The Best Chinese Stocks to Buy and Hold

The following is an excerpt from The 10 Best Chinese Stocks You Can Buy.

This a precarious time to be investing in China. But many Chinese stocks, particularly in the technology and service sectors, look attractive if you’re willing to deal with some volatility.

Even before the coronavirus outbreak, which originated in Wuhan province, relations between China and the West were strained. The U.S. and China have been engaged in a tit-for-tat trade war for most of the Trump presidency, and there is widespread fear in Western capitals that 5G telecom equipment manufactured by Huawei is capable of state espionage.

Trade tensions alone were reason enough to make many investors wary of Chinese stocks. Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, exposing the risks of a globalized supply chain.

Consider Apple (AAPL). The world’s leading consumer electronics maker has been reporting supply disruptions since February stemming from Chinese factory closures, and JPMorgan recently estimated that the launch of the new iPhone, which usually comes out in September or October, might be delayed by a few months.

Going forward, a lot of companies might be reconsidering the merits of cheap Chinese manufacturing and opt to stay closer to home. But the truth is that China has long evolved past the smokestack stage of development. The country is a major technology and digital entertainment hub, even if the vast majority of its products and services are destined for domestic use.

You have to be careful when investing in Chinese stocks, as shareholder protections aren’t quite up to Western standards. Already this year, major accounting scandals have upended iQIYI (IQ) and Luckin Coffee (LK). But that’s a risk you take when you invest in emerging markets, and that’s why it’s important to diversify and avoid heavy concentration in any single stock.

Here are 10 of the best Chinese stocks on the market right now. Each is poised to do well no matter what happens next in the coronavirus and trade war sagas.

ZTO Express

If you like the idea of owning China’s Amazon, it only makes sense that you would also like the country’s version of United Parcel Service (UPS). Greater demand for e-commerce means greater demand for shipping and delivery services. It really is that simple.

This brings us to ZTO Express (ZTO), the largest player in Chinese express parcel delivery with a market share of 19.1% as of last year. The company has a fleet of more than 7,350 line-haul vehicles serving approximately 30,000 pick-up and delivery centers throughout China.

Like many Chinese stocks over the past few years, ZTO’s growth rates boggle the mind. Parcel volume jumped by 42% last year after jumping by 37% and 38% in 2018 and 2017, respectively. First-quarter 2020 volume figures aren’t available yet, but it’s likely that widespread lockdowns only made ZTO’s services all the more essential. Just understand ZTO might see activity similar to UPS in which a shift in consumer and product mix hamper profits in the short term.

China probably will record its first true recession in decades this year, but you’d never know it by looking at ZTO’s stock price. The shares have continued to push higher all year and are currently at all-time highs.

We don’t know a lot about what comes next in the post-coronavirus world. But it’s safe to assume that in any reality, ZTO and its peers deliver more parcels.

To read the rest of the article, see The 10 Best Chinese Stocks You Can Buy.

When Finance Breaks: Negative Oil Prices

This article first appeared on Money & Markets.

It finally happened.

On Monday, we saw negative oil prices. The price of West Texas intermediate crude oil dipped into below zero and not by a trivial amount. The price of the front month contract fell below negative $40 per barrel.

In movement that should be mathematically impossible, the price fell by 300% in a day. Stop and let that sink in for a moment. Oil producers at these prices are having to pay people to haul the stuff away.

Negative oil prices can’t persist forever, of course. To paraphrase the old joke, oil producers can’t lose money on every sale and then expect to make it up on volume. It doesn’t work like that. Faced with the prospect of a loss, companies simply stop producing until prices improve.

And prices will improve. We saw negative oil prices partly because no one driving and flying while under coronavirus quarantine. There’s so much unneeded crude oil building up, there’s literally nowhere to store it. If you look at futures contracts for later months, prices are positive and healthy.

But some of this also comes down to financial plumbing. Futures contracts are actual agreements to deliver commodities. They’re not just blips on a computer screen. Given that there was only one day to expiration on the May contract, anyone buying was someone who planned to take physical delivery. And as much as I would love to have some oilman pay me $40 per barrel to take his crude away, I would have nowhere to put it and no way to get it there. I can’t just stretch a long hose all the way to Cushing, Oklahoma and fill my swimming pool with the stuff.

So while buyers were few and far between, sellers were abundant. Everyone speculating on oil prices had to sell the contract in order to roll to the next month. And we’re not just talking about wide-eyed speculators. The large crude oil ETFs and ETNs were selling too.

But here’s the deal. Negative oil prices are just the latest instance of the financial markets being broken, and it’s not something that can be explained away by the coronavirus disruptions. Negative interest rates have been with us for years in Japan and Europe, and parts of the U.S. yield curve went negative during the March meltdown. Last year, we even saw the first mortgages with negative interest rates. Homebuyers in Denmark were literally being paid by the bank to borrow money to buy a house.

Negative oil prices and negative interest rates are market perversions. These things shouldn’t happen. Ever.

But they’re happening more often, and there’s a simple reason why. Our policymakers seem to think the cure for a debt problem is more debt… which is a lot like saying the cure for alcoholism is more booze. Sure, it’s a short-term fix. But it’s hard to see that working out over the long-term.

In 2008, the Federal Reserve and its peers lowered short-term rates to zero (or negative rates in some cases) and pushed down longer-term rates with quantitative easing. It arguably helped to goose the economy a little. But it definitely incentivized companies to borrow heavily and buy back their shares. The money was practically free. Why wouldn’t they?

It also inflated the price of homes, making it harder for younger would-be buyers to buy their first property, and helped fuel the income and wealth inequality that made Bernie Sanders a legitimate contender for the presidency.

There’s no way out of this problem. Continuing along this path just makes it worse, yet sobering up and weaning the economy off of debt risks a nasty, multi-year recession that no one wants.

So, what can we do?

As I mentioned recently, I like real estate. It’s a dicey situation today with calls to halt rent payments due to the virus quarantines. But hard assets make sense if you think currency weakness and inflation might be in the cards.

I also like gold as a hedge. I agree with Warren Buffett that gold is mostly useless, but I also believe that having 5% or so of your savings in gold is perfectly rational in this environment.

And lastly, owning shares of the best companies that are the least exposed to financial stability would seem like a no brainer. For the first in years, I’ve been nibbling on Amazon, Alphabet and a host of other big tech names.

Alas, I am not, however, building crude oil storage facilities in my home. I figured that might upset my neighbors.

20 Stocks for a Post-Coronavirus World

The following first appeared on Kiplinger’s as The 20 Best Stocks to Buy Now

The coronavirus crisis will end. I don’t know when, and you don’t know when. But it will end. We won’t live under lockdown conditions forever.

By this stage of the game, you should have already made the defensive moves you were going to make. The market may very well have another leg down. It’s far too early to say we’re out of the woods given that most of America is under quarantine and we have yet to see what first-quarter earnings and second-quarter guidance looks like. But it’s a bit late in the game to be thinking about defense. That’s closing the barn door after the horse has already bolted. Now is the time to start planning for the next bull market.

Even professional bears are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. “I’m selectively buying in my personal accounts,” says John Del Vecchio, co-manager of the AdvisorShares Ranger Equity Bear ETF (HDGE). “There were plenty of companies that went into this crisis on life support, kept alive by cheap debt. You’re going to see a lot of these companies fail. But at the same time, a lot of high-quality blue chips are on sale right now at prices we may never see again in our lifetimes.”

Not every company gets out of this unscathed. It may take years for airlines to return to pre-crisis passenger numbers, and they may go through bankruptcy or a government conservatorship in the meantime. Likewise, retailers and restaurants might be dealing with the fallout from lockdowns for months or years, as will their banks and landlords.

But there are plenty of companies that have been only minimally affected by this crisis and may actually benefit from it by picking up market share. Many of these stocks are in the tech space, but certainly not all. Plenty are in the gritty, old-fashioned real economy.

Today, we’ll take a look at 20 of the best positioned for a post-coronavirus world.

Walmart (WMT)

Like Amazon, Walmart (WMT) has been knocking the cover off the ball throughout this crisis. While most retailers have been forced to close their doors, Walmart has reportedly seen its sales jump by 20% over the past month.

Americans on lockdown are eating more at home, which helps Walmart’s grocery business. But electronics, toys, cleaning supplies and just about everything else Walmart sells is also in high demand these days.

Much of this is a one-off windfall that won’t be repeated. You can only stockpile so much bleach and toilet paper. But Walmart stands to benefit for years or even decades after the lockdowns are lifted.

It comes down to the “retail apocalypse” we’ve been hearing about for years. It’s well established that America has vastly more store square footage per capita than any other country in the world, roughly five times the amount of store square footage per capita as the United Kingdom and six times that of France. And a lot of that square footage is occupied by weaker retailers that have been limping along for years, kept alive by cheap credit.

Some of these retailers won’t survive this recession or, at the very least, will need to consolidate and reduce store count. And their loss will be Walmart’s gain. It’s during a recession when, in true Darwinian natural selection, the fittest survive. And other than perhaps Amazon, no retailer has proven to be fitter than Walmart.

To read the remainder of the article, please see The 20 Best Stocks to Buy Now.

Assessing the Damage at VEREIT (VER)

To say the coronavirus bear market has been hard on REITs would be an understatement. While the S&P 500 was down about 35% at its lowest point (thus far), the Vanguard Real Estate Index Fund (VNQ) was down 44%. And the damage in many individual REITs was far worse.

As an example, triple-net retail REIT VEREIT (VER) dropped 65%.

REIT prices should be lower. The next two quarters promise to be an unmitigated disaster for REIT earnings. Recessions have come and gone. But we’ve never had a situation where large swaths of the economy were shut down, virtually instantly, in an otherwise healthy economy. The shear strangeness of the entire exercise and the fact that there is no obvious end to it add to the difficulty of assessing the damage.

And as damaging as it would be to investor confidence, several REITs — including VEREIT — may end up having to reduce or eliminate their dividends, at least for a couple quarters. If tenants cannot continue making payments, eventually the REITs will have a hard time continuing to pay their investors.

All of that said, a 65% drop in the share price suggests more than an awful quarter or two. A decline of that nature in an otherwise boring and stodgy company suggests the property values are impaired and that rental revenues will be permanently lower.

For some REITs, that might very well be true. Mall properties were a tough sell even before the coronavirus scare, and they haven’t somehow become more attractive over the past six weeks. Even the office market might have long-term or permanent damage to demand as companies have been forced to make working from home feasible. Most work will return to an office setting once the dust settles. But some likely will not.

It’s harder to make that case for restaurants and high-traffic retail properties like the ones VEREIT owns. When your typical tenant is a dollar store, a pharmacy or a gym it’s pretty safe to assume your properties will still be in demand once life returns to normal. Tenants might skip a payment or two. But longer-term damage is unlikely.

A Look at the Portfolio

Soruce: VEREIT

VEREIT has a portfolio of nearly 4,000 properties, the largest consisting of retail properties. It’s the 21% allocated to restaurants that seems to have Wall Street the most worried.

VEREIT’s largest single tenant is Red Lobster at 4.7%. Red Lobster is a junk-rated tenant that looked somewhat shaky even before the coronavirus panic. It certainly looks no less shaky now. Most Red Lobster locations are operating as carry-out only in response to stay-at-home orders. We have no visibility as to what sales or profits will look like, but we can assume it’s not good.

Source: VEREIT

Digging deeper into the restaurant portfolio, the numbers are a mixed bag. Only 3.3% are rated investment grade. Rent coverage as of year end was good enough at 2.63 times. (Rent coverage defined as (EBITDA + rent) / rent.) Of course, those numbers are now meaningless until we see guidance coming out of the restaurant sector.

Rents collected from restaurants don’t go to zero. But it’s safe to assume that some — and maybe a large portion — of the rents get reduced or deferred over the next several months.

I’m a lot less concerned about the rest of the portfolio. Apart from Red Lobster and perhaps LA Fitness, the remaining top-10 tenants would seem relatively immune from disruption.

44.2% of VEREIT’s rents come from retail businesses (apart from restaurants). There will be rent deferrals and concession here, particularly in the 3.3% in entertainment properties, the 2.9% in home furnishing, and the 2.4% in auto-related tenants. But assuming stores are allowed to reopen within the next month, the long-term damage to this segment of the population would seem pretty minimal.

Office and Industrial properties make up 18.6% and 16.5% of rents, respectively. These segments will not be free of disruption, of course, and there may be a few tenants that get in financial trouble. But I’m not expecting much in the way of coronavirus-related rent deferrals or reductions here.

VEREIT’s risk mainly comes down to its restaurant portfolio and to how long the world remains locked down.

VEREIT Price/Book Ratio

After the share price swoon, VEREIT trades at a price/book ratio of 0.68. Now, REITs generally have understated price/book ratios as the value of their real estate portfolio isn’t regularly marked to market and is actually reduced by depreciation. But just for giggles, let’s assume assume that book value is a reasonable estimate for the value of VEREIT’s portfolio.

At current prices, you could write off the entire restaurant portfolio, giving it a value of zero, and VEREIT would still be worth more dead than alive, trading at a price.book ratio of less than 1.

Obviously, the restaurant portfolio is worth more than zero. Most of the restaurants are likely to continue business as usual and won’t miss as much as a single rent payment. But even if Red Lobster and a large minority of its restaurant tenants were to come under severe stress, VEREIT’s share price would seem ridiculously low.

What About Cash Flow?

We’re stabbing in the dark here. We don’t have great numbers to play with. But let’s say restaurant rentals go to zero in the second quarter and then recover to 70% in the third and fourth quarters. That’s obviously extreme and isn’t a realistic scenario. But, frankly, we’re all under quarantine and have nothing else to do, so humor me.

VEREIT had rental revenues of $1.2 billion last year, of which approximately $240 million came from restaurants. We’ll chop $60 million off for the second quarter and $18 million each for the third and fourth quarters. That reduces full year rental income to something in the ballpark of $1.1 billion.

Chopping ~$100 million off of adjusted funds from operations gets us something in the ballpark of $600 million for the year. That’s slightly below the $665 million paid last year in dividends on the preferred and common stock. But we’re also assuming that restaurant rental income literally goes to zero, which it won’t.

VEREIT also had approximately $1.35 billion available on its revolving credit facility that it could presumably tap as a short-term fix.

I’m playing fast and loose with the numbers here because, frankly, it’s an exercise in futility to try to be exact given the degree of uncertainty faced. But it’s fair to say that VEREIT isn’t facing insolvency even under very negative scenarios. I think it is possible they could reduce or delay their dividend for a couple quarters as an abundance of caution. But I don’t think they’ll necessarily need to.

Sentiment towards REITs is awful right now, and further declines can’t be ruled out. But if you have a time horizon of even a year or two, this would seem to be a good opportunity to accumulate shares.

8 Technologies From Star Trek We Use Every Day

Here’s a fun article by my colleague Bill Washinski to take your mind off of the coronavirus crisis for a while. Enjoy! — Charles

When Star Trek the Next Generation (“TNG”) first came on the air in 1987, it had high hopes and big shoes to fill from the original Star Trek.  It also had a lot of detractors and even Sir Patrick Stewart refused to unpack as he doubted the show’s future.  15 years later it ended after 7 seasons, 18 Emmys and 4 feature films and spawned several spinoffs of its own. It also created one of the greatest villains of all time in the Borg with their memorable phrase “Resistance is futile.”

The legacy of Star Trek TNG is very much alive and well; perhaps even more so as much of the technology that was science fiction at the time the show was created actually exists today.  Resistance to that change is definitely futile as it has had dramatic effect on industry and peoples lives.  It continues to move fast – driving some areas of the economy skyward while others are forced to adapt or are “assimilated”.  

8 Things From Star Trek You’re Using Today

8. Drones – In the first season episode “Arsenal of Freedom” the crew was attacked by an advanced weapon that was small in size but deadly in nature.  Today, not only does the military utilize drones of the same size, but you can go to Amazon or Walmart and purchase one for your children. 

7. iPad/Notebooks – Throughout the shows run, characters used a mobile computing device known as PADDs (Personal Access Display Devices) that bears a striking resemblance to the well-known Apple product   These generally small, rectangular-shaped devices comprised largely of a screen allowed their users to take advantage of wireless computer networking as well as reading messages/books/schematics, recording logs, audio playback, writing of messages and even communicating with other PADDs.  Rather astonishingly, the idea of the smooth, portable computing device was the result of imagination since the budget did not allow for switches, knobs or buttons – which leads us to the next item on the list.

6. Touchscreen – Not only did the PADD and iPad both make the use of touchscreen, but every computing terminal featured a touch-based interface.  This has expanded to other computing terminals; the most common being your own laptop computer.  There is much greater ease in taking online tests or placing orders.  Even your car – your ability to operate the radio, answer a call or operate your A/C with a touch of a screen.  Hard to believe 30 years ago, people wanting to listen to music would use a knob to find the frequency and a button to lock it in. 

5. Smart Phones – The similarities of the flip phone to the original Star Trek communicator have long been observed.  Consider now the similarities to the Tricorder to your smart phone – a handheld device that was used in data analysis, data sensing, recording and other multi-functional uses.  Each day, we literally carry a mini-computer every day with accessibility to apps that can track everything from gathering biometrics, scanning the environment around you with GPS to get a picture of the building your are trying to find and see active weather patterns.   And the irony of the math teacher saying you won’t be able to use a calculator when you grow up wasn’t exactly an accurate prediction.

4. Teleconferencing – Watching Captain Picard talking to Admirals in his ready room over a laptop sized device face-to-face became routine, but the ease of doing it now is amazingly simple.  Through a series of methods like Webex or Zoom with webcams to conduct meetings or just using your Facetime to make a call and talk face to face on personal level, it happens you can be sure that it happens every day.  Just make sure you use a secure channel when talking about sensitive topics!

3. The Cloud/Wireless Interface – How many times did Lt. Commander Data link up with a computer system from another planet to access their database while trying to solve the episodes mystery? It seemed very convenient, but with approved access, the ability to access that type of information has become ordinary – and not just granting access to another individual computer over the network, but to access the entire network and share files, make authorized changes and see your co-workers project progress is extremely commonplace and it’s even more so today and can maintain longer history (we all know the feeling of lost files and pictures when our old hard drive crashed and we didn’t back it up on an external device.)

2. AI/Artificial Intelligence– AI is definitely not an exclusive domain to Star Trek TNG, even existing in the original series.  While we do not have fully functioning Androids like Lt. Commander Data – when I tell people that right now there are 150 self-driving trucks hauling to and from distribution centers there is usually a look of surprise.  The concept of the autonomous car is familiar to most and while it’s not on the market yet, features of parallel parking, sensing impediments ahead and setting alerts when drifting lanes are becoming common in newer model cars.  That doesn’t even begin to mention the assistants on our tricorders/smartphones like Siri/Google to ask questions is very reminiscent of accessing a database of information whether you are speaking to Data or if Captain Picard requested information from the computer; leading us to #1:

1. Voice Command Interface – This was one I had a hard time believing, but it’s amazing how Captain Picard could simply say “Computer, locate Commander Riker” or Data verbally requesting the computer for specific information or extrapolating a hypothesis.  I can walk in the house and request lights be turned on or the oven to pre-heat.  I even have a friend who configured his device to register as “Computer” so he can literally say “Computer, turn off living room TV” just because of his love for Star Trek.  While you cannot yet expect to pick up your iPhone and ask Siri to extrapolate a theory, but you can have searches done and verbal answers to what is programmed in – but you can easily have functions performed and searches conducted.

One thing that Star Trek TNG has not accomplished:  Economy using no Money

I always wondered how you could construct the Enterprise in a society that doesn’t use money – getting the raw materials just to construct it would be an enormous task.  Of course, they did have Replicators that could materialize on command whatever was needed, be it a phase coupler or chicken sandwich and coffee.  However, you come back to the paradox of who would design, build, program, test and maintain that device?  It would obviously take years of learning and studying it’s a bit of a stretch to believe individuals would take that on without the incentive of greater financial gains and security.  It would be a bit risky to work in space to build the ship – call me crazy but I would think you’d want to be compensated for that risk!

So until that paradox is solved, we can look at the advancement of the last 10 years in the DOW and the NASDAQ – while there are still investors and still people working on these projects it will matter – and Star Trek TNG will have to leave that question unanswered.