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Where to invest $1 million right now

Illustration: Isabel Seliger

Illustration: Isabel Seliger

Published Dec 4, 2018


If you just made a nice windfall selling your property, or came into a fat inheritance, or just happen to have a large nest egg sitting around, here are some ideas from our inaugural survey of experts on where to park $1 million. Suggestions range from leveraging the trade war between China and the U.S. to Vietnamese condos, or 300-year-old tea.

As always, the appeal of these investments depends on your risk appetite, and the members of our panel are mostly in a cautious mood. But those with a tolerance for the stomach-lurching cryptocurrency markets, or the vagaries of Chinese sorghum-based liquor, will find interesting ways to broaden their portfolio.

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Darrin Woo

Director of Woo Hon Fai Group

Because of my family background—my grandfather founded Lee Cheong Gold Dealers in Hong Kong in 1950—I believe in the physicality of gold. I would buy a million dollars’ worth of bullion bars and stuff them under my mattress. Gold has underperformed the S&P 500 index for the past five years. SPX has delivered 46 percent in that time, and gold has lost 1 percent. In the next 10 years gold is one of the best contrarian plays. I say buy when no one else does.

I also like the idea of digital tokens backed by physical gold. If you talk to millennials, they aren’t interested in buying stocks and don’t even have brokerage accounts, and they can’t afford real estate. So they are looking for a store of value that’s also convenient. They are interested in new technology and blockchain and using a digital wallet. But unlike Bitcoin and Ether, whose prices trade wildly, gold-backed tokens have an intrinsic value and should be a lot less volatile. I’ve participated in an early round of funding in Santa Clara-based Emergent Technologies Holdings, a company which is creating the world’s first digital token called G-Coin backed by gold produced in accordance with World Gold Council and Responsible Jewellery Council standards. The resulting gold can be tracked from mine to vault using blockchain.

The other way to play: I’m also a classic car collector. For the past several years nearly everything has appreciated but don’t be fooled by a rising tide lifting all boats. Like stocks, blue chips will fare best in a downturn. That means focusing on investment-grade cars that are rare but not too rare and will hold their value. For $1 million and change you can pick up a Mercedes Benz 300SL Gullwing. Only 1,400 were ever made between 1954 and 1957. But remember, unlike other asset classes, classic cars are expensive to maintain, so aren’t a good hedge against inflation. Neither is gold, but it’s much cheaper to park.

Stefan Hofer

Chief Investment Strategist LGT Bank, Hong Kong

The key questions that high-net-worth individual investors ask today are, “should I close out my U.S. equity positions” and “is it time to buy China?” On the former, we advise clients to stick with their U.S. positions, or if markedly still underweight, to actually add more. On the latter, we think it is too soon to average-down or stock up on China-related equities, notwithstanding their significant underperformance this year.

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On the U.S., the growth story is just too compelling to ignore: according to U.S. Federal Reserve, household wealth in the U.S. has now exceeded $100 trillion – it is very likely that this is the largest pool of wealth in recorded human economic history. The pre-Global Financial Crisis peak in U.S. wealth in 2007 was close to $70 trillion.

With additional fiscal stimulus from the White House in 2019 a distinct possibility, the next U.S. recession could be pushed out beyond 2020, something that equity markets are likely to cheer. For the full year, U.S. firms’ earnings are forecast to grow at 23 percent, which again is well ahead of European peers at 9 percent.

In terms of valuations, with a 12 month forward price to earnings ratio of 17 times, some investors maintain that the U.S. is simply expensive. It is undeniable that there are “cheaper” equity markets to be found. We would argue, however, that given uniquely strong U.S. economic momentum, investors can expect to pay more to own these fundamentals, and won’t be wrong to do so.

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On China, there is lingering uncertainty as to how far the current slowdown will go, as the economy absorbs the cross-currents of lowering debt, and at the same time, the central government increases spending to buffer the impacts of the ongoing trade dispute with the U.S. We may see some improvements on this front as Presidents Trump and Xi are expected to discuss trade at the G-20 in Argentina.

For China stocks, it is arguably too soon to say where the floor will be for growth, and how effective recent policy moves will be. On the plus side, overall food inflation is near zero, and if the November 11 (Single’s Day) sales numbers are anything to go by, the Chinese consumer remains in good health. As such, important economic fundamentals in China appear robust enough to withstand the trade-related shocks that are in the pipeline. That does not mean it is time to buy, however, and we think investors should be patient, as better entry levels are likely to be ahead.

The other way to play: On a purely personal level, my out-of-the-box investment idea is to buy contemporary Korean art, mostly because I purchased a painting by Sungsoo Kim four years ago and am waiting for it to appreciate. It’s hanging in my home and I enjoy it every day.

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Edie Hu

Art Advisory Specialist at Citi Private Bank Hong Kong

Before you think about investing $1 million in a painting, make sure you really like what you’re buying. Given the fickle nature of the art market, you could get stuck with it for several years, so get something you’d like to see on your wall. Do your homework and search auction records to avoid buying works that get flipped every couple of years. And in case you missed the memo, the Chinese contemporary art market peaked several years ago.

Now collectors are chasing works by 20th century Asian artists whose western peers have long been recognized. Japan’s Gutai abstract expressionist and avant garde painters like Kazuo Shiraga and Atsuko Tanaka have appreciated steadily in recent years, while western-influenced Korean minimalist painters like Lee Ufan, Park Seo Bo and Chung Sung Hwa are also on the rise.

If black and white is your thing, contemporary ink paintings are undervalued—and they fit nicely with modern décor. And because they draw on the centuries-old “literati” tradition of Imperial Chinese scholars, you can earn extra bragging rights for cultural sophistication. Top works by Shanghai-born Li Huayi, now 70 years old, can be yours for about $600,000 or $700,000, and Liu Dan’s meticulous paintings can still be found for less than $1 million. Collaborative works by New Jersey-based classical landscape painter Arnold Chang and Michael Cherney, an American photographer in Beijing, are among my favorites.

Australian art has been largely overlooked outside the country, and that’s a pity. Next time you’re Down Under, check out the works of Brett Whiteley, who died of a drug overdose in 1992. His vibrant canvases owe a lot to Matisse and other Fauvist painters of the early 20th century. His most expensive work sold for $2.9 million, but there are still plenty of his smaller oils for well under $1 million. His stuff is absolutely beautiful.

The other way to play: For an out-of-the-box idea, think vintage toys. As people get older they get nostalgic for childhood playthings. A Barbie doll sold for $302,500 in 2010, and Gen-Xers have pushed up prices for Star Wars figures, with two Jedi Knights from 1978 going for a combined 100,000 pounds in April. And board games like Monopoly are perennial favorites.

Hao Hong

Head of Research and Chief Strategist at Bocom International Holdings Co.

For the Chinese, time is cyclical, a tapestry of monsoons, seasons and the rise and fall of dynasties. The I-Ching, for instance, is a book of divination based on cycles. And so it is with economies too.

Our research has shown that there exist well-defined short cycles of around three to four years in the U.S. and China’s economies. Every few years when the short cycles in the US and China entwine, significant gyrations will occur in markets and the social domain. We are now about to enter such a phase. The confluence of the declining U.S. and China economic cycles soon will prove to be too tough to overcome.

The significant fall in China’s stock market, which hit a two-year low in September, is a prelude of what is to come. At such volatile times when the bear market beckons, one should refrain from the urge to catch falling knives, even though markets here have cheapened substantially. China will continue to get cheaper but there is no reason for a rebound.

U.S. equities cannot escape this cyclical fate either, and are in for tough times too. As China decelerates, the rest of the world will feel the chill. This is no time to be buying, but neither should you sell. Protect your positions by buying put options, and as long as volatility is low you have got yourself a cheap insurance policy against the downdraft. There will be better entry points after the storm.

Meanwhile, U.S. Treasury bonds and the U.S. dollar could provide a safe refuge. Gold can help you hedge to your position in U.S. holdings, so if the dollar weakens, gold will strengthen. If you combine the two, you won’t lose money. We don’t recommend high yield corporate bonds, because in times of crisis, they behave just like stocks.

The other way to play: For a really out-of-the-box investment, I would put my money into Kweichow Moutai, the fiery Chinese liquor, the only investment to outperform China’s housing market in the last two decades. Like some of the finest French Bordeaux wines, supply is strictly limited and it appreciates in value with age. A single bottle of 1940 vintage sold for 1.97 million yuan ($287,700) at a July auction in China.

Goodwin Gaw

Chairman of Gaw Capital Partners

Ho Chi Minh City real estate. It’s a no brainer. It’s where southern China was 15 years ago. There is already a lot of migration from southern China opening factories in the country as the mainland ones are shutting down. These export-oriented factories earn hard currency so there are more small and medium-sized enterprises earning dollars. The trade war between the U.S. and China will only accelerate this migration.

The owners of these SMEs want to put their money in high-end residential properties. There is also additional capital inflow from overseas Vietnamese sending money back home.

High-end apartments sell for just $300 per square foot, which is a fraction of Hong Kong, where prices are 10 to 15 times as much.

Foreigners can only buy leasehold, and there is a 30 percent quota on how much of any one project they can own. But you can always sell your property to a local who will convert it to freehold.

The other way to play: For an alternative investment, vintage furniture can be interesting for those with a trained eye. The younger generation is looking for authenticity and the patina that only comes with time. I am a fan of Danish modern design from the 1940s to 1960s. Last year a pair of armchairs by Finn Juhl sold for $120,000 at a Phillips auction here in Hong Kong. One cost just $295 when the model was launched in 1954.

William Ma

Chief Investment Officer Noah Holdings

With all the clouds on the horizon, trade wars, higher interest rates, inflation, we advise focusing on markets less correlated to global uncertainty. India, which is set to become the world’s third-largest economy by 2030, is a good place to start. Exports as a percentage of GDP are at the lowest since 2003-2004, but the domestic consumption is the engine of growth, and it’s less sensitive to U.S.-China frictions. The Bollywood, not Hollywood theme applies to many domestic brands from whiskies to motorcycles to local e-commerce giant Flipkart.

Creeping protectionism will be good for these companies. We prefer locally managed hedge funds over ETFs and mutual funds, which have a high weighting in bloated state-owned companies. Though rupee weakness is certainly a risk, most Indian fund managers have hedged their currency exposure by about 50 percent.

We’ve been overweight Vietnam for three years, with about 10 to 15 percent allocation compared with an MSCI weighting of 1 to 2 percent. The country could benefit from a prolonged U.S. trade war with China as manufacturing companies relocate there. It’s like China 15 years ago. Unlike India, we are fine with ETFs because many of Vietnam’s largest cap companies are well-run.

The domestic consumption theme still applies to China too. Watch Foshan Haitian Flavouring & Food Co., the country’s largest soy sauce maker. People are eating better and taking better care of themselves. We see new trends in dental care with many small local companies raising private funds. Per-capita spending on dental care in China is $9 compared with $391 in the U.S.

Now is not the time to be investing in fixed income. There are a lot of people buying treasuries and high yields and spreads are very tight. But equity yields of 3.2 percent in Asia ex-Japan look attractive compared to the 1.9 percent in the U.S. Returns are even better for Chinese companies in the Hang Seng China Equity Index, yielding 4.5 percent.

The other way to play: Meanwhile, you might consider investing in a rare Chinese tea called Da Hong Pao, “Grand Scarlet Robe.” It’s grown in the mountains of northern Fujian province and production is highly regulated. Tea leaves from the handful of original, 300-year-old bushes have sold for the equivalent of more than $1 million per kilo. It is considered the ultimate gift in China.


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