Amid corporate gloom, PH, Asean companies bring some light

Posted at 10/27/2012 8:50 AM | Updated as of 10/27/2012 8:50 AM

SINGAPORE - Southeast Asia is becoming one bright spot in a world of gloomy corporate earnings, with strong profit growth powered by a population of 600 million people increasingly willing, and able, to spend in their fast growing economies.

Southeast Asian companies are expected to report on average a 16.2 percent increase in quarterly profit from a year ago, Morgan Stanley said in a report this month.

That compares to dreary corporate profits in China and others in the Asia-Pacific region, like Australia, that depended heavily on the now weakened buying power of major economies such as China.

"Economic growth in the region is expected to be underpinned by domestic consumption, induced by fiscal spending, private investments and an increase in wages. This trend is notable in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines," said Ronald Chan, head of equities in Asia at Manulife Asset Management.

"The domestic demand story is structural in nature and has yet to run its course."

The Morgan Stanley report pointed to strong performances by companies including Indonesia's top gas distributor Perusahaan Gas Negara, Thailand's top energy firm PTT Pcl and Philippine conglomerate San Miguel Corp.

A worker carries cases of San Miguel beer in this file photo. / REUTERS

The robust profits contrast with the story in China, once the darling of emerging-market investors.

Last week, Chinese telecom equipment maker ZTE Corp flagged a third-quarter loss that would erase its profit earlier in the year. China Life Insurance Co Ltd also issued a profit warning.

Analysts have cut estimates for Chinese companies in the MSCI China index every month since June 2011, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S. September's revisions were the worst in 2-1/2 years after grim first-half report cards.

After years of heady growth, export-orientated economies that benefited from Chinese demand are now suffering as orders from China slide.

"We've seen some atrocious earnings numbers from Hong Kong, and Taiwan, and Australia as well. This clearly reflects either a China link or a developed market link," said John Woods, Citi Private Bank's chief investment strategist for Asia Pacific.

SOUTHEAST ASIA LEADS THE WAY

Companies in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand rank high on StarMine's Analyst Revision Score, which measures changes in analyst sentiment. Australia, China, South Korea and Taiwan fare poorly.

Investors have taken note.

China, whose economy has slowed for the seventh consecutive quarter, is the worst performing stock market in Asia. By contrast, Thailand and the Philippines are the top performers as they double the gains on broad regional and world indexes.

And while analysts are cutting full year earnings estimates, the smallest cuts are reserved for companies in Southeast Asia, partly because of the region's strong private consumption, data from Thomson Reuters StarMine shows.

Analysts have reduced estimates for Thailand by just 0.2 percent over the past month, by 0.3 percent for the Philippines and by 0.4 percent for Malaysia.

By contrast, they lowered estimates for Australia by 2.9 percent, by 2.5 percent for both Taiwan and South Korea, and by 1.9 percent for China.

The operating environment is much stronger in countries like the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, or even India, Citi's Woods said.

Indonesia attracted a record $5.9 billion in foreign direct investment in the third quarter, signalling that Southeast Asia's biggest economy remains a hot favorite despite a dismal global outlook and concerns about corruption and corporate governance.

Companies in the region are also aggressively chasing acquisition targets within Southeast Asia to boost growth.

A Singapore-listed hotel and property firm backed by Indonesia's Lippo Group said last week that it may launch a takeover bid for conglomerate Fraser & Neave Ltd, challenging a $7.2 billion offer by companies controlled by Thailand's third-richest man.