We are still assessing the portfolio implications of aggressive monetary stimulus and a healing banking system in Europe. We have generally avoided investments in the euro zone Financials sector over the past few years of recovering global stock markets, for the simple reason that we found it hard to articulate a growth argument for all but an exceptional few of the financial businesses that we examined there. That may change if the putative quantitative easing will eventually have the desired effect of rekindling economic momentum in Europe—a condition on which the jury is decidedly out. Certainly we heard managements make arguments that sounded like growth arguments when we met a number of companies on a recent trip to Europe. The US experience with cleaning up and recapitalizing its banking system is causing us to rethink euro zone Financials, but so far we have taken no action on that front. What is clear is that the euro zone will not implode without putting up a (monetary) fight. That is likely to be good for multinationals based there, thanks to the competitiveness corollary from the weaker euro. As a counterpoint, US multinationals will at least face the headwind of weaker translation of their overseas earnings. It may also be good for Emerging Markets, which benefit from more liquidity creation and exported capital in search of higher yields.
The winds of change may be rising in China. If new policy directives by the Communist Party are successful in holding SOE managements more accountable for investment, cash flow generation, and capital intensity—especially if this is attained by such proven methods as linking bonuses to business results and granting stock options—then the stage will be set for a material improvement in returns. Today, few managers of Chinese SOEs own stock in the companies they steer, let alone stock options. While such radical reform of SOE management has not yet been formally enacted, we suspect it will happen. The time is right! China doesn’t need more steel, cement, diesel, or credit. It needs a smarter, more dynamic economy that is less capital- and energy-hungry. That this is the targeted path has been made clear by the new administration. Part of the plan entails reducing SOE dominance in their sectors, allowing private sector companies to take a larger share of market. The ensuing competition should bring higher-paying jobs and better-quality goods and services. It will not happen overnight, nor will it impact all sectors equally. But if it does happen for some, even if only at the margin, the changes will still be very much for the better.
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