China bond market developments
What's the latest update on the index inclusion of China bonds?
From April 1, 2019, onshore China government bonds (CGBs) and policy bank bonds¹ will be included in three Bloomberg bond indexes, including the widely-followed Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate (BBGA) Index. Index inclusion will be gradually phased in over a 20-month period, with a 5% scaling factor until it reaches 100% of the target weight (around 6.1% of the BBGA Index) by November 2020.² Other global bond index providers are also considering including China bonds.³ FTSE Russell, provider of the FTSE Russell World Government Bond Index, is conducting its own review and may announce index inclusion for Chinese sovereign bonds by the second-half of 2019.³ FTSE Russell has also indicated that it’s considering inclusion of onshore Chinese corporate credits into its World Broad Investment-Grade Bond Index, which could follow toward the end of 2019. J.P. Morgan, meanwhile, has yet to make any formal announcement on the inclusion of China bonds in its GBI-EM indexes⁴; the firm will likely observe the market’s reaction to China bonds joining the BBGA Index before finalizing its plans.
How will index inclusion affect demand for China sovereign and policy bank bonds?
We estimate that active funds make up around 80 to 90% of funds tracking the BBGA Index.⁵ As there’s no definitive timeline, flows into CGBs and policy bank bonds are likely to be uneven and spread over the 20-month index inclusion period. While demand from global investors may be front-loaded, participation from others will be back-loaded, as investors may not be operationally ready to participate in the market.
Overall, foreign-investor participation in the local Chinese bond market has increased despite a backlog in the approval process for access to Bond Connect⁶:
Foreign investor holdings in local China bonds increased from RMB$1.2 trillion (roughly US$178 billion) at the end of 2017 to RMB$1.8 trillion (roughly US$266 billion) by the end of 2018. According to estimates, total foreign holdings of local China bonds could total RMB$2.8 trillion (US$409 billion) by the end of 2019.⁶
Foreign investor holdings in CGBs increased from RMB$606 billion (roughly US$90.3 billion) at the end of 2017 to RMB$1.¹ trillion (roughly US$163 billion) at the end of 2018.⁷
Foreign demand for Chinese policy-bank bonds has already shown a clear pickup. Foreign investors bought US$6.2 billion of Chinese policy-bank bonds in 2018 compared with US$2.4 billion in 2017.⁸ The strong demand has translated into narrowing policy-bank spreads against CGBs, from 120 to 140 basis points (bps) in 2016 to 20bps to 50bps as of this writing.⁸ Over the long-term, we believe as much as US$600 billion in inflows can be expected in this asset class as China bonds are fully represented in global bond indexes.⁹
What makes the domestic China bond market attractive?
We believe there are four reasons:
Potentially attractive real yields and low correlation with other asset classes—Among single A-rated sovereigns, China offers one of the most compelling real yields; 10-year CGBs currently boast a real-yield of 1.68%, which places them ahead of other developed market bonds such as the United States, Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom and Germany.¹⁰ The low historical correlation of China bonds with other major fixed-income assets and equities can also make them an attractive asset class for diversification opportunity.
The People’s Bank of China (PBoC) maintains an easing bias—As China seeks annual GDP growth of 6.0 to 6.5% in 2019, we believe there’s room for the PBoC to reduce interest rates further this year and promote greater market liquidity.
Inclusion in global benchmark fixed-income indexes—Additional inclusion announcements by fixed-income index providers later this year may further boost demand from overseas investors for onshore China bonds.
Policy support on financial market reform—We strongly believe the Chinese government is committed to liberalizing its financial markets. This should make it easier and more attractive for foreign investors to participate in this fast growing and increasingly important financial market.
Are there any recent developments regarding Bond Connect/CIBM?
Foreign investors can now invest in onshore China bonds through Bond Connect or CIBM Direct⁶ settling trades through delivery versus payment (DVP). They’re also able to access the onshore foreign-exchange spot and forward markets for hedging. On March 22 of this year, the Central Bank of Ireland gave the green light for Undertakings for Collective Investments in Transferrable Securities (UCITS) and alternative investment funds (AIFs) to invest in the Chinese interbank bond market through Bond Connect. This is a positive development, as it recognizes Bond Connect as an efficient facility to access the China interbank bond market and allows funds on the UCITS and AIF platforms to potentially participate in this market.
What are your return expectations for China bonds in 2019?
In 2018, five-year CGBs returned 8.0% in renminbi terms on the back of a strong market rally as five-year rates declined from 3.8% to 3.0%.¹¹ Given the PBoC’s current accommodative monetary policy stance, we anticipate returns of around 4.0% per year for five-year CGBs, while composite high-grade bonds could likely return 5.0% to 5.5% in renminbi terms this year. For currencies, we expect the USD/CNY exchange rate to remain relatively stable, staying within the 6.6 to 6.8 range in 2019.
Latest views on China
What are your main takeaways from the NPC held earlier in March?
One of the key takeaways from this year’s National People’s Congress (NPC) was increased clarity around PBoC policy. The PBoC will likely continue on its monetary easing path and cut money-market rates further this year, which is positive for local fixed-income assets. Premier Li Keqiang emphasized that the government would implement multiple measures to lower funding costs for smaller companies and support the real economy. This would alleviate pressure on private companies that currently face problems obtaining funding. Funding costs for higher-quality private companies are around 6% to 7% per year compared with 3% to 4% per year for Chinese state-owned enterprises. We believe lower interest expense and greater credit availability to private firms should translate to tighter credit spreads overall, which is bullish for China bonds.
As this round of U.S.-China trade talks reaches a conclusion, what are the prospects for an agreement?
On the surface, U.S.-China trade talks may be nearing an end. While we anticipate that a deal will emerge from these negotiations, we also believe that negotiations around longer-term structural issues (e.g. industrial policy, technology and intellectual property issues) won’t be resolved easily. Rather, these structural issues run much deeper and will likely require a long-term approach beyond what may be announced at the end of the current trade talks.
How committed is China to opening up its financial markets and what developments do you expect on this front?
How committed is China to opening up its financial markets and what developments do you expect on this front?
We’re encouraged by recent comments from senior Chinese government officials that emphasized their continued focus and commitment to opening up China’s financial markets:
April 8, 2018, Boao Forum for Asia—President Xi Jinping highlighted China’s intention to further open up its financial system.¹²
March 5, 2019, Report on the Work of the Government, National People’s Congress—Premier Li Keqiang stated that the government will make efforts to “develop a multi-tiered capital market and promote the development of the bond and futures market.”¹³
March 10, 2019, National People’s Congress—PBoC Governor Yi Gang stated: “We believe the opening up of China’s financial market is conducive to both China and the world.” ¹⁴
Given the strong support for continued financial-market reforms emphasized by government officials, we anticipate further opportunities for foreign investors, who are poised to benefit from this policy direction. Additionally, the PBoC has pledged to focus on providing more hedging tools to help investors manage financial risks in 2019. The government is also seeking to attract more foreign expertise and capital to promote more efficient asset-allocation and risk-management outcomes. The decision to exempt foreign investors from tax on China bonds for the next three years should add to the asset class’ appeal.¹⁵
1 Based on the published list of China bonds that will be included in the Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Index, there are a total of 364 China bonds: 159 are China government bonds, while the remaining 205 bonds are issued by policy banks, including China Development Bank, Agricultural Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China. 2 Bloomberg, January 31, 2019. 3 Bloomberg, March 13, 2019. 4 The inclusion of China into global bond indexes: Current status and future development, HKEX, June 2018. Since March 2016, J.P. Morgan has put China on Index Watch for potential inclusion in the GBI-EM index suite. 5 Manulife Investment Management estimates, March 2019. 6 Bond Connect is an investment scheme that allows global investors and their counterparts from mainland China to trade in each other’s bond markets. The scheme started operating in mid-2017and is mainly targeted at institutional investors. Unlike 2016’s CIBM Direct initiative, where account opening, trading and settlement must be completed in the onshore market, these processes can be completed offshore through Bond Connect. 7 Standard Chartered, March 2019. 8 HSBC, March 2019. 9 Manulife Investment Management, March 2019. 10 Manulife Investment Management, Bloomberg, February 28, 2019. 11 Bloomberg, 31 December 2018. 12 “Highlights of Xi’s keynote speech at Boao Forum”, China Daily, April 10, 2019. 13 “Report on the work of the Government”, Li Keqiang, Premier of the State Council, March 2019. 14 “PBoC, China to firmly advance financial market opening-up”, March 10, 2019. 15 “China announces 3-year tax exemption on interest gains for overseas investors,” November 22, 2018.
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