By Summer Zhen
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Investors are waiting for a big burst of stimulus from China before they make more aggressive bets on a recovery, having spent the past few months disappointed by economic data and a lack of meaningful policy response from Beijing.
The country’s promising recovery early in the year has faltered so quickly that authorities have cut interest rates, but some feel by not nearly enough, and foundering confidence has analysts slashing economic growth predictions.
For global money managers still in the market, patience, caution and stimulus are the watchwords for the outlook after the stock rally many hoped heralded the beginning of a long bull run also evaporated with the economic momentum.
A global fund manager survey by BofA Securities showed shorting Chinese stocks was the second-most “crowded” trade in June, after going long on big tech.
Hedge funds were major buyers in June, according to Morgan Stanley, but such investors with short trading horizons only underscore the fragility of the recovery.
Chinese blue chips are down 0.2% for the year and some 34% below their record peak in early 2021, while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng is down 15% since January. Foreign cash has more or less stopped coming since a surge in January.
The yuan plumbed seven-month lows after a smaller-than-expected interest rate cut raised doubts whether policymakers would act forcefully enough to support the economy.
Market bulls are clinging to twin hopes: that more help arrives and that it will be enough to repair battered sentiment.
“Ten basis points doesn’t do much,” said Dong Chen, head of Asia macroeconomic research at Pictet Wealth Management, referring to cuts in the short-term lending rate and one-year medium-term lending facility loans.
“But the point is the policy signal. With increasingly more policy measures, hopefully they can turn around this very cautious sentiment.”
Others are hopeful of a rebound due to cheap valuations.
“I can’t believe that there is anymore bad news to absorb,” said Andy Maynard, head of equities at China Renaissance.
“The market has seemingly already discounted all negativities into the equation,” he said, suggesting opportunistic optimism – such as bargain hunting beaten-down retailers – can work well for the rest of the year.
Official data showed a modest 23 billion yuan ($3 billion) in offshore investors’ net buying of mainland stocks this month so far for a year-to-date total of 190 billion yuan, most of which occurred in January.
POSITIONING FOR SLOWER REBOUND
Several months in a row of softer-than-expected consumption, production and property market data show how China’s recovery is falling short of high hopes. Restoring confidence is looking increasingly like a long-term project and investors are positioning for a longer game and a slower rebound.
Wall Street banks have cut their 2023 growth forecasts, with projections now in a range from 5.1% to 5.7%, as expectations for 6% and above fall by the wayside.
More positive analysts note that pessimism has stocks unusually cheap.
Morgan Stanley said the MSCI China index trades at an attractive 12-month forward price-to-earnings ratio of 9.3 – a rare 20% discount to the broader MSCI emerging markets index.
“We see outperformance of Chinese equities resuming in (the second half) as easing steps up, macro recovery broadens out and geopolitics stabilise,” said Morgan Stanley analysts.
Yet Morgan Stanley’s flow analysis shows active long-only fund managers remained net sellers in Chinese growth stocks in May and June, and short positions rose.
James Liu, CIO of China-focused Neo-Criterion Capital in Singapore, said he has been adjusting defensively, cutting Hong Kong stocks more exposed to geopolitical tensions to invest onshore where foreign ownership is more limited.
He adopts a two-fold strategy of owning positions that stand to gain from stimulus, such as retail and real estate, while holding stocks exposed to longer-term structural trends like innovation and self-reliance.
The pockets of optimism also raise the risk of disappointment.
“I think what investors are looking for is more than just monetary policy response,” said Guan Yi Low, Asia-Pacific head of fixed income at M&G Investments.
“We are all looking for something a bit more decisive in helping to restore animal spirits, investor confidence and market confidence, and I think that hope may be still at risk of being disappointed.”
($1 = 7.1946 Chinese yuan)
(Reporting by Summer Zhen in Hong Kong; Additional reporting by Jason Xue in Shanghai; Writing by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)
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