Last month, in my Investment Directions monthly commentary, I predicted that we’d see further stimulus from China this year as officials try to keep Chinese growth at a respectable rate ahead of a fall 2012 leadership transition.
And as I suggested would happen, the Chinese central bank last week announced its second surprise rate cut within a month. The action from the central bank was an acknowledgement that the world’s second largest economy is slowing. In the first quarter, China’s growth decelerated to 8.1% year over year, the slowest pace since the summer of 2009 as a slowing United States and ongoing European sovereign debt crisis took a toll on Chinese exports.
Still, despite China’s economic slowdown, I continue to hold an overweight view of Chinese equities for the following four reasons:
1) Valuations: Chinese stocks are selling at a significant discount to both other Asian emerging market countries and to their own history, especially when you consider that Chinese inflation is decelerating. In addition, current discounted valuations appear to be already reflecting the risk of a hard landing, which I don’t believe is the most likely scenario for China.
2) Growth Expectations: While China is experiencing a slowdown, it’s important to put China’s growth in perspective. I expect second quarter Chinese growth to come in around 8%, a level consistent with a soft landing scenario, and not anywhere near the United States’ truly slow 2% growth. In addition, the preponderance of evidence - and the few bright spots among weak recent economic data - still suggest that China can engineer a soft landing and even if China ends up growing at 7% to 7.5% next quarter, Chinese equities still look cheap.
3) Economic Policy: That China lowered interest rates twice within a month suggests that Beijing is refocusing on, and is willing to go the distance to stabilize, growth. In fact, I continue to expect more stimulus from China as it tries to ensure a smooth upcoming leadership transfer and as cooling inflation in the country gives the government more room to focus on growth. In addition, the gradual liberalization of the financial industry is also a plus for long-term growth.
4) Relatively Low Risk: Based on my team’s analysis, China is not one of the 15 riskiest markets. In addition, China enjoys a relatively stable currency, which reduces the volatility of its USD returns.
To be sure, Chinese equities, along with other risky assets, are still vulnerable to the fortunes of the global economy, and an exogenous shock, such as a worsening eurozone crisis, could certainly knock China off of its trajectory. But in the absence of such an event, most evidence suggests that China can engineer a soft landing and its outlook seems more positive than investors may be discounting. I prefer to access Chinese equities through the iShares MSCI China Index Fund (NYSEARCA:MCHI) and the iShares MSCI China Small Cap Index Fund (NYSEARCA:ECNS).