Stichting Pensioenfonds ABP, the €403 billion ($484.7 billion), Heerlen, Netherlands-based pension fund for government and education employees, became the latest early adopter in September when it tapped Guangzhou-based E Fund Management Co. to invest €250 million in A shares.
Shanghai and Shenzhen had been tough markets to invest in, but reforms in China have opened up opportunities for institutional investors there now, said Rene van der Zeeuw, the head of emerging markets equities at ABP's Amsterdam-based investment manager, APG Asset Management.
The beta opportunity in China's fast-growing economy is the main attraction but a big market dominated by retail investors should offer opportunities for institutional investors to add alpha as well, said Mr. van der Zeeuw.
Still, A shares is "not a market that should be entered" without adequate preparation, said Mr. van der Zeeuw, adding that after "long consideration," APG opted to tap E Fund's local expertise to avoid any "pitfalls."
A number of managers said U.S. investors have been even more cautious about adding A shares than their counterparts in Europe and Asia but that gap could be narrowing.
Philip Li, senior fund manager and director, investment operations, with Hong Kong-based Value Partners Ltd., said prospective clients he met with on his latest trip to the U.S. in December were more positive about A shares than at any time during his seven years with the firm.
Fears U.S. investors expressed in previous years about the potential dangers of high property prices or excessive credit growth in China appear to have receded, said Mr. Li.
Interest in the A-shares market is coming back "at last," with a number of U.S. institutional investors, including pension funds, becoming more receptive in recent months, agreed Wong Kok Hoi, the founder and chief investment officer of Singapore-based APS Asset Management.
Messrs. Wong, Li and Price all declined to name the investors they've met with recently.
The inefficiency of the A-shares market, where local retail investors account for well over 80% of trading, is another factor that could attract inflows of institutional funds at a moment when valuations globally are stretched, money managers said.
China is a market where active managers can add "significant value" making concentrated, thematic investments in an e-commerce sector "like no country in the world," or health care, education or pharmaceuticals, said MSIM's Mr. Price. "We think there'll be a bountiful harvest out there for alpha hunters," he said.
That contention extends to quant managers, which look to exploit "behavioral errors" by investors to secure alpha, said Acadian's Ms. Mehta.
With 85% of A-shares trading accounted for by retail investors, that market is "rife with behavioral errors," and returns that can be harvested from specific factors such as "growth signals" are as much as "three times what we see in emerging markets more broadly," she said.
It's a market where active management "makes a lot of sense," agreed Rene Buehlmann, Hong Kong-based head, Asia Pacific, of UBS Asset Management. For investors who remain on the sidelines, it will become a question of "how much alpha you could have generated" had you invested, he said.