Can they love Asian stocks to death?

03/22/2010 3:04 pm EST

Focus: STOCKS

Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

You’ve been warned about the next bubble. (Don’t panic yet. It looks like it’s a way off.)

A recent survey of 109 institutional investors based in Asia and Europe, commissioned by Fidelity from the Economist Intelligence Unit, shows that 63% of respondents plan to increase their allocation to stocks in Asia (excluding Australia and Japan) in 2010 even though 1) they think Asian assets are riskier than their counterparts in developed markets, and 2) they admit that they lack knowledge and expertise in these markets.

In other words they’re jumping on the band wagon. (I doubt that the survey would find very different results for U.S. institutional investors. Fidelity itself, for example, is moving one of its stars Anthony Bolton to Hong Kong this month to set up a $971 million China investment trust that will be listed in London.)

I think we all know the effects of this enthusiasm: more money comes in, prices and (multiples) go higher, and so more money comes in, pushing prices higher. At some point prices lose all connection with the real value of the assets (a house is a house and not a poker chip.) The bubble continues to inflate until some event pricks it.

The problem is that if this is as bubble in the making, what do you do about it?

It’s too early to shun Asian markets. Valuations are still reasonable. And there’s lots of money to be made in the early stages of what may turn out to be a bubble down the road.

But at some point valuations won’t be reasonable. In fact investors will use increasingly tortured logic to defend them.

That’s the point to move to the sidelines.

We’ll see if we’re any better at telling when to move to the sidelines than we were in the last two bubbles.

And then, of course, there’s the very real possibility that Asian markets won’t get to the full-fledged bubble stage because China will make a mistake with economic or monetary policy as it tries to keep growing at near 10% a year without setting off inflation. A mistake in China before the bubble is fully inflated would produce the kind of big correction that dampens enthusiasm about any market.

And sends institutional investors plans into reverse.

A correction wouldn’t be pleasant but it sure would beat living through another burst investment bubble.

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