by Martin Hutchinson, Global Investing Strategist, Money Morning
Having lived in Singapore as a child I've always been fond of Southeast Asia.
Fifty years later, though, I like it for a slightly different reason. It's become a place where I like to invest. In fact, I believe the region is the world's newest "sweet spot" for investors.
Of course, you don't hear much about the economies of Southeast Asia. Given the media's penchant for bad news, that alone should tell you something. But unlike the U.S., Europe, China, India and Japan, the region is doing just fine, which is why you should consider putting some money in places like Malaysia and Singapore.
In fact, in a moment I'm going to tell you what my favorite company in the region is.
First, though, I'd like to give you a first-hand glimpse of the ongoing economic miracle in Singapore, because one thing is for certain: The place is gigantically richer than it was when I lived there as a child.
Needless to say, so much has changed since the new independent government took over from British rule. At the time, most of our neighbors in Singapore were fearful of the change, and for good reason. Independence in other countries, notably India, had brought nothing but trouble and bloodshed.
However, my father reassured us. He said the new leader, Lee Kuan-yew, was both sensible and very able, so things would be fine.
Admittedly, father was no great shakes when it came to investments, but by George he knew his stuff on geopolitics. In the 50 years since then, Singapore has been just about the most successful society on earth. According to The Economist, Singapore is expected to grow 3.1% in 2012 and 4.3% in 2013-- very decent figures for such a rich country. That is roughly 50% faster than what The Economist team expects for the U.S.
Of course, there are several poorer emerging markets in Southeast Asia. Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines all have their advantages, but the one I like most is Malaysia.
Apart from a stable, mostly sensible government it has a nice economy that's well balanced between resources and manufacturing-- so it does well regardless of whether commodities prices are going up or down.
Malaysia has GDP per capita of $15,600, about half that of South Korea, and is ranked 53rd on the Heritage Foundation's index, 60th on Transparency International's index and 18th on the World Bank Ease of Doing Business - the latter is a very good rating indeed for a middle-income country.
It's one of the reasons why my favorite Malaysian investment is a company called Sime Darby Berhad (PINK: SMEBF).
Sime Darby engages in plantations, property, industrial, automobile agencies, energy and healthcare businesses worldwide, although the principal focus of its activities lies in Southeast Asia. It is, for example, the world's largest producer of palm oil, which has been climbing in price recently. In the nine months to March 31, Sime Darby's net income was up a robust 30% over the previous year, at $1 billion.
With a historic P/E of about 13, that makes Sime Darby a bargain. With the projected growth this year, investors can pick shares of Sime Darby up at just 10 times earnings.
Another "Must-Have" in the Region
But the home of my youth is not the only place for investors in Southeast Asia. The other "must-have" destination is South Korea. Admittedly it's a bit far north geographically, but it's Southeast Asian in spirit as well as a great place to put your money.
South Korea is also a fairly rich country. It's not as rich as Singapore but it does have decent ratings on the three global surveys. For example, it's eighth on "Ease of Doing Business." Like Singapore, it has more or less completely avoided the twin economic madness of the last few years - central banks that print too much money and governments that spend too much.
Perhaps its greatest difference from us is its budget balance. South Korea is running a surplus of 2.7% of GDP - in an election year!
With huge strengths in manufacturing, and technology and government spending that's the lowest in the OECD club of rich nations, South Korea's well worth some of your investment dollars, especially as the market is quite cheap, on a P/E of about 12.
Yet while many Southeast Asian companies have listings outside their home country, most of them are listed on the London exchange rather than in New York. For that you can thank the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation.
As a result, the easiest way to participate in these markets is through exchange-traded funds. They include:
- iShares MSCI Singapore index ETF (NYSE:EWS)
- the iShares MSCI Korea Index ETF (NYSE:EWY)
- the iShares MSCI Malaysia ETF (NYSE:EWM)
The Singapore and Korea ETFs have over $1 billion in capitalization and the Malaysian ETF carries an $870 million market cap, so they are all plenty liquid. They also have low expense ratios, in the 0.5%-0.6% range, so your money won't be frittered away in costs and fees.
Good management, dependable growth and the avoidance of the all the West's mistakes. When it comes to your investments, you really can't beat Southeast Asia!
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