Fund snaps up Malaysia's beaten-down property stocks but not everyone is buying

KUALA LUMPUR (BLOOMBERG) - Malaysia's top-performing fund is buying the nation's property companies after a slump in shares left valuations at their cheapest level in at least seven years relative to global peers.

Eastspring Investments Bhd. has started "nibbling" on some of the stocks that have been beaten down on the prospect the real-estate industry will eventually recover, Chen Fan Fai, its chief investment officer, said in an interview on Oct 9. He declined to identify the companies he's buying. The Bursa Malaysia Property Index is valued at 8.9 times 12-month projected earnings, a 32 per cent discount to the Bloomberg World Real Estate Index.

Mr Chen's optimism offers a rare bright spot in a stock market whose value has slumped 14 per cent this year as international investors unloaded Malaysian equities amid political turmoil, falling oil prices and a selloff in emerging-market assets. The FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI Index has dropped 2.5 per cent so far in 2015, set for its second year of declines, the longest losing streak in 17 years.

"We don't expect them to perform in the next few months, but valuations have come to a point that it is worthwhile to start buying," said Mr Chen, whose small-cap fund has beaten 90 percent of peers over the past three years with an overall return of 31 per cent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. "Some companies have been beaten down and we believe some are actually below what is fair, factoring in the slowdown right now."

The property gauge of 92 developers on the Kuala Lumpur stock exchange rose 0.2 per cent to a two-month high at 9:18 am local time, paced by a 2.6 per cent gain in UEM Sunrise Bhd. The property measure has tumbled 12 per cent in the past 12 months, the worst performing industry group, as record household debt, a consumption tax and stricter lending hurt buyers' ability to purchase homes.

While these factors put pressure on companies faced with the biggest housing glut in 10 years, recent declines have made some of them too cheap to ignore, said Mr Chen, whose company is part of Prudential Plc's asset management business in Asia.

Among developers, UEM Sunrise, whose stock has fallen 29 per cent in the past year, is trading at 13.7 times projected 12- month earnings, below its five-year average of 27, Bloomberg data show. Mah Sing Group Bhd., down 23 per cent, is trading at the cheapest level in more than two years. SP Setia Bhd., Malaysia's biggest property developer, has a multiple of 11.7, near the lowest level since 2006.

Not everyone is buying. Jason Chong, the Kuala Lumpur-based chief investment officer at Canada's Manulife Asset Management Services Bhd, said the industry is facing too many headwinds.

"It is hard to be bullish on the property market right now," he said. "Property is not one of our favorite sectors now. Values are starting to emerge. But the question is, how long must you hold to realize these values?"

Profits for companies in the property gauge are expected to drop 46 per cent in the next 12 months, compared with a growth of 11 per cent for the benchmark FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI Index, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.  Residential property transactions slid 2.6 per cent in the first half of 2015, compared with the same period a year earlier, government data show. Property prices in the first quarter grew at the slowest pace since 2009 amid the biggest incoming supply of properties in 10 years, Quah He Wei, analyst at AllianceDBS Research Sdn., wrote in a report last month.

The nation's economy expanded the slowest pace in almost two years in the second quarter after a new consumption tax curbed private spending. Gross domestic product is forecast to grow 4.5 per cent to 5.5 per cent this year, down from an earlier projection of as much as 6 per cent.

Overseas investors have unloaded RM17.6 billion of Malaysian equities this year amid prospects of higher US interest rates and political instability at home. Prime Minister Najib Razak has come under fire over debt accumulated by state investment company 1Malaysia Development Bhd., whose advisory board he chairs, and about US$700 million of political donations. Najib has denied any wrongdoing.

SP Setia, UEM Sunrise and Mah Sing said in e-mailed interviews that the property outlook remains "challenging" and that the subdued demand will spill into next year. Some are looking to lure buyers with prizes such as a RM1 million cash voucher, a RM388,888 Jaguar XF and business class trips.

"Weaker sentiments as well as difficulties obtaining end financing approval have impacted sales for the year," Ng Chai Yong, chief executive officer of Mah Sing, wrote in an e-mailed response to questions. The company has increased its marketing activities this year while slashing its new property launches by almost half, he said.