China Investment Brightens Pakistan’s Future

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Pakistani stocks have soared over the past year, but there are reasons to be bearish

By: Henny Sender

Late last year, three Chinese exchanges jointly submitted the highest bid for a 40 per cent stake in the Pakistan Stock Exchange. They paid almost Rs9bn, or $85m. Weeks after the deal, the market hit an all-time high. This year has been a good time to be a broker in Karachi, especially after index provider MSCI announced last summer it was restoring the country to emerging market status after downgrading it to frontier status after the financial crisis. In March, local brokers with stakes in the PSX received cheques when the Chinese transaction closed. Since then, they have been sending roadshows to financial capitals to sing the praises of the Pakistani market. The Chinese investment in the the Pakistan stock market is not officially part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is itself part of the broader, One Belt, One Road initiative designed to strengthen trade links between China and Europe.

Yet the biggest reason to be optimistic about Pakistan is the Chinese investment that is pouring into the country. More than $55bn is expected to come into the country in the next five years, according to a forecast from the Pakistan Business Council. Beijing is doing for Pakistan what the country cannot seemingly do for itself — provide functioning infrastructure. The most critical of these involves building power plants to solve the country’s perennial energy shortage, which has become one of the biggest constraints on economic growth. Last year investors latched on to what Chinese investment might mean for Pakistan. The stock market is up more than 40 per cent over the past 12 months, and touched a record high in January. However, its momentum has slowed, rising only about 3 per cent this year.

Investors must decide whether China will be a long-term game changer for corporate Pakistan — or whether China itself will be the biggest beneficiary of CPEC. Will local steel, cement and heavy chemical companies see a huge uptick in orders? Will Chinese capital invest in the Pakistani cement and steel industry, where being local is an advantage given high transport costs. Or will Chinese companies see a boost to revenues as a result of Chinese investment?

“With the China connection, it is difficult to go wrong; that is key,” argues Mark Mobius, executive chairman of Templeton Emerging Markets Group. “Three years ago, we went big in Pakistan when everyone was down on it.” Yet the evidence so far is mixed. Many contracts are not public, but Chinese companies that have received contracts to help construct some of the power plants have been guaranteed equity returns from the projects. Moreover, until the Pakistani business community rose in revolt, Chinese steel imports were duty-free. Chinese investment is not the only reason to buy Pakistan. Law and order has improved, although progress seems fragile. Growth, which came in at under 5 per cent last year, is expected to rise to 5.2 per cent this year, according to the Asian Development Bank. Consumer spending is strong. The cost of capital is at a 43-year low, according to data from the Pakistan Business Capital. Pakistani management talent — whether at multinationals such as Unilever or local companies such as Engro or National Foods — is impressive. But reasons to be bearish are not hard to find. The country’s exports are declining, while those at competitors such as Vietnam and Bangladesh are growing. Manufacturing as a percentage of GDP is shrinking, and is a mere 13 per cent today. Remittances are down, while the balance of payments is under pressure. The wave of Chinese investment will make a huge difference to Pakistan. That much is not in dispute. But it is possible that alongside the power plants, roads and ports, China’s investment will leave a trail of bad debts. For now, of course, Karachi brokers will be hoping Beijing’s interest lifts the domestic stock market to new highs.