Keep the faith in the Far East

Asia may be the last place you want to invest in now, says Edmund Tirbutt, but think long term
ANYBODY who knows anything about investment knows that the surest way of making money is to invest in equities when prices are low and hold them for the long term.

But bargain-basement prices tend to go along with a perspective so gloomy that there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel. This is particularly true in the Far East. Unit prices in many investment funds specialising in the area now stand at around half the levels recorded at their peaks. The Asean economies of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines paint the bleakest pictures. Stock markets are largely trendless with share prices merely bouncing around the bottom.

Malaysia has even imposed currency restrictions, meaning that several funds with sizeable investments have had to suspend dealings indefinitely. Other countries could follow its example. But if post-war history can be relied upon to repeat itself, any such restrictions should be lifted again in due course.

George Magnus, chief economist Warburg Dillon Read, an investment bank, says: "It's important to try to be a little bit forward thinking and to avoid extrapolating today's doom and gloom into a global Armageddon. If you assume, which you simply have to assume, that policy makers are capable of avoiding a 1930s-style Depression, then these are the sort of areas to be looking at for value.

"I'm pretty pessimistic at the moment as to how we will get out of this," he adds, " but experience suggests that these markets, which have a proven track record of rapid growth, will probably rebound on a three-to-five- year horizon. No one has stripped Asia of its entrepreneurial ability and its educated workforce."

Japan is an interesting bet. A range of positive factors should come into play when economic stability eventually resumes. A number of international Japanese companies still have money surpluses and strong balance sheets. In addition, tax reforms are beginning to concentrate directors' minds on profitability.

Taiwan, Hong Kong and China also offer some tangible glimpses of future potential but, again, most financial planning experts are talking in terms of three to five years before investors are likely to see anything in the way of returns. Some feel the waiting period could be far longer.

Amanda Davidson, a partner at Holden Meehan, an IFA in London, says: "I see it as a 10-year hold rather than a five-year one. But if you limit holdings to no more than 5 per cent of your portfolio and it's money you can afford to risk, it's worth considering. All you can do is pick a good group and hope for the best."

Graham Bates, chairman of IFA Bates Investment Services, is even more cautious and feels the Far East should constitute no more than 2 per cent of a portfolio. He would tend to go for funds specialising in either Hong Kong or Japan rather than the region as a whole.

Richard Boyton, director of investor services at Fraser Smith, an IFA, favours the investment trust route on the grounds that many investment trusts are trading at attractive discounts to their "net asset values" - which represent their real worth. He singles out the Edinburgh Dragon investment trust, which currently stands at a discount of more than 30 per cent and F&C's Pacific investment trust, at a discount of more than 20 per cent.

Many personal pension plans also offer funds that invest in the Far East. Mark Howard, managing director of national IFA Maddison Monetary Management, has 5 per cent of his own pension invested in Japan and 5 per cent in China.

Some would argue that there can be few better recommendations than a financial adviser investing money himself but Mr Howard, who is 33, stresses that these markets should not be considered for pension contributions by anyone within 10 years of retirement.

He says: "Japan is clearly a recovery situation and I believe China, which needs to modernise and is working hard to build infrastructure, is a clear growth opportunity. If you look at where the biggest economic bosses will be in 20 years' time the chances are that these two countries are going to figure."

Leading advisers are unanimous in recommending that people should access all Far Eastern markets at the moment via a regular savings plan. The approach greatly reduces risk because contributions buy more units when the market is low than when it is high. Most plans enable you to stop and start without penalty and even to add lump sums if and when you feel it is appropriate.

recommended funds

Amanda Davidson, IFA at Holden Meehan: Schroder Pacific Growth and Fidelity South East Asia unit trusts. Neither include Japan. Graham Bates, IFA at Bates Investment Services: HSBC Hong Kong Growth and Save & Prosper Japan Growth unit trusts. Richard Boyton, IFA at Fraser Smith: Edinburgh Dragon investment trust (at 30 per cent discount, no Japanese investments). F&C's Pacific investment trust includes Japan, and stands at a discount of more than 20 per cent.

Contacts: Edinburgh, 0131 3131000; Fidelity, 0800 414161; Foreign & Colonial, 0171-628 8000; HSBC, 0171-336 9000; Save & Prosper, 0800 829100; Schroder, 0171-658 6000.