Star Exclusive - Asia’s top fund manager focuses big on China

Local pride: Cheah posing with his personalised Penang number plate on his car in Hong Kong.

THE end of the year is always the busiest time for Datuk Seri Cheah Cheng Hye, who is one of the biggest fund managers in Asia, while others are taking time off to enjoy the holiday season.

For Hong Kong-based Cheah, his entire staff of 200 people are preoccupied with a last minute rush to successfully complete a turbulent year, which started badly and ended very well for Value Partners.

China-related markets, which are a core focus for the firm’s portfolios, are among the world’s best-performing markets in 2020. China had started badly, as the epicentre of the pandemic in early 2020, but through tough counter measures, the country has recovered strongly and will be the only major economy in the world to show growth this year.

“Usually, I will have a lot of visitors from Malaysia around this time when they spend their holidays in Hong Kong, ” said Cheah, a Penangite now based in Hong Kong.

“I make it a point to have a meal with my friends and associates to catch up no matter how busy I am, ” he said in a Zoom meeting interview.

Despite Hong Kong offering the best choice of food in Asia, Malaysians would always make a line to the Café Malacca at the Jen Hotel near the Hong Kong University.

Despite its name, the restaurant is run by a true blue Penangite, Mrs Poon Suan Ee, who takes the trouble to source the food materials from the state.

It even serves the Penang-style prawn paste and sweet sauce “chee cheong fun” and the occasional “oh chean” or oyster omelette and sambal petai.

It is here where many Malaysians would seek the views of Cheah, who is called the Warren Buffett of Asia. Buffett is a legendary American investor, business tycoon and philanthropist.

As it turns out, the pandemic has affected different countries and industries differently. Companies related to tourism and travel have been badly hurt, for example, while the financial services sector has recovered quickly as governments and central banks pump liquidity into stock and bond markets, pushing up financial asset prices.

Cheah calls it a “K-shape recovery, ” with some sectors having experienced a strong rebound from the low point of the global economy in first-quarter 2020, while others have continued to slump.

“Value Partners is in the upper part of the ‘K’," he noted.

Value Partners, listed on the main board of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, has about US$14bil in funds under management, and its equity funds are generally performing strongly. For example, its flagship Classic Fund, which is US$1.5bil in size, has a net gain of 38% year-to-date.

In a research report dated Dec 4,2020, Daiwa Capital Markets, the Hong Kong brokerage subsidiary of Japan’s Daiwa Group, rates Value Partners’ stock a “buy, ” forecasting 2020 profit will reach HK$815mil (US$104mil), 30% higher than the previous year.

“We can’t comment on profit forecasts, ” said Cheah, who is the biggest shareholder and a co-founder of the firm, which was founded in 1993.

Separately, in December 2020, Value Partners announced that it won an international competition to manage a big portfolio of Chinese stocks for the British financial institution M & G. The mandate is for £500mil (US$672mil), and was awarded through a global search to find the most qualified fund manager for China-related stocks.

“Investors moved their investments from other parts of the world and allocated their money to mainland China, attracted by a dynamic economy and the rise of the renminbi against the US dollar, ” Cheah said.

“There has been an influx of capital into Chinese stocks. China now has a middle-class population of more than 400 million people. This number is projected to double in about 15 years. It’s already among the world’s two largest consumer markets, alongside the US market, and there is no shortage of investment opportunities.”

As a Hong Kong fund management company, Value Partners has been a pioneer in setting up operations on the mainland of China.

“We have a full-fledged team in Shanghai and Shenzhen comprising dedicated local staff who are professionals with at least 13 years’ experience in the financial industry. The team has worked arduously and successfully made inroads to new areas of institutional business and private banking channels to grow Value Partners’ portfolio further.”

Value Partners ranked in Z-Ben’s top 10 global managers in China. Z-Ben Advisors Ltd is a Shanghai based consulting firm covering the investment management sector on the Chinese and Greater China markets.

“2020 has been eventful as we had many positive developments during the year. One milestone was Value Partners China’s success in securing several sizable China-related mandates from our clients from Europe and Australia during the year.

“The lockdown affected our operation but we had the foresight of moving our regular work to secure online platforms. So, our investment research work, sales and marketing programmes, client events, as well as investor relations and communications activities, continued as usual.

“I have lost count of the number of Zoom meetings that I have attended, ” he said.

Cheah, a former financial journalist with The Star, The Asian Wall Street Journal and Far Eastern Economic Review, is a much sought after speaker.

Certainly, the pandemic did not stop him from engaging with clients and the community. The company hosted Value Partners 2H 2020 Market Outlook Conference and a Webinar where it co-launched white papers with Oxford Metrica online.

In November, Cheah appeared in a live interview on the Chinese mainland, hosted by Tang Ning, chairman of CreditEase, a leading financial services platform.

The interview lasted 90 minutes and attracted an audience of more than 26,000 people.

“The mainland Chinese market has incredible potential, as the pool of savings is very large, but remains invested mostly in real estate and bank deposits. Even a relatively minor shift to fund management products will bring huge business to our industry, ” he said.

But Cheah has not forgotten Malaysia, saying there were positive developments from its wholly owned subsidiary, Value Partners Asset Management Malaysia Sdn Bhd (Value Partners Malaysia).

“Our fund, Malaysia Property Income Shariah Fund, received approval from the Securities Commission of Malaysia. The fund’s strategy, that is to invest in syariah-compliant Purpose Built Workers Accommodation (PBWA), is in adherence to the highest ESG (environmental, social and governance) principles.

“With the increased impact of Covid-19 on foreign workers, the fund attracted the interest of institutional investors.”

Cheah said Value Partners Malaysia was looking into launching more China and syariah-compliant strategies in the country to capitalise on the Group’s capabilities and expertise.

“With syariah-compliant funds gaining traction, Value Partners Malaysia’s plan for 2021 is to leverage on its expertise on investment in China and offer syariah-compliant solutions, attracting investors in both South-East Asia and the Middle East.”

Cheah said he looked forward to seeing Malaysians visiting him again in Hong Kong.

“I am ready for 2021. I am sure it will be an exciting year.”

Although he is now a Hong Kong resident, Cheah maintains close ties with Malaysia, maintaining a home in Penang. In Penang, he is a member of the Wawasan Education Foundation, which owns and operates the Wawasan Open University. He also serves on the Wu Lien-Teh Society, set up to perpetuate the memory of Dr Wu Lien-Teh, who was credited with saving hundreds of lives in China during a plague in the early part of the 20th Century.

An old boy of Penang Free School, Cheah is also a founding sponsor of the Malaysian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, which has more than 400 members.

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