Shaping a portfolio for 2013(lll): China

China

Like the US, China is a complex topic with lots of moving parts.  I’ve also been investing in China-related stocks for over 25 years (hard to believe it’s been that long), so there’s an increased risk of my being distracted by details.  So, like my views on the US, I’m down to bullet points:

1.  In the late 1970s, China decided it had to embrace Western economics (not politics), because central planning wasn’t working and it didn’t want to end up like the old Soviet Union.  Like Japan before it, China pegged its currency to the US dollar and concentrated on growth through export-oriented manufacturing.

Two factors separate China from run-of-the-mill emerging countries using the Japan blueprint:

— the huge size of its population, and

–the single-mindedness with which it has pursued economic expansion.

Thirty-plus years later, China is now the second-largest economy in the world.  It’s three times the size of #3 Japan, and 80% as big as the US (using Purchasing Power Parity GDP figures).  In a handful of years, China stands to become #1.

2.  The financial meltdown in the US and the € crisis in the EU depressed demand in China’s two major markets.  China’s (very competent) economic mandarins initially added temporary extra stimulus to domestic activity to counter the effects.  But even while China was doing this, it was clear that the currency peg would, quickly enough, transmit enormous (and unneeded/unwanted) monetary oomph to the mainland economy.

Like other emerging economies, China has been spending the past couple of years trying to cool down an overheating economy.

That task has already been accomplished.

3.  In November, China completed its once a decade Communist Party leadership transition.  In the runup to this event, high-level decision-making grinds to a halt, since bureaucrats don’t know the identities, let alone the intentions, of their new bosses.  That drag on the economy is in the past, as well.

4.  Because of #2 and #2, it seems to me that the year of the Snake will be a strong one for China.  Growth may come in at “only” 8%, but that will certainly be better than most other places on the planet.  The Chinese PMI is already signalling acceleration.

how to invest

You can get some exposure by finding stocks in, say, the US or Europe, that have significant operations in China.

You can get more direct exposure by buying the stocks of Chinese companies.  As with any other equity investment, the basic choice here is whether to pick an index fund/ETF, or to actively manage–either by selecting an actively-managed mutual fund or picking the stocks yourself.

Personally, I own three funds in the Matthews family of China-related offerings.  I also have international accounts with Fidelity and Charles Schwab so I can buy Hong Kong-listed names in the local market.  Many are also available for trade on the pink sheets, although usually at considerably less favorable prices.

I’ve never been a big fan of ADRs.  In general, a foreign company only comes to the US when it thinks it can get a better price for its equity than it can from investors in its home market, who presumably know the firm and its business practices much better than foreigners.  The only exception I see to this rule is the case of EU-based tech companies, where local investors are mostly clueless.

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