Power up, lending down, game on
In the second of a two-part series, the Post examines how infrastructure, energy, shipping and gaming fared in 2012 and what lies ahead in 2013
In 2012, the mainland witnessed the weakest electricity and coal demand growth in three years as its economy slowed, but analysts expect this year's prospects to improve as growth strengthens.
"We believe investors should prepare for upside surprises in: power demand, power [generation equipment] capital expenditure, a possible recovery in coal prices and the extension of gas price reforms to more provinces," wrote Dave Dai, Daiwa Securities pan-Asia head of new energy and utilities, in a research report.
Dai predicted the mainland's power demand growth would rise to 8 per cent this year from 5 per cent last year, but short of 11.7 per cent seen in 2010.
This would help lift power-plant construction expenditure back to normal levels this year, after it shrank in 2012 on the back of poor profitability of the power generation industry in 2011 and weak growth last year.
Power equipment makers, which saw a fall in new orders in 2012, are expected to benefit. Their orders are expected to be boosted this year by Beijing's resumption of approval for nuclear power projects, he added.
But a potential rebound in coal prices could pose a risk to power producers' bottom-lines after a strong profit turnaround in 2012 due to sharp falls in coal prices, Dai warned.
Beijing last November said it would stop meddling in the setting of power-station coal prices in 2013 as inflation waned, after setting prices on power plant coal consumption the previous two years to keep prices down.
Meanwhile, natural gas prices are expected to rise as Beijing expands its trial reform on pricing to regions other than Guangdong and Guangxi, so that gas prices - now based on production costs in most regions - will be linked to market supply and demand.
Hong Kong stole the limelight in this sector with Li Ka-shing's companies flexing their muscle in Europe via acquisitions.
A consortium led by Cheung Kong Infrastructure (CKI), including Li's privately owned Li Ka-shing Foundation, joined forces to buy British gas distribution firm, Wales & West Utilities, in 2012 for £645 million (HK$8 billion) in equity investment and assumed £1.3 billion of the British firm's debts.
The asset is the latest in a string of utility acquisitions by Li in Britain, in drinking water supply and electricity distribution, since 2010.
CKI said it is on the prowl for more international acquisitions.
In China, 2012 saw various mini-stimuli directed at infrastructure spending as Beijing sought to boost the nation's softening economy, but it was more modest than the massive four trillion yuan (HK$4.9 trillion) stimulus from 2008 to 2010 to counter the global financial crisis.
The mainland's railway spending rebounded strongly in 2012 after a lacklustre 2011. Last January, its fixed asset investment in railways plunged 69.6 per cent. This improved over the first 11 months of 2012, when the country's fixed-asset investment rose 3.1 per cent year on year to 507 billion yuan, although likely not enough to meet the Ministry of Railways' full year target of 630 billion yuan.
The National Development and Reform Commission approved more than one trillion yuan of metro rail, railway, port, water treatment and waterway projects in September, and approved more than 170 billion yuan of railway and electricity projects in November. However, Patrick Chovanec, a professor at Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management in Beijing, said several projects approved by NDRC in 2012 failed to get full funding because Chinese banks were reluctant to lend.
The huge debts incurred by the four trillion yuan stimulus of 2008, combined with the central government's cooling measures on property, have made Chinese banks reluctant to finance infrastructure projects, said Xu Chenggang, an economics professor at the University of Hong Kong. The amount of yuan-denominated new loans from mainland lenders was lower than expected in November, when fresh loans fell 7.1 per cent year on year to 522.9 billion yuan. The challenge in 2013 is whether the mainland has the financial resources to continue its heavy spending on expensive infrastructure projects like high-speed railways.
Watch out too in 2013 for a potential merger between China's powerful Ministry of Railways and its Ministry of Transport.
Too many new ships and lacklustre cargo growth combined to depress freight rates and create a perfect storm for shipping companies involved in the three major maritime sectors in 2012.
Companies involved in dry bulk, container and tanker trades will face mixed prospects this year as a further raft of new ship deliveries and a possible resurgence in cargo demand take place amid uncertain economic conditions.
Peter Sand, shipping analyst with maritime industry lobby group Bimco, thinks the dry-bulk sector could be the best performing of the three despite a massive influx of new tonnage in 2013. This would be positive for Hong Kong shipowners who are large investors in dry-bulk vessels. Sand said while there would still be overcapacity "as we see global GDP improve, demand for dry bulk tonnage is also set to increase, driven by surging demand for iron ore and coal", especially from China.
Figures from Clarkson, the British ship-broking house, show dry cargo ships totalling 87.9 million deadweight tonnes (dwt) were due to be delivered in 2012. The firm said a further 80 million dwt, a fleet growth of 12 per cent, is set to be delivered in 2013 based on current orders.
By comparison, Bimco forecast 7.5 per cent growth in Chinese iron-ore imports in 2013 with a double-digit increase in mainland coal imports.
But there is less optimism on the tanker and container shipping sectors.
Sand said: "Tanker owners have been among those hit hardest by the slumping freight market", and warned more companies would collapse "if the unsustainable low freight rates do not improve".
For container shipping and the likes of such companies as Orient Overseas Container Line and Cosco Container Lines, Sand said "the near-term outlook does not look too positive". But he added: "We are likely to see positive growth in the European and US trades during 2013 that will accelerate into 2014."
Xu Lirong, president of China Shipping (Group), said: "2013 will be another peak year of new vessel deliveries. Oversupply of capacity is still an obstacle for the shipping industry to overcome, but with the improvement of the world economy, the shipping sector is expected to experience moderate growth."
Growth in Macau's gaming industry, after accelerating at two-digit speed for several years, will be slower in 2013, industry analysts said.
"We only forecast 9 per cent gaming revenue growth," said Richard Huang, analyst at CLSA.
Growth slowed in the world's largest gaming destination in the latter half of 2012 over concerns on the mainland's economic downturn. Chinese tourists, the main source of Macau's gaming revenue, curtailed their more extravagant spending at the tables.
The once-a-decade power transition in Beijing in November also shrank the high-rolling VIP sector, though the mass market middle class segment has continued to grow.
Huang said his biggest concern in 2013 is mainly "the lack of new casino openings which is expected to drag on growth". The current gaming properties are already running at high capacity utilisation, he said.
"Growth is likely to rebound in 2015, as new Cotai projects, including Macau Studio City and Galaxy Macau Phase 2 open that year," Huang said.
A research note issued by Deutsche Bank in December said the key risks are that VIP demand may disappoint again, mass-market revenue may fail to maintain solid growth and promotion costs may rise. Nonetheless, it concluded: "We remain positive on Macau's mass market in 2013."
Macau is also expected to enact a smoking ban on half of the casino floors starting this month. Morgan Stanley said it expects Macau gaming revenue growth will be reduced by "at least 2 per cent to 3 per cent".
In Macau, according to casino managers, 80 per cent to 90 per cent of gamblers are smokers.
Some others are more optimistic. "I generally think 2013 is going to be a pretty good year for Macau in terms of gaming revenues," said Union Gaming Group partner Grant Govertsen.
He expects the VIP business to return to year-on-year growth "likely in the mid/high single-digit range" and the mass market to grow at 25 per cent year on year or better, having grown at that rate or above for each of the past 11 quarters.
"Overall we would expect to see total gaming revenue growth in the double digits in 2013," Govertsen said.
He also believes Macau will benefit this year from the near-term positive impact of several major infrastructure projects, "namely the rail from Guangzhou to Zhuhai, the border gate expansion, and the opening of the first Chimelong International theme park on Hengqin Island next to Macau's Cotai".
Govertsen said the biggest potential challenges faced by Macau are largely outside of its control.
He said above all there is the macroeconomy to consider, and that if there is a dramatic global slowdown or crash then the repercussions are likely be felt throughout Macau and in VIP and the mass-market segments.