Asia Credit Perspectives

Secular Trends in Asian Credit Markets Shape Long‑Term Investment Themes

Asian corporate bonds in expanding sectors such as energy, financials, high yield and local currency may offer intriguing opportunities, though risk evaluation remains key.

The last several years have seen some extraordinary growth in the Asian credit markets, and ongoing trends – supply and demand dynamics, banking sector deleveraging, increasing demand for energy across the region, among others – paint a vivid picture for credit investment opportunities over the secular horizon. That said, the potential for volatility, as seen in recent months, along with uncertainties in the global economy underscore the importance of careful research when investing in the robust market in Asian credit.

Rapid expansion across Asia’s credit markets
By two key measures – market capitalization and number of issues – U.S.-dollar-denominated Asian credit, including corporates, sovereigns and quasi-sovereigns, has more than doubled in just five years (see Figure 1). We see three main reasons for the dramatic growth in issuance – and, critically, despite recent market volatility, we expect all three to remain in force over the secular horizon. First, there is a lack of U.S.-dollar-denominated sovereign supply as countries develop, mature and increasingly prefer to issue debt in their own currencies. Second, we expect continued strong demand for spread product as net issuance globally remains at fractions of pre-crisis levels. Finally, post-crisis deleveraging within the banking sector has companies looking outside their traditional banking relationships for financing – and to satisfy their growing appetite for mergers and acquisitions overseas.

Indeed, these three factors have opened a huge window for Asian corporate issuers to come to the market for financing, whether to pursue long-term business plans or to employ traditional corporate finance and leverage strategies. The number of countries and range of issuer types in the representative J.P. Morgan Asia Credit Index (JACI) continues to broaden, even as the composition shifts. For example, Korea (including its quasi-sovereign Korea Development Bank) was for many years the single-largest issuer by country in the JACI, but as of February 2013, China has taken its place (see Figure 2), driven by strong corporate issuance. Over the secular horizon, we expect the larger economies in the region – particularly China, India and Indonesia – to continue to increase their presence in the JACI index.

Sectors to watch: energy, financials, high yield, local currency
Energy self-sufficiency has almost unanimously declined across Asia in the last decade, and the region’s energy appetite can only expand over the secular horizon as these economies continue to develop and standards of living rise. To meet increasing demand, many Asian oil and gas companies have not only become frequent buyers of foreign assets, they have also regularly tapped the international capital markets to meet their financing needs. Credit investors may find numerous opportunities among high quality energy companies with strong state support, solid fundamentals and a constructive outlook.

In the financial sector, we expect to see continued issuance of dollar-denominated bonds in several countries. Korea, for example, issues mainly for refinancing purposes, while Indian banks want to fund overseas expansion.

The swift emergence of high yield corporate issuers in Asia over the past several years came from a confluence of factors: rapid GDP expansion, broad political stability, an underdeveloped infrastructure, a move toward privatization and a growing need for funding flexibility. This year to date has set a record in new high yield issuance with 76 new issues totaling over $30.4 billion – and the new deals are oversubscribed by an average of 10 times (source: Citi and Bloomberg as of 15 August 2013).

Within the high yield portion of the JACI index, the largest component – and one of the most volatile – is China’s real estate sector. With the given long-term trends toward urbanization and people’s desire to hold property as a financial investment, we expect this sector to continue to grow and consolidate over the coming years despite the rising costs and intensified competition. Policymakers need to tread a fine line between reining in rising home prices and sustaining the sector’s contribution to the overall economy. Therefore the supply pipeline, especially refinancing needs from existing issuers, should remain strong.

China’s retail and consumer sectors are also issuing more in 2013, driven by organic expansion, balance sheet management and domestic and foreign acquisitions. We expect more issuers to come to market over the secular horizon, thanks to growth in personal income and consumption power along with urbanization. Across the real estate, retail and consumer sectors, assessment of the macroeconomic environment together with diligent research is critical. Investors need adequate compensation for execution and default risks.

Asia’s local currency corporate credit markets are developing, but credits currently accessible to international investors – such as Chinese-yuan-denominated “dim sum” bonds – are few. We expect further development in this market and other local credit markets over the longer term, though over the next five years, dollar-denominated credit markets will likely experience the bulk of issuance.

Secular trends in credit quality and risk
Sovereign credit ratings have moved generally upward across Asia in the last five years (see Figure 3), in notable contrast to trends in most of the developed world. During the same period, the average S&P rating of the broad JACI index has gradually decreased (see Figure 4), primarily due to the increase in corporate issuance, which tends to be lower-rated. The index average remains investment grade at BBB+. Over the next several years we expect corporate issuance and a wider spectrum of corporate issuers to continue to drive index growth.

 
 

Asian corporate bond spreads have been consistently higher than comparably rated U.S. corporate spreads during the past several years (Figure 5 shows two examples), likely due in large part to higher sovereign spreads embedded in Asian corporate bond spreads. Over the secular horizon, we expect this gap to narrow as markets continue to revalue Asian sovereign risk to reflect stronger balance sheets and economic growth prospects.

Another credit indicator to watch in the coming years is debt ratio, which can help uncover value in corporate bonds. One example of debt ratio is the “single turn of leverage,” the one-to-one ratio between debt and EBITDA (one-year earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization). Currently, most corporate bonds from Asia have higher spreads (over comparable maturity U.S. swaps) per turn of net leverage compared to corporate bonds from the U.S. (see Figure 6). This will likely remain the case over the secular horizon, but we expect the gap to continue to narrow.

Many countries across Asia are also improving the quality of their institutional frameworks, regulatory bodies and bankruptcy regimes. That said, over the secular horizon we fully expect to see instances where these frameworks, bodies and regimes will be tested – challenges which, in turn, may help Asia’s credit markets evolve and develop further. Among issues in the JACI index, over the next two years the refinancing needs across the region are minimal, hence default rates will likely remain low. In 2016–2018, 35% of debt in the index matures and this could be a period with heavier refinancing risk. And over the secular horizon and beyond, we do expect some volatility from increased cash or price defaults.

Investor implications: research and relationships are critical
Given that potential for volatility along with weakness in the global macroeconomic environment, good credit research, flexible resources, experienced local portfolio management and strong relationships with local stakeholders are all crucial to uncovering attractive opportunities in Asia’s credit markets.

At PIMCO, our beliefs in the resilience of many emerging Asian countries and vibrancy of credit markets in Asia have us evaluating attractive opportunities in high quality corporate credits. We scrutinize the bond structure to gauge the degree of sovereign shareholder support, and rely on rigorous bottom-up credit research to assess risks and identify best candidates within each sector. We expect the next several years will present many intriguing opportunities in Asia’s expanding, evolving credit markets.

The Author

Robert Mead

Co-head of Asia-Pacific Portfolio Management

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