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THE PACIFIC: SPOTLIGHT ON HIGH-GROWTH COMPANIES : Asia Looks Within to Prosper

September 26, 1994|PATRICK LEE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite recent headlines concerning Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown's trade mission to China and impending U.S. economic sanctions against Japan, even a casual perusal of recent news out of the Asia-Pacific region shows that a lot of business there has little or nothing to do with the West.

Indeed, analysts say, Asian nations are looking more to themselves--and one another--for new trade ties, economic development and new wealth. And that has propelled the fortunes of Asia-Pacific-based companies at a velocity unheard of in the United States, as a survey for The Times of public companies in the region showed.

Just this month:

* Malaysia's Seng Hup Electric Co. said it would manufacture and sell lighting equipment in Indonesia.

* Japan's Furukawa Electric Co. said it would establish a joint venture to manufacture and market auto air bag parts in South Korea.

* Investors from Australia, New Zealand and South Korea said they would spend $871 million to buy 82% of the industrial land available at the Singapore-Suzhou Township in China, 50 miles west of Shanghai. The development itself is a $200-million venture among a group of 19 Singaporean companies, led by Keppel Corp., and a group of Chinese companies.

"Asia has the fastest-growing intraregional trade in the world," said Tom Robinson, chief international equity strategist at Merrill Lynch in New York. "What has developed is a takeoff into sustained growth, where they are trading increasingly with each other rather than outside the region and are able to carry on their own business development."

Such transactions are the logical next step for businesses in the world's most rapidly growing region, where national economies are expanding at a pace that the United States and other Western nations can only envy.

A sampling of national economic growth rates in 1993, according to the East-West Center in Honolulu: Singapore (9.8%), Malaysia (8.5%), Thailand (7.9%), Indonesia (6.7%), Taiwan (6%). That compares with between 2% and 3% for the United States.

Much has been made of the rapid economic surge and huge potential of China, whose economy grew faster than 13% in 1993.

But the Asia-Pacific region is multifaceted, encompassing the mature economies of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan; the rapidly developing manufacturing economies of Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, and the financial and service centers of Hong Kong and Singapore.

Although the region is diverse, analysts say there are several trends converging in the 1990s:

* Rapid development is creating an explosive need for infrastructure, particularly electric power and telephones.

As an example, Malaysian and Indonesian companies are signing an agreement to build a $7.5-billion 500-megawatt coal-fired power plant in southern Sumatra, the Business Times reported this month.

* There is a burgeoning consumer class hungry for TVs and appliances.

James Ayer, a portfolio manager of global fund at Oppenheimer Management Corp. in New York, observes that there is also a growing body of residents, particularly in Singapore and Malaysia, who can afford to own their homes. * Asian nations are moving away from being a source of cheap labor and low-cost assembly work, increasingly becoming centers of high technology and engineering expertise--in part because of a new class of professionals educated abroad.

"In the 1990s . . . in places like Singapore and Malaysia and Thailand, where what they were selling ten years ago was cheap labor, what they're selling now is moving up the technological scale," said Daniel J. Duane, managing director and chief investment officer for global equities at Prudential Investment Advisors in Newark, N.J. Assembly will be subcontracted to Vietnam, India, Pakistan, China, Cambodia, even Myanmar, he said.

A look at firms in Asian nations provides examples of these trends.

South Korea's Pohang Iron and Steel Co., the nation's largest producer of steel, and Korea Electricity Power Corp. recently sought listings on the New York Stock Exchange, a first for companies from that nation.

CITIC Pacific Ltd., meanwhile, is typical of the Hong Kong-based conglomerate, with investments in a wide range of businesses and subsidiaries that are involved in trade, aviation, warehousing and distribution, real estate and telecommunications.

"Our company's strategy has always been to focus on three areas," said Chairman Larry Yung Chi-Kin last month in an interview with the South China Morning Post. "The first is infrastructure, which provides a fixed income. Trading is another because it generates a strong cash flow. And, apart from these two, we think property investment in Hong Kong is a major area that guarantees steady revenue."

The economy of the Philippines accounted for a 65% rise in profits in the first six months of 1994 for Ayala Corp., one of that nation's top industrial conglomerates, the company reported.

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