You wouldn't think a country that is drawing attention for all the wrong reasons would have a stable, steady stock market.
But Malaysia, which is plagued by scandals and is dependent on China and oil exports, does. The Kuala Lumpur Composite Index is the world's longest running bull market. Since January 2008 the KLCI has not had a 20% correction (which represents a bear market and the end of a bull market).
Malaysian shares have moved up 88% during this bull run. But it hasn't been easy. The index hit a rough patch last year and dropped 18%. Still, it managed to recover and is up almost 2% this year (in dollar terms).
(We prefer Malaysia's neighbor Singapore as an investment destination, for reasons outlined here.)
Coming in a close second to the KLCI's bull market is the S&P 500 (^GSPC) . Its bull market started four months later than Malaysia's. In early 2016, the S&P 500 was down 10% but recovered. Like the KLCI, it is now up about 3% for the year.
Malaysia has a more defensive stock market. As we've written before, this means the KLCI has more companies that aren't as affected by economic cycles, making it less volatile. Companies in the health care, utilities, consumer staples (like food), and telecom industries are generally more stable. No matter how the economy is doing, people will continue to smoke cigarettes, turn on the lights and use their smartphones to watch cat videos.
Also, compared to other markets around the world, the Malaysian stock market is not expensive. By taking the share price and dividing it by the net assets of a company, we can get its price-to-book ratio. The P/B is a good way to see how cheap or expensive a stock is. A lower number means the stock is cheaper. The average P/B for each stock in an exchange gives us an idea of how an entire market is valued.
The average P/B of all the developed markets in the world is 2.14, as measured by the MSCI World Index. Malaysia's is 18% cheaper at 1.76. Although this is lower than the rest of the world, it is still higher than the rest of Asia. The MSCI Asia ex-Japan index has a P/B of 1.4.
Malaysia's stock market has been supported by foreign investor buying. Through the end of March 2016, more than $1.1 billion of foreign capital had been invested in Malaysia's stock market. That was more than any other Southeast Asian country had received from foreign investors during the period.
This is also a turnaround from last year, when about $5 billion of foreign funds left the country. That was the most since the global financial crisis of 2008.
Malaysia's market is performing well despite major scandals in the country. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is embroiled in an investigation of a $681 million deposit into his bank account a few years ago. In addition, the state investment company 1Malaysia Development Berhad is also being investigated for money laundering and other questionable activities. Prime Minister Razak also happens to be 1Malaysia Development's chairman.
Besides having a defensive market, relatively cheap valuations and a surge in foreign investment, Malaysia's stock market is getting a boost from the Employees Provident Fund. The EPF is Malaysia's state pension fund, and it manages more than $170 billion in assets. Its assets have been growing nearly 10% annually since 2008, and it has been putting a lot of this new money into the domestic stock market. As a result, it is now a major shareholder of many Malaysian companies.
Nearly half of the total market value of Malaysia's traded shares is owned by institutional funds, including the EPF. Malaysian institutional funds will continue to support the market whenever share prices fall too sharply.
No market can go up forever, and they all eventually revert to the mean. Malaysia's bull market could continue for many years, or it could end fairly soon.
However, if you are optimistic about Malaysia's stock market, you can invest through the iShares MSCI Malaysia ETF (EWM) - Get Report . Alternatively, you can use the Hong Kong exchange-traded XIE Shares Malaysia ETF (code: 3029).
But our preferred market in this part of the world is Singapore, which trades near historically cheap levels. For an overview of this market, please see our special report on Singapore by clicking here.
Kim Iskyan is the founder of Truewealth Publishing, an independent investment research company based in Singapore. Click here to sign up to receive the Truewealth Asian Investment Daily in your inbox every day, for free.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.