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Is Asia’s Strong Performance Sustainable?

Asian equities have delivered solid returns in the first four months of the year, largely buoyed by a pickup in the global trade cycle which has boosted economic growth and led to a turnaround in earnings expectations.

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Views on Indian state elections

India’s latest round of state elections saw a good set of results for Prime Minister Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP

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For the optimistic investor, look to Japan

The Japanese equity market ran the range of investor emotions in 2016, as sentiment shifted from very negative early in the year, amid fears of a macroeconomic crisis, to positive later on, inspired by Donald Trump’s election in the U.S. and his pro-growth rhetoric.

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Asia might not be too worried about US protectionism

Trump’s decision to remove the US from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) was a formality given that Congress was unlikely to ratify the deal during Obama’s final months. Additionally, his disapproval for the TPP was evident throughout the campaign, suggesting that withdrawal was not only well advertised but also fully priced into the market.

The situation becomes sadly ironic as the pact he was so anxious to reject would actually have solved several problems his election campaign had promised to fix, including expanding the tradeable market for US goods and promoting international business standards. Trump’s administration is now scrambling to promote copious proposals which do little to spur exports but instead damage US consumers by reducing real incomes through efficiency losses. The proposed border tax and border adjustment aim to reduce the trade deficit by either imposing a tariff on countries deemed currency manipulators or removing import deductibles to subsidize exports. Proponents argue these policies would lower the national trade deficit and improve export competiveness, while a stronger dollar offsets the tariff placed on overseas imports.

For Asian exporters, these circumstances could provide dual near-term tailwinds at the expense of US manufacturers. On the value side, most trade contracts are negotiated in USD terms, which would negate any exchange rate savings from a stronger US dollar. For Asian exporters that report in local currency (non-USD) denomination, the appreciation of the USD translates to better sales. The downside for foreign exporters comes if supply quantities drop significantly. While this would lower the trade deficit for the US, weaker import growth would also suggest a waning US economy which Trump seeks to avoid. If the volume remains unchanged, the tariff is either absorbed by the manufacturer or passed on to the end consumer.

On the volume side, US import substitutions are not immediately available to fill the gap. According to the US Census Bureau, Asia accounts for roughly 50% of the US trade deficit. Using OECD’s estimates that US exports contain on average 20% of foreign content, US manufacturers would need to expand product capabilities that would equate to the 10% value loss. While subsidies and tax breaks offset the financial costs, most industries lack the raw materials in enough quantity and scale to meet the target of the new administration to generate the immediate growth.

The US withdrawal from the TPP could also provide a near-term catalyst for most of Asia. Though only five Asian countries were original signatories of the TPP (Japan, Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam), several others had pledged an interest to join (South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines). However, many demonstrated reluctance given that the pact would open competition between domestic small and medium enterprises against foreign companies. Given the possibility that the US or even China could join later, the delay provides the opportunity for capital expenditure and infrastructure spending to improve production efficiency. Even if China decides to follow through with its own trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RECEP), this would indirectly reduce the role of state-owned enterprises to improve returns, which had been one of the objectives of TPP.

Christopher Chu - Fund Manager, Asian equities - Union Bancaire Privée (UBP)

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