Foreign investors ramped up their selling of Chinese equities in May, as country’s post-Covid recovery falters.
Weak industrial data and a slowdown in exports have led to expectations of soft corporate earnings, which has caused steep falls on both mainland and Hong Kong stock markets.
Refinitiv data shows foreigners sold $1.71 billion worth of mainland shares this month via Stock Connect, a key cross-border link between the mainland and Hong Kong exchanges, after selling $659 million in April.
The selling marks a slow reversal of their heavy investment totaling $20.92 billion in January when China reopened its economy after three years of Covid restrictions, spurring a wave of bullish expectations for growth.
Such hopes were dashed as domestic and overseas demand wilted, and the recovery proved uneven. According to data from the National Bureau of Statistics, profits at China’s industrial firms slumped in the first four months of the year.
Despite outflows in February, April and May, foreigners’ net purchases of mainland shares still stood at $25.05 billion for the first five months of this year, compared with net buying of about $6.36 billion worth over the whole of 2022.
China’s manufacturing activity contracted more than expected in May, according to the official purchasing managers’ index (PMI) survey released on Wednesday.
But a private sector survey, the Caixin/S&P Global manufacturing PMI released on Thursday, showed China’s factory activity unexpectedly swung to growth in May from decline.
In April, imports contracted sharply, factory gate prices fell, property investment slumped, industrial profits plunged and factory output and retail sales both missed forecasts.
Over the past month, analysts have cut their forward 12-month earnings forecasts of China’s large- and mid-cap companies by over 0.7%, with mining and real estate sectors seeing over 3% cuts.
“Confidence among consumers and business investors is not recovering as fast as the market had hoped,” said Pruksa Iamthongthong, senior investment director of Asian equities at Abrdn.
“We think that the economy would take time to recover, and we would see a period of risk aversion over the short-term in response to risks around slowing activity against a backdrop of a potential global recession.”
Refinitiv data showed that the Allianz All China Equity WT (GBP) had an outflow of $137.6 million in the week ending May 25, the biggest weekly outflow since at least July 2018, while iShares Core MSCI China ETF (HKD) faced $103.72 million worth of net selling.
Increased regulatory scrutiny in China
The Shanghai Composite Index shed 3.6% in May and posted its biggest monthly loss in seven months, compared with the MSCI Asia Pacific’s decline of 1.2%.
“Decisive policy actions including cyclical and macro policy tools such as RRR cuts and targeted fiscal easing are needed to restore confidence, though investors may be too bearish on the China economy and have priced in too much risk or downside, in the long run,” Alexander Davey, global capability head for active equities at HSBC Asset Management, said.
The outflows from Chinese equities also came as investors became more risk averse as the US Federal Reserve increased interest rates to combat inflationary pressures.
Vikas Pershad, investments portfolio manager for Asian Equities at M&G Investments, said the risk premium for Chinese markets has increased due to the increased regulatory scrutiny of various sectors in China, and investors would need greater returns to allocate more capital to that market.
“Foreigners seem to have been selling because of the underwhelming near-term economic data points and, perhaps, because of the opportunities available to investors with a broader (pan-Asia or global) mandate,” Pershad said.
“We presume other investors have re-allocated some capital from China to those markets (and others) this year.”
- Reuters with additional editing by Jim Pollard