Follow the Chinese Money Along the One Belt, One Road Initiative

 | Nov 24, 2017 | 9:00 AM EST
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China's increasing influence outside its borders, often backed by infrastructure spending in return for commodities contracts, bothers some commentators. I myself see it as a new form of economic imperialism. But I also give China credit for investing in places where other nations have shown no willingness to do so. 

Investors would do well to follow the money. There are 70 nations involved in the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) scheme China hopes will link it through Central, Southeast and South Asia to Europe. It's actually made up of many paths -- the "Belt and Road" idea is just a catchy concept. Still, those countries represent 4.5 billion people, or 62% of everybody on the planet, and $23 trillion in gross domestic product, or 30% of global GDP.

It's not as easy as it sounds to track One Belt, One Road. Many of the countries along the way are frontier and emerging nations which, to be honest, have stock markets that you would be very brave to enter. They are thinly traded and extremely open to abuse, as I wrote last month after my recent trips to Vietnam.

Investors should therefore let fund managers do the work for them. I'm a big fan of index trackers and exchange-traded funds, and there are several efforts under way to map China's rising infrastructure influence.

There's the INDXX China Infrastructure Index, which takes 30 of China's largest infrastructure companies in a bid to duplicate the performance of the overall sector. As yet, there are no products that track the index, but watch this space.

Separately, ICBC Standard Bank has created a proprietary tracker to follow the economic progress of the nations involved. It shows that demand for exports out of the Belt and Road economies is at its highest point since mid-2012.

There's a "general narrative which suggests that global tailwinds have strengthened notably this year," the bank notes. But external demand is coming from an above-average base, and domestic demand is strong within the Belt and Road nations themselves. That means total demand is now showing clear momentum out of the prolonged post-crisis slump that lasted into 2015, so long is the lag produced in trade by an economic collapse.

Some of China's new partners never participated in the run up before the "global" financial crisis. Most of Africa has been in crisis for most of the last century!

China is investing heavily in Zimbabwe, and may well have granted approval to the coup that toppled Robert Mugabe, an issue I explored on Wednesday. The influence has involved support for leaders like Mugabe. But frankly, Zimbabwe has been largely abandoned by its former colonial power, Britain.

The former European overlords who scrambled so madly for Africa in the 1800s -- France, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, Italy and Spain also among them -- have been conspicuous by their absence in the years since they pulled out, often leaving a colossal post-colonial mess behind. China is filling that void.

The KraneShares MSCI One Belt One Road ETF (OBOR) is the most-interesting new investable product tracking that progress. The fund, which launched in September, tracks the MSCI Global China Infrastructure Exposure Index, designed to build a portfolio of non-Chinese and Chinese companies alike that stand to benefit by winning business from Chinese government contracts.

Frankly, Chinese officials throw any and every infrastructure project that takes place in any of the nations on the way between China and Europe as a Belt-and-Road initiative, as long as China was somehow involved. They have also admitted that many of the projects may lose money: as much as 80% in Pakistan, 50% in Myanmar and 30% in central Asia, according to news reports.

This has drawn some heat. The Reuters columnist Christopher Beddor took the new ETF to task for investing in projects that produce so much red ink. But his Breakingviews column misses the point that, while a hydroelectric dam or new airport may lose money, the companies that build them are often very profitable indeed.

There's no doubt there's a dire need for China's concrete-pouring experience, which is legend. Asia needs $26 trillion in investment in infrastructure by 2030, according to the Asian Development Bank.

To that end, China has orchestrated the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which in March expanded its ranks to 70 nations -- minus, famously, the United States and Japan. Chinese banks are stumping up much of the planned initial $1.0 trillion in investment to be pumped into OBOR states.

China is the only nation that the ADB says is already spending around 90% of the levels it needs to invest in infrastructure. And there is a cluster of companies that are already gaining from China's heavy infrastructure spending.

Chief among the definite beneficiaries of government largesse in infrastructure lending include China Communications Construction Co. or CCCC (CCCGY) , which constructs ports, roads and railways. The Middle Kingdom is also home to the world's largest construction company, China State Construction Engineering SH:601668, sure to win plenty of government business.

Other companies set to expand along the OBOR paths include China Railway Construction Corp. or CRCC (CWYCY) , which as the world's second-biggest civil engineering company builds highways, bridges and even the stadium of soccer team Inter Milan, as well as the high-speed rail lines that led to its name. It is not to be confused with another beneficiary, the railways contractor CRRC HK:1766, short for the China Railway Rolling Stock Corp., by far the largest train manufacturer in the world.

Investors can also take a look at Guangxi LiuGong Machinery SH:000528, better known simply as LiuGong, which makes construction equipment such as bulldozers, excavators, road rollers and forklift trucks. Reuters created an equities shortlist of companies exposed to the OBOR initiative, noting that 90% of them will be Chinese, also including Sinotruk (SHKLY)  (full name: China National Heavy Duty Truck Group), which -- surprise, surprise -- makes heavy-duty trucks. Investors can also look to Chinese pile-driver, crane and cement-truck maker Sany Heavy Industry SH:600031.

But foreign companies supplying gear to the Chinese construction companies also stand to gain. They include the likes of Siemens (SIEGY) , which makes everything from electricity turbines to light switches, and the Swedish-Swiss electric-grid maker ABB (ABB) , as well as Action Alerts PLUS charity portfolio name General Electric (GE) .

I mentioned the largest components of the KraneShares (OBOR) fund in Wednesday's story: the Singaporean bank OCBC (OVCHY) , the Russian oil company Rosneft (RNFTF) , the Malaysian conglomerate Sime Darby KL:SIME, and the largest Thai oil company PTT Global Chemical (PCHUY) .

Other major holdings include Polish copper-mining company KGHM Polska Miedz FR:KGHA, the sprawling Filipino conglomerate JG Summit Holdings (JGSMY) (parent of the airline Cebu Pacific and the Robinsons retail chain, as well as oil interests) and the Malaysian oil giant Petronas Chemicals Group KL:5183. They're all on the OBOR route, and their inclusion does mean that the ETF and index offer excellent exposure to emerging-market infrastructure and heavy industry.

External demand is coming from an above-average base, and domestic demand is strong within the Belt and Road nations themselves. That means total demand is now showing clear momentum out of the prolonged post-crisis slump that lasted into 2015, so long is the lag produced in trade by an economic collapse. 

South Asia is seeing consumer credit grow by close to 15% year on year, with the rate of growth for the same indicator a little below 10% in East Asia. The former Soviet states have shown a dramatic rally from a close to 10% decline in consumer credit in early 2016, to growth at a pace approaching the rate of East Asia now. Only the Middle East and North Africa region is lagging on that front.

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