(Bloomberg Opinion) -- They were the best of stocks, they were the worst of stocks. They were investments of wisdom. They were investments of foolishness.
If you’re a U.S. hedge fund manager, China’s education stocks have been a tale of two cities. A look at 180 U.S.-listed Chinese companies – from Alibaba Group Holding Inc. to BAT Group Inc. – shows that hedge funds have been gravitating toward this sector. (4)Over the past six months, these companies were among the best and worst performers.
While mutual and pension funds seek slow and steady returns, hedge funds often try to profit from big bets on sectors or companies in upheaval. Now that China’s internet sector has grown so large, and revenue has started to slow, these investors are looking farther afield for a home run.
That makes China’s education sector a tempting target. A three-year boom peaked last year after Beijing issued a series of new regulations, including restricting kindergarten operators from raising funds in equity markets. As my colleague Nisha Gopalan wrote at the time, these rules sent mixed signals about the government’s changing attitude toward private capital in education. Just two years earlier, Beijing was encouraging non-state investment in the sector, which prompted a wave of listings, she noted.
Profitability in the education sector is also patchy: More than half of U.S.-listed Chinese education companies posted a loss in their most recent earnings. In terms of stock performance, ATA Inc., which offers online and on-campus education, gained 64% and New Oriental Education & Technology Group Inc., a provider of classes, test prep and camps, climbed 33%. By contrast, Tarena International Inc., which breached Nasdaq listing rules, fell 83% and Ambow Education Holding Ltd, whose net loss widened threefold in the March quarter, slid 63%.
While such volatility makes buy-and-hold investors nervous, hedge fund managers see opportunities. The regulatory landscape, meanwhile, is bound to keep shifting. Just last week President Xi Jinping urged the development of vocational training in the country.
All this means that hedge funds are likely to continue dominating the education sector. HaiLiang Education Group Inc., for example, has 52% hedge fund ownership, according to Bloomberg data based on publicly reported holdings.(1)The private-school operator returned 86% in the last six months – one of the top performers among all U.S.-listed Chinese stocks – after reporting a 66% increase in fiscal first-half profit. Hedge funds hold 73% of publicly reported shares of preschool operator RYB Education Inc., which was a decided loser (unless you were short), falling 24%. U.S.-listed Chinese stocks lost a market-cap weighted 12% over the period while education stocks gained 9.2%.
A concentration of hedge fund ownership could magnify the extreme performances of these stocks. LAIX Inc., a purveyor of online English learning, dropped 22% Tuesday after posting another operating loss and noting that the performance of key products was “unexpectedly weak.”
Chinese leaders understand the importance of education in building a prosperous society. Last month, the Communist Party and State Council jointly published new guidelines on education reform: more moral education and physical exercise, less focus on exams. You can imagine savvy school managers rushing to set up centers that cater to the whims of the party as a result.
Such changes create opportunities for the private sector to march in time with government policy, and present risks to those who fail to keep up. Yet even without Beijing’s shifting views, this is a crowded sector with lots of companies losing money. For hedge fund managers, it will be the spring of hope and the winter of despair.
(1) Of the 180 companies I examined, 15 were education stocks, including companies that run schools, online programs, or provide related technology.
(2) Bloomberg collates data based on publicly reported holdings, which may not represent ratios of all shares outstanding.
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Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Bloomberg News.
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