Malaysia – diamonds in the rough

In the past four years, Malaysia has gone through its fair share of problems: the commodities sell-off hurt exports and led to a decline in the country’s current account surplus; the woes of the 1MDB scandal caused investors to lose confidence in the country, leading to capital flight; and, after 2013, the Federal Reserve signaled a tightening bias to monetary policy.

These three events contributed to a significant weakening of the currency (approximately 35%) against the dollar. Meanwhile, economic conditions became harsher. Corporate profitability, as well as consumer disposable incomes, stagnated or declined. Under pressure from ratings agencies to control the budget deficit, the government was forced to cut back on several subsidies.  Consumer prices for electricity, LGP, petrol/diesel and sugar, amongst others, were raised significantly.  And, in April 2015, a 6% goods and services tax (GST) was introduced for the first time. With a depreciating currency, inflation rose. The result was a big squeeze in consumers’ disposable incomes, while businesses saw a sharp rise in costs.

China swoops

Despite these clouds I see some silver linings. China has, in my view, taken advantage of the economic situation in Malaysia. Assisting Malaysia has a geo-political angle, helping China win over one more Asian country in its quest to dominate its perceived sphere of influence. As part of the ‘one belt, one road’ initiative, China is looking to deepen ports (Malacca), build new ones (Penang and Tanjung Pelepas), construct several roads, new rail lines, bridges and industrial parks. A few property companies from the mainland have bought large swathes of land in Johor to build new homes.  Some reports suggest China will over the next five years, invest $150bn in Malaysia while committing to import $2trn worth of goods and services from Malaysia. These numbers sound gigantic. It would be naïve to take them at face value, yet the trend is unmistakable. Besides investments, the weaker ringgit has made Malaysia a very attractive holiday destination for Chinese tourists. One of the companies we own in our portfolio, Genting Malaysia, is in the process of completing a theme park in association with 20th Century Fox. Naturally, there is a simultaneous massive expansion of an existing casino next door, just in case the cheap ringgit does not do the job to rope them in.

The purging of excesses

I have no illusions as to why the Malaysian stock market has been a laggard. Valuations of several stocks in Malaysia are cheap for very compelling reasons. Unlike in South Korea, we have not witnessed an earnings upgrade cycle. Unlike in China, there are no internet plays, nor is the consumer market massive. And unlike in India, the GST levy isn’t touted to be the elixir that justifies sky-high valuations because of an impending structural change. There is a price to pay for having no hype. Yet, turned on its head, cheap valuations for investors with patience are a boon.

I can’t say for sure what could or will change in Malaysia. But experience suggests that when a country’s currency sells off, it is the first sign of the purging of excesses. Consumers and businesses have dealt with higher costs for the past 3-4 years. Like any economic participant across the world, they start to adopt and change behaviours to contend with tougher economic conditions. Things don’t stay in the dumps for too long. As China starts to inject capital through direct investment and tourists recognise Malaysia for the bargain it has become, could these be the sparks that ignite investor interest?

 

Samir Mehta, JOHCM Asia ex Japan Fund

Disclaimer

Data sourced from JOHCM/Bloomberg unless otherwise specified. Past performance is no guarantee of future performance. The value of investments and the income from them may go down as well as up and you may not get back your original investment. Investors should note that this Fund invests in emerging markets and such investments may carry risks with failed or delayed settlement and with registration and custody of securities. Companies in emerging markets may not be subject to accounting, auditing and financial reporting standards or be subject to the same level of government supervision and regulation as in more developed markets. The information contained herein including any expression of opinion is for information purposes only and is given on the understanding that it is not a recommendation. Government involvement in the economy may affect the value of investments and the risk of political instability may be high. The reliability of trading and settlement systems in some emerging markets may not be equal to that available in more developed markets which may result in problems in realising investments. Lack of liquidity and efficiency in certain of the stock markets or foreign exchange markets in certain emerging markets may mean that from time to time the Investment Manager may experience difficulty in purchasing or selling holdings of securities. Furthermore, due to local postal and banking systems, no guarantee can be given that all entitlements attaching to quoted and over-the-counter traded securities acquired by this Fund, including those related to dividends, can be realised. Issued and approved in the UK by J O Hambro Capital Management Limited, which is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. JOHCM® is a registered trademark of J O Hambro Capital Management Ltd. J O Hambro® is a registered trademark of Barnham Broom Holdings Ltd. Registered in England and Wales under No: 2176004. Registered address: Ground Floor, Ryder Court, 14 Ryder Street, London SW1Y 6QB.

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