World Markets

The best-performing Asian indexes in 2017 look set for more gains in the new year

Key Points
  • The Hang Seng Index outperformed other major Asian indexes in 2017 and could be set to climb further
  • South Korea's Kospi was given a boost by earnings growth driven by the global economic recovery
  • Last year's star performer, Pakistan's Karachi Stock Exchange KSE 100 Index, slumped this year on political uncertainty
Pedestrians walk past a stocks display board showing the Hang Seng Index closing at 29,919.15 in Hong Kong on December 29, 2017.
Anthony Wallace | AFP | Getty Images

Asian markets have had a good run this year, shrugging off jitters faced at the end of last year over the potential trade and foreign policy implications the new administration of U.S. President Donald Trump would have on the region.

While geopolitical uncertainty was a major focal point earlier this year — with several North Korean missile launches initially sending investor scurrying into safe-have assets — risk appetite has since improved, with markets looking instead to stronger economic growth globally.

MSCI's broad index of shares in Asia Pacific excluding Japan was up more than 34 percent year-to-date on Friday morning. That's above the roughly 25 percent climb seen on the Dow Jones industrial average and 8 percent rise on the pan-European STOXX 600 over the same period.

Hang Seng outperforms Asian majors

The best-performing major market in Asia was Hong Kong's . The benchmark rose more than 35 percent year-to-date, with major blue chips contributing most of those gains.

This year also saw the index cross the 30,000 mark for the first time since 2007.

That move higher came as shares of Tencent hit all-time highs this year, bolstered by strong earnings. Tencent, the company behind popular app WeChat, for a period of time surpassed Facebook in terms of market value in November.

Good performance in the Hong Kong market is likely to continue, Andrew Clarke, director of trading at Mirabaud Asia told CNBC.

"I wouldn't be surprised if we had a similar year next year," Clarke said, adding that the index could "easily" crack the 35,000 level in 2018. Sectors that are expected to lead the Hang Seng higher in the new year include technology, telecommunications and banking, he said.

South Korea benefits from global recovery

Another major winner this year was South Korea's Kospi index, which rose 21.63 percent year-to-date. The smaller tech-focused Kosdaq increased 26.44 percent.

Those gains came as improvements in global economic growth gave a boost to the country's export-dependent economy, in turn resulting in a pick-up in earnings growth.

With the ramp-up in earnings growth from close to 10 percent in 2015 to a likely 30 percent in 2017, the Kospi was "bound to go up," Daniel Yoo, head of global strategy at Kiwoom Securities, told CNBC.

Ahead, Yoo has an index target of 3,000 for the benchmark Kospi in 2018, with the expectation that earnings growth is set to continue.

And while some are worried about the semiconductor cycle topping out — Samsung Electronics sand SK Hynix are the world's largest and third-largest chipmakers, respectively — Yoo said that he believed the market was underestimating the pick-up in demand for memory.

Vietnam tops emerging markets

The Vietnam Stock Index increased 46.9 percent year-to-date as investors bought into the country's rapidly-growing economy.

The country is technically still classified as a frontier market by MSCI, but has been working on improving accessibility to foreign investors as it tries to get an upgrade to emerging market status.

Besides encouraging local companies to publish updates in English, the government has also moved to privatize state-owned firms. A majority stake in Sabeco, Vietnam's largest brewer, auctioned off earlier this month was won by a unit of Thai Beverage, Reuters reported.

"The sale of some state-owned enterprises should help lower Vietnam's rising national debt [and] also attract significant foreign direct investment," Chetan Sehgal, director of global emerging markets and small cap strategies at Templeton Emerging Markets Group, said in an email.

"At this stage, Vietnam serves as the beacon for all the frontier markets. However, with the passage of time, there is every prospect that in the long term, Vietnam could qualify for emerging market status," he added.

A former star performer slumps

On the other end of the spectrum, Pakistan fell from its perch as the top performer in the region at the end of last year.

The Karachi Stock Exchange KSE 100 Index tumbled more than 15 percent this year.

That fall was blamed largely on political uncertainty, after the country's then-prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, resigned in July. Sharif's resignation came after the Supreme Court ruled that he was unfit for office following an investigation into his family's vast wealth.

What's in store

Even though analysts have forecast continued momentum in global economic growth, concerns remain over how policy normalization might bring about changes after almost a decade of easy money.

In a Dec. 19 note, OCBC Bank highlighted how the move from "geopolitical risks and black swans to gray rhinos" would be a major theme in the year ahead. Unlike black swan events, which are unanticipated occurrences that can have a global impact, gray rhinos are risks that could potentially be solved but are somehow ignored.

Another source of possible volatility will be how China proceeds with an attempt to tackle its massive debt.

"Financial deleveraging is a long-haul project for China. However, should China try to shorten the duration of the battle too aggressively, it may create the growth shock to China and the region," OCBC Bank analysts said in a note.