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mardi 20 octobre 2009

Angus Tulloch: Why I am more cautious on Asia than ever before

The wave of euphoria that has swept markets in recent months has not reached First State’s Angus Tulloch.

The top-performing Asia Pacific and emerging markets fund manager is positioned more cautiously than he has ever been as he waits for the pain of the credit crunch’s hangover to take hold.

Tulloch manages the First State Asia Pacific and First State Asia Pacific Leaders funds, as well as taking responsibility for overseeing the group’s emerging markets proposition.

Over the past five years, the Asia Pacific fund has delivered exceptional outperformance, returning 131% in dollar terms compared to a return of 107% from the FTSE AW Asia Pacific ex Japan index.

Tulloch’s record shows clearly that he outperforms in difficult markets – the past two years have been index-busters – while he lags somewhat in momentum-driven markets, such as those seen in 2006. This pattern has been repeated in the most recent rally, with the fund lagging with a return of 66% compared to a return of 88.8% from the index in the past seven months, in dollar terms.

This is fundamentally the function of his management style, which is to look for businesses with strong cash flow on reasonable valuations.

He believes current markets have got ahead of themselves, with too many investors who have been sold the ‘story’ of Asian growth ignoring the fundamental challenges the region faces as a result of consumer deleveraging in the US.

He said: ‘We are fully invested but I have never been as cautious as we are now. The performance over the past two years has been good but since March we have lagged. We tend to underperform just before the crash in overheating markets and when you bounce at the bottom with very cyclical businesses doing well. We are looking for steady consistent growth rather than cyclical growth. If you have a huge credit binge then the hangover is going to be nasty – and it has not yet been nasty enough.’

Tulloch is dismissive of the view that Asia will prove immune to the effects of a muted recovery, pointing to the region’s continuing reliance on the US.

He said: ‘China now relies about 30% on exports and 10 years ago they were 20% dependent so they have actually increased the amount of reliance on the US and Europe. However hard China tries, this growth will be difficult to sustain. They can print more money but a lot of it is going into property, state-controlled businesses and unused factory capacity.

‘There are a lot of empty commercial properties in China. Not to the extent that there was in Japan, but there are 20 million unemployed people as a result. You should not assume China can produce 10% growth next year.’

Tulloch is finding the sort of businesses he likes to buy are currently at reasonable valuations but adds they are fairly hard to find. LG Group in Korea is one he has been purchasing, as it benefits from a domestic-consumption focused business as well as from exporting its electrical goods. He is also looking at insurance companies including QBE group in Australia – a favourite stock of Aberdeen's global equity fund manager Bruce Stout. Tulloch says insurers can benefit from rate rises in Asia, which he believes are on the way.

He is nearly unique among emerging market managers in that he does not focus on the ‘emerging market story’.

His lists his favourite stock as Brambles, an Australian firm that ships goods on pallets. ‘They have a strong franchise in a sector with high barriers to entry. In Asia you have to differentiate a good company from a good story,’ he warns.

It is perhaps this focus that has helped Tulloch retain such impressive numbers. He cites Aberdeen’s Hugh Young – the only other manager in the UK with as long and impressive a record in Asia as him – as a peer who shares this approach. ‘It is not that we are less enamoured by Asia, in fact I still have the majority of my personal wealth invested in these funds. It is just that we are a bit sceptical of the story-driven approach.'

‘Most investors are momentum-driven. But we are value focused and we look at companies that others don’t like. That is actually where you are really going to make money,’ he adds.

(Charlie Parker - Citywire - 20/10/09)

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