Exports, or a nascent middle class? One is the age-old path to prosperity in Asia; the other has produced stunning returns in the past five years. But a look at the diverging performances of Taiwan and Thailand – exponents of the former and latter approaches respectively – suggests a return to the former is under way.
It is not always easy to say which came first: the money, or the investing theme. Cheap US funds in search of higher returns certainly found an easy home in southeast Asia, notably Thailand, where the credit the dollars provided lifted growth and helped fuel a consumer boom (and worrying levels of household debt). Backing Thailand’s benchmark SET index five years ago has produced a total return of about 270 per cent. Over that same time, Taiwan’s TWSE has offered just a quarter of that. Yet emerging Asia gets about two-fifths of its economic growth from exports – a higher proportion than emerging Europe (a third) or Latin America (a fifth). And since the Federal Reserve introduced the concept of tapering in May, Taiwan and its export rival South Korea are up almost a tenth respectively while Bangkok and Jakarta, another easy money success story, are off as much as 7 per cent.
Betting on north Asia’s exporters over consumers in the southeast suggests strong investor faith in the Fed’s ability to smoothly withdraw its cheap money without stunting a pick-up in the global economy. Generally, economic growth of about 7 per cent in Asia implies earnings will rise about a tenth in the next year, according to Nomura, which expects the region to grow 7.2 per cent. Thailand and Indonesia would of course also benefit from this. But there is only room for so many successful strategies. The shift in the past few months suggests markets have moved on to the next chapter in the Asian story.