With its extensive array of constituent funds and all-round MPF services, Manulife staged a comeback in 2017, winning the “Provider of the Year – MPF” title for the third year. To score the highest in this award, the winner must stand out on three fronts: fund performance, brand health and overall business capabilities. But Manulife goes decidedly above and beyond in both customer services and fund management. Little wonder the MPF service provider has gained significant MPF market share over the past decade.
As the largest MPF provider, with more than one-fifth of the market share in terms of the total MPF assets, Manulife is more determined than ever to forge ahead in the MPF sphere. Ronald Chan, Manulife Asset Management’s CIO of Asia ex-Japan Equities, revealed more.
BENCHMARK (BM): With more than 80 years of experience in the Hong Kong pension industry, what are the core values that sustain your business?
Ronald Chan (RC): In our long history of serving the Hong Kong community, we’ve stayed true to our core principle – to understand and fulfill our clients’ aspirations. We’re a sizable company, but we attach great importance to service details. From retirement planning to wealth succession, our goal is to meet clients’ specific needs. This customer centric thinking extends to the manufacturing of investment solutions. We try to incorporate the widest scope of investment vehicles into our offerings so that we can tailor products to cater different needs.
While we also focus on delivering returns, risk factors are our first and foremost consideration. We aim to achieve consistency in fund performance. Therefore, the motto “Avoid taking undue risks” is an integral part of our investment culture.
BM: Besides service infrastructure, your investment process also forms a backbone to your MPF business. Can you share withus your investment philosophy?
RC: Certainly! We adopt a long-term, fundamental approach to investment. With more than 80% of our alpha generated through stock and sector selection, our investment method is designed to uncover industry leaders who can weather business cycles and perform in the longer term.
We also apply stringent screens to filter stocks. To be included in our portfolios, a company must demonstrate strong cash flows, have good corporate governance, possess sustainable growth drivers, and be reasonably valued. At the initial stage of the investment process, we search for stocks with below-intrinsic-value valuations. But that’s not enough – we need to have sufficient reasons to believe that the valuation gap will narrow in the future.
The above investment process, and the way we conduct stock, sector and country research, are applied to all our 11 offices in Asia. This way, the market views of our investment teams can be aligned, and team members stationed at different locations can create synergy by leveraging each other’s insights.
BM: Let’s talk about your investment views. How do you see the current investment environment in Asia? And what do you think is the most prominent investment theme today?
RC: In the past 12 to 18 months, major economies saw a resurgence of economic activities on the back of synchronized global growth. At the same time, inflation stayed mild and was below trend. This is a very benign environment for equity investors in Asia.
The most appealing investment theme – also the most under-researched one – is the high level of household savings in Asia. The enormous pool of savings, when channeled into investments, will be a boon for the region’s economies. In fact, the savings to-investment transition is already taking place. For example, Indian retail investors are investing a larger share of their savings in the local bourse, while China’s household savings are bolstering the Hong Kong stock market in the form of southbound flows. Similar trends are found in Taiwan and Korea, implying that domestic capital will be an increasingly important driver to the Asia stock markets.
BM: Is this one of the reasons your MPF Hong Kong Equity Fund delivered strong performance last year? With your expectation of Asia’s domestic savings to continue shoring up stock market performance, where will growth come from within the region this year?
RC: The China and Hong Kong market is the bright spot. We see a multitude of positive factors in play here. Firstly, southbound capital flows, which fueled the stock rally in 2017, are expected to remain sanguine and buoy the Hong Kong market this year. Blue chips favored by southbound capital will be the biggest beneficiaries under this trend. We have already positioned our portfolios accordingly.
Another potential catalyst to watch for is the possible overhaul of IPO rules in the Hong Kong stock exchange. If rules are rewritten to accommodate alternative shareholding structures, it may trigger a new wave of IPOs, especially in the technology sector. If the proposed listing reform becomes reality, it will usher in compelling opportunities in the “new economy” sectors.
Furthermore, foreign investors’ allocation to China remains subdued as they are still wary of the risks of a hard landing in the Chinese economy. However, as China strives for amore sustained and healthier growth, we believe that foreign investors will revisit the validity of the Chinese market soon, which bodes well for Chinese stocks in the long run. On top of that, the ongoing reforms in China are expected to engender tremendous investment opportunities. This also makes a strong case for investing in China and Hong Kong equities.
BM: Looking ahead, what developments do you anticipate in the MPF market?
RC: : We expect the consolidation in the MPF industry to gather steam going forward, and small-sized MPF providers will likely face heftier operating costs. When an increasing number of small providers merge with larger ones, MPF members, in particular, those holding multiple personal accounts in different trustees, will have to consolidate their accumulated benefits. Under this development, and as always, we will continue to strengthen our presence by staying client-centric. BM