How small investors can make money out of China

Australian-Chinese entrepreneur Michael Cho knows all about the opportunities and risks of running businesses and investing in China.

Cho, who is in his early 50s, moved to Melbourne from China when he was 10, studied science and has been in Guangzhou for the past 15 years.

His business interests are in biotech and medicine, but his main one is a patented cancer therapy.

"I have made money and lost money - that's China" he says.

"China is just a huge market, if you can break into the market you will be very successful. But it is hard."

He invests in shares with a friend who lives in Shanghai. "He's like a broker to me," Cho says.

He has made money out of Tencent, owner of messaging platform WeChat, and Alibaba, China's Amazon.

Although there's often a lot of risk when investing in businesss that operate mostly in China, if there's no risk there's no gain, he says.

Cho thinks he can't go too far wrong, over the long term, with dominant players such as Tencent and Alibaba.

Volatility

That risk was certainly on show when the Shanghai Stock Exchange Composite Index fell from 5200 points in June 2015 to 2800 points by late January last year - a fall of almost 50 per cent.

It has recovered somewhat, but is still a long way off its peak.

That doesn't deter the fund managers who invest in emerging markets. For them, China is even a bigger deal than it was a decade ago.

Their biggest positions continue to be in "greater" China - which includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. South Korea usually runs second.

Enthusiasm for China is even greater now that it's on the path to being a genuine innovator.

Tech and ecommerce companies such as Alibaba and Baidu (China's Google), which are listed in the US, and Tencent, listed in Hong Kong, have not only learned from their US rivals but, in some respects, have surpassed them.

China

"When I think of emerging markets, it's now more about China than it ever was," says Tim Rocks, the chief investment officer at Evans and Partners.

"Ten years ago you were buying a bunch of companies with some cyclical upside," Rocks says.

"Now, it's much more about tech companies - something like half of the world's online shopping occurs in China," he says.

"I would argue that we are at the point now where Alibaba is a better company than Amazon - it has learned from Amazon," Rocks says.

It's not just the techs. "We are still believers in the emerging middle-class consumer story," he says. And that's a story that's going on in India and Brazil as well, he says.

Kevin Bertoli???, portfolio manager of PM Capital's Asian equities strategies, has big exposures to China but is also finding good opportunities in companies in the rest of Asia, such as Malaysia.

Going back more than a decade, Australian investors could easily get access to the China growth story by simply buying shares in BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, he says.

China was importing hard commodities at a prodigious rate in order to build apartments, roads and bridges.

Asia first

Bertoli argues Asia should be the focus for Australian investors as other emerging markets, such as Russia and Brazil, are commodity-driven economies with similarities to Australia.

"Australians already have access to great commodity businesses and we don't need to go to Brazil to get those," he says.

"What's really growing in the world is Asia," he says.

John Birkhold???, a partner at Origin Asset Management, prefers China's "world-class" technology companies to its property companies and state-owned enterprises.

He is not so keen on India. "It's an attractive market in terms of high growth and lots of interesting stocks, but the market is very expensive," Birkhold says.

In August, the International Monetary Fund warned that Chinese corporate debt is at "dangerous" levels and China's sovereign credit ratings have been cut this year.

Damien Klassen???, head of investments at Nucleus Wealth, says the high levels of debt is a concern to him.

"If the Chinese authorities think the economy is growing too slowly they will hit the debt accelerator again," he says. There's also a a demographic headwind with the ageing population, he says.

Home bias a threat to returns over the long term

It could be a good time to add some exposure to emerging markets, particularly for those investors who have big home biases to Australian shares, says Chris Brycki???, the chief executive of Stockspot, an online investment adviser.

Over the past 10 years, the US shares have outperformed emerging markets by a huge margin.

"If you look at the spread between these two indexes, it's about as extreme as it's ever been," Brycki says.

Based on the tendency for returns to revert to the mean, that difference is likely to narrow over the next decade, Brycki says.

Steve Sweeney, general manager of emerging markets at investments researcher Lonsec, says Australians are generally too exposed to the local sharemarket. "There's definitely room to have more exposure to the fastest-growing economies in the world", he says.

"We recommend a 10 to 20 per cent allocation from within the global equities part of a portfolio, which should add some oomph in investment terms over the long term," he says.

Performance figures show that active fund managers find it difficult beat the index. There are exceptions, but generally their returns have struggled to justify their fees.

Exchange traded funds (ETFs), which are listed on the ASX, track emerging market indices and have low fees.

However, as the active managers point out, buying an index means owning companies you might not want to own.

"There are a lot of state-owned enterprises that are run with the intention of the government in mind and not the shareholders in mind," says Rocks. "That's why you need a fund manager to separate the good from the bad."

This story How small investors can make money out of China first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.