The dollar is doomed. That was the case Brian Richards and I made not too long ago, and though we thought we'd be the targets of patriotic vitriol, it turns out that a lot of you agreed with us. Color us flattered.
We also gave you some advice in that column on how to protect yourself against a falling dollar: buying companies that do big business in other currencies. This is a list that includes multinationals such as IBM
Today, however, I'd like to take that advice one step further to tell you my favorite way to get exposure to China specifically -- a country and a currency that are both going to strengthen over the long term at the expense of the U.S.
But first, the big picture
One of the people we keep in touch with at Motley Fool Global Gains is a guy named Matt Hayden, whose firm Hayden Communications specializes in doing investor relations for small Chinese companies. We've discovered over time that a lot of the companies we find interesting end up being Hayden clients and that Matt also does a pretty good job of giving us the heads-up on other companies we might be interested in. (Note to other IR reps: That's because he doesn't bombard us with info on every company he represents -- only carefully selected ones he thinks we might like.)
Anyway, Matt's out on the road now giving a presentation to shellshocked American investors about why China remains a good long-term opportunity. Here's the short-short version ...
1. Chinese stocks are cheap and get cheaper if you're willing to look at smaller and smaller companies
According to Matt's data, the average P/E ratio of a NYSE-listed Chinese stock was recently 8.8. The average EV/EBITDA ratio for that stock is 6.2. On the Nasdaq, those ratios are 14.5 and 7.2, respectively, and for the super-small companies trading over the counter, it's 4.8. and 4.3, respectively.
Given the long-term growth opportunities in China, those numbers all look pretty good to me, but the biggest bargains are to be found at the bottom of the market-cap spectrum.
2. China has upside
China's GDP is less than one-third that of the United States, despite having four times the population. It also has the lowest debt level (in terms of both government and individual consumers) of any major world economy. That means it has the resources and flexibility to spur further growth -- and one day we should expect the Chinese economy to be as large or dramatically larger than that of the United States.
3. There are near-term catalysts
Economic growth in China is not coming to an end. In the near term we should see infrastructure building, the further emergence of a cash-rich middle class, the encouraged consolidation and privatization of state-owned enterprises in order to make the economy more efficient, and the expansion of social welfare programs to spur the spending of some of those citizen savings.
Put these facts together and you end up with a long-term growth story selling for cheap -- one that also should have some stability amid 2009's economic turmoil.
And that's why analysts at Paribas, Blackrock, Carlyle, and guys like Jim Rogers have been pounding the table for China in their reports.
Here's what I don't want you to do
Now, a lot of folks get these arguments for investing in China and think to themselves, "Yeah, I should have some China." But then they think, "But China's far away, the government is bizarre, and those milk scandals and whatnot have me sketched out about the quality of management." So they either end up doing nothing, or they end up buying an ETF such as the iShares FTSE/Xinhua 25 Index.
If this is you, here's my advice: Do not buy FXI.
There are lots of reasons why we have this opinion at Global Gains, and Todd Wenning does a nice job of summarizing our thinking on this matter in an article called "The Wrong Way to Invest in China." If you don't want to click over, the gist is that FXI is dominated by moribund state-owned companies such as Bank of China and Chinalco
In other words, buying FXI would have been akin to buying the Dow 30 in the mid 1990s when you actually wanted to be making a bet on technology companies such as Qualcomm
Here's what I do want you to do
Of course, you're right to think that when you invest in China you should be diversified. After all, there are enormous execution and other risks in the country that we -- as American investors -- can't 100% solve for.
But rather than buy an ETF, I want you to buy a basket of small, non-state-owned Chinese companies. As you might guess from the data above, these companies are selling for much cheaper than their NYSE-listed, state-owned counterparts, and yet have more upside and are being run more dynamically.
And what I mean by a "basket" is this: You should own five to 10 small, non-SOE Chinese companies that, added together, equal about one or two full positions in your portfolio. Companies that fit this bill include Yongye Biotechnology and China Green Agriculture -- two small, entrepreneurial names that should benefit as Chinese rural incomes rise and farmers spend more on fertilizers.
Go out and do it
The best way for American investors to play China for the long term is to create your own diversified basket of small-cap Chinese companies and make these stocks at least a small part of your portfolio today. If you need additional help filling out that basket, you can get all of our top China stock ideas by joining Global Gains free for 30 days.
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This article was originally published April 19, 2009. It has been updated.
Tim Hanson is co-advisor of Motley Fool Global Gains. He owns shares of Yongye Biotechnology. China Green Agriculture is a Motley Fool Global Gains recommendation. Symantec is an Inside Value pick. Diageo is an Income Investor pick. Apple is a Stock Advisor selection. Make the Fool's disclosure policy a part of your life.