Cash Descends on Southeast Asia Where Stock Rally Proves Durable

  • Thai, Philippine, Indonesian markets rise to mid-2015 highs
  • ‘The rally in Asean is sustainable’: One Asia Investment

Southeast Asian stocks are winning fans again, with investors betting a rally that’s driven equities from Bangkok to Manila to the highest levels since the middle of 2015 has room to run.

Foreign investors have pumped $596 million into Philippine, Thai, Indonesian and Vietnamese shares so far in June, wiping out declines in April and early May. Rising commodity prices and dwindling odds of a U.S. rate increase by July are providing a favorable global backdrop, while new leaders, interest-rate cuts and state spending are generating optimism closer to home.

The rally will be tested as Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen gives clues on the trajectory of U.S. rates on Wednesday, the Bank of Japan meets the next day and the U.K. votes June 23 on whether to stay in the European Union. Acting as bulwarks against the potential turbulence are optimism Rodrigo Duterte can spur Philippine growth, Thailand’s infrastructure largess, efforts to cut Indonesian lending rates and Vietnam’s opening up to foreign money.

“Asean fundamentals are very strong: budget deficits are coming down and consumer spending is starting to pick up,” said Raymond Kong, who oversees $2.5 billion as a fund manager at One Asia Investment Partners in Singapore. “The rally in Asean is sustainable. It’s not going to be a flash in the pan.”

The MSCI South East Asia Index has advanced 5.3 percent so far this year, beating a 3.3 percent decline in the MSCI AC Asia Pacific Index. The gauges were down 1 percent and 2 percent, respectively, as of 5:49 p.m. in Singapore. Here’s why many fund managers think Asean will continue to be a regional bright spot.

Philippines

It was only a matter of weeks ago that the foul-mouthed rants of then presidential frontrunner Duterte were alarming investors and spurring concern that Benigno Aquino’s legacy of shrinking budget deficits and credit-rating upgrades could be threatened. Those worries have evaporated since Duterte’s May 9 victory, which powered a surge in the Philippine Stock Exchange Index and saw foreigners pile into the nation’s equities.

The president-elect’s pledges to boost infrastructure spending, cut red tape and invest more in farming have impressed economists at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., who said last week they could push economic growth, the fastest in Asia last quarter, even higher. It’s now rising valuations -- Philippine shares are the region’s most expensive -- that are causing concern, with the market dropping 2.8 percent over Thursday and Friday.

“We are expensive but I think the market is okay with the valuation given the growth that the economy is capable of achieving,” said John Padilla, who helps manage about $7.8 billion as head of equities investment at Metropolitan Bank & Trust Co. in Manila. “The market is willing to give Duterte the customary honeymoon period and see what he can do.”

Vietnam

Like the Philippines, Vietnam also has a new leader with Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc taking over in April. He’s reassured investors by pledging to meet a 6.7 percent growth target this year, the same pace of expansion as in 2015.

The nation is opening up more to foreign investment as it chases the holy grail of emerging-market status, which would put it on the radars of global asset managers. While index provider MSCI Inc. said in April that Vietnam wasn’t there yet, investors were heartened by Vietnam Dairy Product JSC, the largest listed company, saying in May that it would scrap offshore ownership limits.

“We are still very bullish on the macro-economic situation of Vietnam given the smooth political transition, robust foreign-direct investment and consumer spending,” said Shamoon Tariq, a Stockholm-based fund manager at Tundra Fonder AB, which specializes in frontier markets. Vietnam Dairy’s move is a “great milestone and gives hope that Vietnam is opening up,” he said.

Indonesia

President Joko Widodo said in February that he wanted interest rates to “fall, fall, fall, fall and keep falling” as he sought to boost economic growth from a six-year low. The central bank seems to have heeded his call with three rate cuts in the first quarter.

The Financial Services Authority has also gotten in on the act, capping banks’ deposit rates and forcing them to lower lending rates in an attempt to give the economy a dose of cheap credit. While it remains to be seen how successful these efforts will be in spurring expansion in a country that’s been hurt by falling commodity prices, investors have been encouraged.

Jakarta shares have gotten a boost in recent weeks amid signs a planned tax amnesty, which the central bank estimates could lure as much as 560 trillion rupiah ($42 billion) of undeclared income from overseas, is close to being implemented. The reprieve is expected to be a boon for real-estate developers and OCBC Sekuritas sees it also supporting consumer stocks.

“What has been driving confidence on Indonesia among investors is the ability of the government to support growth,” said Wuddy Warsono, principal at Heyokha Research Indonesia in Jakarta. “Not only by infrastructure spending, but also through various measures to support the grassroots economy.”

Thailand

With the slowest economic growth in among Southeast Asia’s major economies apart from Singapore, it might seem surprising that Thailand’s SET Index has advanced the most in Asia this year. Low interest rates and bond yields have boosted the appeal of shares and $18 billion of economic stimulus measures, including infrastructure projects, announced by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha since September has given the market added momentum.

Alan Richardson, an investment manager at Samsung Asset Management Ltd. in Hong Kong, whose Southeast Asia fund beat 97 percent of peers over the past five years, said he’s buying residential property developers on optimism cheap credit will spur house and condominium sales.

“The low interest-rate environment will prompt investors to hunt for better returns in Thai stocks,” said Chakrit Puechpan, the Bangkok-based executive vice president at MFC Asset Management Co., which oversees about $10 billion. “Most investors don’t seem to care about the current sluggish economy and are betting on state spending to help it recover.”

Malaysia, Singapore

As Southeast Asian markets rally, only Singapore and scandal-plagued Malaysia are missing out on the party.

The city-state’s languid economy and weak corporate earnings, particularly at oil-rig builders Keppel Corp. and Sembcorp Marine Ltd., have damped investor sentiment, said Bernard Aw, a strategist in the city-state at IG Asia Pte.

Malaysia hasn’t been able to escape the fallout from the 1Malaysia Development Bhd. disaster, with probes into the state-owned fund’s finances widening. Questions surrounding the role of Prime Minister Najib Razak, who had headed the advisory board of the company, and his crackdown on political opposition have damaged the nation’s brand and contributed to 5.1 billion ringgit ($1.2 billion) of outflows from Kuala Lumpur stocks in the six weeks through June 3.

“These noises we hear on the political front haven’t been very helpful,” said Soo Hai Lim, investment director at Baring Asset Management (Asia) Ltd. in Hong Kong. “It’s distracting the government from some of the economic reforms the country needs. Corporate earnings have also been disappointing and there’s a lack of compelling stock ideas.”

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