Princeton University economist Burton Malkiel, the author of “A Random Walk Down Wall Street”, a book that introduced many to the idea of investing via indexed-linked funds, sees value in Chinese shares, he tells the FT.
The FTSE-Xinhua index of the 25 largest Chinese stocks quoted in Hong Kong (”H” shares) is different [from the Shanghai “A” shares which he thinks overvalued], he says. This year, while the Shanghai has gained 53.8 per cent, the FTSE Xinhua is up 6.8 per cent – less than the S&P 500.
A “matched pair” study – comparing oil company CNOOC with ExxonMobil, its equivalent in the S&P, and so on – shows that FTSE-Xinhua price/earnings multiples are higher than in the S&P. But their rate of earnings growth is also higher. Crucially, their “PEG ratio” (the earnings multiple divided by the growth rate) is actually lower. So, Malkiel says, Chinese “H” shares are “moderately priced” compared to the S&P.
That is why he is buying China. But Malkiel is not selling his principles. He recommends investing in “H” shares via exchange-traded funds tied to the index – and not backing anyone who says they can beat the market. (Note there is an ETF traded here that tracks the FTSE-Xinhua index of the 25 largest Chinese stocks quoted in Hong Kong (”H” shares): DBXT FTChina25.)
Bubble or collapse in China?
He would not be surprised if China took a near-term hit. But long term, he believes it is the place to be … He is concerned about asset bubbles forming in real estate, banking, and in the stock market. “This is bound to occur wherever economies grow fast, and China’s expansion over the past decade has been unprecedented in the history of industrialisation.”
But will the economy collapse if any of these asset bubbles burst? “Absolutely not,” says Mr Malkiel. “They will correct, and restart because of the strength of the underlying story and the country’s extraordinary balance sheet.”
He does not think the country can continue to rely on export-led growth for both geopolitical and economic reasons.
“China potentially has the largest consumer market in the world, but its consumption is less than 40 per cent of GDP, a ratio that has not changed over the past decade. In the US, the ratio is about 70 per cent.”
But key reasons for low consumption remain extant: people need to save because there are virtually no government safety nets; and the one-child policy makes it difficult for children to adequately care for their parents.
The divide between the Haves and the Have Nots is what most worries Mr Malkiel. “There are seismic gaps in China between rich and poor, especially seen in the affluent east versus the impoverished central and western regions.”
This has already led to some unrest. Potential instability is a great danger. “But that’s why the government is developing infrastructure, education and a nascent social safety net,” he says.
He contends that a purchasing power-adjusted gross domestic product weighting, which adjusts for the renminbi’s significant undervaluation by this measure, suggests equity exposure of between 6 and 12 per cent.
So how does he (and his clients) invest in China?
As chief investment officer of China-focused AlphaShares, he is certainly helping investors find their way into the mainland. He has crafted a series of indices, some of which are trading as ETFs, that provide specific sector exposure (infrastructure, consumer, technology and real estate) and market exposure (all cap and small cap).
But his firm has also developed a set of private actively managed funds. These include a China-linked fund, which invests in non-Chinese companies that are directly benefiting from China’s growth, and an enhanced index fund – a broad-market fund with an enhanced weighting of small and value stocks. A buy-write fund aims to exploit Chinese market equity volatility by going long the highly liquid FTSE Xinhua 25 Index and writing options against it to pick up premium income. AlphaShares may take these funds public.
Mr Malkiel squares this active management with his long-term embrace of passive investing by citing the inherent inefficiencies in the way the Chinese market functions and is tracked. He believes unprecedented growth, trifurcated shares [mainland, Hong Kong and foreign classes], and volatility present special opportunities that cannot be captured through traditional indices.
Finally, it should be no surprise, he is a bull on emerging markets, and equities in general.
For a 40-something US investor with a family, he is recommending a portfolio with 80 per cent equity exposure. And he thinks half of that should be foreign stocks. He believes long-term investors will be best served with half of this international exposure being in emerging markets such as Brazil, India, and China.
He remains a believer that passive exchange traded funds are the most efficient means of gaining market exposure around the globe. His recommended 50 per cent US exposure is close to the MSCI All-Country World Index weighting of 44 per cent. However, he deviates significantly in his exposure to so-called EAFE countries, the developed world ex-US and Canada. He recommends 25 per cent EAFE exposure versus the global weighting of almost 41 per cent, in the belief that Europe and Japan will not experience significant growth in the coming years.
He departs from market-cap benchmarking even more materially in recommending 25 per cent equity exposure to emerging markets, twice the All-World Index’s weighting.
Mr Malkiel justifies this by citing a perceived fundamental shift in growth away from developed to emerging markets. “My portfolio strategy remains passive, I’m not picking stocks,” he says. “I’m adjusting for economic realities. And we see the need for such investment modification in China where a low free float [on which most indices are based] undercounts China by at least a factor of four.”