Emerging markets: China & Hong Kong stocks

On my trip into the Emerging Markets space, I tend to favour the most “countercyclical” countries and markets. When I was looking for my next “target”, I was thinking: Ok, which country and which sector have the worst reputation right now (of cours after Russia/Ukraine and Turkey) ? The answer was pretty easy: Chinese companies. Consensus seems to be now that China is crashing rather sooner than later, so that might be a natural place to start (slowly) looking for opportunities.

China & Chinese companies

In general, I have been sceptical or “bearish” about China since around 2008/2009. So far, Chine has kept up better and longer than I have expected, at least based on the official growth figures etc.

A quick look a the chart shows that the Hang Seng Index is only at 50% of the peak valuation compared to 2007, so the “official” growth rates did not translate into rising share prices at all:

Mainland Chinese companies are even more “depressed” based on the chart as the mainland based, Shanghai composite index clearly shows:

Valuation wise, the markets look cheap but not dirt cheap:

Hang Seng:
P/E 10,4
P/B 1.4
Dividend Yield 3,47%

Shanghai Comp
P/E 10,2
P/B 1,3
Dividend Yield 2,95%

I have written in the blog a couple of times about Chinese companies listed in Germany which in my opinion are to a very large extent promoted frauds, for instance Powerland (2011) and the Asian Bamboo series. I have also written why I would never invest in Chinese companies , so did anything change ?

Just to be clear: I would still not invest into a German-Chinese company or a US listed Chinese company. Also I would have reservations about China ;Mainland companies, as I don’t think that mainland standards are comparable to anything I have experienced yet.

Why not just ignore China ?

Some people might argue that “staying in the circle of competence” would be the better and safer option. However, if you look at the German Mittelstand for instance, most of the growth comes from business in China and/or Southeast Asia. Ignoring China is in my opinion a big risk for any investor as the impact on almost any company is growing day by day.

Looking directly at Chinese or Asian companies in my opinion will add an important perspective for any investor in order to be able to analyse Asian operations of non-Asian companies as well.

Where to look then in China ?

From my current status of knowledge, I would make one exception to my “Anti China” bias: I do think that “traditional” Hong kong listed companies could qualify as an investment.

As some might remember, Hong kong belonged to the UK until 1997, when the control then was ceded to China. What is interesting in my opinion is the fact, that the legal system in Hong Kong is still British or very close to British. This is a quote form Wikipedia:

The Hong Kong judiciary has had a long reputation for its fairness and was recently rated as the best judicial system in Asia by a North Carolina think tank.[2]

Although Hong Kong had its waves of fraudulent “Mainland” Chinese companies , I do think that “traditional” Hong listed AND Hong Kong registered companies are “investable”. A funny quote from the linked article above shows the issues with Chinese mainland companies:

There is no extradition treaty between Hong Kong and the mainland making it hard to take criminal action for fraud.

So even the Hong Kong regulators cannot get their hand on mainland fraudster, so good luck to German investors in Kinghero, Ming Le sports etc. ……

A good history of Hong Kong company registration and listings can be found here: including the short histories of many of Hong Kong’s most famous companies. So a lot of Hong Kong companies have a long history against one can check how they treated their shareholders etc. which is lacking for many mainland companies.

Despite the British heritage, Hong Kong is clearly an Asian market with a lot of pitfalls, specialties etc. Many companies are run by “Tycoons” or “Tai Pans”, strong patriarchical characters with many links and connections between large Groups, listed and non-listed comapneis etc. To get a “flavour” of some of the more common issues in Asia, one can read for instance this document from 2009 called “Guide on Fighting Abusive Related Party transactions in Asia”. A little Gem out of this report: There are no insider trading charges in Indonesia…..

What I do like about major Hong Kong companies is the relatively high standard of reporting. I looked at some annual reports and many of them were very well written and informative.

Hong Kong specialities

Traditionally, the big Hong Kong conglomerates are mostly active in some kind of transportation, real estate or both and have branched out into many other areas.

The Hang Seng index company is actually calculating a special index for “Non China” Hang Seng companies called the Hang Seng HK35 index. The constituents are the following stocks which I think are a good start to analyze further:

>

Code Constituent Name
1 Cheung Kong
2 CLP Hldgs
3 HK & China Gas
4 Wharf (Hldgs)
5 HSBC Hldgs
6 Power Assets
11 Hang Seng Bank
12 Henderson Land
13 Hutchison
14 Hysan Dev
16 SHK Prop
17 New World Dev
19 Swire Pacific ‘A’
20 Wheelock
23 Bank of E Asia
27 Galaxy Ent
66 MTR Corporation
83 Sino Land
101 Hang Lung Prop
142 First Pacific
93 Cathay Pac Air
303 VTech Hldgs
330 Esprit Hldgs
388 HKEx
494 Li & Fung
522 ASM Pacific
551 Yue Yuen Ind
880 SJM Hldgs
1038 CKI Hldgs
1128 Wynn Macau
1299 AIA
1928 Sands China
1972 Swire Properties
2282 MGM China
2388 BOC Hong Kong

As many companies invest to a certain extent in real estate, one should now that most HK companies revalue their proporties through the P&L. So low P/Es are often a result of large property valuation gains which might not be sustainable. This is the first thing to check with any HK company.

What to look for in general

For further excursions into Hong kong, I will try to concentrate on companies which will (among others) have the following characteristics:

– transparent reporting & good track record with regard to shareholder orientation (e.g. dividends, share buy backs etc.)
– conglomerates with the majority of listed subsidiaries (sum of parts)
– no pure real estate companies
– significantly cheaper valuation than comparable US/European companies or clear discount to sum of part
– it would not hurt if some well known value investors would be among the shareholders

Two reading tips:

At the end of this first Hong Kong post, 2 reading recommendations. The first is from Mark Moebius and called “Passport for profits”:

This is basically the extended version of the “Little book of Emerging markets” which I reviewed a few weeks ago. Mobius started his career in Hong Kong and has some interesting Hong Kong stories in the book.

A second, more unconventional tip is the novel “Noble House” from James Clavell:

This massive 1.200 pages book written in the 1960ies covers the story of a CEO or “Tai Pan” of a big Hong Kong Trading house and his fight against another big trading house. The author lived in Hong Kong for a couple of years and the story seems to be based on two “real life” Asian companies, Jardine Matheson (now headquartered in Singapore) and Swire. Along a spy story, various murders etc., the book contains detailed descriptions of bank runs, bear raids, insider stock trading, non existent trading rules etc. Although the names were changed, many of the events in the book actually happened, for instance a bank run in 1965.

A good long read for a summer (beach) vacation.

To be continued…..

7 comments

  • I’ve been a long-term investor in Guangdong Investment (HK’s water supply, among others), CLP holdings and a bunch of HK-listed chinese toll road stocks – they’ve been very good to me over the years.
    Read David Webb’s blog (webb-site.com) if you want to be up to date with the HK stock market’s issues.

  • Sir, I have been a fan of your blog, thank you for the excellent content. I own a stock in Hong Kong – 184 HK (Keck Seng Investments). I believe NAV is greater than HKD 20 per share, while the stock is around 6.30 HKD. If I were you, I’d take a look.

    Regards,
    Mike

  • You looked at South Korea? Quite attractively valued, especially preferred shares there, with exposure to Chinese consumers.

    • #sidekick,

      yes, but I do not feel comfortable with the structures there and I have problems in getting access to the Seoul exchange. The big plus for me in Hongkong is definitely English law.

      mm

  • Third Avenue Mgmt owns Wheelock, Henderson Land and Cheung Kong. That’s where I’d start looking first.

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