'Potential risks ahead' for regional markets

Mr Warnes views Brexit as more of a local shock rather than a global one, and one that will have limited impact on Asia.
Mr Van Der Linde said there is an upswing in sentiment in Asia, with the low valuations in the region and weak US dollar.
Mr Van Der Linde said there is an upswing in sentiment in Asia, with the low valuations in the region and weak US dollar.
Mr Warnes views Brexit as more of a local shock rather than a global one, and one that will have limited impact on Asia.

Brexit looms and jitters over China's slowdown unlikely to vanish soon, say market watchers

Regional stock markets are still weighed down by uncertainties, well into the second quarter, following a roller-coaster start to the year.

Market watchers note that even as concerns over interest rate hikes have eased somewhat, potential risks - including Britain's possible exit from the European Union (EU) - have emerged.

They add that the outlook for earnings growth, oil prices and China's economic showing remains rocky.

"Till May, it's OK. That's our second quarter theme," HSBC Asia-Pacific equity strategy head Herald Van Der Linde said, adding that the the recent rally is set to maintain some upswing in sentiment.

Asian markets are back at the level they were at before January's crash triggered by a panic sell-off in China.

In March, the region's widest index, MSCI Asia Ex-Japan, gained 11.1 per cent. Singapore's market also broadly tracked that recovery, adding 6.5 per cent in the same period.

The rebound was helped in part by expectations for - and the decision by - the United States Federal Reserve to hold rates steady last month.

"Factors such as the weak US dollar and the low valuations in this region are still supportive of Asia's equities markets for a while yet. If China's economic data comes out better than expected, the momentum could extend further," said Mr Van Der Linde.

"But overall, we see a limit to the upside, because earnings growth here is still not very exciting. Our forecast for corporate earnings growth in 2016 is just 3.9 per cent, itself already better than the flat growth we're expecting in the US."

Mr Peter Warnes, Manulife Asset Management's portfolio solutions head, agreed: "With the return of risk appetite, inflows to Asia and emerging markets have switched to positive in recent weeks.

"But while the current cyclical rebound in Asian equities may have further to go, we remain cautious for now, as economic data across Asia remains weak and there is little sign of an earnings rebound."

The jitters around China's slowdown are unlikely to disappear in the second quarter. Its first quarter economic growth came in at 6.7 per cent, the weakest since 2009.

On the other side of the globe, Britain's referendum in June, to decide whether to exit the EU - a scenario dubbed Brexit - is another issue to potentially disrupt the markets.

"Our view of Brexit is that it is an unwelcome and, to a degree, unnecessary additional risk in 2016 that global investors need to take seriously," Mr Warnes cautioned.

"A vote for Brexit will not be welcome by financial markets; that much seems certain. A negative initial knee-jerk response by risk assets is highly likely, with sterling taking the brunt.

"But we view it as more of a local or regional shock, rather than one with global systemic potential. The impact on Asian financial markets would likely be limited to a short-term correction."

Investors will also eye where the oil prices will head in the second quarter. Crude oil benchmark Brent futures are currently around US$44 a barrel, a marked improvement from sub-US$30 levels in January.

Near-term volatility is to be expected on oil prices, even as long-term recovery remains on track, Mr Van Der Linde said.

"The balance between demand and supply usually takes two to three years. We're right in the middle of that process. Now, the inventory is high, and I won't be surprised that prices may come down again," he said, estimating a year-end price of US$45 a barrel, to rise to US$60 by the end of next year.

Amid the uncertainty, however, Singapore's market is still worth looking at, he added.

"We are actually overweight Singapore. Valuations are very low - Singapore is the only market in Asean that's trading at below the five-year average. The banks, for instance, are trading at a level not seen since 2008," he said.

"While earnings per share growth is almost flat this year in our estimate, yields are still sustainable, not just from the real estate investment trusts but also selected industries such as telecommunications."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 17, 2016, with the headline ''Potential risks ahead' for regional markets'. Print Edition | Subscribe