How to profit from Asia's technology boom

technological-dragon

There's little doubt as to which companies spring to mind when we think about the big technology innovators - Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and the other US west coast pioneers.

But take a look at the holdings list of any global growth, emerging markets or Far East fund, and it's increasingly likely that you'll find a few Asian technology firms in there somewhere.

Instead of the Bric acronym used to describe the emerging markets quartet of Brazil, Russia, India and China, some now refer to the 'Ticks', with Taiwan and South Korea taking the place of Brazil and Russia as technology usurps commodities as the dominant theme in emerging markets.

So why is Asia producing so many successful technology stories? One explanation is that technology tends to be adopted at a far quicker rate in emerging markets.

ASIA SUCCESS STORIES

'The smartphone, for example, has become the customary way to access the internet; laptops or computers were never adopted on the same scale as in the developed world, and consequently there has been no need to disintermediate,' says Daniel Adams, senior investment analyst at Psigma Investment Management.

Then there's the rapid rise of the middle class in many Asian countries, driving up the demand for products and services that can be accessed through online channels.

That demand goes a long way to explaining the rapid growth of the Chinese conglomerates referred to collectively as the BAT: Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent.

performance-of-funds-holding-asian-technology-stocks

'These are worldscale companies, because of the adoption of online social networks and e-commerce which have gripped China quicker than most,' says Mike Kerley, manager of the Henderson Asian Dividend Income fund.

All three firms boast market capitalisations around the $200 billion (£151 billion) mark and are now investing heavily in artificial intelligence (AI) expertise, having set up research centres in San Francisco.

'They're probably the most advanced in the world at voice and image recognition. Chinese regulators and people will adopt new technology faster than we do in the west,' says Ewan Markson-Brown, manager of the Pacific Horizon investment trust.

The Chinese government's belief that it needs technological innovation to keep the economy growing means its investment in the sector comes from an imperative rather than a 'nice to have' desire.

It has signed a deal with Baidu to launch autonomous public transport by 2018, for example, stealing a march on the US.

While autonomous transport development in the US faces state restrictions (on road use and car standards, for instance) the Chinese government has the power to permit any changes that might be necessary to pave the way for driverless cars.

MANUFACTURING

Meanwhile, over in Taiwan the technology manufacturing sector now accounts for a third of its entire industrial output.

The country's world-leading technology manufacturing sector has spawned firms such as Taiwan Semiconductor (also known as Foxconn) and HTC (the world's biggest contract chip maker).

Faced with intense competition from Chinese firms able to undercut their rivals, Taiwan is investing heavily in the next generation of startups such as Gogore, which last year launched smartphone-synched bikes called 'smartscooters'.

South Korea's tech sector has grown on the back of huge research and development spending that saw it come top of the 2016 Bloomberg Innovation index.

It has a particular strength in the biotechnology sector, which might help explain why the country is believed to have the world's highest rate of plastic surgery per capita. One of the firms to have benefited is Medytox, a Seoul-based manufacturer of botox and filler.

Japan, home to electronics giants including Sony, Sharp and Toshiba, has also produced a number of eyecatching tech firms in the smartphone arena. Mobile gaming is a dominant theme, with GungHo Online Entertainment and Mixi Inc among the recent successes.

The growth potential in Asian technology has been noticed by fund managers. Some of the best-known generalist fund managers, most notably James Anderson of Scottish Mortgage trust, have been vocal in recent times about the potential for technological change to bring about the demise of some of the world's biggest companies.

Among the other global funds holding technology stocks are Fidelity Global Special Situations (23 per cent, including Japanese mobile telecoms operator KDDI), Neptune Global Equity (27 per cent, including Tencent), Rathbone Global Opportunities (25.6 per cent, again including Tencent) and Standard Life Investment Global Equity Unconstrained (22.5 per cent, including Baidu).

Then there are the dedicated technology funds and trusts. Global technology vehicles from Allianz, Polar Capital, Henderson, Neptune and Fidelity are all among those with at least 10 per cent invested in Asia Pacific equities.

But taking advantage of the Asian tech boom isn't straightforward. The fast-moving nature of the sector gives it a winner-takes-all aspect, with those companies quick to seize the initiative able to grow rapidly and take huge chunks of market share.

'The biggest companies are buying the up-and-comers, so it's very focused,' says Kerley.

LIKELY WINNERS

The winners in the key markets - the US, China and to some extent Japan and Korea - have probably emerged already, believes Markson-Brown. 'They have the data they need. If a company comes along they buy it out, so the probability of disruption is slim.'

That doesn't necessarily translate into a compelling investment narrative, however. 'The short-term earnings risk and investment is high and pay-off is a few years away,' says Markson-Brown.

'Baidu earnings are depressed because it's been investing heavily but the market isn't giving it value for [that investment].'

performance-of-asian-investment-trusts

Concerns about the China slowdown and the implications of the UK's Brexit decision for the global economy are helping keep downward pressure on valuations. 'For long-term investors this is a great time to buy and there are still buying opportunities out there,' he adds.

One alternative to piling into stocks with which you're not familiar is to invest in the Asian tech boom through more traditional names.

This way investors can capture the benefits of the changes without being overexposed to particular brands or mediums, explains Kerley at Henderson.

'We like traditional manufacturing companies in Asia because the new tech products still require some kind of hardware. We tend to focus on generalised companies that can be exposed to mass adoption of technology.'

INFRASTRUCTURE

Large e-commerce companies rely heavily on the infrastructure provided by telecoms firms that supply fibre networks and smartphones, for example.

'As demand grows there's a scarcity in this area,' says Kerley. 'If e-commerce continues developing as quickly as it has done, they'll be investing more in areas such as logistics.'

The spectre of the dotcom boom and bust is never far away from any discussion about investing in emerging technology and in firms that seem to have popped up out of nowhere. The Asian innovators at the head of the digital revolution will be especially unfamiliar to many investors.

But there's one key difference between then and now; where investing in technology was once about hype, it's now more about realised potential. The question is where it goes next and what it means for the way we live.

ASIAN TECH GIANTS IN PROFILE

Baidu

Baidu is thought to control around 80 per cent of the Chinese online search market, giving it access to vast amounts of data.

Baidu, which in 2007 became the first Chinese company to list on Nasdaq, also owns social media services, has embarked on a partnership with Amazon to power its Fire device in China and is now developing driverless cars.

However, in July, Chinese government measures to tighten up online advertising regulations saw its share price take a hit.

Alibaba

Alibaba is China's internet bazaar. The e-commerce business includes online retail and payment services and a shopping search engine; it's now providing the infotainment system for the new 'internet car', which connects to other devices including smartphones, watches and televisions.

In 2015 it made $14.3 billion in sales on 'singles day', a festival for single people and the world's biggest online shopping day, while its initial public offering in 2014 was the biggest in US history.

Tencent

Tencent, founded in 1998, offers online services including social networking, instant messaging, web portals, e-commerce and gaming. Its WeChat mobile texting service has more than 700 million users and its QQ.com website is among the world's biggest.

NetEase

NetEase is a Chinese internet company providing online services including games, advertising, email and e-commerce.

Its main revenue comes from online and mobile gaming, and in 2015 it launched a US operation to release games in North America. It has a policy of paying dividends quarterly that makes it relatively unusual for a tech company.

Info Edge

India isn't strongly associated with technological innovation, with the focus more on business process outsourcing and so ware development.

One notable exception is Info Edge, an e-commerce and classified ads company that owns Nakuri, India's largest online employment agency, real estate portal 99acres.com and restaurant listings business Zomato.

Naver

The search engine has a market share of more than 70 per cent and has now teamed up with India's three mobile operators to offer a joint app store that will use existing Naver services, including its payment service.


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