By Andrew Ness

AS CHINA has started lifting lockdown restrictions, its economy is slowly getting back on track. Franklin Templeton Emerging Markets Equity’s Andrew Ness looks at the latest developments in Asia, and considers how some cash-rich companies in North Asia could prove survivors of the crisis.

Many investors think we could be on the cusp of a major global depression as a result of the coronavirus, but we don’t think that will happen. It’s been helpful to have our boots on the ground across mainland China and in Hong Kong so we can hear how our colleagues in the country and region have been dealing with getting back to normalcy, particularly those who had been in a government-enforced lockdown for much of the first quarter.

While we have seen a few clusters where the virus has resurged in recent days after lockdowns were eased, events by and large in China are giving us hope: the re-opening of factories, migratory workers going back to work since January’s Chinese New Year celebrations, and industrial activity returning to at least 90% capacity utilization. As other emerging economies come out of lockdown, we’ll be watching closely whether consumers will behave as they were before the coronavirus.

It’s too soon to describe what a broad economic recovery will look like, but we believe China and other trade-sensitive neighboring economies will have to be more reliant on domestic recoveries, given the short-term challenges they face with disrupted global trade routes.

Historically, many companies in China, Taiwan, and South Korea that had large cash reserves attracted negative attention due to the potential impact such cash reserves could have on long-term profitability. While some cash reserves can be beneficial, having too much cash stockpiled rather than invested can mean it’s not being put to work to grow the business.

However, the massive piles of cash some companies today are sitting on could provide a vital buffer against the dour economic climate. Companies without such reserves, whether in Asia or the United States and the United Kingdom, could suffer in comparison.

In our view, this helps us identify the survivors from this crisis — and potential winners from an investment standpoint. As you can see in the table, the balance sheets of more companies in Asia are tilted toward cash than in the United States, the United Kingdom, or Germany.

Certain regions in Asia appear to be more resilient than others. Domestic recoveries in countries in North Asia, such as South Korea, Taiwan, and mainland China in particular, appear more robust. The countries also seemed better prepared to deal with the coronavirus than some other developed parts of the world.

Looking ahead, it raises bigger questions over characterizations of a developed economy — whether average wealth levels, or a country’s preparedness to protect its citizens in periods of crisis — should fall under the definition.

While the economic impact of the virus will weigh on many emerging market economies in the short term, the consumer trends we’ve been witnessing for some time are likely to remain relevant. Goods and services related to health and wellness were a fast-growing trend prior to the crisis, and we think this theme will remain broadly intact post-crisis — perhaps even more so.

Additionally, there is strong demand for goods and services such as cars, high-speed broadband, life insurance and homeownership (and therefore, banking products like mortgages) in emerging markets, where penetration remains low. We don’t think the virus will ultimately change those wants and needs.

Middle-class and affluent consumers in Taiwan, China, India, Russia, and Brazil, for example, should carry on trading up for higher-quality goods and services, as consumers in developed markets have done. To us as investors, those areas represent potential opportunities as we move past the current crisis period.


Andrew Ness is an ASIP Portfolio Manager of Franklin Templeton Emerging Markets Equity.