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After years of shackling it to the dollar, China is finally setting its currency free.
The consensus appears to be that the yuan will gradually appreciate relative to the dollar and other global currencies. It won't climb every single day, but it should be nicely higher by the end of the year -- and beyond.
For stateside investors, the opportunity is obvious. Buying stock in a quality Chinese company should be worth more in time, even if the equity fails to appreciate at the local level.
However, you can't just buy any stock and hope to succeed. A rising yuan will hurt Chinese exporters. All of the toys and other gadgets that bear "Made in China" labels will cost more in translation as a result of the Renminbi rumble.
Investors should stick to companies that provide goods and services within China itself -- ideally, those that stand to benefit the most from an improving economy and the inevitable influx of foreign investments.
Let's go over five stocks that I think are positioned perfectly.
51job (Nasdaq: JOBS )
Current price: $22.91
Shares of 51job hit a new high yesterday, and it's easy to see why. The company puts out a weekly publication of job listings, publishing more than two dozen city-specific print editions. It also runs an online recruitment service. Both segments are growing briskly.
China's booming economy is already generating plenty of jobs, and foreign investments will further stimulate the opportunities. Revenue soared 43% in 51job's latest quarter, and earnings grew more than fivefold to $0.27 a share.
E-House (NYSE: EJ )
Current price: $15.38
China has been trying to curb a real estate bubble this year, laying down strict investment requirements for second and third properties. This would naturally seem to be a knock against the country's leading real estate agency, and analysts expect E-House's profits to dip to $1.05 a share this year after delivering net income of $1.13 a share in 2009.
Let's go over two killjoy killers here. First, Wall Street has historically underestimated E-House's profit potential. Over the past year, the agency has landed quarterly earnings that are 23% to 267% ahead of where the pros are perched. Second, analysts expect earnings to rebound to $1.41 a share next year, pricing the stock at a cheap 11 times next year's projected profitability.
China Finance Online (Nasdaq: JRJC )
Current price: $7.05
If outsiders are drawn to Chinese equities, folks on the mainland will be, too. China Finance Online runs a pair of popular market research sites, geared primarily to individual investors.
After a pronounced lull, CFO is back on track. Revenue in its latest quarter soared 30%, surprising analysts with a profit along the way. CFO closed out the period with 129,100 paying subscribers, 20% ahead of where it was a year earlier. Tack on a cash-rich balance sheet, and the suddenly cheerier prospects for equity appreciation, and CFO is a concentrated bet on China's stock market.
Ctrip.com (Nasdaq: CTRP )
Current price: $45.80
Travel is a no-brainer play on China's booming economy. Between consumer-based tourism and corporate-based business travel, leading online booking site Ctrip.com is going to get even busier as money trickles into the country.
Ctrip is growing nicely already. Revenue and earnings climbed 46% and 57%, respectively, in its latest quarter.
There are plenty of travel plays in China. 7 Days Group Holdings (NYSE: SVN ) is barely trading above its $11 IPO price from last November. AirMedia (Nasdaq: AMCN ) runs a high-tech advertising network through most of the country's leading airports. They all stand to benefit from China's improving stature, but Ctrip is positioned well as the fast-growing portal to it all.
Baidu (Nasdaq: BIDU )
Current price: $77.09
China's leading search engine was the first name on my list back in March, when I singled out seven stocks that stand to benefit from the inevitable decoupling of the yuan and the greenback.
Well, we're now here -- and it's hard not to like Baidu. The search site keeps gaining market share in a growing pie, although its stock certainly isn't cheap on an earnings basis. Even if we go out to next year's bottom-line target, Baidu is trading at a lofty 40 times earnings. However, Baidu is also pegged to grow its profitability by 97% this year, and 55% next year.
In other words, it's expensive -- and worth it.
How are you playing China's move to let the yuan flex its muscles? Share your Chinese stock picks in the comments box below.