Three Ways to Profit As Taiwan Rebounds From the Financial Crisis

By Martin Hutchinson
Contributing Editor
Money Morning

As you scour the globe for potential post-financial-crisis profit plays, don't overlook Taiwan.

Stock markets around the world have already started to rebound with joy as investors begin to believe that that the unpleasant global recession is finally nearing its bottom. Unfortunately, there's one sobering conclusion many investors have so far failed to reach: With grossly over-stimulative monetary and fiscal policies at play, most countries will find it very difficult to recover.

Fortunately, a few well-run countries avoided the fallout from the U.S. housing debacle - as well as the fiscal-and-monetary-stimulus mess that followed. And although they have been badly stung by the slump in world trade, these countries are poised to recover with a satisfying bounce.

One such country is Taiwan, and global markets may be just starting to realize this.

A Backgrounder on a Potential Winner

Because its banks were not active in the United States, Taiwan didn't suffer directly from the collapse in the U.S. housing market. Taiwan also has not suffered from the typical money-tightening consequence of the financial crisis in the world's emerging markets; it has no need of foreign bank credit, since it consistently runs a payments surplus and has $300 billion in currency reserves.

However, like all the East Asian countries involved in the supply chain to U.S. consumers, Taiwan did suffer a huge decline in exports in the first three months of 2009; its exports dropped more than 35% in the first quarter - less severe than Japan's drop, but more than those in Korea and China.

I wrote on this some weeks ago, guessing that the export problem was not fundamental, but simply due to United States de-stocking and the difficulties of obtaining trade finance.

The first-quarter U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) figures published April 29 show that this supposition was correct. U.S. inventories dropped a huge $109 billion; the drop in inventories was by itself responsible for 46% of the 6.1% annual rate of decline in U.S. GDP.

Taiwan's trade figures for March were already improving somewhat, suggesting that this problem might be alleviating. Recent statements by the major Taiwanese semiconductor companies - firms that are intimately involved in the East Asia/U.S. supply chain - confirm that this transformation is, indeed, taking place. Thus, the Taiwanese economy is likely to at least experience a short-term bounce.

Taiwan's prospects for sustained recovery are better than many Western countries, because its leadership didn't panic and jump into the fiscal and monetary policies that are almost certain to cause long-term damage in the countries where leaders opted for such strategies.

In fact, the panel of forecasters from The Economist predicted that Taiwan's fiscal deficit to be only 5% of GDP for the current fiscal year - less than half the deficit projected for the United States and Great Britain, for example. Its short-term interest rates are below 1%, but it currently has no inflation. And the Taiwanese dollar has declined by 10% against the U.S. dollar since September, making Taiwanese exports more competitive.

The Economist panel expects the Taiwanese economy to shrink by 6.5% in 2009, but that is certainly far too conservative, given the signs of export recovery.

Profiting from the "Other" China

Investors have always worried about Taiwan's relations with The People's Republic of China, which claims it as part of the mainland country. However, since the election of the Kuomintang president Ma Ying-jeou last year, relations between Taiwan and Mainland China have improved markedly.

Investors who are aware of Taiwan's potential have long labeled it as "The Other China."

On Thursday, China Mobile Ltd. (NYSE ADR: CHL) - China's largest cellular telephone company - announced plans to invest in Taiwan's Far EasTone Telecommunications Co. Ltd., a first for Chinese investment in Taiwan (Taiwan has huge investments in China), suggesting that trade relations are no longer cool - but are, in fact, warm.

Three possible avenues into Taiwan seem attractive:

  • The Taiwanese exchange-traded fund (ETF).
  • And the two largest producers of semiconductors, an industry central to Taiwan's growth that should benefit from the recent weakness in the Taiwan dollar. In this context, it is notable that the SEMI book-to-bill ratio for the U.S. semiconductor increased sharply in March to 0.61, with the three-month average of orders up 9%. That's still not a strong number, but it's moving in the right direction, and matches recent optimism from Taiwan's manufacturers.

Let's look at these three Taiwan profit plays:

The iShares MSCI Taiwan Index ETF (NYSE: EWT) is clearly an efficient way to invest in Taiwan; it has risen recently, but is currently trading at a reasonable 13 times earnings.

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. Ltd. (NYSE ADR: TSM) is Taiwan's largest semiconductor manufacturer. It just reported a tiny first quarter profit on a 54% decrease in sales, but said that its order book was very strong and noted that it expected a sharp rebound in sales and earnings in the second half of 2009.

United Microelectronics Corp. (NYSE ADR: UMC) reported a loss for the first quarter, but just invested $285 million to acquire Chinese semiconductor manufacturer HeJian Technology (Suzhou) Co. Ltd., giving it a substantial foothold in that rapidly growing market. UMC expects a profit in the second quarter and rapid recovery thereafter; it has a strong balance sheet and its free cash flow was positive even in the loss-making first quarter.

[Editor's Note: For more insight on Taiwan's investment allure, please click here to check out a related story by Investment Director Keith Fitz-Gerald on a new accord that paves the way for China to invest in Taiwan. The story appears elsewhere in today's issue of Money Morning.]

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