Ask our experts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 February, 2012, 12:00am


The panel addresses vexing questions of investor interest:

Donna Kwok (greater China economist for HSBC) is asked: Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen at Davos said he had 'never been as scared as now about the world'. Stock markets are up, the US economy is improving - what was Tsang so worried about?

Hong Kong featured widely in press coverage of this year's World Economic Forum meeting in Davos. The reason boiled down to a word that summed up global investor sentiment - 'scared'. Sitting alongside the heads of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, Tsang admitted to having no idea about 'how deep this hole will be when the whole thing implodes on us'.

Hong Kong is not caught like a rabbit in the headlights of the euro zone and the US trucks. The city has a plan: not to overlook micro issues (think jobs) when rebalancing bigger macro problems (think asset bubbles). Ultimately, it is the former that underpins the city's domestic demand, and if you don't look after it, it'll come back to bite you - as it did after the Asian financial crisis.

Tsang has not thrown macro caution to the wind. Far from it, in December the city overtook the US to top the World Economic Forum's Financial Development Report, which ranks countries by their financial stability and business environment, among other things, and is home to some of the best capitalised banks in Asia.

He was alluding to a view that we hold: domestic demand is Hong Kong's top growth driver, and needs to be sustained whenever external factors threaten to topple it. A soft landing in China, which we expect, would provide a critical boost, but it's not enough on its own. While the cloud of uncertainty looks bigger than ever, the city has never been better placed to brace itself for the impact. Hong Kong will always be sandwiched among bigger economic heavyweights, but it has sufficient resources and experience to buy itself time whenever the heavyweights stumble.

Mark Matthews (head of research Asia, Bank Julius Baer) is asked: Why do companies so often trade below their net asset value? What does this suggest about the firm?

There are many reasons why listed companies may trade well below their net asset value (NAV). NAV is the market value of a firm's assets minus its liabilities, and it also known as its 'book value'.

Many smaller companies, due to their low liquidity, are not adequately followed by analysts or investors, so languish on very low valuations.

Other companies' assets decline in value over time, for example factories and equipment.

Some listed companies are owned by interests that would never accept a takeover no matter how high the price, such as governments that deem the company to be operating in an area of national interest (energy, for example).

Other businesses that are family-owned may never be sold because they are considered core to the family's long-term livelihood, so are passed down over generations.

Unfortunately, history is also replete with examples of some less scrupulous owners, both governments and families, who take larger management fees than they should from their listed companies. Or they use listed companies they control to buy services or assets from unlisted companies at higher prices than they should, or because such acquisitions are perceived to be in the national interest.

Because of all this, it could be argued that NAV is probably only a good measure of a company's worth in the case of real estate investment companies, because the properties they own account for a very large part of their business.