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Investing in China: Boom or gloom ahead?

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It has long been a staple of global investment gurus that investors should put some money in China, which is vying to become the world’s largest economy, and which has hundreds of millions of people who are moving rapidly from workers and peasants into a huge new middle class.

At the same time, many investors worry that Chinese markets are not subject to the same scrutiny and regulations as Western markets. There are also troubling signs of overstretched banks and a property bubble, as well as environmental and political crises brewing.

Should advisors be looking at a China that promises investor riches or a China that bodes disaster?

Peter Engardio, a veteran China correspondent for Businessweek and more recently author of the book “Chindia: How China and India are Revolutionizing Global Business,” says China certainly has problems, but adds, “For more than 20 years, people have warned that China is going to crash or explode, and they’ve all ended up looking pretty silly.”

Engardio, who currently works at Boston Consulting Group, suggests that advisors looking at China for their clients focus on investing in companies that “understand the Chinese consumer, and that address all the pent-up demand of the millions of new people entering the middle class -- the travel industry, financial services and education, for instance.”

For some global investing experts, a lack of transparency, and warnings about a possible bank or property crisis, are reason enough to stay away. “We’re underweight on China, and overweight on India and Indonesia,” says Nicholas Lacy, Raymond James' director of institutional research asset management services.

Patricia Oey, senior analyst and manager of research at Morningstar, says China is a “niche” area, better held as part of a global equity fund, and she cautions that it is “still a communist country,” where most large enterprises are still owned by the state -- either the central or provincial governments -- and as such they can often be “asked to do things that are not necessarily for the good of the shareholders.”

Having said that though, she does cite two mutual funds that have good and extensive track records and that do give advisors a way to give their clients China exposure.

One, the Matthews China Investor Fund (MCHFX), while down 0.57% this year, has a five-year annualized average of 6.06%, a best three-year run of 44.19 % and a worst three-year run of -1%.

The slightly broader Fidelity China Region Fund (FHKCX) is 80% invested in companies based in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. It had a 1-year gain of 19.75%, a three-year annualized gain of 11.3% a five-year annualized gain of 11.4% and a 10-year annualized gain (through the whole period of the global financial crisis and recession), of 12.61%.

Dave Lindorff has contributed to Businessweek, The Nation and Salon.com.

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