Not so long ago, the Asian economies, specifically those nations known as the Asian Tigers, were booming and became the envy of much of the world. But things began to unravel in 1997, producing the hemorrhage known as the Asian Crisis that was only staunched by emergency action from the International Monetary Fund.
In the end, many investors lost their appetites for things Asian. But some shrewd managers–like G. Paul Matthews–avoided the carnage and now stand poised to take advantage of a possibly warmer Asian investing climate.
As manager, founder, chairman, and chief investment officer of San Francisco-based Matthews International Capital Management, Matthews also serves as the fund manager for Matthews Asian Growth & Income Fund (MACSX), as well as five other funds, Matthews Pacific Tiger (MAPTX), Matthews Korea (MAKOX), Matthews China (MCHFX), Matthews Japan (MJFOX), and Matthews Asian Technology (MATFX). Matthews is lead portfolio manager for all but Matthews Japan.
Raised in the United Kingdom, Matthews began his financial career in an Asian environment that offered attractive growth opportunities. “I was particularly drawn to the economies of Asia,” he says, “initially [to that in] Hong Kong, which was widely considered to be the most affluent and most free market in the world” in the late 1970s. After moving to Hong Kong in 1982 and spending six years living there, he became “absolutely convinced that the success Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea, in particular, enjoyed in the 1970s and ’80s, could be repeated by some of the other Asian countries, and in particular, China.”
With international experience in hand, he works with Asian companies of all sizes and in all sectors. In 1991 he started his own family of funds and remained afloat through the Asian Crisis by investing in companies that paid dividends–and, more importantly, companies that paid dividends in U.S. currency. Today, he follows the philosophy that investing “in companies that are positioned to benefit from the rising living standards of the average Asian is an attractive long-term capital opportunity.”
As of September 30, 2002, MACSX held five-star rankings from Morningstar in the Pacific/Asia that excludes Japan category, and from Standard & Poor’s in the international equity category. For the five-year period ended September 30, 2002, MACSX had an average annualized total return of 7.8%, versus a total return of -5.2% for the FTSE World Index (excluding U.S.), and an average annualized total return of 7.8% compared with a total return of -10.2% for all regional market and emerging funds, according to Standard & Poor’s. This fund also ranked first within the entire universe of 158 funds in this peer group. On a total return basis, MACSX ranked 21st within the entire universe of 1,013 funds in its category, and on a one-year total return basis, ranked 22nd within the entire universe of 1,863 funds in its category, also according to Standard & Poor’s.
We spoke with Matthews about the success of his fund despite the past economic troubles of Asia, his investment philosophy, and why not limiting his investment horizon to one sector, company size, or country has paid off since MACSX’s inception in 1994.
Your investment thesis for Asia is founded on a single principle: believing Asia will continue to be the world’s premier growth region. What is the basis for this belief? It is based on the assumption that the experience of the newly industrialized countries of Asia in the 1970s and ’80s was not a fluke. These economies have a number of characteristics in common, which allow us to be confident that the growth rates achieved over the last 30 years can be repeated in some instances over the next 20 or 30 years.
You indicate that this fund is ideal for investors who want to participate in the potential upside of the Asian equity markets. How do you reduce volatility? Any security that is included in this portfolio has the potential for long-term capital growth, but many also sustain above-average current income. This is based on the experience we have had over the last 20 years running money in Asia, where over time many funds have provided very strong absolute performance. This is perhaps inevitable in straight equity funds in developing countries, and therefore from this fund’s inception we have sought securities that would offer both capital growth and current income as a way to offset that volatility. Our primary focus is convertible bonds issued by Asian companies, particularly convertibles that were issued in U.S. dollars with the prospect of receiving capital back at maturity in U.S. dollars.
Should this fund only be held in tax-advantaged accounts like IRAs or 401(k)s? I think this is much better suited for tax-advantaged accounts, because the downside of investing in stocks with high current payouts is that it is not tax-efficient for those paying taxes on ordinary income.