The Wrong Way to Invest in China

According to Morningstar, the iShares FTSE/Xinhua China 25 Index ETF (FXI) is not only one of the 25 most popular exchange-traded funds on the market today, it's also the most-traded China-focused ETF. Over the past three months, the FXI has traded an average of over 30 million shares each day.

"That's great," you might think. "Investors are finally realizing that China is a place where they need to be invested." That might be true, but if so, they're going about it the wrong way.

Seriously red tape
Some investors confuse the FXI with a proper way to invest in the Chinese growth story. That just isn't the case, for a variety of reasons.

By investing in FXI, you're not sufficiently tapping into the entrepreneurial sprit of the Chinese people. See, FXI tracks a FTSE/Xinhua index mainly comprising state-owned enterprises (SOEs). In fact, of the top 10 holdings of the ETF ... 10 are SOEs (or are subsidiaries of SOEs, which for my purposes are one and the same).

In terms of past performance, that hasn't been so bad. Despite the recent market plunge in the Chinese markets, which has sent names like Yanzhou Coal (NYSE: YZC  ) and China Eastern Airlines (NYSE: CEA  ) down considerably, the iShares FTSE/Xinhua China 25 ETF has averaged returns of 13% per year over the past three years, versus the S&P 500 which has lost 5% over the same period.

But while FXI holdings like China Life Insurance and Sinopec have outpaced American counterparts like MetLife (NYSE: MET  ) and Apache (NYSE: APA  ) since October 2005, looking to the future, FXI isn't the right train on which to hitch your China investment dreams.

A little background
SOEs have traditionally been the dominant players in the Chinese economy. In 1958, during the days of Chairman Mao, more than 97% of the Chinese economy was under the control of the government (PRC) through the use of SOEs.

Granted, things have changed over the past 50 years, following the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s and '80s. Today there are far fewer SOEs, but they still make up a significant chunk of China's GDP and are mostly found in the energy, telecommunications, and financial sectors. The government keeps many of them alive by infusing them with capital -- and one of the ways that it has done so is by -- wait for it -- taking them public.

The Chinese government has certainly reduced its ownership of some SOEs, but given the size of those companies and the size of the government's remaining ownership, it could be a long time before those SOEs are fully privatized. Just imagine if the PRC decided to suddenly dump its huge stake in China Life Insurance into the public markets. It would be an utter disaster for those shares.

The bottom line is that, despite the loosening of the PRC's grip, SOEs still do not put shareholder interests first. Their motivation is still at least partly political, so you're better off looking for Chinese companies that have your interests at heart.

This one will go to the hares
While the SOEs join the free markets at a tortoise's pace, non-SOE Chinese companies like eLong (Nasdaq: LONG  ) , 3SBio (Nasdaq: SSRX  ) , and ATA (Nasdaq: ATAI  ) are flying by them in terms of innovation and ability to react to global economic movements. Moreover, all three of these Chinese companies are led by entrepreneurs who are representative of the Chinese growth story. These are the types of companies -- not the SOEs -- that may turn out to be some of the best stocks of the next 10 years.

For this reason, Motley Fool Global Gains advisor Bill Mann is looking beyond the realm of Chinese SOEs. As Bill recently counseled investors:

The only reason to invest in SOEs is to find the ones that have special status that the entrepreneurial companies will not be able to ford. But one will do much better investing in the companies than investing in a basket that has a few speedboats and 18 anchors. Buying FXI to take advantage of Chinese growth is like buying cow chips because you like steak. Sure, there's some value in there, but who wants to dig through that other stuff?

That's why Bill and his team of Global Gains analysts made their second trip to China a few months back to meet with some of the country's most promising companies. The team also made stops in Vietnam, Indonesia, and Singapore. If you'd like to read their reports and take a peek at all the Global Gains recommendations, a free 30-day trial to the service is yours. Click here to get started.

This article was originally published on June 3, 2008. It has been updated.

Todd Wenning bets you he can throw a football over them mountains. He does not own shares of any company mentioned. The Fool's disclosure policy has large talons.


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