Asian stock markets set to lag this year as earnings look weak

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 May, 2014, 11:58am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 June, 2014, 9:30pm

Unless they are in them for the long haul, global investors in Asian equity markets outside Japan should be prepared for returns this year to be below those of other markets once again.

Extrapolating from the shrinking profit margins in the latest batch of Asian corporate earnings, alongside weakness in global demand, analysts reckon stock markets in Asia are already too expensive.

They are also unlikely to deliver the 12-13 per cent average earnings growth that, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S estimates, market participants have been expecting.

Asian stock markets have broadly yielded about 40 per cent less in US dollar terms than developed markets since the end of 2010. That hasn’t stopped investors from pouring money into the region in the hope of a reversal of fortune.

This year, however, won’t break the trend.

Slowing global manufacturing growth, rising local wages and dimming prospects for a recovery in exports have quashed whatever hopes investors may have had for a recovery in Asian corporate earnings.

“I am afraid that the earnings picture will continue to be uninspiring, and I don’t think you can expect much rerating of stocks from the earnings,” said Angelo Corbetta, the London-based head of Asia equities at Pioneer Investments.

“You don’t have a strong global economic cycle, you have a weak dollar, and that is playing against the export theory for Asian markets, and you have rising labour costs. So, it is really difficult for a company to get some economies of scale under the existing conditions.”

Global equities rose 20 per cent last year, while those in the Asia-Pacific gained 9 per cent. Within Asia, Japan’s Nikkei outpaced the region, with a 57 per cent gain in local-currency terms.

Markets such as India, Malaysia, Taiwan, Australia and Vietnam had gains between 9 per cent and 22 per cent, buoyed by expectations that economies in Europe and the United States were well on the road to a recovery that would lift corporate revenues globally.

MSCI’s Asia-ex-Japan index is up 1.5 per cent so far this year. That rise in share prices has stocks in Asia ex-Japan trading on average at 13 times their expected earnings this year.

The Philippines is by far the most expensive, with a price-earnings ratio of 19, but India, Indonesia, Taiwan and Hong Kong are also not cheap, at ratios above 15.

“A recovery is pretty much priced in,” said Herald van der Linde, HSBC’s head of Asia-Pacific equity strategy. “Now, it is really a delivery of these earnings which is going to drive the markets higher, and that means it is not going to be as exciting as it was last year.”

You don’t have a strong global economic cycle, you have a weak dollar, and that is playing against the export theory for Asian markets, and you have rising labour costs
Angelo Corbetta, Pioneer Investments

Market valuations, to be fair, are not high from a historical perspective.

Average stock prices are about 11.5 times their 12-month expected earnings, which isn’t as cheap as in 2011, when expectations for earnings growth were just as bleak as they are now but prices were roughly just nine times earnings.

Yet, stocks aren’t as expensive as in some phases of a rally in 2007 or 2009, when P/E ratios were between 15 and 18.

But margins and earnings might disappoint even those with modest expectations. Van der Linde estimates Asian earnings will grow only 8-9 per cent this year, almost the same pace as in the richly valued US stock market, and overshadowed by 13-14 per cent growth in Europe.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s compilation of the latest earnings from Asia shows Korean earnings fell 21 per cent from a year earlier, Thailand’s fell 11 per cent, and India’s grew just 6 per cent, while the Philippines and China had 10 per cent growth.

The macro backdrop has been dispiriting too, with a tightening in money markets in China, Asian exports to the West falling and uncertainty over the US dollar’s direction.

The realisation that this year will be disappointing is gradually showing. Earnings are expected to grow more slowly, and there are on average more downgrades than upgrades to analysts’ estimates of profits.

While equity-focused investors continue to seek Asian markets, they remain choosy, picking growth stocks or those leveraged to Europe and staying underweight expensive markets, such as Indonesia’s.

For most other investors, however, the gap between equity returns and corporate bonds, some of which offer double-digit yields, has narrowed significantly to the point that the relatively risk-free bond investments seem a better bet.

“In general, Asia will remain a perennial favourite among emerging market investors for the medium to long term,” said Samarjit Shankar, New York-based global markets strategist at BNY Mellon.

“But on a risk-adjusted basis, or on a real-yield basis, corporate bonds and even government debt is giving you a lot more bang for your buck as opposed to weaker to subdued earnings on the equities side.”