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The second quarter in emerging markets was broadly a positive quarter, albeit with significant underlying debate and concern on certain key topics such as inflation, commodity prices, China regulation and the impact of digital or crypto currencies.
On the positive side of the ledger, mobility has generally increased and overall there is a decent impetus towards normality. In part, this is driven by a significant increase of the rate of vaccination in emerging markets. Availability of vaccines and actual vaccination rates have generally surpassed expectations from a few months ago, but many emerging markets (and some developed markets, such as Japan) were starting from low levels of achieved vaccination. Additionally, whilst economic activity has improved in aggregate, relatively small outbreaks have occurred and can cause proximate and immediate issues. One example would be the recent disruption in China’s southern ports caused by a Covid-19 cluster.
Source: UBS, Our World in Data. Data as of 25 June 2021.
Whilst global growth is impressive, driven by a cocktail of year-over-year (YOY) comparisons, near normal mobility in the U.S. and monetary and fiscal policies, it is not without challenges. Supply chains are sometimes stretched and vulnerable and previous underinvestment in commodities is coming home to roost in an environment of rapidly accelerating demand. This has given advocates of inflation some immediate ammunition to argue for higher inflation. But the debate is not about relatively temporary observations. Rather it is about long-run expectations where the outlook is much less clear, as secular forces of debt, demographics and digitization may conspire to keep generalized inflation low.
Higher debt leads to lower inflation and vice versa
Source: BofA Global Research, BIS, Bloomberg, Thomson Reuters Datastream. Data as of 17 March 2021.
In addition, despite the headline driven narratives on current inflationary pressures, we see tangible signs of slackening demand for some physical goods, combined with positive supply side response, which makes us even less convinced about an ingrained inflationary rhetoric going forward. Certainly, the behavior of the treasury market does not portray much concern about that possibility, in our view. So low inflation and low rates for the foreseeable future should set up a positive environment for structural growth going forward, right? Well, not so fast, there are caveats.
One is that the unprecedented global disruption caused by the pandemic, combined with the rapid evolution and acceleration in certain industries, has exposed structural issues which have significant investment implications. For instance, the adoption of electric vehicles and the increasingly pariah-like status of fossil fuels have conspired to drive up the prices of certain commodities like copper and crude. We believe one benefit for us, is that some commodity industries (like copper) are now exhibiting more structurally attractive (and less cyclical) characteristics than before.
Another example is the semiconductor supply chain. East Asia dominates fabrication of certain areas of semiconductors. Particularly notable is the dominance in advanced logic1 by Taiwan and South Korea.
As a building block in many areas of life, the vulnerability through such concentration has raised increasing concerns, not just on a short-term basis, as seen in the availability of chips for auto production, but on a long-term strategic basis, as China emerges as very significant competitor in the global arena. To be sure, we could anticipate a steep increase of investment in China and the U.S. in this sector. Much of which will involve government involvement, by subsidy or direct investment. The contours of the industry in the medium term are therefore subject to increased uncertainty as non-economic considerations and political actors become more involved.
And it is not just semiconductors. We believe that the pendulum has swung in favor of increasing government involvement/regulation of some of the most interesting, structurally growing areas that we invest in. In particular, there has been a notable increase in regulatory activity in a number of areas in China. Industries such as after-school tutoring, ecommerce and ride-hailing have all been a focus.
It is true that many regulations will ultimately create a better end point of fairer, more sustainable industries, but the journey can be arduous and uncertain. Investors don’t like uncertainty. In addition, for a number of the more recent China related listings in the internet space, we question moats2 of their business models.
In summary, we believe the macro environment, with subdued inflation and low rates, even as global activity normalizes, may be rewarding for forward-looking, sustainable and structural growth investors in emerging markets. But the focus has to adjust to a landscape of changing regulatory and industry dynamics, potentially creating a compelling, alpha generation opportunity for active investors in the space.
1 Advanced logic is defined as <10nm and currently located in Taiwan and South Korea, as outlined in the chart below.
2 A moat is a sustainable competitive advantage that is expected to allow a company to fend off competition and sustain profitability into the future.
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