Investment Insider: Where next for Asian growth?

Look to middle-class consumer spending for the next opportunities

The flight of capital from Asian markets in recent months would appear to suggest the eastern growth story may have run its course.

As soon as Ben Bernanke announced in May that the US Federal Reserve would start to consider winding back its money-easing activities, investors began withdrawing funds from Asian markets. That not only triggered sharp falls in some Asian currencies such as the Malaysian ringgit, the Indonesian rupiah and the Indian rupee, but also sparked a drop in Asian stock markets too.

It would seem, on the face of it at least, that the Asian growth story might have been built on the sands of cheap money created through quantitative easing in developed economies. So when the cost of money is likely to rise, it is perhaps understandable to assume that the decade-long Asian growth story might be drawing to a close too.

There is some tacit evidence to suggest that the market might be correct in its assumption. For instance, Thailand has slipped into recession and red flags have been raised over growth in India. The world's 10th-largest economy once boasted double-digit growth but that has slowed to just 4.5 per cent between April and June, less than most economists had predicted.

However, it is important to bear in mind that Asia is a vast continent that comprises 49 separate countries. Just as it would be wrong to tar the UK and Greece with the same economic brush, it would be just as inaccurate to put embattled Thailand and, say, successful Philippines into the same economic basket. The Philippines' second-quarter growth of 7.5 per cent was faster than expected. Additionally, China's growth is expected to exceed 7.5 per cent and Indonesia, which is the world's fourth-largest country by population, could grow around 6 per cent this year.

Indonesia, of course, has some economic problems to resolve. It is importing more than it exports; inflation jumped to almost 8 per cent in August; its current account is in the red and its currency has fallen sharply. That said, there are many developed economies that would gladly trade places with Indonesia right now.

Meanwhile, much has been made of China's economic slowdown. But let us not forget that China is the second-largest economy in the world. Consequently, a 7.5 per cent annual growth rate is hardly pedestrian.

In fact, recent data appears to suggest that China's objective to rebalance its economy from export-led to one that will be driven by consumers is showing early signs of success.

In the early days of Asia's growth, investors found opportunities in the commodities sector as China and other Asian economies consumed minerals and metals to develop their infrastructure. That is likely to continue but probably at a slower pace.

The next crop of opportunities is likely to come from growing demand by middle-class consumers. According to Ernst & Young, two-thirds of the world's middle class will reside in Asia-Pacific by 2030.

These are likely to want the same things consumers in developed economies have long enjoyed. So look at household names that have exposure to the East. These could include Swedish retailers such as Hennes & Mauritz, Spain's Inditex, which owns Zara and Bershka, and the UK's upmarket retailer Burberry, which now generates 40 per cent of revenues from Asia Pacific.

David Kuo is director of fool.co.uk

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