Bright spots amid downbeat outlook

PHOTO: Bright spots amid downbeat outlook

SINGAPORE - I have spent the past few months bemoaning that all the good stocks are leaving the Singapore Exchange and lamenting that there are so few attractive counters to take their place.

Take Fraser & Neave. Thai tycoon Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi is offering $9.55 apiece for the shares, way up from the $6 plus they were trading at a year ago. The talk is that Mr Charoen will privatise the firm. With the price at $9.44 now, there is little point in entering the market.

Ditto with its former unit Asia Pacific Breweries, which had a share price of around $25 just over a year ago. The takeover offer was a whopping $53 a share, from Heineken.

Other stocks that were a good proxy for consumer spending included Brand's Essence of Chicken maker Cerebos Pacific. It also offered an attractive dividend yield but it has now been privatised.

With the Straits Times Index close to a two-year high, blue chips have become too expensive to invest in, while some of the listing newcomers are small and Catalist-listed.

And although the report card for local corporate earnings looks robust, the trend for gross domestic product (GDP) growth is set to slow.

The recent Population White Paper showed that the compound annual growth rate of GDP between 1970 and 1980 was 9 per cent. Between 1980 and 1990 it fell to 7.7 per cent. It dipped further to 7.1 per cent during the 1990s and declined to 5.6 per cent for the 10 years to 2010.

GDP growth for this decade looks like it will average 3 per cent to 4 per cent and could slow further to between 2 per cent and 3 per cent in the 2020 to 2030 period.

Once GDP growth slows, corporate earnings will also likely slow and this will affect the share prices and valuations of companies.

Combine the prospect of slower economic growth with slower workforce growth, and the outlook over the next few years looks gloomy for share investors.

If companies fare worse or just grow at a slower pace, they will demand fewer offices and buildings for their workers. Property stocks focusing on office and industrial space will also likely take a hit.

All in all, it is a challenging enough picture for those assessing the long-term prospects of Singapore shares.

But enough of the downbeat views. Now for some more optimistic insights. These come from a top fund manager whose brain I not so subtly tried to pick over a recent lunch.

His views, which I am summarising, are that, yes, investing in equities makes sense at this point.

This ties in with some of the prevailing views that bonds - last year's hot topic and investment - are passe and that it is time to turn our attention to the equity markets.

The fund manager says the United States economy is in a better state than previously, helped by the cheap money in the system. Corporate earnings of US companies are also showing an uptrend.

So while the economy is clearly improving, the US Federal Reserve will hesitate at stopping the treatment, simply because the patient is not out of the woods yet.

Many of the data indicators tracked by economists point to a recovery, although one key indicator, the US housing market, is still in the doldrums.

Another positive trend, the fund manager says, can be seen in China. There, the urbanisation trend will see as many as 300 million people heading to the cities. The growth of this consumer market and the middle class will spur demand in a range of sectors, including tourism and housing.

As China transforms from producer to consumer, Singapore and the rest of ASEAN are in a prime position to supply its needs, the fund manager says.

Singapore can be a hub as companies from Europe and America head to the region to take advantage of this emerging market growth.

For all those reasons, the global economy could be in the sweet spot over the next couple of years as interest rates remain low and liquidity keeps flowing, the fund manager concludes.

Make of these views what you will but what all this suggests is that even if Singapore's growth slows, its companies will still be on the right track if they are expanding in Asia.

DBS Bank, OCBC Bank and United Overseas Bank are all casting their nets overseas for growth.

Property developers such as CapitaLand have seen their share prices rise as China exposure becomes a selling point rather than a millstone.

Within the next couple of weeks, Mapletree Investments is set to launch the mega initial public offering (IPO) of its commercial properties in Hong Kong and Beijing. These malls and office buildings will benefit from the growth of the Asian consumer and middle class. There may be some IPOs worth subscribing to after all.