Korea in Focus: Last Month’s Recap & Outlook
By Korea Investment Management, portfolio manager of the AdvisorShares KIM Korea Equity ETF (Ticker: KOR)
In July, global stock markets rebounded as US dollar (USD) appreciation, which caused emerging markets to plunge from May-June, wound down. However, the Korean market underperformed both developed and emerging, failing to join the global upturn. With the US and China bracing for a protracted trade war, Korea’s economic structure that features a heavy export weighting and companies relying much on overseas sales was exposed for its weakness. We believe the Korean market was also weighed down by investor sentiment souring due to the debate about semiconductors peaking and the Kosdaq’s sharp pullback led by pharmaceuticals/biotech stocks.
While the deepening US-China trade spat and China’s slowing economic indicators prompted the Chinese stock market to experience wilder swings, the intensified coupling of asset prices such as currencies and stocks between Korea and China also had an adverse effect on the Korean market. In addition, the KRW/USD (South Korean won to US dollar) witnessed heightened volatility by surpassing (won) W1,135 as the USD turned stronger and the China yuan renminbi (CNY) weaker due to concerns about the trade dispute.
In July, the Kospi retreated 1.33% while the Kosdaq tumbled 5.22%. By sector, the biggest gainers were telecom services (+6.5%), transport & storage (+2.8%) and banks (+2.8%) while the biggest losers were pharmaceuticals (-7.8%), medical & precision devices (-6.9%) and food & beverages (-6.4%). For the pharmaceuticals/biotech sector, investor sentiment soured substantially due to news of the Financial Supervisory Service conducting thematic reviews and a scandal involving fake vaccines in China, following Samsung Biologics’ accounting rule violations.
Several major events at home and abroad are in store for August as well. The US is preparing to impose tariffs on USD16 billion (bn) worth of Chinese goods and a public hearing will be held regarding extra tariffs on imports worth USD200bn. Although USD appreciation is easing, the CNY has yet to show a clear uptrend, and this is a risk factor. In terms of supply-demand, the possibility of a passive funds outflow following the second phase of China A-shares inclusion to the MSCI Emerging Markets Index in August is another burden.
However, there are clear signals suggesting that unfavorable factors have peaked. Above all, USD appreciation is easing due to a narrower gap in the economic momentum between the US and other countries and US President Donald Trump’s recent comments. Accordingly, we also focus on better liquidity conditions in emerging countries compared to May and June. Although it is difficult to present an accurate forecast due to the US-China trade war becoming lengthy affair, China still has room for policy momentum such as using fiscal tools and defending the CNY against additional depreciation. As such, unfavorable factors are unlikely to have a significant impact.
While concerns about the trade dispute would persist, the Kospi has limited downside considering the current valuation level. However, earnings momentum remains too weak to fuel a share price upswing. As such, we believe the color of the portfolio is more crucial than the magnitude of the index’s recovery. Given that cyclical sectors took a nosedive in the latest stock market correction, they could rebound just as fast, in our view. In particular, sectors that received a discount to the market such as semiconductors, banks, energy, construction, chemicals and steel have enough room to pick up.
Nonetheless, companies with growth potential are bound to enjoy a share price premium. As sales have limited room to grow due to concerns about slowing economic conditions and the trade war, factors such as higher commodity prices, rising interest rates and the minimum wage increase have an adverse effect on margins. As such, we recommend taking a mid to long-term approach to sectors guaranteed to grow such as IT, healthcare, media/content and Chinese consumer spending-driven stocks.
In July, the Kospi finished down 1.33% month over month (MoM) due to several negatives such as 1) ongoing trade tensions between the US and China, 2) Korea’s tepid domestic economic indicators and 3) soured sentiment due to the FAANG stocks pullback. The Kosdaq plunged 5.22% MoM due to the financial authorities’ themed inspection of biotech stocks. While all sectors turned downward, utilities and telecom services fared relatively well due to their defensive nature.
Several events that could dampen the Korean stock market linger ahead in August such as the US and China each imposing further tariffs, uncertainties stemming from a volatile CNY and the potential capital flight of passive funds following the second phase of China A-shares inclusion to the MSCI Emerging Markets Index. However, we also detect signals of passing the trough with a narrowing gap between the economic conditions of the US and other regions, a slower rise for the USD after President Trump’s comments and the easing of US-EU trade tensions.
The economic indicators of major countries indicate that the world’s economy continues to expand despite uncertainties and the second quarter’s (2Q18) earnings at major Korean firms testified to solid profit growth. Taking into account the KRW’s depreciation in 2Q18, domestic companies are even more likely to bolster earnings in the second half of 2018 (2H18). As such, we believe the domestic stock market has entered a phase of excessive undervaluation and further downside risk is very limited.
Stocks in the pharmaceuticals/biotech, SI, advertising and logistics sectors and Kosdaq stocks that have been heavily sold still feature big growth potential and solid profits while accounting audits and the Fair Trade Commission’s investigation are almost over. The government remains committed to boost small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and the Kosdaq market. With sour investor sentiment nearing an end, we believe this is the right time for those small/mid-cap stocks from the mid to long-term perspectives.
The information, statements, views and opinions included in this publication are based on sources (both internal and external sources) considered to be reliable, but not representation or warranty, express or implied, is made as to their accuracy, completeness or correctness. Such information, statements, views and opinions are expressed as of the date of publication, are subject to change without further notice and do not constitute a solicitation for the purchase or sale of any investment referenced in the publication.