Veteran stars dismiss China bubble fears

By Dylan Lobo | 07:31:00 | 26 January 2010

Fund managers Anthony Bolton and Angus Tullochhave soothed fears that a bubble is emerging in China and expect their contrarian strategies to perform in momentum driven markets.

Speaking at an event organised by wealth advisers Saunderson House, the Fidelity and First State fund managers accepted that there are a number of headwinds in China but argued fears over a bubble in near term are a little overblown.

Tulloch is a long-time investor in China through hisFirst State Asia Pacific fund. In contrast Bolton, a veteran UK equity investor is soon to make his first full-blown move into the arena with the launch of his own Chinese equities fund.

Bolton said: ‘In my definition of a bubble they take several years to happen. I think the bear market wiped the slate clean. We are one and a quarter years into a bull market and that is not long enough for a bubble to emerge.

‘However, I expect a lot more developed money to come into China and maybe over the long term a bubble could emerge.’

Meanwhile Tulloch was a little more concerned about the prospect of a bubble emerging, but has every confidence in the Chinese government adopting a sensible policy.

Tulloch said: ‘What concerns me is if inflation rises to 3-5% and deposit rates remain at 2%. The government will have to move quickly on interest rates and I expect it to do so.’

Bolton, who first visited China back in 2003 and has visited the country twice a year ever since, will reveal the make up of his new fund in the next few weeks.

The severity of the downturn in the developed world has left him confident on the long term prospects for China. ‘While chief executive officers in the West have got their confidence back my belief is that the Western world will not return to the level seen before the credit crunch,’ he said.

‘This is because of a number of factors including, high levels of government debt, overleveraged consumers and lack of availability of credit. Emerging markets look better and I expect growth there will look good relative to history.’

Bolton also believes China is on an S-curve, or a sweet spot, thanks to the emergence of a middle class. ‘I have never seen China enter an S-curve – that’s pretty important. There’s a growing middle class spending money apartments and cars.’

With 30 years experience investing in emerging markets, Tulloch is a more seasoned investor in China. While he backed Bolton’s assessment he was more cautious in his tone. ‘While I’m a passionate advocate of the emerging market growth story I see my role as devil’s advocate. The best stories contain a bad chapter or two.’

The level of quantitative easing (QE) in China is among Tulloch’s biggest concerns. ‘China has embraced fiscal stimuli with the same fervour as we have in the west if not more. The global crisis has struck China just as hard and the jury is still out on the long term success of QE.’

Tulloch went on to highlight a number of factors in China which could give investors cause for concern. These included a high surplus of steel and cement, an understated government debt position and signs the property market is overheating.

He also fears that political upheaval could have a major impact on the China story. ‘It’s only a matter of time before the Communist party in China is challenged. There is no sign of a more tolerant approach to political dissendents and it’s hard to see a transition of power without severe turbulence.’

Yet Tulloch believes this could ultimately present an extraordinary buying opportunity. ‘Overlooking this sad human dimension, the transition of power will provide one of the most exciting buying opportunities of the 21st century.’

From a stockpicker’s perspective Bolton sees a number of opportunities, especially for the contrarain investor. ‘A number of opportunities come from an undervalued, underdeveloped and under-researched point of view. Relative to developed markets the Chinese market is underdeveloped.’

But Bolton admits the lack of corporate governance continues to be an issue in China. ‘Corporate governance is an issue and management can change the rules overnight. In a growth phase i expect there to be a few hiccups.’

Tulloch agrees with Bolton that China presents a fantastic opportunity for the contrarian, especially as it is a momentum driven market. ‘Contrarian investors like Anthony will flourish but we at First State hope to do better,’ Tulloch said.

‘Careful stockpicking can make a significant difference. It always amazes me the scalability of a successful concept never ceases to amaze me. The calibre of management in China is great.’

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