By David Randall
NEW YORK, Feb 28 (Reuters) - China's stocks were among the first hit by fears of the coronavirus outbreak. Some investors are now betting they may be among the first to recover.
The two major benchmarks for stocks traded within China are down less than 1.9% year-to-date, while benchmarks in the United States and Europe are down 7% or more over the same period.
U.S. stocks fell again on Thursday, with the S&P 500 dropping 4.4%, confirming a 10% drop from the most recent high and signaling a correction. But China's CSI 300 index gained 0.3%.
Fund managers and analysts say the disparity in the stock market performance reflects expectations that the impacts of the virus are being contained in China, while the full extent of the outbreak in developed markets such as the United States and Europe remains unknown. Those fears are especially potent given that major U.S. stock benchmarks were trading at all-time highs within the last two weeks, helping fuel a more than 12% decline in the S&P 500 since Feb. 19.
Chinese stocks, by comparison, had been battered for months by concerns over the impact of the trade war between the United States and China. The CSI 300 remains 0.3% below where it was this time last year, while the U.S. benchmark S&P 500 is up 6.7% over the same time.
"The market was looking for a reason to sell and coronavirus is a pretty significant reason" given its potential to disrupt consumer spending and global supply chains, said Aditya Kapoor, a portfolio manager of the $1.9 billion Ivy Emerging Markets Fund.
China has already instituted quarantines in major cities and suspended schools in hopes of containing the virus. The number of new deaths in mainland China due to the virus stood at 29 on Wednesday, the lowest number since Jan. 28, government officials said.
"We're expecting very poor results in most of our companies over the first and second quarter, but our working assumption is that China has it under control," said Kapoor.
The stocks he is bullish on include cloud-based software and after-school education companies that could see a benefit from the quarantines.
"When schools are closed nationwide the only option to study is online, so these companies are getting a huge boost without spending the marketing dollars required because everyone is giving them a trial," he said.
Tiffany Hsiao, portfolio manager of the $127 million Matthews China Small Companies fund, said she expects a temporary hit to business spending and consumer confidence from the coronavirus impact but expects economic activity will pick up in the second half of the year as the benefits of the trade deal between the United States and China accrue. Her fund is up nearly 13.5% year-to-date.
Along with online education, she is focusing on companies in the healthcare sector ranging from biotech to medical waste disposal. The fund's third-largest holding is Taiwanese medical waste disposal company Sunny Friend Environmental Technology Co Ltd, according to Morningstar. Sunny Friend's shares are up 6.6% this year.
Hsiao is also bullish on consumer companies that focus on millennials, especially those that sell ready-to-make food and condiments.
"The interesting thing about millennials in China is that a lot of them donâ€™t know how to cook," she said. "With coronavirus many are quarantined at home and need to make food for themselves."
Hsiao said she is prepared to increase her positions in Chinese stocks if they follow developed markets lower.
"We are long-term investors and we see any market disruptions as opportunity to add to positions that we have convictions in," she said. (Reporting by David Randall; Editing by Ira Iosebashvili and Leslie Adler)