This week sees the G20 leaders gather in China and Theresa May’s first foray on the world stage as the UK’s Prime Minister. These events coincide with the 40th anniversary of the death of Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China. In the intervening decades, China has undergone an unprecedented period of economic transformation, set in motion by the reforms of Mao’s successor Deng Xiaoping. This resurgence is all the more remarkable given the economic and social chaos that characterised Mao’s years in power.
As we look ahead to the next 40 years, and weigh up the various investment opportunities, it is essential to appreciate China’s revival within its historical context.
Looking to the past
A common misconception is that China’s recent rise to prominence is a new phenomenon.
Writing back in 1776, Adam Smith, who lends his name to Adam & Company, noted that “China has long been one of the richest, most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious and most populous countries in the world.”
Renowned British economist Angus Maddison, writing 200 years after Smith, agreed with these observations. Maddison estimated that China’s share of global GDP has ranged from around a quarter at the beginning of the first millennium to as much as a third by 1820.
With this in mind, China’s rise since the 1970s is best interpreted as a return to the status quo of the past 2000 years.
“China has long been one of the richest, most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious and most populous countries in the world.”
The challenges of investing in China
Although it is fairly straightforward to identify the potential of the Chinese economy, it is far more challenging to unearth viable and accessible investment opportunities.
This conundrum for investors is well illustrated by the case of Barton Briggs - Morgan Stanley’s former chief market strategist who successfully predicted the stock market crash of October 1987. After returning from a trip to China in 1993, Mr Briggs published a note titled ‘China!’ in which he enthusiastically envisaged “the mother of all bull markets”. Two months later, Mr Briggs conceded to his clients that identifying the winners and losers of the Chinese economic miracle was not as simple as he had initially anticipated – Morgan Stanley reduced their exposure to China by a third overnight.
Anthony Bolton, the veteran investor, tried to apply his investment principles that had delivered stellar success for Fidelity’s Special Situations Fund for 28 years, to the Chinese market. On his retirement in 2012, he said: “The most disappointing thing for me – and I am happy to admit it – is that I was wrong about the market in China.”
HOW WE SEEK TO INVEST IN CHINA
Our exposure to the market is through direct investment in companies that sell into China, in areas as diverse as whisky, car engines, and porcine semen. Successful companies often start slowly and build share over time, frequently through joint ventures.
Intellectual Property has to be closely guarded – companies such as Genus do not allow breeding of their genetically refined pigs, and will only sell porcine semen directly to the pork producers. The pork market is enormous in China and Genus’s pigs are tailored to provide the thicker layers of fat demanded by Chinese consumers. CEO Karim Bitar estimates that the Chinese consumer spends around 30-40% of their disposable income on food – which is clearly a lucrative market for Genus to address.
While China is driving to encourage domestic consumption growth, of course other Far Eastern economies trade substantially with her, so it is worth looking for good companies that have exposure to the region as a whole. We own funds run by managers who take the same long-term approach as we do, and aim to identify companies that are well run, with strong balance sheets and attractive valuations. Some funds also invest in income stocks and the yield can be attractive, particularly given low interest rates globally.
POLITICAL RISK NOT CONFINED TO EMERGING MARKETS
The Chinese stock market boom and bust that we witnessed in the last two years was a timely reminder of the risks involved with investing in Chinese companies, particularly when liquidity is squeezed. Despite this, we cannot afford to simply ignore China’s growing global influence, not only as a growth powerhouse, but also as an investor overseas, in resource-rich Africa and Latin America, as well as in the UK. This week in Hangzhou, the Prime Minister will be seeking to reiterate the UK’s stance as being a friend of China, despite ongoing uncertainty over Hinkley Point.
Politically there are risks, although given the Brexit vote, US presidential elections, and German and French polls in 2017, it cannot be said that that risk is purely a phenomenon of emerging markets.
China is set to overtake the US as the largest economy in the world, yet we in the West remain largely ignorant of much of its history and culture. Unless companies, and politicians, actively seek to address this failing, we cannot expect to benefit from the great opportunities that China will present over the next 40 years.
08 Jan 2021In this issue of our Investment Outlook, we discuss the changes we are seeing in such areas, including the world of work, the move to online entertainment and the increasing focus by investors such as ourselves on the sustainability of the companies they invest in.Read more »
Issued by Adam & Company Investment Management Limited (Adam), which is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Adam is registered in Scotland number SC102144. Financial Services Firm Reference Number 141831. Registered Office: 6-8 George Street, Edinburgh EH2 2PF.
The value of investments, and the income from them, can go down as well as up, and you may not recover the amount of your original investment. Past performance should not be taken as a guide to future performance. Where an investment involves exposure to a foreign currency, changes in rates of exchange may cause the value of the investment, and the income from it, to go up or down.
The information on this webpage is not intended as an offer or solicitation to buy or sell securities or any other investment or banking product, nor does it constitute a personal recommendation. The information is believed to be correct but cannot be guaranteed.
Any opinion or forecast constitutes our judgement as at the date of issue and is subject to change without notice. Nothing in this material constitutes investment, legal, credit, accounting or tax advice, or a representation that any investment or strategy is suitable for or appropriate to your individual circumstances. The analysis contained within this webpage has been procured, and may have been acted upon, by Adam and connected companies for their own purposes, and the results are being made available to you on this understanding. To the extent permitted by law and without being inconsistent with any applicable regulation, neither Adam nor any connected company accepts responsibility for any direct or indirect or consequential loss suffered by you or any other person as a result of your acting, or deciding not to act, in reliance upon such analysis.