China Dreams

Does putting money on the Middle Kingdom still make sense?

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Da Shi/Color China Photo/AP

Chongqing skyline

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Indeed, investing in China is less a matter of deciding whether to do it than figuring out how and where to begin. Already there are over 400 mutual funds with the word China in their name, more than triple the number five years ago. A record number of Chinese companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges last year, though stock picking among firms with a reputation for dodgy accounting is a tricky business. Investing in China's currency is a possibility, but only in small doses and mostly through oddball schemes, since the yuan is not traded internationally. (TIME columnist Zachary Karabell did find a way into the renminbi via a new offering at the Bank of China. See sidebar.) Broader international funds are also an option, depending on their amount of exposure to China. Many exchange-traded funds try to mimic the country's overall growth by tracking various indexes, but their track records are thin, and their methods can be shoddy.

The best plays on China over the past few years have been the ones that put real China experts to work. To really know if a Chinese company is worth the investment, "you have to visit the factory," says New York City–based financial adviser Lewis Altfest. There are low-cost China- and Asia-focused mutual funds, such as the Matthews China fund or the Fidelity China Region fund, whose fund managers do just that. And like the Chinese economy, these funds have enjoyed double-digit growth over the past decade. The question is whether they can continue to pull it off. Stellar returns were a lot easier 10 years ago, when the world was less hip to emerging-market growth. Bullish investors have poured nearly $17 billion into Chinese stock funds in the past five years alone, leaving parts of the market overvalued.

It's also worth remembering that the S&P 500 can be a China play. People in China are getting richer fast, and many of the West's top companies are already doing a brisk business there. Goldman Sachs predicts the Chinese will be buying a third of the world's luxury goods in less than a decade. All the better for swanky outfitters like Estée Lauder and Tiffany. More cars were sold in China last year than anywhere else, a much needed boon for U.S. companies such as Goodyear and Ford.

No one knows how fast China will open the floodgates to investors or foreign firms. The People's Republic still has a heavy hand in its economy, much to the chagrin of U.S. companies operating there. The regime's handover of power in 2012 — when China's current Communist Party leaders retire and a new generation takes the helm — is another wild card, which could result in an even bigger role for the state. But in the case of China, at least, the assumption that a state-run economy cannot achieve long-term success may turn out to be wrong. As Goldman Sachs' Jim O'Neill warns, it would be naive to think that China's model is doomed simply because it is not the American way.

Indeed, China often defies expectations. Take the government's recent announcement that it wants to slow growth to make room for more pressing priorities, like the environment, social welfare and corruption. Not only does this fly in the face of Western economic norms; it separates China from the ranks of other emerging markets. Addressing those other priorities will require patience. But when thinking about a nearly 4,000-year-old civilization, it's worth taking the long view.

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