Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I'm Jonathan Garner, Chief Asia and Emerging Market Equity Strategist for Morgan Stanley Research. Along with my colleagues, bringing you a variety of perspectives, I'll be talking about the impact of Omicron on China and Emerging Market Equities. It's Tuesday, January the 4th at 7:30 a.m. in Hong Kong.
As 2022 begins, our approach to Asia and EM equities remains one of cautious patience. Although these markets underperformed their peers in the U.S. and Europe last year, simple arguments of performance mean reversion in 2022 are not strong enough to warrant anything more aggressive at this juncture.
We hear a lot these days about a turn in the Chinese policy cycle as a catalyst. And it's fair to say that historically one would have been more optimistic at this juncture of the monetary and fiscal cycle for the outlook for domestic demand in China. This demand is crucial both for China's own growth outlook to stabilize, as well as to give a boost to most other markets in Asia and EM. But this is not a normal cycle.
China's ‘zero COVID’ approach must now face off against Omicron. As this episode is being recorded, Xian - a major Chinese city with a population of over 13 million - is in its 12th day of a lockdown, which is now more severe in terms of restrictions on normal daily life than any seen in China since the original lockdown of Wuhan at the start of the pandemic.
Two global companies with major semiconductor plants in the city have recently warned of production problems. And though there's no formal national policy to curtail celebration of Chinese New Year at the end of this month, domestic media is already beginning to broadcast a message of staying at home and avoiding long distance travel. In China, as in EM, we're continuing to track earnings estimates that are declining, which undermines the case for valuations - now roughly in line with long run averages - being sufficiently attractive to reengage. The situation is slightly better in Japan, where estimates are tracking sideways and individual markets - notably India and parts of Asean and Eastern Europe, Mid East and Africa - have been doing better than the EM overall.
However, disruption caused by Omicron could change individual economic and hence earnings outlooks over the short to medium term. For example, India's most recent COVID case count was up 35% day-on-day, with Omicron now present in 23 of 28 states. Maharashtra, Delhi and Tamil Nadu have reimposed restrictions on visits to public parks, beaches and other public spaces. Indeed, most of the countries we cover that had moved to a "living with COVID" approach are now having to reverse course. Take South Korea, which in mid-December, as ICU usage rose significantly, reimposed early closing restrictions on nightlife and a rule limiting public gatherings to no more than four fully vaccinated persons.
Finally, our weekly track of flows to dedicated Asia and EM equity funds is now showing steady and persistent redemptions, as some of the very large inflows from this time a year ago start to reverse course. Those flows were driven by the notion that a strong, synchronized upswing was underway globally, which it was argued would lead to outperformance by Asia and EM, whose economies generally perform strongly in a global economic upswing. We argued at the time that 2021 would not be like 2006/07 and 2016/17 when that narrative did hold true. As 2022 begins, the global and local economic outlook is clearly weakening again, and hence our mantra of continued cautious patience.
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