Can Asia’s pricey consumer plays keep rising?

Leslie Shaffer | Writer for
This sector in ASEAN is at an 'inflection point'

Asia consumer stocks appear expensive, but some analysts think they can rise further, getting a boost from falling commodity prices.

"Food prices have fallen very sharply over the last couple of months. The market may have actually ignored this because people are focusing on oil prices," Nirgunan Tiruchelvam, director for Southeast Asia consumer research at Standard Chartered, told CNBC.

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For example, corn and soybean prices are down around 26-30 percent from their peaks this year, with many agricultural commodities priced at five-year lows, with the declines far outstripping the against regional currencies, he noted.

"This has a very important impact on the operating margins of the F&B (food and beverage) companies in Southeast Asia because their principal products are priced as consumer products but their raw materials are priced as commodities," he said. "There could be a very high chance of an earnings surprise for a number of these companies."

Udo Weitz | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Many analysts have recently given regional consumer stocks the cold shoulder recently, citing high valuations and doubts about whether the rising middle class will step up spending quite as quickly as expected.

EGShares Emerging Markets Consumer (ECON), for example, is trading at more than 22 times earnings, while trading essentially flat with its level two years ago.

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Others are also bullish on Asia's consumers.

"The Asian consumer growth story is far from over," Capital Economics said in a note Wednesday, noting emerging Asia's consumer spending has grown by an average of just over 7 percent every year since 2000.

But it doesn't believe all Asian consumer markets will be created equal.

"Prospects are best in the Philippines and India, where strong income growth should continue to support rapid consumer spending growth. Consumers in Vietnam and China should also do well," it said. "By comparison, consumer spending growth will be more sluggish in economies with high household debt, like Thailand, and those where income growth is likely to be sluggish, such as Taiwan and Korea."

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Tiruchelvam, however, expects Thailand's consumers could continue increasing their spending, at least on food and especially meat, with increased refrigerator penetration. Around 73 percent of Thai households with electricity have a refrigerator, according to Standard Chartered data. Within Southeast Asia, fridge penetration may grow by 50 percent over the next five years, Standard Chartered forecast in a July report.

To be sure, some expect Asia's consumption growth will be sluggish.

"The continued headwinds from deleveraging in the developed world have meant that domestic demand growth in developed markets has been relatively weak since the crisis, which in turn has weighed on the region's export growth trend," Morgan Stanley said in a note last week.

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That's weighed on corporate sales and investment, slowing wage growth, Morgan Stanley said.

"There are risks of a formation of a loop of slower domestic demand growth, weaker inflation, higher real interest rates and debt servicing burden, downward pressures on asset prices, continued rise in nonperforming loans formation and further slowdown in aggregate demand," it said.

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1