In most stock markets, consumer staples are a refuge from the hype. In China, they’re up 64 percent this year and everyone wants in.
An index of Kweichow Moutai Co., Yonghui Superstores Co. and peers has jumped 13 percent in the past month alone, taking it to a record relative to the broader CSI 300 Index. A similar pattern is happening for stocks listed in Hong Kong, where the MSCI China Consumer Staples Index is at its highest in more than two years.
As incongruous as it sounds, investors say the outsized gains are evidence of the caution that pervades China’s equity markets these days, with consumer staples seen as more resilient to any economic fallout from the country’s deleveraging campaign. Plus, earnings are delivering: Kweichow Moutai last week said its net income more than doubled in the third quarter, adding $15.6 billion to the market value of the world’s biggest distiller in two days.
“Some investors are getting more defensive and increasing their exposure to consumer sectors after the rally,” said Dmitry Vlasov, a Hong Kong-based portfolio manager at East Capital, which manages about $3.7 billion globally. For the broader market, the key near-term risk is a “deceleration of China’s economic momentum amidst continued deleveraging,” he said.
Central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan sounded a warning about Chinese corporate debt ahead of the recently concluded Communist Party congress, and data Monday suggested manufacturing activity and confidence at smaller companies dropped in October. Still, retail sales beat expectations in September, rising 10.3 percent from a year earlier. The last time Chinese retail sales growth fell below 10 percent was back in February 2006.
The consumer staples sector is the most overbought since 2007, and Kweichow Moutai and Yonghui are among the most sought after stocks out of China’s 300 biggest listed companies.
“Investors continue rotating to the so-called defensive names from technology firms and banks, and they don’t want to leave,” said Bocom International Holdings Co. strategist Hong Hao. “Trades are very concentrated in several names, such as Moutai, as they are still bullish on growth despite the sharp rally.”
Hong, who called China’s boom-and-bust equity cycle in 2015, said the rally in defensive stocks is partly driven by earnings optimism as a pickup in inflation translates into higher consumer prices, while infrastructure spending boosts demand for consumer goods like spirits. China’s consumer price index rose 1.6 percent in September.
William Fong, a fund manager at Baring Asset Management (Asia) Ltd., told Bloomberg he sold some Apple suppliers and switched into consumer and home appliance stocks. “We are still seeing good earnings momentum in sectors like technology, healthcare and consumer staples,” he said.
The CSI 300 healthcare subgauge is the second-best performing sector in the index over the past month, rising 9 percent, led by Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group Co., which has soared more than 16 percent. The materials and energy subindexes are the only two to have declined in that period.
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