Emerging market darlings as investors fall in love with Asian equities

While the world's financial headlines are screaming about Wall Street hitting record high levels again, I find it more fascinating that investors are falling in love with Asian equities again, albeit in a small way.

Very little is reported on this renewed interest so far, and it is difficult to tell whether it will be a fleeting one night-stand or something which will blossom, with investors falling head over heels in love with Asia again.

The data furnished by the latest OCBC Weekly Macroview report tells the story, showing that there was a trickle of funds coming back into most Asian markets for the week ended last Wednesday (July 6).

Singapore, for instance, registered a net weekly inflow of US$17.54 million (S$23.64 million) after an outflow of US$44.54 million the previous week.

Hong Kong shows a similar uptrend, with a small net weekly inflow of US$10 million, after registering an outflow of US$115.32 million the previous week.

Even prospects for China equities may have brightened as foreign investors pulled much less money out of funds investing in mainland stocks last week, taking out a net US$155.68 million. This is 77 per cent less than the US$695.98 million which were taken out the previous week.

That the flows into the various Asian markets should be flashing green is a darned sight better than the sea of red ink earlier this year which sapped trading volumes as traders stayed away, and drained the very vitality of our markets

What is triggering the interest in Asian equities?

Some market pundits attribute the fresh spurt to the recent vote by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union.

Brexit has offered Asian economies a breather by giving them more time to adjust to a more sluggish world economy since it is forcing the United States central bank to stay its hands on raising interest rates for a longer period because of the economic uncertainties which have been stirred up.

The stabilising of commodities prices is also lending a helping hand to build up interest in regional equities, given the big role which agricultural materials and the extraction of minerals play in Asian economies.

And with Europe and Japan ploughing deeper into negative interest rate territory, fund managers are hard-pressed to look for assets still offering positive yields.

This forces them to turn our way as they hunt for higher yielding assets.

But while interest is slowly warming up in Asian equities, the big winner is, so far, the Asian bond markets which are attracting money in a serious way, much like the US and European bond markets, as global interest rates edge lower.

The OCBC data showed that last week, a net US$278.68 million was poured into the China bond market and US$260 million into the Indonesian bond market. Singapore netted US$55.17 million of inflow into bond funds.

But some sceptical market pundits are worried that the emerging exuberance in Asian markets may prove to be short-lived. They note that Asian markets are not particularly liquid and it does not take a lot of money to stir them back to life.

Their advice to investors is to make hay while the sun shines, and quickly get out before the markets fall into a slumber again.

In particular, one indicator to watch closely is the US dollar.

It was the strengthening of the greenback last July, as the Fed started to give broad hints of a rate hike, that caused Asian markets to go into a huge convulsion.

Of course, it didn't help to have the then red-hot Shanghai market crashing at around the same time when it failed to get the endorsement of the index provider MSCI to include mainland shares into its global indexes.

Low or negligible interest rates in developed markets have triggered a hunger for higher-yield assets.

But if the US dollar strengthens, all the old concerns about a credit crunch in emerging markets will come flooding back, as Asian countries raise interest rates try to stem the flow of foreign funds out of their economies.

Goh Eng Yeow will be speaking at Invest Fair, organised by financial data provider Shareinvestor, on Sunday, July 31, at 11.15am at Level 4, Suntec City Convention & Exhibition Centre. Admission is free