Global Investing

Emerging corporate debt tips the scales

Time was when investing in emerging markets meant buying dollar bonds issued by developing countries’ governments.

How old fashioned. These days it’s more about emerging corporate bonds, if the emerging market gurus at JP Morgan are to be believed. According to them, the stock of debt from emerging market companies now exceeds that of dollar bonds issued by emerging governments for the first time ever.

JP Morgan, which runs the most widely used emerging debt indices, says its main EM corporate bond benchmark, the CEMBI Broad, now lists $469 billion in corporate bonds.  That compares to $463 billion benchmarked to its main sovereign dollar bond index, the EMBI Global. In fact, the entire corporate debt market (if one also considers debt that is not eligible for the CEMBI) is now worth $974 billion, very close to the magic $1 trillion mark. Back in 2006, the figure was at$340 billion.  JPM says:

The international primary market for EM has transformed into a corporate debt market, with sovereign issuance now less than one-third of total EM external issuance.   

JP Morgan expects the $1 trillion milestone to be hit by year-end, when the total stock of sovereign dollar bonds will stand at $700 billion.

Emerging bond defaults on the rise, no surprise

As may be expected, the crisis has increased the risk of default by emerging market borrowers. According to estimates by ING Bank’s emerging bond guru David Spegel, the default rate on EM bonds is running at over $6 billion in the first four months of 2012, already surpassing the 2011 total of $4.3 billion. He  predicts another $1.3 billion of emerging defaults to come this year.

Spegel expects the default rate for speculative grade emerging corporates to rise to 3.25 percent by September, up from 3 percent at present.  That doesn’t look too bad, given defaults ran at 13 percent after the 2008 crisis and hit a record of over 30 percent in the 2001-2003 period. But ING data shows some $120 billion worth of corporate bonds trading at “distressed” or “stressed” levels, i.e. at spreads upwards of 700 basis points. The longer such wide spreads persist, the higher the probability of default. A worst case scenario  would see a 12.9 percent default rate by end-2012, Spegel says.

Many companies are having trouble rolling over maturing bonds (selling debt to pay off existing creditors). One reason might be the explosion in bond issuance this year. Data from Bank of America/Merrill Lynch shows bond sales by emerging borrowers, sovereign and corporate, totalled 14 billion in the first three months of the year, a quarter more than the same 2011 period.  Clearly everyone is rushing to raise cash before U.S. Treasury yields rise further. (see what we wrote on this a few months ago)