Robin Parbrook, co-fund manager of Schroder Asian Total Return Investment Company, explains why investing in Asia for 30 years has shown him that crises profoundly change the market landscape – and how that is affecting the way he is investing today.
As no spring chicken, I think age can be a mixed blessing from an investment perspective. Experience can perhaps bring wisdom but it can also bring stubbornness or a lack of openness to new ideas.
This is one of the reasons I constantly challenge myself and consider myself lucky to have teenage children, who – as well as paternal headaches – can provide useful insights to a rapidly-changing world.
But you cannot ignore the insights from the past. So, having been investing in Asia for nearly 30 years, what have I learnt from past crises?
Firstly, we need to define in an investment context what we mean by a crisis. I would describe a crisis as a period that leads to a major structural reset in policy and behaviour at a government, corporate and consumer level. This is not just a cyclical dip in markets resulting from a short-lived war (whether it be an Iraq war, terrorist attack or trade war), it is something that has a far more prolonged impact on stock markets.
In this context, I had previously only seen two genuine crises in my career: the Asian financial crisis in 1997/98 and the global financial crisis in 2008/09.
Like these two previous events, we see Covid-19 in a similar vein. It is a crisis we believe will have a lasting long-term structural impact on economies and stock markets.
So, how do the Asian and global financial crises affect how I am making investment decisions in Asian equities today? Here are eight lessons I have learned:
- Change your mindset
This is not about just picking up your old favourite companies at fair value. During a crisis, I believe you need to start from scratch. You need to recheck the investment case completely given the structural changes in the environment. Scenarios must be re-run and fair values challenged and reset for new assumptions. Worst-case scenarios need to be reassessed – investors should not just think outside the box but should often think the unthinkable.
2. Forget focusing on near-term profitability
Profits are just an accounting treatment at the best of times. Instead, you could focus on the balance sheet and cash flows. Debt can be lethal in a crisis, even in small doses. So, the structure of debt including maturity, covenants and who are the company’s bankers are key. Never underestimate how impatient – and sometimes irrational – some banks can be. During the Asian financial crisis, I saw many firms go bankrupt. They had a sound business, but twitchy banks (especially those operating outside their home markets) refused to roll credit lines.
3. Be wary of most bank shares
Banks, by their nature, are the most leveraged businesses listed on stock markets. Leverage and a crisis do not go well together. Banks are also people businesses and in Asia, state-owned banks and weaker family-run banks do not necessarily attract the most skilled people. Navigating a business though a crisis needs a good management team – organisations full of nepotism and politics are not likely to pull together well. In addition, even for better banks, non-performing loans will come with a lag (as will the rights issues). On top of this, in a crisis banks can become political hot potatoes. As the global and Asian crises proved, with a few exceptions, weak banks tend to disappear/become zombies and even the better banks are slow to recover.
4. Countries with strong institutions tend to recover more quickly
Good coherent government and a well-run civil service will tend to mean confidence is restored faster and business can return to normality quicker. During the Asian financial crisis, it was Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia, Singapore and Korea that recovered the quickest. Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, with chaotic policy responses, almost collapsed completely. A crisis I is not necessarily a moment to be brave when investing.
5. Disruption accelerates during a crisis
“Necessity is the mother of invention”. A crisis often allows out-of-the-box thinking to come to the fore and breaks down barriers to change. New disruptive players emerge in a stronger position, incumbents can be shaken from their lethargy. A crisis can rapidly accelerate the process of creating winners and losers. We very much see this today amid the Covid-19 crisis, with massive disruption about to hit. Potentially this will include:
- The end of the 9-to-5 office working week and mass commuting
- A structural move to working from home
- Online healthcare
- Online education
- Less business travel
- Automation and onshoring of production
- A move to a much more virtual world as artificial intelligence/5G/Millennials/Generation Z come into the ascendancy.
For investors, a crisis means you may need to review all your investments as disruption accelerates. What is the future of commercial property, banks, airlines, infrastructure owners (i.e. those companies with large fixed assets) in a crisis-driven, disrupted world? Our past experience of crisis suggests many companies’ business models need to be reinvented if they are to survive. Nimbler, asset-light companies often do better.
6. Zombies will rise
In a crisis, governments will often intervene to stop markets clearing, especially in those sectors deemed ‘strategic’. This often leaves lots of zombie companies. This was the case for Korean shipbuilders, Thai property, Korean construction sector and most of corporate Malaysia after the Asian financial crisis. The lesson for investors is to avoid investment in sectors that do not ‘clear’ or have not been allowed to clear by governments.
7. Always buy a good business at a fair price
When you have done your analysis and decided which businesses are likely to come out of a crisis stronger, do not be overly greedy on the price you are willing to pay for it. The key is to not continually reduce your desired entry level if the share price gets to your initial target, unless the facts and the investment case have changed (see lesson 1).
8. The impact of a crisis can linger for longer than you think
Since the global crash, the sluggishness of corporate investment, populism and a desire for less free market capitalism have all been permanent features. After the Asian crisis, an aversion to debt became permanently ingrained across much of corporate Asia. This should be positive for the Asian corporate sector during the current crisis. Asian corporates are geared lower than those in the West, so hopefully can weather the storms better.
But because a crisis is structural it takes a lot longer for stock markets to recover than at other times. Stock markets remain vulnerable and investors twitchy, particularly if, as highlighted above, a crisis accelerates disruption, creating winners and losers.
Investors should not feel the need to chase market rallies during a crisis, unless they believe the bulk of the crisis period has passed.
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