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Trump's trade war has hedge funds diving for cover in China

[HONG KONG] Donald Trump's threats of a trade war with China are sending jitters through the hedge-fund community.

Pinpoint Asset Management and SPQ Asia Capital have recently cut a measure of risk called net exposure - the difference between bullish and bearish bets - for hedge funds that invest in China. FengHe Asia Fund, which focuses on China, Taiwan and Vietnam, has reduced its allocation to Chinese stocks to the lowest level since 2012.

"The trade spat is the last straw," said Matt Hu, co-founder of Singapore-based FengHe Fund Management who manages the US$240 million FengHe Asia Fund, who started paring Chinese financial and manufacturing stocks last year in favour of Vietnamese companies.

China's equity market has been recovering from its mid-2015 crash, helping power the best performance in eight years in 2017 for hedge funds investing in the region. But the gains are imperiled by Mr Trump's determination to wring concessions from Beijing. Elevated US-China tensions spiraled into threats of tit-for-tat tariff retaliations this week, which some analysts predict could cut as much as 0.5 percentage points off China's economic growth. The Shanghai Composite Index fell 4.8 per cent this week through Thursday.

Some domestic managers and offshore China hedge funds have reduced their holdings amid growing trade worries, William Ma, chief investment officer of the US$23 billion Gopher Asset Management unit of Chinese wealth manager Noah Holdings, said in an interview. Average net exposure for Asia long-short hedge funds has dropped to 40 per cent, from about 50 per cent, over the first four months of this year, said Richard Johnston, Asia head of Albourne Partners.

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"Many still don't think fundamentals have changed, so I didn't expect to see a large reduction," said Mr Johnston, whose firm advises clients on more than US$450 billion of alternative investments including hedge funds. "Most have learnt from experience not to try to time the market. The last few days may have spooked some a bit."

A Eurekahedge index tracking Greater China-focused equity long-short hedge funds gained 4.6 per cent in the first five months, far behind the 32 per cent surge in 2017 though ahead of the 0.5 return of global peers this year.

Pinpoint Asset Management slashed net exposure in its roughly US$1.4 billion China-focused hedge fund by about 20 per cent to the lower half of the 30 per cent to 50 per cent range it has historically maintained, said Curtis Man, a Hong Kong-based executive director. SPQ Asia Capital has cut the same risk measure of its Greater China long-short equity hedge fund by about 10 percentage points this year, said Chief Operating Officer Gregoire Dechy.

Pinpoint, which oversees US$3.7 billion in various funds, had cut its exposure as early as last year and increased it after market selloffs earlier this year. Over the past two weeks, it reversed course again as tensions started to flare up.

Pinpoint has also turned cautious towards Chinese companies with export-dependent businesses since the beginning of the year, said Man. About three months ago, it started taking bearish bets on some Chinese makers of automobile and auto parts, he said.

China announced in May it was cutting import duties on passenger cars in a gesture to further open a market that has been a prime target of US complaints. On Monday, President Donald Trump ordered his trade representative to identify US$200 billion more of Chinese imports to be slapped with additional tariffs, adding to US$50 billion worth of Chinese products subject to punitive duties. China vowed it would retaliate "forcefully".

The trade dispute compounds worries about interest rate hikes and high market valuations, SPQ's Dechy said of the firm's decision to trim risks. SPQ's hedge fund had an average net exposure of around 30 per cent in the last four-and-a-half years, Mr Dechy said, declining to disclose the fund's assets and other details.

The Federal Reserve raised interest rates on June 14 and signaled a path of faster increases this year, sending stocks down. Last year's 52 per cent rally pushed the price-earnings multiple of MSCI China Index, which includes Chinese technology giants listed offshore, to a post-2010 high.

Managers reduced risky bets in January as stocks reached target prices, said Mr Johnston of Albourne Partners. Some may have been getting nervous in recent days as they haven't positioned their portfolios for a trade war. Still, many managers now focus on Asian consumer companies, which he said would only be short-term collateral damage.

"Even if they invest in more cyclical industries, the Asian cyclicals are so cheap, they are pricing in a higher probability of trade war and recession," Mr Johnston said. "Conversely, US stocks have discounted much less of the downside."

Since November, the FengHe Asia fund has halved the amount of capital it allocates to bullish and bearish bets on Chinese stocks to about 30 per cent of its assets under management, the lowest in six years, Mr Hu said. The fund is also shorting Chinese automakers because of industry oversupply, high inventory and the uncertainties associated with the trade row, he said.

Since April, the fund has allocated 10 per cent more of its assets to Vietnamese stocks, including Airports Corp of Vietnam JSC, Vinhomes JSC, the nation's largest residential property developer, and Hoa Phat Group JSC, the country's biggest listed steel producer. The fund is still bullish on Chinese health-care and other domestic consumption-related companies, Mr Hu said.

"Chinese manufacturing has come under a lot of pressure because of rising costs and lower margins," said Mr Hu, who expects multinational companies will relocate manufacturing facilities from China to Vietnam.

Some managers have started buying during this week's market selloffs, said Ma of Noah Holdings. They are convinced that the investment opportunities in China will remain solid in the medium- to long-term, he said.


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