Asian bonds: rising discrimination

September 10, 2013

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)

Ever since reports emerged that the United States might taper off its bond-buying program, emerging markets have whipsawed: falling currencies, rising rates and fleeing funds. India and Indonesia have been two of the most affected countries in Asia.

The Asian dollar bond markets have also been affected by the fear of tapering. On the one side, longer-term bonds have lost substantial value as U.S. interest rates have picked up. Additionally, investors have discriminated between bonds from vulnerable countries and those from stronger countries.

In India’s case, state-linked entities such as banks and oil companies have issued most of the bonds. Since May 22, when the word “tapering” burst into financial markets, the Indian rupee has plunged by 23 percent. At the same time, spreads for Indian dollar bonds widened by as much as 130 basis points, even for five-year bonds. The spreads on the benchmark 2018 bond from State Bank of India widened by 120 basis points from end-May until end-August.

There were many underlying fears that led to this. One was a potential downgrade of India’s rating, currently at its lowest investment-grade level. Standard & Poor’s, in particular, has a negative outlook on its rating, and has remarked that there is a one-third chance of a downgrade in the next one to two years, which may well be accelerated if things do not improve. The other fears are rising inflation, a slowdown in growth and the consequent deterioration of business fundamentals.

For Indonesia, the currency depreciation during the same period was 16 percent; but the 2018 and 2023 Indonesian sovereign dollar bond spreads widened by 140-150 basis points. This is despite the fact that Indonesia took some strong steps to control the situation, including raising petrol prices by 44 percent and diesel prices by 22 percent in June, and raising interest rates by 125 basis points.

During the same period, the spreads on dollar bonds issued from stronger countries have hardly widened. For instance, from Hong Kong, Hutchison’s 2019 bond spreads are up by only 10 basis points; from Singapore, Temasek’s 2023 bond’s spreads have not changed; from Korea, the 2019 sovereign bond’s spreads have risen by only 5 basis points.

Chinese dollar bonds present a different story. Their performance has been driven more by evolving views on Chinese growth, rather than U.S. Fed tapering fears. While bonds from cyclical sectors, such as Cement and Steel, have widened by 50-150 basis points, those from property companies have held well (for instance, the benchmark Country Garden 2018 bond has actually compressed by 40 basis points in terms of spreads).

The overall picture in the Asian dollar bond market, then, is one of rising discrimination between bonds from weaker and stronger economies. Similarly, even within the same country, bonds that are more vulnerable to economic slowdown have underperformed. For instance, in India, bonds issued by private-sector banks and companies have outperformed those from state-linked banks and companies.

In a way, this is a testament to the market’s ability to distinguish specific kinds of credit in terms of their strengths and weaknesses, rather than lumping all of them into an “emerging market” bucket.

As we look ahead, one key question is whether potential tapering has been fully priced in to the Asian bond markets. While U.S. 10-year rates have gone up by more than 120 basis points, many emerging-market currencies and equities have slid, and bond spreads have risen, there is still likely to be a residual effect which will kick in once the tapering plans are confirmed and the actual tapering begins. When that happens, the discrimination between credits in Asia will only strengthen.

In that sense, India and Indonesia cannot rest easy yet. Their struggles with currency, inflation and their balance of payments are likely to spill over into their dollar bonds too, taking their spreads higher as and when tapering begins in earnest.

At some point, though, some investors will find value in these bonds. There is some evidence that Indian spreads reflect about 60 to 70 percent of the impact of a rating downgrade. If that number inches towards 80 to 90 percent, that would be a good time to buy those bonds.

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