VGI finds fertile ground in Asia's structural growth story

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Australian investors have been able to gain exposure to Asia’s rising economies through domestic commodity producers in recent decades.

Shannon McConaghy, a Senior Investment Analyst at VGI Partners, highlights that Asian consumption patterns are shifting, from commoditised products towards more sophisticated goods and services.

Citing research from McKinsey, McConaghy expects higher-income earners will drive the majority of growth in the Asia region. Companies that can leverage their exposure to Asia’s rising middle class offer some of the most appealing opportunities.

In this interview, McConaghy outlines three structural trends that will provide fertile ground for stock selection and an example of a company exposed to changing consumer trends in Asia. 

 

Edited transcript

What are the structural opportunities in Asia right now?

So at VGI partners, one of the most important global trends we are seeing is the structural shift in Asia towards middle class consumption.

Going forward over the next 10 years, 80% of the growth will come from higher income consumers. And so there's a change going on in the underlying consumption trends and patterns. 

As we shift to middle class consumption, you start to see more opportunities for companies to offer sophisticated products that allow them to have a sustainable competitive advantage. 

By that, an example I'd give is Yakult, which is a globally renowned probiotics beverage company. In fact, it's often synonymous with probiotics for many consumers. 

What Yakult has done over decades is established very, very strong brand and supply chain throughout Asia. Often this works via a system they call Yakult ladies.

You'll have families moving into urban environments, and often wives will look after the children. And during the day, distribute Yakult products to households in the surrounding area.

This creates a very good loyal, sticky customer base and the opportunity for Yakult to purvey the health benefits in its probiotic beverages, which is improved gut health and digestion.

Now what's really interesting is Yakult is not just the smaller 30 to 40 cent bottles that you and I are familiar with here.

In Japan, they have a whole range of premium products that go up to 3.5 times the price of those standard, small bottles. Those products offer improved vitamins. They can be targeted to specific demographics.

And the latest product actually has been authorised to be marketed as improving sleep and reducing stress. And as we know, as societies become more and more sophisticated, different stresses present themselves, and that's proving to be an area that is excelling in sales. And also, because of the higher pricing, we're seeing a real uptick in the margins in Japan.

Now, it's our view that Yakult intends to roll these products out across this rapidly growing middle class in Asia, which will not only capture a dramatic rise in sales, but also a dramatic improvement in margins and really unlock value. 

Yakult, to a degree, has been seen as a slightly sleepy Japanese company, not as focused on shareholder returns in the past. We think the company will also unlock value by improving its focus on shareholders.

So for an example, Yakult is a very strong cash flow generative business at the moment. It already has a substantial net cash savings position on its balance sheet.

Simple numbers that we've run show that if Yakult stopped adding to its net cash balance, and simply returned that to shareholders, they could increase their dividend by up to four times. 

That to us, with a structural growth in Asian middle class consumption, a really strong brand, really sticky distribution platform and an opportunity to unlock value and increase margins is an exciting structural trend.

What other structural trends has VGI Partners identified?

Other areas that we feel are very attractive to play the rising Asian middle class consumer include e-commerce and internet. Asia already accounts for around 60% of global e-commerce sales. And interestingly, we're seeing an increasing number of trends first evolve in Asia and spread globally.

And we think, over the coming years and decades, we might start to see an increasing number of the global e-commerce champions coming from Asia, where there is the highest base of consumption, and there is an incredibly vibrant entrepreneurial approach to developing new strategies.

One of the most interesting areas for us in Asia, and really sort of provides a niche aspect to many of the cultures there, is the shift towards digital payments. The really interesting aspect to this for an e-commerce company is that it can create a real flywheel effect.

You have your strong e-commerce sales platform. In addition to that, you provide financial services in the e-wallet.

As the transactions flow through the system, the financial services will observe, pick up data on those transactions, be able to analyse them with AI, provide financing for the rising customer base in Asia, and also offer reward points, which tie customers into the virtuous cycle, and creates a flywheel effect.

This is particularly prevalent in Asia, where there is a high propensity to use those eCommerce offerings alongside the FinTech offerings.

And this, to us, is a great area to capture the middle class growth in Asia. Another area we find very interesting is the growth of MedTech or medical technology. Asia has vast populations of people who are underserved by modern surgical equipment, for example. 

Olympus is a company that we look at closely. It has 70% global market share in gastrointestinal endoscopes. 

And we feel as Asia adds 1.5 billion people to its middle class over the next decade, we will see a strong increase in demand for companies like Olympus that already has a very appealing distribution channel and a very sticky customer base via it's training programmes throughout Asia.

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