Last updated: 14:06 / Wednesday, 26 May 2021
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China’s Bond Market Comes of Age for Global Investment Funds

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  • China debt inclusion in the Russell flagship benchmark (FTSE Russell WGBI) will be a gamechanger in terms of foreign investors’ strategic allocations.It will make China the sixth largest market by weight and will have the second highest country group yield in the FTSE World Government Bond Index (WGBI) behind only Mexico.
  • The Chinese government’s management of Covid-19 along with recent policy changes have made its bond market more attractive to institutional investors. While policy makers elsewhere were cutting funding rates, expanding balance sheets and increasing fiscal spend, Chinese counterparts were more austere, and in some cases, they even tightened policy. The goods and digital economy in China far outweigh the service economy so less structural support was needed.
  • Default risk in China has always been more about refinancing risk than leverage. Seventy-six companies have roughly $50bn of repayment pressure over the coming months. Moody’s forecasts the trailing 12-month default rate for these firms will fall to 3.5% at year-end from 7.4% at the end of 2020.

The trajectory of the onshore Chinese bond market has been positive over recent years with increasing inflows.  Eight percent of the market is already owned by offshore investors, which includes about 3% foreign ownership, and this is up from virtually 0% just 5 years ago. The IMF SDR (’15), the JPM GBI-EM (Feb ’20) and the FTSE WGBI (Oct ’21) have all created demand for local Chinese bonds and Bond Connect has helped create a path to satisfy that demand, with average daily trading volume in April at RMB24.7 billion.

However, as with most things, it takes time – time for funds to recognize that the benefits outweigh the costs (operational, execution, setup) and time to get approval to trade in the onshore market as an offshore participant.  

If Bond Connect were easier to deploy, more funds in the US, Europe and Japan would have pre-positioned in the lead-up to China bonds being included in the FTSE Russell WGBI. Once funds are greenlit, it will be a steep trajectory for inflows. With that, investors will see more strategies oriented towards offshore investors and a huge push for green bond issuance (already 13% of the market and the 2nd largest green bond market in the world) which is a major topic for investors in the west.

Given China's ambitious net-zero carbon target by 2060, the country will require trillions of yuan in new investments to revamp its carbon-intensive economy and energy system over the coming four decades. This will pique the interest of many funds given the average yield of Chinese green bonds was 3.44% as of March 31st, compared to 0.58% for the Barclays MSCI Global Green Bond Index.

 

Gráfico 1

Source:  Goldman Sachs

China debt inclusion in the Russell flagship benchmark (FTSE Russell WGBI) will be a gamechanger in terms of foreign investors’ strategic allocations.The inclusion can’t be ignored, as an estimated $2-4 trillion in assets follow this index. It will make China the sixth largest market by weight and will have the second highest country group yield in the FTSE World Government Bond Index (WGBI) behind only Mexico, but with a much larger weight (5.25% vs .6%) thereby pushing the overall index yield up 15bps. It may not sound significant, but it is, considering the whole index only yields 32bps today.  Monthly passive inflows will likely total US$5-7.5bn a month (3x today’s pace) from October 2021.

There will likely be a 36-month phase in after that (in-line with previous inclusions). We should expect an acceleration of inflows (2x today’s pace) which could lead to a market driven compression of yields which was the case when Malaysia and Mexico were added to the index in 2007 and 2010, respectively.

 The inclusion also provides a stamp of approval around liquidity, policy transparency and currency management that have kept many offshore managers at bay for years. For many funds, navigating the local landscape was a daunting prospect. With this inclusion, the prospect is far less scary.

 

Gráfico 2

Source:  Goldman Sachs

 

The Chinese government’s management of Covid-19 along with recent policy changes have made its bond market more attractive to institutional investors. While policy makers elsewhere were cutting funding rates, expanding balance sheets and increasing fiscal spend, Chinese counterparts were more austere, and in some cases, they even tightened policy. The goods and digital economy in China far outweigh the service economy so less structural support was needed.

 Why does this matter? Chinese rates were stable and even higher in absolute terms while bond yields were plummeting elsewhere with some credit fundamentals deteriorating. The Covid-19 pandemic has really been a goldilocks situation for Chinese bonds. After the initial shock of the pandemic, investors started to realize China offered a unique opportunity and we saw flows into Chinese local bonds ramp up in the second half of 2020.

Default risk in China has always been more about refinancing risk than leverage. Seventy-six companies have roughly $50bn of repayment pressure over the coming months. Moody’s forecasts the trailing 12-month default rate for these firms will fall to 3.5% at year-end from 7.4% at the end of 2020. Continued supportive fiscal and monetary policies and better pandemic containment with vaccination rollouts also play a role in the improvement.

Still, weaker firms’ funding channels “could be restricted” following guidance last month from China’s supervisor of state-owned assets regarding bonds’ proportion of total debt at riskier firms.

 In the private credit sector, there can be too much gearing, forex risk, and/or secular headwinds. This risk is far easier for international investors to tolerate, understand and navigate than the SOE risk. If a company has 8x debt to EBITDA and a majority of that is in FX despite most income being in local currency, there is potential solvency risk. It’s high yield for a reason.

Regulators have stepped in to limit home price growth and home development. That means the property names that grew unchecked for years by accessing cheap financing in USD and using it to amass disproportionately large land banks, now find themselves on the wrong side of regulation. These corporations have a lot of assets that they cannot offload or develop along with acute debt service costs.  

Regarding SOEs, bank regulators are doing what they can to limit future default risk by guiding the so-called zombie corporations towards insolvency. By doing so, they are pruning fundamentally impaired institutions before they become a systemic issue and cause contagion. We applaud these measures. Coal names come to mind most readily with the default of Yongcheng in late 2020 just weeks after they issued bonds. Fortunately, it was only RMB 1 billion, so it wasn’t a systemic issue. SOEs have some 5.4 trillion yuan of bonds maturing this year. Net bond financing has been negative for more than a dozen provinces since Yongcheng Coal’s default in November.

 

Ayman Ahmed is a Senior Fixed Income Analyst at Thornburg Investment Management.

 

 

 

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About Ayman Ahmed

Ayman Ahmed is a Senior Fixed Income Analyst at Thornburg Investment Management.

 

 

 

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