Fund profile: Liontrust Asia Income

Liontrust's single Asia offering, Liontrust Asia Income, has navigated a tricky period for Asian markets since its launch in March 2012 and as such has delivered a somewhat mixed performance so far.

In the fund's first year it returned 20.4 per cent, outperforming the Investment Association's (IA's) Asia Pacific excluding Japan sector by more than 5 per cent and placing it 15th among 80 funds. Its second year was also promising as it shed 6.3 per cent compared to 8.5 per cent from the sector, placing it in the second quartile.

However, the fund faced its first major hurdle in 2014, when during the period between January and December it sank to the bottom of the sector, returning 6.6 per cent compared to an average of nearly 10 per cent from the average Asia Pacific fund.

As manager Mark Williams observes, this was largely attributable to the fund's overweight to China, a region many Asia managers began avoiding in 2014 due to concerns over a slowdown in economic growth.

At the start of 2015 that overweight looked to have finally paid off, as China enjoyed one of the strongest rallies in market history following the Chinese government's decision to widen participation in the stock market through the Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect initiative, which was implemented in November 2014.

By early June China's Shanghai Composite index had soared by as much as 150 per cent over 12 months, as both Chinese and foreign investors piled into the market.

While Liontrust Asia Income had no exposure to domestic China 'A' shares, it enjoyed the uplift in sentiment via its Hong Kong-listed holdings, with the fund returning close to 16 per cent between 1 November and 1 June.

Of course, the bubble soon burst in a spectacular way: between mid-June and the end of August the Shanghai Composite shed nearly 40 per cent of its value - plummeting from 5,166 to 3,232 - while Hong Kong's Hang Seng shed nearly 21 per cent. Accordingly, once again the fund's overweight to China worked against it.

NEGATIVITY

The sell-offs have led many to be increasingly bearish on China and emerging markets in general, with an estimated $1 trillion (£642 billion) of investor money flowing out of emerging markets in the 13 months to 15 September. However, overall Williams and Chan believe that investors are far too bearish on emerging markets, and China in particular.

'I would say investors are taking too much notice of some things; the rise of debt in China is one of those.

'For example, in 2012 the press talked about the debt that was being issued and rolled over by Chinese banks, saying "this is ridiculous, you need to have market pricing", then last year there was the first potential default of a Chinese bond and equally everyone was very negative; but the two go hand in hand - if you want to have market pricing you have to have defaults.

'I think that what the government is attempting to do is exactly what we want to see, but it's going to be a very difficult transitional period.'

Having said this, however, Williams does have his reservations on the region. In particular he says that he 'disapproves' of how the Chinese government handled the recent sell-offs, taking measures including restricting participation, banning short selling, delisting companies and injecting liquidity via short-term loans.

'The stock market intervention was a terrible idea. We would much rather have seen A shares depreciate further to more realistic levels. We definitely disapprove; short term it is going to have a very small impact on the overall economy, while longer term it is going to dent investor confidence in the government's ability to transition towards a market-led economic model,' says Williams.

He is more positive on the government's decision to de-peg the renminbi from the US dollar over the summer, which has seen the value of the currency fall around 2.5 per cent. While some commentators accused China of waging a currency war with its neighbours in order to boost its export market, Williams believes it is a natural and necessary step for the government to take as part of its plan to free up the market.

HOLD STEADY

Williams says he and Chan haven't made too many changes to the portfolio since the sell-offs. They were not in Chinese A shares before June and they still do not believe that these are cheap enough to buy, even after the Shanghai Composite's spectacular tumble.

This stroke of foresight means that in the year to 18 September the fund has infact fared much better than most in the sector, shedding just 5.5 per cent compared to a loss of 9 per cent from the average Asia fund.

Trimming a few positions in Hong Kong, the managers have topped up a little on their exposure to Taiwan. The region currently occupies around 13 per cent of the portfolio, with Williams particularly keen on technology companies that he thinks might benefit from some merger and acquisition activity next year.

They are also keeping a close eye on India, a region they would like to invest more in but one where valuations will need to come down significantly before they do.

Overall, however, the managers will be keeping their overweight to China - currently around 42 per cent of the fund is invested in the region - as in the long term Williams believes that the investment case is still sound.

'On a medium to long-term time horizon our view on China hasn't changed; we do believe it will do well, particularly in comparison to the developed world and we want to capture that. To be honest, the more bearish others are, the more positive I get.'

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