You'll go further with a Tiger in your tank

Investment tourists: South-east Asian markets could eclipse the financial centres of the West
As the sun rises over the river, groups of people appear, blinking in the smog, to begin their tai ji quan - the daily ritual exercise of body and mind that looks like a balletic slow-motion martial art. But the peace is soon shattered by thousands, if not millions, of cyclists heading to work.

This is Shanghai, a fast-growing city of 13 million that has shaken off both its colonial past and the more recent legacy of Mao's cultural revolution to become the business capital of China.

The legacy of the old can still be found in the fading glory of the Cathay Hotel, now known as the Peace Hotel, where Noel Coward wrote Brief Lives.

The new face of Shanghai is across the river at the Xin Zhong Hua factory, which has two contrasting product lines: refrigerators and space rockets.

It is just one of the Asian cities that, according to Garnet Harrison, of investment manager Newport Capital, is likely to eclipse London and New York as a centre of world trade and business during the next century.

"The figures speak for themselves," says Mr Harrison, as he reels off an impressive battery of statistics on the fast-growing economies of south- east Asia. "Economic growth and prosperity are driven by demographics. It doesn't matter how clever you are, or how much tradition and culture are on your side. If the numbers are against you, you lose.

"Start with this simple thought: 75 per cent of the world's population lives within four hours' flying time of Hong Kong or Shanghai."

Within any population, the most active economic group consists of men aged between 18 and 44. In western Europe today, that group numbers 69 million. By 2050 it will be down to 45 million. But in Asia, the figures are going in the opposite direction. In Indonesia, for example, the number will grow from 48 million today to 63 million over the same period.

Recently, the World Bank forecast that by the end of the century the Chinese economy would be bigger than western Europe and five years later would have overtaken the US.

Mr Harrison says faster growth has already prompted higher stock-market returns. Over the past 10 or 15 years stock markets in Europe and the US have given real returns (after inflation) averaging less than 10 per cent a year, compared with 15 per cent-plus from Hong Kong, Korea and Taiwan.

Newport, a London-based fund manager whose major shareholder is the $45bn (pounds 29bn) Liberty group of the US, specialises in the so-called Tiger economies of Asia, and Mr Harrison is convinced that these countries should feature in every investor's portfolio. He has strong words for those who see investing in the Tigers as a high-risk strategy.

"The problem is that the investment culture in the UK has become one of risk aversion. The investment market, which funded the growth of the world's great trading names, built railways across South America, and in fact financed the development of whole continents, has become frightened of anything beyond its own backyard."

Hong Kong accounts for a hefty slice of Newport's funds, and Mr Harrison shrugs off fears about the impact on business of next year's handover of the Crown Colony to Peking. "It is difficult for British investors to be objective about Hong Kong because they have a lot of emotional capital tied up in it," he says. "We take a more objective view, partly because of our American origins, and partly because of our close involvement in the region.

"The truth is that, in commercial terms, the two have already merged - and the marriage works. Hong Kong companies have invested heavily in the mainland and Chinese companies have invested equally heavily in Hong Kong."

But, Mr Harrison adds, Asian markets are known for their volatility. He emphasises that investment in the region must be for the long term. And the way in? That is through the range of unit and investment trusts specialising in the region and offered by most big-name London investment managers. Schroder and Flemings are two of the most well-known with reputations in Asian investment.

q For investors looking at Far Eastern markets, a useful starting place is "Asia's Investment Prophets" (pounds 20, Century Business Books) by Claire Barnes.

A Tale of Two Chinas

MORE cyclists are killed on China's roads than motorists - 372 last year in Shanghai alone - but the gap is narrowing fast since the number of cars in private ownership doubles every three years.

The Chinese economy is growing at 11 per cent annually. But GDP per head remains low, at about pounds 350. By contrast, economic growth in Taiwan, 100 miles offshore, is slower, at about 6.6 per cent, but GDP per head has already passed pounds 7,000. The "two Chinas" remain at loggerheads, but the government in Taipei is now trying to mend fences with Peking after harsh words earlier this year.

An upsurge of Western investment in the Taipei stock market is expected next year when the exchange introduces a late-afternoon trading session. Since there is an eight-hour time difference, this means that early-bird stockbrokers in London will be able to execute trades in Taipei before the market there closes.