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Ian Cowie: I’m happy for Asia to climb ‘wall of worry’

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Ian Cowie: I’m happy for Asia to climb ‘wall of worry’

City cynics say the six most expensive words in the English language are: ‘It will be different this time.’ That’s worth recalling when this month marks the 20th anniversary of the 1997 Asian crisis, where a domino effect saw currencies collapse across the region and stock market shocks reverberate around the world.

For example, the Hang Seng Index in Hong Kong plunged 10% in one day that July and the S&P 500 index in New York slipped by 7% in a single trading session. Lest this seem a dreary tale about events far away and long ago, it’s wise to remember that China had not yet joined the World Trade Organisation back then but is now the second-biggest economy in the world, as measured by gross domestic product. In terms of purchasing power parity, China is already the largest economy in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Coming down from the macro to the personal, like many investors who have diversified away from Brexit Britain and shrinking sterling, I have substantial exposure to Asia through Henderson Far East Income (HFEL) and Schroder Oriental Income (SOI) – two investment trusts yielding 5.4% and 3.5% respectively – plus JPMorgan Global Emerging Markets Income (JEMI), which yields 4%.

In addition to those attractive yields, all three have delivered decent total returns over the last five years since I began buying them; 76% at Henderson and 93% at Schroder with JPMorgan still somewhat under a cloud at 34%. The one-year figures are, respectively, 32%, 25% and 20%.

Then there’s my biggest single shareholding in the region, Baillie Gifford Shin Nippon (BGS), an investment trust specialising in Japanese smaller companies. This yields zip but has delivered total returns of 113% during the three years since I invested and 19% over the last year.

The bad news is that Asian economies are carrying bigger debt burdens now than they were in 1997. The good news is that less of it is denominated in dollars and most Asian countries enjoy bigger foreign reserve buffers today than 20 years ago.

Other significant differences across the decades include the increasing importance of domestic consumption, with the vast populations of China and India offering more potential for growth than anywhere else in the world, and less reliance on low added-value exports. This switch in emphasis is evident in the asset allocation of my Asian trusts.

For example, Henderson Far East Income and Schroder Oriental both feature Samsung Electronics (005930.KS) – the South Korean giant and global rival to Apple (AAPL.O) – in their top 10 holdings, alongside major stakes in – respectively –Bank of China (601988.SS) and HSBC (HSBA). JPMorgan Global Emerging Markets Income and Schroder Oriental both list Taiwan Semiconductor (5425.TWO) in their top 10.

Looking to the future, after four or five years of falling commodity prices and corporate earnings downgrades in the region, both trends have recently reversed and some analysts forecast double-digit earnings growth in 2018. True, we have heard similar talk before but the performance figures above speak for themselves and the dividends pay investors to be patient.

All things considered, I expect Asia’s bull market to continue to climb a wall of fear in the months ahead, rather than revisit the shocking plunge of July, 1997. History rarely repeats itself but, less comfortingly for those of us who are fully invested, it often rhymes.

Full disclosure: here is a complete list of Ian Cowie’s stock market investments. It is not financial advice nor is any recommendation implied.

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