tensions between the US and China are splintering alliances and weighing on global trade. And policymakers the world over are looking inward. And in the name of national security, are increasingly intent on reshoring manufacturing capabilities, protecting supply chains, and securing energy independence. All of that makes it a very tricky time to be an investor, particularly in Asia. Fortunately, joining me today are two of Wellington’s foremost experts on the Asian financial markets, Philip Fan, an equity portfolio manager based in Hong Kong, and Ross Dilkes, a fixed income PM based in Singapore. Ross, Philip, welcome to WellSaid. It’s great to have you here. 

PHILIP FAN:    Thank you very much, Thomas. 

ROSS DILKES: Thank you, Thomas.

THOMAS MUCHA: So let’s start by getting to know each of you a little bit. Ross, let’s begin with you. So what drew you to becoming an expert on Asian markets? And how did you find your way to Wellington?

ROSS DILKES:   It’s an interesting question, and frankly, it came down to a bit of luck. I started my career in London, and as the financial crisis was kind of evolving in 2007, I got the opportunity to move Hong Kong. At the time, I felt like I was running away from lots of crises and headwinds. But when I landed the opportunity was one that I kind of fell into, and I’ve been riding that wave ever since. So, Asia’s tailwinds have been phenomenal over the last 15 years. Asia’s credit market has evolved so much in that time as well. So to some extent, it’s something that I’ve grown up in, frankly. But really it came down to that chance and sometimes you need a little luck. And that was something that obviously I am very grateful for.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Philip, same question. What has shaped your career path to Wellington?

PHILIP FAN:    You ask a big question, Thomas. When I was growing up, I spent a lot of time reading alongside my scholarly grandfather. You would like him, Thomas. And he really taught me how to ask a good question and instilled a sense of curiosity in me. And growing up in the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong during the ‘80s and ‘90s, I had a front-row seat to the Asian financial crisis, the handover from the Brits. And how these events impacted families, including my own. And that developed a sense of contrarian attitude because I saw how people took calculated risk and was handsomely rewarded. And then the turning point was really, at my university, I was taught an important skill to think laterally and connecting dots. And these skills allowed me to find a job with an asset manager in London. And like Ross, it was luck that took me there, and I learned about how to analyze companies. I was like a sponge. just learning the craft. But I wasn’t an excellent investor. I’m a decent investor by the time I joined Wellington. But at Wellington, what changes for me is the emphasis on philosophy and process. And I was able to develop mine almost as an extension of my personality. It allows me to maximize my personal strengths and minimize my weakness. And I’m able to develop into an investor that can be curious, be risk-taking, and also be consistent and disciplined.

THOMAS MUCHA:  It’s interesting that you mentioned your personal connection to Hong Kong and the historical changes that were happening as you were growing up. I had a similar sort of experience growing up in Detroit, at the time when the Japanese automakers were entering the market. And it had a real impact on my family, the families of all my friends. You know, people were getting laid off left and right. And looking back, I think it was that personal experience that drove me to try to understand, what the heck is globalization? Why is this happening? So it’s interesting to me to hear you point to that. And I do think it’s a valuable sort of perspective to have in your investment toolkit. Which leads me to our market discussion here. We have a lot to cover. And Philip, you and I discuss this all the time. But it’s almost impossible to talk about the future of market activity without discussing the current geopolitical environment. So, I want to start with asking each of you to briefly describe what you’re watching in terms of rising geopolitical, and especially policy, tensions between the US and China. And how do you see this deteriorating relationship between the world’s two great superpowers impacting Asian markets in the near term? And Philip, let’s start with you.

PHILIP FAN:    As a bottom-up fundamental investor, I don’t like this question at all. Because the way that I invest is to find ideas that can stay away from top-down macro influence as much as possible. What the deteriorating geopolitical situation between the US and China has done, is reducing my investable universe. I tend to look for businesses that are either expanding the product lines, or addressable markets, or focusing more on profitability and returns. These are the idiosyncratic ideas that I look for. But it’s challenging when you have geopolitical risks are overhanging all of these opportunities. On the flipside, it allows me to find hidden treasures in China. With the pessimism now over this I think people are forgetting how big and vast the Asian market, especially Chinese market is. Fun fact, despite all of what’s going on in the past 12 months, there are over 200 stocks in China that went up by more than 50 percent in US dollar terms. So the opportunities are there. We just need to be able to unearth it.

THOMAS MUCHA:  That’s a really important point that you just made, Philip. I think a lot of the policy changes emanating from great-power competition are creating differentiation across industries, companies, asset classes. And so, it’s a challenging time, but this is a great time to lean into actively managed strategies to find winners and losers, and that’s a really relevant point that you just made. Ross, let me throw the same question to you. How are you thinking about these big structural changes in the geopolitical and policy environments?

ROSS DILKES:   I think as a fixed income guy, we spend our waking hours, and to some extent our sleepless nights worrying about risks and downside problems. So to the extent the geopolitics are just adding to that list obviously, I’m getting less sleep than I was before. 

THOMAS MUCHA:  Sorry to hear that.

ROSS DILKES:   I think Philip’s made some really interesting points around the fact that it can create opportunity, as well as heightening risk in some cases. But I think there’s also interesting dynamics at play around changes to globalization. We’ve been in a multi-decade cycle where globalization has actually been very, very supportive to the global economy. And unfortunately, if geopolitics starts to make that change to become more complex, that can be a headwind to growth, and we have to acknowledge and try and balance those risks. But equally, you know I see an opportunity for the region, sitting here in Asia where the region is becoming not just more interconnected in terms of exports and the economies and how they operate, but in terms of the businesses and the successes that we’re seeing bottom-up as well. So, in a similar way to Philip was talking about, should I be worried about these things, should I just care more about what’s happening bottom-up, you know, I think we can’t ignore the obvious factors, but I think there are very interesting trends. And I think Asia’s relevance as a market will actually increase, because we are going to shift away incrementally from thinking about the world in terms of developed and emerging asset classes, to a much more nuanced investment landscape. And so, regional plays will start to become more powerful, and I think Asia’s opportunity set in that context is very positive with a long-run lens.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Yeah, I think that’s a very important message, let’s approach this with a sense of opportunity, not a sense of doom. Now let’s set aside the geopolitical challenges for a moment. And Ross, let’s stay with you for a minute here. Now the prevailing consensus is that China is headed for an economic rough patch. It’s already facing a liquidity crunch. Now, as an expert on Asia’s credit markets, and China in particular, what’s your view on this? 

ROSS DILKES:   I actually think that’s probably round the other way. I think in reality, we are actually in an economic patch that is rough right now. But I don’t think that actually means that we’re in a liquidity crisis. And what I mean by that is, we had an economic model in China that was very focused around quantity of growth. And I think we are seeing a determination to move away from that into one around quality rather than quantity. So when you have that transition and that pivot, these things usually are bumpy, and they take time. And I think there is a tolerance to have lower economic growth to achieve those outcomes. Frankly, the old model was acknowledged to be one where if we keep pushing in that direction, the risks are going to start to outweigh the benefits. And so as we see the transition, and we see the determination amongst policymakers to get to that end goal, you know, I think we have to accept that headline numbers, data on the ground could well be weak for some time. But where I would push back on that is that, you know, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve got crisis ahead, or that there is a liquidity challenge within the economy. And some really important points to illustrate that is that, China’s been acknowledging the risks and actually cracking down on the risks in the financial system since 2016. And I think a big deleveraging effort has already gone on. A number of very important initiatives have actually de-risked that system, rather than actually seeing risks increase. And I think that because of that backdrop, there’s less chance now that we are likely to see systemic risk occur. That’s not to say that there aren’t challenges and that we can’t see problems incrementally pop up from time to time. But China is not an externally funded market. And China’s got an almost unique model where they have control over very significant resources, both in state enterprises as well as the banking system. To mean that, when they need to mobilize those resources, they can actually suppress and limit the potential for systemic risk to occur, and the liquidity crisis that you allude to. So I would say this period is difficult. It will continue to be bumpy. But I do think we’re a very long way from that translating into a liquidity or a systemic crisis within the system. 

THOMAS MUCHA:  Philip, same question, different angle. You’ve argued that handwringing over China’s economic woes is overblown. And now is the time to be greedy because others are fearful. So which sectors or which themes do you think present the most potential for growth and revenue acceleration in China? And what are investors missing most by walking away from Chinese equity markets right now?

PHILIP FAN:    Yeah, as I said, with a trained eye, willing to connect the dots, willing to look several layers deeper, there are lots of opportunities in China. Where I see the most opportunities these days, are in the service sector, and mid-end manufacturing. As Chinese consumers’ disposable income rises, their demand for better service, and more importantly, their willingness to pay for it, have both increased. Gone are the days that there are crappy service in a Chinese restaurant. And now the customers are willing to pay for better music subscription, and even better funeral services. So that’s where the opportunity I see. Another opportunity that I see is in mid-end manufacturing, especially in health care and industrials. China is trying to move up the value chain in manufacturing. It used to be in the lower end, you know, apparels and toys and stuff like that. And now, as labor costs increase, they’re forced to move up to mid-end manufacturing that focus more on, for example, medical devices, electric vehicles, or machinery. The competitive nature in China is almost Darwinian. And this competitiveness allows a lot of the Chinese companies to not only take market share in China from previously imported products. But now they are able to take share across the world. 

THOMAS MUCHA:  Philip, let’s apply that Darwinian lens to emerging technology, specifically artificial intelligence. That topic is certainly foremost in the minds of the policymakers that I speak with, both for national and economic security reasons. So as you look ahead at this market in particular, what do you see as the biggest potential opportunities? And then let’s flip that question, where are the investment risks and pitfalls when we’re thinking about AI?

PHILIP FAN:    I’m very excited about AI. I think it’s more than hype. But as a bit of a contrarian, I always have a bit of a cautious optimism, if you like, looking at this. So I went out and talked to companies across emerging markets that could be either beneficiary or disadvantaged because of this. Where I see the opportunity is really in the upstream supply chain. These are the guys that make the servers and data centers that are essential for any companies in the world, the hyper-scalers, to learn how AI can be applied. So the investments in the hardware, servers and data centers, will have to happen regardless of how AI will be applied. We are looking for companies that are in a niche market where they are maybe the dominant leader in providing that technology, or that critical component. Now, on the flipside of that, where do I see risk, is in the IT services companies. The so-called BPO businesses. They are at risk of being replaced by AI in the longer term. But in the near term, with the US economy maybe slowing down, companies tightening their belts, the demand may also fall short of expectation.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Ross, any thoughts on AI from your fixed income perspective?

ROSS DILKES:   I think it’s a really interesting investment area. In reality, I think we’ve not necessarily had the ability to invest directly into that theme, in many cases. You know, largely when we think about innovation, it tends to be an equity-funded story, at least in the early part of that phase. So as this evolves, I think we will have more and more opportunities to find opportunities to invest in this space, and to find interesting companies to lend to. But at this moment in time, I think it sits outside of our world. I think what we spend our time thinking about is, you know, where could that start to create challenges for companies that are already within our space and our world. I think the reality at the moment is it's a little early to say where you’re going to see that really start to make significant change. But that’s something that’s definitely in my mind. 

THOMAS MUCHA:  So, let’s move to another market hot topic here, which is China’s real estate sector. And Ross, let’s stay with you for a minute. It’s obviously creating some challenges on the economic growth side. But as you pointed out earlier, the government is taking some positive steps to reduce its debt burden, to try to stimulate growth. So first, what’s your view of the real estate sector in China? And then second, given the course correction under way, how do you see the future of Asian debt markets and credit issuance changing?

ROSS DILKES:   So I think property sits right at the epicenter of that growth transition, the model transition we just talked about previously. So, there is clear determination to move the economy away from property being one of the key leaders. We are not fully through that process yet, so it continues to be a drag and a challenge as you mentioned. We’ve seen a lot of stress within the industry. What’s obviously clear is that China will continue to need new homes. But it’s the quantum of new homes that is the risk to the system, and what the government is clearly trying to address. So, I think the evolution we are now moving towards is a larger and more vibrant secondary market, something that China has typically not seen, as we see in other economies which is, in China’s case, very much focused on the primary market. You know, that transition is under way and will continue. The absolute amount of housing stock in terms of the new construction sites on an annual basis, that number will clearly be structurally lower, and I don’t expect to see it that really bounce from the levels that we’re at. So the question then becomes, who can survive that new market norm? The very best, and the very fittest names within the space will continue to grab market share, and ultimately come out the other side of that. But I think what we’ve seen is that there has been inherent weakness, and over-leverage in a number of the players that were operating in that space. And the appetite for scale and for growth, and to believe in speculative activity to keep the tide high enough that all those boats can continue to float is where we’ve seen the abrupt change. So, we will have to navigate through that. It’s clearly not fully complete, and that drag, as you mentioned, will be on economic growth for a time to come. I think to some extent though, bringing that back to credit markets and debt markets in Asia, to some extent it’s actually an overplayed theme. The size of that China market relative to the absolute size of the credit market is actually a lot smaller than the headlines would have you believe. So I think, you know, part of what we need to do is make sure that we talk about what else is in the credit market, and what other interesting and successful stories are out there, not just in China, but in other parts of the region too. And acknowledge that whilst there’s risk that exists, the likelihood that that starts to create significant change is actually not as high as one would probably believe reading headlines around the world. And then in terms of the impact, I think part of it’s about property, but I do think that structurally we’ll see slower growth in terms of issuance in US dollar fixed income investments from Chinese issuers. It’s not uniquely a China story. You know, funding rates in Asia and local markets, in many cases at record lows relative to the US right now. But it’s also about depth. So you know, when I speak to companies, whether it’s from India and Indonesia, you know, markets that historically would have had a very difficult time when the Fed is hiking 500 basis points, and the dollar’s been as strong as it has. You know, they’re now actually telling us that they’re able to find capital in their local markets. So the deepening, and the breadth of financial markets locally and the banking system locally have allowed companies to actually fund in a way that’s very, very different to previous hiking cycles. That to me is a real positive, something that I look at very closely when we think about access to liquidity and a company’s ability to navigate through difficult times. The issuance numbers will probably be a little lower than we would have historically had over the last few years because of those facts. So I think we’re in a transition phase, and to some extent, a bit of a holding period, when rates are where they are around the world. But I have no doubts that this market will be larger in the future than it is today.

THOMAS MUCHA:  So Philip, an appetite for growth predominates the equity investing landscape in Asia. And as you said earlier, you’re a contrarian. So, a couple things. For investors who feel whiplashed by the stock market these days, what would you say about the value of value investing, and the value of a long-term perspective, particularly as it relates to the healing process China is going through at the moment?

PHILIP FAN:    Yeah, so I’ll just make a few points about that. First for value in emerging markets, more often than not needs growth to unlock it, for many reasons. Now given that point, the global investing landscape has changed substantially as interest rates has risen a lot. We were in the phase of high growth and put very little emphasis on company’s balance sheet or cash-flow-generating ability. Because the cost of capital was close to zero. The cost of that is almost minimal. But now, interest rates much higher around the globe. That’s not true anymore. A company that can generate cash, that have a strong balance sheet, I believe will be valued a lot more. Now, as Ross alluded to, things are a little different in Asia. You know, in places like Japan and China, the interest rate is still lower. The way this played out, I believe, is in China, given a lower growth environment and a higher risk, including geopolitical risk that we talked about, investors are going to be more cautious, are going to be more selective about where they invest. And here again, a strong balance sheet, and a cash-flow-generating ability of a company will be valued differently compared to the past. And then, in terms of the short-term and long-term perspective, investing long term is universally understood. It’s in the execution that is often difficult. When you identify a company, and you think that you’re going to hold it long term, when there is pain, because some kind of market forces is just gonna drive the share price down, are you willing to take that pain in terms of performance, in terms of career risk, that often determine whether you can hold on to the stock for the long term? And then there’s the art of identifying what opportunities to take a long-term perspective, not all opportunities are worth holding on for a long time. So figuring all this out is difficult. And in the emerging markets, where there’s just so much noise, and lack of transparency, it’s even more difficult.

THOMAS MUCHA:  Philip, how does the idea of market inefficiency play into your philosophy and process, particularly when you’re looking at Asian equity markets? I mean, why are they such great fishing ponds for both active investors, and for contrarians?

PHILIP FAN:    Yeah, market inefficiencies is by definition where I see alpha, right?  So my philosophy is about finding the inefficiency that I try to exploit. And that is about time arbitrage. Right, so we take the long-term view. And also about finding the so-called hidden gems in the emerging markets, that are undiscovered, or unproven. There are lots of inefficiencies in Asia, yes, compared to other markets. There are several reasons for that. One reason is that Asian markets tend to be more retail-investor driven. And retail investors, they’re more speculative, they’re more prone to the greed-and-fear emotional cycle, and therefore it creates, you know, overshoots on both sides of the share price, above and under the intrinsic value of businesses. That’s number one. Two is that a lot of the companies in Asia are either national champions or just very big oligopolies. And they sometimes do not really answer to minority shareholders, and they tend to be less transparent. And with the lack of information, sometimes it fuels rumors and speculations in the market. And that also creates inefficiency. And lastly, in China, it’s about capital flow. Sometimes, there is closed capital account that limiting capital flow and obstructing the arbitrage from happening, and therefore it leaves more inefficiency. China’s A-share is a case in point. 

THOMAS MUCHA:  So let’s wrap up this conversation, gentlemen, with a bit of a lightning round. And Ross, you know, what’s the number one thing to your mind that investors are getting wrong about Asian credit markets?

ROSS DILKES:   I think if I had to pick one, it’s probably the dominance of China is so great in people’s thought process that they miss the fact that there is actually very diverse and large market outside of that that we can invest into. If I could squeeze in a second one, I would probably just say that Asia’s actually got much higher resilience and lower volatility than people would naturally expect. So it tends to surprise people. When I talk to them and compare performance of this market over a longer period of time against even developed market peers within fixed income. You know, it’s really demonstrated its worth. And I think the tailwinds that we’ve seen both from countries and sovereigns as well as corporates as they’ve continued to scale and become global leaders in many cases. You know, that resilience is actually not fully appreciated and understood. 

THOMAS MUCHA:  Philip, same question for you. What’s the biggest misconception today about equity markets in Asia?

PHILIP FAN:    Yeah, so, and this applies not just in Asia, but emerging markets. So I would say people tend to confuse equity returns with economic growth. When you talk about emerging markets in Asia, people often associate high economic growth with higher stock returns. And many studies and evidence show that that’s not true. And the other thing is that, again is it’s typical of anything emerging, emerging markets or emerging themes, that people tend to explain outperformance or underperformance with structural reasons. But sometimes it’s just a cyclical hiccup or a temporary slowdown. So we should not confuse the two. Speaking of misconceptions, Thomas, I’ve always been curious, what do you think is the top misconception when it comes to geopolitics, especially between US and China?

THOMAS MUCHA:  Thanks for that question, Philip, it’s an important one. I think the biggest misconception when investors think about the US-China relationship is about certainty of outcome. One of the lessons that I’m trying to communicate around the firm and to our clients, and to anyone else who will listen, is that the current geopolitical environment is creating a set of potential outcomes that is much wider than we’re used to in the past. And therefore, some of these outcomes are likely to be positive. And we shouldn’t have 100 percent certainty that we’re headed down this deep, dark path. There are a lot of things that could happen in the geopolitical environment that could be positive. And so again, my advice is to broaden your imagination about the outcome set, because it’s likely to be wider than most people and most investors anticipate. Well, I’m very grateful for the thoughtfulness that both of you have put into these discussions and the continuing discussions that we have on these topics around the firm. Once again, Philip Fan, equity portfolio manager based in Hong Kong, and Ross Dilkes, a fixed income PM based in Singapore. Thanks for joining us on WellSaid.

ROSS DILKES:   Thank you, Thomas. 

PHILIP FAN:    Thank you very much, Thomas.


Views expressed are those of the speaker(s) and are subject to change. Other teams may hold different views and make different investment decisions. For  professional/institutional investors only. Your capital may be at risk. Podcast produced November 2023.

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Philip Fan
Equity Portfolio Manager
Ross Dilkes
Fixed Income Portfolio Manager