Why a strong yuan may be better for Baidu than China’s exporters

Market Realist

China’s slowing investment bubble will hurt Apple’s sales growth (Part 9 of 11)

(Continued from Part 8)

From hard peg to soft peg

The Chinese yuan has appreciated approximately 3% per year since the launch of exchange rate reform in 2005, appreciating from 8.25 to 6.22 versus the U.S. dollar. The Chinese Central Bank “pegs” its exchange rate to the U.S. dollar, though it has allowed its currency to appreciate against the U.S. dollar more aggressively since 2005, as the below graph reflects. From a U.S. investor’s perspective, this will raise the value of Baidu’s, Apple’s, and Google’s, yuan-based revenues versus the dollar as well. For Chinese banks, their exporting borrowers are seeing capacity utilization levels decline as the yuan rises. This trend could continue for some time and may suggest that companies like Baidu, Apple, and Google with yuan-based revenues may be on firmer earnings ground than many Chinese manufacturing firms and banks.

For more detailed comparative analysis on Google (GOOG) versus Yandex (YNDX) and Baidu (BIDU), please see Market Realist Smita Nair’s series Evaluating Yandex versus other key search engines.

What is the yuan really worth?

Economists differ on the extent to which the Chinese yuan might appreciate should this currency “peg” be terminated and the currency be allowed to “float” and trade without restriction in the international money market. Some economists estimate that the yuan should be 30% stronger than its current level. However, the Chinese yuan appreciated a mere 1.5% in 2012 and remained unchanged since 2013, as current global macroeconomic issues introduce greater uncertainty into Chinese economic growth rates and thereby into the historical rates of yuan appreciation. The Chinese trade surplus puts upward pressure on the yuan, as Chinese exporters must ultimately sell dollars to buy yuan, which they use to run their factories in China. Any dollars not repatriated to cover costs in China can stay in the USA, typically in the form of U.S. Treasuries. While the Chinese central bank has “pegged” the yuan-dollar exchange rate to mitigate yuan appreciation and nurture Chinese exporters in the past, the Chinese central bank has also allowed the yuan to appreciate more aggressively since 2005, as we noted above—the black line on the graph.

The Japan yen and Korean won weaken dramatically against the Chinese yuan post-2008

While the above graph reflects the relatively smooth appreciation of the Chinese yuan versus the U.S. dollar, it also reflects, by virtue of its “peg” to the U.S. dollar, the volatility of the dollar and yuan against other currencies. Most notable is the post-2012 yen weakness against the U.S. dollar, which, by virtue of the yuan-dollar peg, reflects in weakness against the Chinese yuan. The yuan has thereby appreciated rapidly against the Japanese yen, as well as the Korean won, in sync with the U.S. dollar. If this trend continues, China will face intensifying competition from the highly productive Japanese export machine, while Korean exports continue to surprise to the upside. Japan simply needs a weaker currency associated with its high productivity to recover its export strength and return to a more positive level of economic growth. While a strong yuan will pressure Chinese manufacturers and financial sector, Baidu and Google China should remain less vulnerable to this exchange-related pressure, though advertising sales could soften. Apple should continue to see strong yuan-based revenue growth, though if the yuan remains too strong for too long, the higher-end products may not be adopted as quickly as hoped—especially in non-urban areas.

Foreign exchange and earnings

By pegging the yuan to the U.S. dollar, and perhaps by preventing the yuan from appreciating too rapidly against global currencies, the Chinese economy has benefited from a fairly weak and stable currency. This managed and stable currency has been a great asset in attracting foreign direct investment, building a significant base of domestic capital formation, and thereby building the modern Chinese manufacturing machine. However, as we look to the future, we must also note the downside of maintaining a currency peg with the U.S. dollar.

While a stable or appreciating currency can attract foreign investment, as it has for China in the past, a strengthening currency may not attract as much investment as it used to when investment opportunities provide lower returns, due to a higher cost base. Should the dollar continue to strengthen as a result of the expectation of future higher interest rates, this could also put further appreciation pressure on the Chinese yuan. However, as the Chinese yuan won’t likely weaken significantly anytime soon (like the Japanese yen could weaken), Baidu’s dollar equivalent earnings should remain fairly solid.

In the case of Yandex (YNDX), troubles in Ukraine have led to a 10% drop in the Russian Micex equity index, as well as the Russian ruble. It might appear that Yandex’s 43% decline this year reflect both political and economic concerns in Russia. However, given Yandex’s strong margins and growth, the recent selloff could be overdone. Putin’s intentions on Internet control remain a cloud over Yandex’s operational environment in Russia.

To see an overview of the U.S. macroeconomic recovery that could support China’s export economy, please see Must-know 2014 US macro outlook: The crack in the debt ceiling.

Asian equity outlook

The weakening yen and relatively flat wage growth in Japan have supported Japanese markets, as reflected in the Wisdom Tree Japan Hedged (DXJ) and the iShares MSCI Japan (EWJ) ETFs. Aggressive monetary policy in the USA has supported the S&P 500, as reflected in the State Street Global Advisors S&P 500 SDPR (SPY), the State Street Global Advisors Dow Jones SPDR (DIA), and the Blackrock iShares S&P 500 Index (IVV), which have been up nearly 18% over the past year. However, tapering is now in play, and higher rates in the five-year Treasury could cool U.S. valuations going forward. Given China’s current financial challenges in the banking system, both the U.S. equity markets and the Abenomics-driven Japanese equity markets may continue to outpace China’s iShares FTSE China 25 Index Fund (FXI) and Korea’s iShares MSCI South Korea Capped Index Fund (EWY). However, if U.S. valuations continue to increase over the year, China’s valuations should become increasingly compelling. With FXI’s key holding, the banking flagship Bank of China, trading at a 0.84 price-to-book ratio and a 4.95 price-to-earnings ratio, you have to wonder how much lower Chinese banks and financials could go.

Continue to Part 10

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