According to Morningstar, the iShares FTSE/Xinhua China 25 Index ETF (FXI) is not only one of the 25 most popular ETFs on the market today, it is also the most-traded China-focused ETF. Over the past three months, the FXI has traded an average of nearly 8 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. The iShares FTSE/Xinhua China 25 ETF has averaged returns of 43% per year over the past three years as major holdings PetroChina
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 they've 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 68% stake in China Life Insurance
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 Sohu.com
For this reason, Motley Fool Global Gains advisor Bill Mann is looking beyond the realm of Chinese SOEs. Bill recently counseled investors that
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 just landed in China for a two-week trip to meet with some of the country's most promising companies. The team is also making stops in Vietnam, Indonesia, and Singapore. If you'd like receive their dispatches from Asia, straight from the ground and in as close to real time as possible, simply enter your email address in the box below and tell us where to send the first dispatch.