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Analysing Asia's "best" companies

For some years now, our colleagues at the Nikkei Asian Review have been compiling a list of Asia's leading companies, called the Asia300 (which they have even turned into an investible index). The companies, which come from 11 large countries across the region (excluding Japan), are scored both for absolute size and for growth potential -- and the list changes annually. 

With the latest ranking just published, I thought it was worth showing you the top 10, or "Power Performers", as NAR has dubbed them:

1. SK Hynix - semiconductors - South Korea
2. Nanya Technology - semiconductors - Taiwan
3.  Anhui Conch Cement - cement - China/Hong Kong
4. Kweichow Moutai - food, beverages - China/Hong Kong
5. Largan Precision - electronic parts - Taiwan
6. Bukit Asam - coal - Indonesia
7. CK Asset Holdings - real estate - China/Hong Kong
8. HCL Technologies - information technology - India
9. Tencent Holdings - internet services - China/HK
10. Alibaba Group Holding - China/Hong Kong

A couple of things jump out from this list. The first is the dominance of technology at one end of the scale of 'economic sophistication' and that of basic industries at the other. Six of the 10 are involved in IT, including the giant internet platforms Alibaba and Tencent, India's HCL software group and big chip and electronic parts makers from Taiwan and South Korea. By contrast, two of the names on the list produce commodities (coal and cement) and a third is principally in real estate -- specifically property in Hong Kong and southern China, this being the former Cheung Kong, the senior holding company of Li Ka-shing's empire.

What seems to be missing almost entirely is consumer companies, with Chinese liquor group Kweichow Moutai the only (though a notable) exception. That makes this Asian list very different from an equivalent one in Europe. Even in the US, where tech would also command the largest weighting, there would also be a few consumer-facing companies.

This is likely to change over the next 12 months. The semiconductor boom that propelled Hynix and Nanya to the top has already ended and as the US-China trade war turns increasingly into a "tech war", more of this year's winners may see their performance slow. Yet this snapshot still underlines how much further Asia has to go in its journey from investment-led to consumption-led growth.

A second difference is that three of these top 10 companies are directly controlled by their national governments (Anhui Conch, Kweichow Moutai and Bukit Asam), even though they are publicly quoted. The other seven, while genuinely non-state companies, also owe much to explicit government support or at least favourable policies, whether that is the Korean chaebol or the empire built by Hong Kong's leading tycoon. In Asia, the role of the state in business remains much larger than in the US or Europe.

Geographically, the list is weighted exactly as one might expect. China accounts for half the names and another two come from Taiwan. The others are from the remaining big economies in the region. But as China slows, the future should see more entrants from India and Asean countries. Indeed the rapidly increasing flow of investment into those markets and the emergence of their first unicorns suggests that future Asia300 lists will be more diverse -- both in terms of sector and geography.

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