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24 feb 2020

The coronavirus outbreak highlights a better way to invest in China

The outbreak and spread of a coronavirus from the central Chinese city of Wuhan has triggered a risk-off global mood. Aside from the human cost of the illness, many of the world’s biggest companies base parts of their supply chain in China, and some are warning of decreased output and revenue due to supply-chain disruption. Markets shuddered in early February but are proving resilient as the month goes on. History suggests that any further market falls may present an opportunity for long-term investors.

What’s happened?

  • Global markets have had a turbulent few weeks as investors digested the impact of the Wuhan coronavirus, dubbed Covid-19. Globally, there have been 73,332 cases confirmed of this variant of coronavirus, and more than 2,000 deaths.  The human impact of the coronavirus has been largely confined to the Asia-Pacific region, but the commercial ramifications are already being felt across the globe, particularly in the tech and automotive sectors, as they undergo considerable supply-chain disruptions.
  • Among the highest-profile companies to report disruption from the virus are Apple – which has cut its sales expectations for Q2 2020 blaming store and factory closures – and South Korean tech company Samsung, which has been flying and sailing smartphone components into neighbouring Vietnam from China, rather than driving freight across the restricted land border between the countries. 
  • EM investors in the MSCI Emerging Markets ex China Index have been partially protected from the recent sell-off, as the index has been far less volatile than its broad EM counterpart. More on this below. 

What’s next?

  • Investor confidence is likely to continue to rise and fall over the coming weeks. Many observers believe that China has learned lessons from previous pandemics and is now much better placed to contain the latest outbreak. Although estimates for Q1 growth are declining, most expect the economy to bounce back from the damage done by the virus, encouraging for the longer-term outlook for multiple sectors even with short-term disruptions. The economic growth forecast for 2020 is estimated to be around 5.5%, down from 5.9% last month.1
  • Global sectors exposed to domestic Chinese growth remain vulnerable. Many businesses have shuttered temporarily for health and safety reasons. Any business involving face-to-face transactions, such as food and drink, and airlines, are particularly vulnerable. Chinese authorities are now considering direct cash infusions or mergers for the hobbled airline industry, as daily nationwide travel remains a fifth of its usual level for this time of the year. Following several high-profile outbreaks aboard cruise ships, companies operating in this industry will also remain under pressure. 
  • Given the high number of companies with parts of their supply chain in China, there are likely to further knock-on effects announced on earnings calls for affected businesses. The tech industry may face short-term disruption, but this should have little lasting impact on tech spending in 2020. The outlook looks worse for the auto sector, which faces challenges from both the decline in domestic demand and China’s position as a key parts supplier to global auto-makers. 
  •  Viral outbreaks develop in unpredictable ways and there may be more bumps in the road over the coming weeks and months. The focus will be on China’s battle to contain Covid-19 and how the economy holds up after the extended shutdowns in the country. Further policy measures aimed at supporting activity are expected over the coming weeks. 

Viral outbreaks: What history tells us

  • After nearly two decades of dealing with mutant viruses (e.g. the 2002/3 SARS scare), Asia has developed the infrastructure and ability needed to better contain the cross-border transmission of viruses. Many observers compare the coronavirus to the 2003 SARS epidemic. Although the Covid-19 virus is genetically similar to SARS, it appears milder in terms of illness and case fatality rate. Another related virus, known as MERS-CoV, has been spreading since 2012 and has led to death in 34% of the 2,499 cases recorded. 
  • By contrast, an estimated 50 million people died in the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that had a case-fatality rate of less than 5% but infected up to a third of the world’s population. Worst-case scenarios for Covid-19 should use the Asian Flu outbreak of 1957-58 (2 million deaths) or Hong Kong Flu of 1968-69 (1 million deaths) as a base case.
  • SARS had a time-limited negative economic impact. Visitor arrivals and retail sales stabilised within three months of the outbreak being contained.2 The history of SARS and avian flu outbreaks in China suggests that market dips may present an opportunity to buy risk assets at temporarily discounted levels.
  • Research conducted over recent years (e.g. by CDC Atlanta, and the World Bank) suggests that an outbreak like that of 1968-9 would today cause excess deaths in the range of 2 million to 7.4 million, with a GDP loss of $100-200bn for the US and around $550bn for all high-income countries taken together. 
  • Although using history as a template for projections can be useful, China is a much bigger player in the global economy and financial markets now than it was 17 years ago during the SARS outbreak. The Chinese share of global exports has more than tripled since the start of the millennium.3 In 2003, China accounted for 8% of the MSCI Emerging Markets index; today that figure is over 34%.4
  • We believe an allocation to Chinese equities should be managed independently of a broader emerging equities portfolio. Adopting such an approach enables investors to take greater exposure to other markets with improving fundamentals and vary their allocation to China depending on the prevailing market conditions. More volatility for Chinese equities can be expected over the weeks ahead.
  • The volatility profiles of the MSCI EM and MSCI EM ex-China have been very different since the beginning of the outbreak, even though the two indices have fallen by similar amounts. The chart below shows that the volatility of the MSCI EM ex-China has been much lower relative to that of the MSCI EM in recent weeks than it has historically.

MSCI chart

1Source: Bloomberg consensus data as at 19/02/2020

2Source: Asian Development Bank, Economics Paper Working Series, October 2019.

3Source: WTO, World Trade report 2019, November 2019

4Source: MSCI. Data as at 31/01/2020.

Scenarios and related products

Adverse scenario: Cover your bases

Source : Lyxor International Asset Management, TER & AuMs correct as at 23/01/2020

Positive scenario: Position for market rebound

Source : Lyxor International Asset Management, TER & AuMs correct as at 23/01/2020.

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Lyxor International Asset Management (“LIAM”) or its employees may have or maintain business relationships with companies covered in its research reports. As a result, investors should be aware that LIAM and its employees may have a conflict of interest that could affect the objectivity of this report. Investors should consider this report as only a single factor in making their investment decision. Please see appendix at the end of this report for the analyst(s) certification(s), important disclosures and disclaimers. Alternatively, visit our global research disclosure website

Conflicts of interest 

This research contains the views, opinions and recommendations of Lyxor International Asset Management (“LIAM”) Cross Asset and ETF research analysts and/or strategists. To the extent that this research contains trade ideas based on macro views of economic market conditions or relative value, it may differ from the fundamental Cross Asset and ETF Research opinions and recommendations contained in Cross Asset and ETF Research sector or company research reports and from the views and opinions of other departments of LIAM and its affiliates. Lyxor Cross Asset and ETF research analysts and/or strategists routinely consult with LIAM sales and portfolio management personnel regarding market information including, but not limited to, pricing, spread levels and trading activity of ETFs tracking equity, fixed income and commodity indices. Trading desks may trade, or have traded, as principal on the basis of the research analyst(s) views and reports. Lyxor has mandatory research policies and procedures that are reasonably designed to (i) ensure that purported facts in research reports are based on reliable information and (ii) to prevent improper selective or tiered dissemination of research reports. In addition, research analysts receive compensation based, in part, on the quality and accuracy of their analysis, client feedback, competitive factors and LIAM’s total revenues including revenues from management fees and investment advisory fees and distribution fees.

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