By Faith Hung
TAIPEI, July 7 (Reuters) - Investors wanting a slice of the crazy demand expected for Apple Inc's next version of the iPhone are rushing for what they believe is more profitable than investing in the U.S. smartphone maker: Taiwanese Apple component suppliers.
Shares of suppliers, such as camera module maker Largan Precision, are at record levels on such proxy betting.
The surrogate betting itself isn't new. But relatively inexpensive Taiwan shares, the extra mileage the suppliers get from duplicating iPhone features for other smartphone makers and a lack of long-term visibility for the U.S. tech giant, make the supply chain an inviting investment prospect.
The underlying assumption is that the stocks of these smaller firms will move faster than those of Apple Inc itself, if the iPhone 6 is a success. Equally, the risk of disappointing iPhone sales is reduced when the wager is on a firm that supplies parts primarily to Apple but also to other lower end smartphone players.
"From foreign investors' point of view, Apple is a very big stock, and that limits the upside potential for earnings growth and share prices," said John Chiu, chief investment officer of Fuh Hwa Securities Investment Trust in Taiwan. The fund has $4.3 billion under management.
"Relatively speaking, Apple component makers are smaller and their growth potential is bigger. They are more likely to get a re-rating on their stock prices if Apple's new products are successful," said Chiu.
It might be weeks before Apple's new iPhone 6 and its smart watch are launched, but some of the supply chain stocks are already at frothy levels.
Largan's earnings are set to nearly double this year. Its shares have surged 57 percent since April, eclipsing the 20 percent rise in Apple's shares. Largan's market capitalisation of $10.7 billion pales in comparison with Apple's $567 billion, but explains the latter's sluggish share price movement.
Other lead gainers have been Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co Ltd (TSMC), the world's top contract chipmaker, and Hon Hai Precision. The former makes next generation A8 chips while the latter assembles iPhones.
The Taipei share index is on the verge of scaling the 10,000-point-mark for the first time in 14 years.
"Investors are waiting to see if the new products Apple is set to launch are really as good as expected. If so, Apple's share momentum will ride high later this year," said Edward Chao, fund manager of Jih Sun Securities Investment Trust in Taipei.
"Until then, regional investors are shifting their money to Taiwan's Apple component makers from Samsung Electronics and other South Korea stocks as Samsung would suffer most if Apple's new products are a big hit."
Chao's fund, heavily weighted on Largan and other Apple component makers, generated nearly 30 percent in returns in the first half of the year, topping Taiwan's 180 local equities-dedicated mutual funds.
The Taiwan stock rally is not merely restricted to Apple's suppliers, but partly driven by recovery in the U.S. economy and broader tech sector as well as cheap funding.
Taiwan has gained disproportionately among tech-dominant North Asian economies, snatching market share from South Korea and the more expensive Japanese manufacturers. The $11 billion in net foreign portfolio flows into the island's stock market so far this year even beat Asia's other big beneficiary, India.
That Taiwan is home to a supply chain spanning chips to cameras and assembly of phones has helped, as has its proximity to Chinese makers of cheaper phones and replicas.
"Sometimes the leading brands will adopt a particular feature that the rest of the industry quickly copies," said Peter Kurz, a Taiwan-based equity strategist at Citi. "So the component company could benefit disproportionately with a new product design by a leading brand."
Largan's share prices hit a record T$2,400 ($80) this week, a level that no other Taiwan peers have seen.
The cheap valuations have helped. Although the Taiwan stock index is up 10 percent this year, prices are trading on average 16 times earnings. Japan's Nikkei index has fallen 5 percent this year and yet trades at a price-earnings ratio of 19. The U.S. Nasdaq index trades at 23 times earnings.
On Friday, Taiwan's index ended flat at 9,510 points, having this week hit its highest close in almost seven years.
"There is no sign the market is pulling back," said Ryan Shen, a fund manager at Capital Securities Investment Trust. "The only thing to worry about is overbooking if iPhone 6 fails to meet expectations." (Additional reporting by Aviel Tan in Singapore; Editing by Vidya Ranganathan and Jacqueline Wong)
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