Mobius all smiles for Thailand after fund's worst miss in 14 yrs

Tue Jan 14, 2014 2:37am EST

* Templeton Asia fund lost 7.8 pct in 2013 vs benchmark's 3 pct gain

* Mobius blames commodities, Thailand stocks for poor performance

* Investors pull out net $500 million from his fund in 2013 - Lipper

By Nishant Kumar

HONG KONG, Jan 14 (Reuters) - Emerging markets fund manager Mark Mobius is heading into 2014 with heavy investments in Thai, commodities and energy stocks, the same bets that led to the biggest miss for his $14 billion Asia fund in almost a decade and a half.

Investors last year pulled out an estimated $500 million from his Templeton Asian Growth Fund, the most recorded by fund tracker Lipper since it started compiling flows data for Asia's biggest equity fund in 2003.

The fund lost 7.8 percent last year compared to a 3.33 percent rise in the MSCI AC Asia ex-Japan index, its second straight year of underperformance, the data showed, while its peers on average gained 2.4 percent.

Mobius, however, remains unfazed and said Thailand's past resilience to crises made him committed to its economy.

"We stick to our guns very often," Mobius, executive chairman of Templeton Emerging Markets Group, told Reuters.

Political turmoil contributed to foreign investors pulling out more than $750 million from offshore Thailand equity funds over the last five months, Lipper data showed. They took out a net $376 million in 2013, reversing inflows in 2012.

THAI BULL

Mobius is considered an authority on emerging markets. His often contrarian "value investing", which involves buying out-of-favour stocks, has earned nearly 200 percent returns for his Asia fund over the last 10 years, one of industry's best.

This very same approach, however, backfired last year, largely because of the political unrest in Thailand and China's waning appetite for commodities.

Templeton's top 2013 bets in Thailand, Siam Commercial Bank PCL and Kasikornbank PCL, lost money. China investments such as Inner Mongolia Yitai Coal and Yanzhou Coal Mining slumped over 35 percent each.

At the end of November, however, Mobius invested a quarter of his Asian fund assets in Thailand, more than eight times the weight of the country in its benchmark index.

Templeton's allocation to Hong Kong and China stood at 31.4 percent at end-November, down from 32.5 percent at the start of the year, data from Lipper showed.

"We are going to be back in Thailand because this political situation is not going to remain the same," he said.

"There will be some changes as there had been in the past. But the fundamental direction of the economy in Thailand would be very positive."

Protesters trying to topple the Thai government for the last two months have sparked concerns about Southeast Asia's second-largest economy. The Thai currency has fallen since October and the stock market slumped 12.7 percent last year in U.S. dollar terms.

Mobius said commodities demand would bounce back even as the economy of China, the world's biggest resource buyer, is forecast to grow at the same pace as the previous year.

In a separate note, Franklin Templeton said it saw value in the energy sector, given demand trends, and that stock-picking was critical to addressing macroeconomic concerns in countries such as India and Indonesia.

"It's not over yet. Commodities are still going to be important," said Mobius, who had a combined 40.1 percent allocation to energy and materials stocks at end-November.

Mobius started 2013 with 46.8 percent of his fund invested in the energy and materials sectors, nearly four times the weight of such stocks in his fund's own benchmark index.

Templeton has since cut out losing bets such as PetroChina Co Ltd and SK Innovation Co Ltd from its top-10 list.