Investment managers have spent the last decade buying and selling U.S. equities largely to the exclusion of the rest of the world. That made a lot of sense, since the S&P 500 was the best-performing index in the world during that period. But, times are changing.
While our U.S. stock averages did well again in 2020, Asian stocks did equally as well and, in some cases, they did better. Some of that performance can be attributed to the declining dollar. A weaker dollar benefits U.S. holders of foreign equities, and most analysts expect the greenback to weaken further this year.
However, that is not the only reason for investing in Asia. Overall, valuations are cheaper, much cheaper, than the lofty prices of many of America’s stock market darlings. I know that many investors believe that valuations don’t matter in this environment. They argue that as long as the Fed has our back, and the economy reopens, company earnings will grow into these sky-high valuations.
I say they don’t matter, until they do. Buying Asian equities at a reasonable price in 2021 removes much of that valuation risk, in my opinion. But, valuation is only part of the story. I agree with Credit Suisse that says Asian stocks are entering an “earnings super-cycle” that could last for three to five years. They expect Asia’s economies to come roaring back from the demise of the pandemic this year, thanks to several lifesaving vaccines.
While America wrestles with a winter surge of cases, deaths and shutdowns, most of Asia is already rebounding from the COVID-19 pandemic. Their economies have suffered less than the U.S., thanks to more enlightened governments, and populations that have worked and sacrificed together.
Another big change is the importance of China to the region. China has replaced the U.S. as the principal engine of growth in Asia. While a Trumpian America has turned inward, eschewing regional trade agreements and erecting barriers to free trade, Asia has done the opposite. I have already written about some of their cooperative trade agreements, such as the Asian Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RECEP), which includes China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and others.
There are also some interesting trends in countries like Korea, China and Japan that offer lucrative opportunities for the astute investor. Progress in clean, renewable energy, something lacking in our own country over the last four years, is making leaps and bounds overseas. Asian countries, backed by governments that are fully on board with the concept, continue to invest in solar and wind energy, various environmental initiatives, as well as in areas such as electric vehicles (EVs).
It is one of the reasons that Tesla, the No. 1 player in EVs, is building an enormous new facility in China.
These changes will have enormous benefits for the Asian auto industry. Japan, for example, is planning to phase out gas guzzlers over the next 10 years, which will revolutionize its massive auto export industry. China, not to be outdone, is already fostering several startups in the EV business as well.
Over the past three months, the trend toward “value investing” has caught fire, as a way to play the reopening of the U.S. economy. Investors are buying up bank, consumer discretionary, natural resource and industrial/materials stocks. I would rather look in the Asia-Pacific region, and in India, where just about every investment is a value play.
You want mines and metals? Look no further than Australia. Banks and real estate? Try Singapore. Consumer stocks? What about investing in companies that sell to the billions of consumers in China?
Also, remember that technology is just as big in countries like Korea (DRAM chips) and Taiwan as it is here. Big foreign semiconductors, digital data centers, and internet companies are listed and readily available for purchase on our own stock exchanges. In fact, just about every country in Southeast Asia, India and Indonesia are easily available through the purchase of exchange-traded funds (ETFs).
One big criticism on investing overseas has always been the questionable accounting of overseas companies, along with the risk that various governments often have a track record of meddling with individual companies for political purposes. We can point to companies, such as Luckin Coffee in China, as a dishonest accounting case in point. However, today, recognizing this investment pitfall, most countries are cracking down hard on inaccurate company reporting and those executives at the helm. This week, China sentenced to death a banker convicted of taking bribes.
As for government meddling, over the last several years, the U.S. government has done as much as China or any other country to influence and alter the fortunes of public companies. Just think about the congressional hearings and White House meddling in companies such as Twitter, Facebook, Apple, and Amazon (to name a few).
In any case, the combination of a declining dollar, reasonable valuations and higher growth prospects makes Southeast Asia, including Japan, a much more attractive bet, in my opinion, than just sticking with the U.S.A.