This Millennial China Stock Guru Has Banker Parents, But Won't Touch Banks

  • Yu’s China stock fund shuns lenders in favor of tech, consumer
  • Mom, dad, grandmother, grandfather were all bankers in China

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Baijing Yu was raised by two generations of Chinese bankers and talks with pride about her family’s contributions to the nation’s financial system over nearly seven decades.

But would the 32-year-old stock picker risk a penny of her clients’ assets on shares of a Chinese lender? Not a chance.

Yu, whose Comgest Growth Greater China fund has returned an annualized 22 percent over the past three years, says growing up in a house of Chinese bankers has only reinforced her view that the sector is un-investible. Lenders in China are often policy tools of the government, she says, with “black box” balance sheets that provide little clarity on their exposure to non-performing debt.

“As a bottom-up stock picker, it’s hard to find franchise value,’’ said Yu, who co-manages the 189 million euro ($202 million) fund for Paris-based Comgest with David Raper and Jasmine Kang. “These banks don’t fit the quality criteria that we look for.’’

Family history aside, excluding Chinese lenders from a Chinese stock fund is a bold move. The industry comprises about 10 percent of MSCI Inc.’s greater China index and includes some of the country’s biggest companies by market value. Yu says she ignores benchmark weightings, an approach that’s helped her fund beat 97 percent of peers tracked by Bloomberg since early 2014. Today, she’s finding the best opportunities in the technology, consumer and insurance industries, big beneficiaries of China’s shift toward a more services-oriented economy.

While Yu declined to comment on specific stocks, the Comgest fund’s top holdings as of February included China Life Insurance Co., the nation’s largest insurer, and NetEase Inc., a gaming and e-commerce company, according to a monthly fact sheet. The fund’s weighting of about 35 percent in technology shares compared with 33 percent for the MSCI Golden Dragon Index, while its allocation to consumer discretionary and staples companies totaled 28 percent, versus 10 percent for the index.

Her benchmark-defying bets haven’t always outperformed over the short term. This year, for example, the Comgest fund is lagging behind 61 percent of peers as China’s “old economy’’ stocks, including raw-materials producers and some banks, rally on signs the government will prop up growth before a leadership reshuffle this year. The MSCI Golden Dragon index rose 0.1 percent at 5:21 p.m. in Hong Kong, bringing this year’s gain to 11 percent.

Yu says she and her co-managers are invested for the long term. And on that measure, they’ve done remarkably well. In euro terms, the Comgest fund has topped the MSCI Golden Dragon index by 29 percentage points over the last three years and by 27 points in the past five years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Yu, who was born in China’s eastern Fujian province, joined Comgest in 2011 after stints at Bank of America Merrill Lynch and Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc in New York and Hong Kong. She majored in economics and minored in international studies at the University of Michigan.

Read more: A QuickTake explainer on China’s debt problem

Family had a lot to do with her interest in finance. Yu says her paternal grandmother began working as an accountant at a bank branch in the small township of Hui’An in 1950, a year after Mao Zedong’s Communist Party founded the People’s Republic of China.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Yu says, her maternal grandfather was a senior vice president at the Fujian branch of what’s now Agricultural Bank of China Ltd., while her mom helped issue the province’s first credit card as a consumer finance executive at China Merchants Bank Co. Dad worked for the nation’s central bank, and he helped establish one of China’s first state-owned brokerages in the early 1990s.

“At the dinner table, my dad was the regulator, my mom the commercial bank representative,” Yu said in an interview in Hong Kong. “It’s unavoidable that they would talk about work.”

Bad Loans

It’s the close relationship between China’s government and its banks that makes Yu wary of the industry as a stock investor, a stance she says her colleagues shared even before she arrived at Comgest.

While the country has come a long way since Yu’s grandmother worked for a completely nationalized banking system in the 1950s, most of China’s biggest lenders are still state-owned and take their cues from the Communist Party. Banks have spent much of the past eight years flooding the economy with cheap credit to prop up growth, sparking concern among some analysts that an accumulation of bad loans could eventually spark a crisis.

Yu, who describes her stock-picking style as “quality growth at a reasonable price,” tries to identify companies whose managers focus on delivering long-term returns to shareholders. Finding them isn’t always easy in China, but she says her ability to straddle the business worlds of East and West gives her an edge.

“I’m in touch with the Chinese culture of markets, but I was also educated in the Western school of thought,” Yu said. “The marriage of the two makes my position today quite interesting.’’

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