The FT fund has generated a good return recently as some support has returned for the digital technology and green themes in the portfolio.
Meanwhile, enthusiasm for recovery shares is boosting more traditional sectors and is pushing up the general global index, where I increased my exposure to capture this year’s bounce back.
The fund has also benefited from a decent exposure to Taiwan, combined with a deliberate lack of direct exposure to any specialist mainland China funds. While the Chinese market has been disappointing, with a gain of only 2.5 per cent so far in 2021, stocks in Taipei are up 19 per cent.
Beijing does not seem unduly worried about its stock market as it engages in its struggle with a more aggressive US. As it celebrates 100 years since its formation, the Chinese Communist party is wrestling with its history and considering how it can promote more prosperity and economic success. Investors ask if any of this will produce good returns for them.
Some say share investing is about taking risks to enjoy the benefits of growth. In place of a fixed-income bond the investor accepts variable dividends and fluctuating profits in the belief that, over time, economic growth and modest general inflation will boost dividends and share prices.
Shareholders should avoid the erosion of capital that comes from inflation hitting the real, value of fixed-income securities. Many investment managers try to improve on world share performance by selecting countries and sectors to invest in, or choosing individual companies that they think will exceed the general performance and give the saver higher returns.
In theory if one economy grows twice as fast as another, share investing in the first should be the better bet, just as investing in sectors that feed rising demand from changing technologies and tastes should do better than ones hooked into ageing products and falling sales.
Of course there will be occasions, as this year, when some of the older and declining areas can offer good share opportunities, because they fell too far in the recent recession. The gains may be swift from the bottom of the market but are likely to be limited to correcting valuations and may not then be sustained by superior growth.
However, if you look at what actually happens in markets, you find that the greater growth theory does not always work out. China is a most important case. The world’s second-largest economy has been recording increases in gross domestic product of about 6 per cent a year for much of the last decade, well above growth in the world and or the US.
Yet the main Chinese stock index, the Shanghai Composite, today rests well below its 2007 high, and even below a lower, more recent, peak seen in 2015. In contrast the S&P 500, the main US index, hit new highs in 2007, 2015 and this year, and is 170 per cent higher than in 2007.
The Euro Stoxx 50 index is well down on its all-time high of 2000 and below its 2007 peak, but has rallied well this year and is now above its 2015 level. That index, of course, reflects a slow-growing economy that was knocked by the financial crash of 2008-9 and by the euro crisis of 2011-13, so you would expect it to perform more sluggishly over the period.
The divergent performance between the US and the rest is partly due to the composition of the indices. The Chinese index has far less invested in big digital companies and the new economy, and more in finance and traditional industries. The Euro Stoxx, like the EU economy, does not have a high exposure to the digital revolution. Instead, there are plenty of names in finance, engineering, cars and consumer goods, often in mature areas of activity.
The US indices have been boosted by the spectacular expansion of digital giants at the expense of traditional retailers, media and telephony companies and the rest. Chinese companies are held back by subsidised public sector competition and government interventions.
Some of it is also down to different monetary policies. Over the past year, the US has generated inflation in domestic asset prices by creating huge amounts of money, while China has decided to be more prudent and to contrast its own wish to control money, credit and asset prices with the more relaxed US approach.
The figures for the past couple of years show the FT fund has benefited by not investing in direct index trackers for the main EU markets or for China. Even over the past year, as most markets have rallied, Taiwan is up 51.7 per cent compared to China’s 18.7 per cent, and the US is up 38.4 per cent compared to Euro Stoxx 26.4 per cent.
Nor are better investment prospects for foreigners on China’s state agenda. President Xi Jinping’s vision for the country is based around threatening other countries to stay out of Chinese affairs, and a belief that China has to be more self-reliant in technology.
At the party’s 100th anniversary, Xi wore a Mao suit to show he has no wish to criticise the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, while speaking positively of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms that followed Mao’s demise and allowed some free enterprise to flourish. The next few years will see Cold War-type disputes between a US-led group of advanced countries and a China-led section of the emerging world. This is not a great backdrop for investment.
I am continuing to run with a portfolio that is more oriented to shares than to bonds within the rules of a balanced fund. The main battles I am watching are at the US Federal Reserve, over monetary policy, and in the US Senate, over President Biden’s spending plans.
The market outlook still rests heavily on how much more stimulus the US economy will receive, and how much more it can be done before inflation becomes a problem the Fed cannot ignore. So far the Fed has largely controlled the narrative, but at the cost of having to bring forward rate rises and accepting that inflation goes higher for longer.
Sir John Redwood is chief global strategist for Charles Stanley. The FT Fund is a dummy portfolio intended to demonstrate how investors can use a wide range of ETFs to gain exposure to global stock markets while keeping down the costs of investing. [email protected]
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