Where Should You Invest in Southeast Asia? Go for Indonesia

by | Feb 9, 2016

Not every emerging market is under fire. Sure, you want to stay away from Brazil and South Africa right now. Within Asia, it’s best to avoid China, which is overleveraged and has an aging labor force.

Moreover, sectors that have historically performed well in China like infrastructure are contracting, and the economic effect of which is spilling over to affect consumers who are enduring wage cuts and job losses.

But even though China makes up the greatest weighting within the main emerging market benchmark, certain countries, such as Chile and India, hold out promise for decent returns. There is even significant opportunity in Southeast Asia.

Known collectively as ASEAN, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, this region is home to about 600 million people with fast-growing economies. Three of the largest markets, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, saw a 10% outperformance versus the broader Asian indices in January. Almost all ASEAN countries experienced slowing growth in 2015, but the recent market performance seems to be predicated on the pickup of government spending. It remains to be seen whether consumers will spend evenly in these countries throughout the year. For now, consider investing in this region because of its high growth, government spending, accommodating monetary policy, and burgeoning populations.

Let’s look at the investment cases for three countries: Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia.

Go with Indonesia

The investment case in Indonesia is predicated on government spending, which was up almost 50% in November 2015. Much of the spending is on critically important infrastructure projects like roads, bridges, and ports. The spending is inducing a recovery in cyclical stocks, and there is a pickup in revenue among cement and construction companies. Bank Indonesia, the central bank, recently cut rates by 25 basis points, which has spruced the market. Another catalyst for the market is corporate earnings which are picking up. In terms of what to buy, consider an Indonesian ETF or Wijaya Karya (WIKA IJ), a construction and engineering company, which has a quickly growing order book because of increased government contracts.

Wait and See with Thailand

Thailand has also seen a pickup in government spending. Corporate fundamentals look solid with attractive valuations and resilient dividends. On the downside, investors are concerned with the asset quality and nonperformance of loans in the financial sector, especially as banks comprise about 25% of the Thai index. Obviously, the increased government spending should help construction companies, but you should wait and see how the market performs over the next two quarters, to make sure corporate earnings delivering.

Wait and See with Malaysia

Malaysia is the only net exporter of oil in Asia, and so the low oil prices have dampened the country’s revenues. The country is under owned by global investors likely for this reason–which gives investors an opportunity to pounce on selective opportunities. But the country’s financial sector is seeing a pickup in nonperforming loans, and several of the large energy companies have been faced with capital expenditure cuts. Right now it’s best to see how corporate earnings come through before investing in this market.

[This article was also published in TheStreet]

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned. Kabir Sehgal is the author of New York Times bestseller Coined: The Rich Life of Money And How Its History Has Shaped Us. He is also a Grammy winning producer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.