Asian fixed income: forget fear, focus on fundamentals

Concerns of a COVID-19-induced economic shock, coupled with the recent sharp decline in oil prices, introduced additional volatility and uncertainty to global and Asian financial markets. During periods of heightened volatility, liquidity typically prevails and market participants are unlikely to appreciate the economic and corporate fundamentals that the region’s markets have to offer. This has introduced dislocations to Asian bond markets, creating potentially interesting opportunities for the astute investor.

Asian fixed income: forget fear, focus on fundamentals

Asian credits

The dynamics of Asian credit differ from developed-market credit; there are three characteristics that we feel make Asian investment-grade (IG) credit well placed to weather the impact arising from the COVID-19 outbreak. First, around 39% of the J.P. Morgan Asia Credit Index (JACI) is government or state owned:¹ Asian state-owned enterprises (SOEs) typically benefit from government support, especially sectors considered to have systemic importance to the economy (e.g., oil exploration firms and utility providers). Second, most Asian issuers have the ability to issue bonds in the local currency bond market and benefit from domestic monetary policy easing measures. This also suggests that they have diversified channels of capital market funding and aren’t overly reliant on issuing U.S. dollar-denominated debt as a source of funding. Third, Asian issuers with deep local history are typically supported by a strong and loyal investor base locally.

At this juncture, we believe valuations of Asian credit are increasingly attractive from a historical perspective. As of March 31, the JACI Investment Grade Corporate Index, which tracks the credit spreads of Asian investment-grade (IG) credit, has widened to 303 basis points (bps)—a level last seen in 2011/2012 during the European debt crisis— significantly above the 10-year average of 222bps.² Notably, within the Asian IG spectrum, we believe selective SOEs from the Southeast Asia region are relatively attractive, having been subjected to indiscriminate selling by foreign investors amid heightened global market volatility. In our view, the government support factor, which acts as a cushion against the COVID-19-induced economic slowdown, is underappreciated by investors

Chart of credit spreads of Asian investment-grade U.S. dollar-denominated corporate bonds (March 2000 – March 2020). The chart shows that credit spreads for Asian investment-grade bonds has widened sharply in March, to a level not seen since the European sovereign debt crisis.

While we believe monetary easing policies introduced by Asian central banks will help prevent a systemic risk from emerging, not all companies will benefit. Against this macro backdrop, we’re increasingly selective in our credit screening process when it comes to Asian high yield (HY). We believe the current economic slowdown and lower energy prices could trigger a pickup in defaults among fundamentally weak firms within the Asian HY segment. According to our assessment, small to midsize privately owned enterprises, nonperforming state-owned enterprises, and weaker local government financing vehicles are most prone to credit defaults (sectors that we’ve generally been avoiding since 2019). Asian HY corporate bonds (as indicated by the JACI Non-Investment Grade Corporate Index) are currently offering a yield to maturity of around 10% to 11%, the highest level since 2011.² With careful bottom-up credit selection, we think it’s possible to earn attractive returns in this space.

Chart of yields offered by Asian high yield U.S. dollar-denominated corporate bonds (March 2010 to March 2020). The chart shows that yield to maturity for Asian high-yield U.S. dollar denominated corporate bonds have risen sharply in March 2020. It is now near levels not seen since March 2011.

Asian currencies

We believe the COVID-19 shock has introduced dislocations within the Asian currencies market, but to a smaller degree relative to Asian credit. Take Indonesia, for example: The Indonesian rupiah is trading near 16,000 levels (close to 1997 Asian financial crisis levels) against the U.S. dollar (USD).² This is primarily due to its relatively large foreign investor base (foreign investors own around 39% of the local government bond market),³ making the market prone to foreign outflows during periods of heightened global volatility. Yet Indonesia’s economic fundamentals have gradually improved over time, which can be seen in the country’s credit rating, progressively upgraded from a non-IG status in 1997 to its current IG status by all three international credit rating agencies.² In addition, the political situation in the country has been stable, and its foreign reserves increased from US$18 billion in 1997 to US$130 billion as of February 2020.⁴

Chart of the foreign exchange rate of the Indonesian rupiah against the U.S. dollar (from December 1997 to March 2020). The chart shows that the Indonesian rupiah has weakened significantly in March 2020, and as of March 30, 2020, is trading at levels not seen since the Asian financial crisis of 1997.

In our view, the dislocated currency—at current valuation—combined with attractive yields (Indonesia’s 10-year government bond offers yields around 8%,² the highest-yielding market within the Asian IG government bond space²) makes Indonesian bonds compelling from a total return perspective.

Table showing Indonesia's real GDP growth, inflation level, current account deficit as a percentage of GDP, foreign reserves and credit rating with the three major rating-agencies during the Asian financial crisis, the Fed tapering of 2013, and in March 2020. The data shows these economic indicators improving over time.

Nevertheless, we’re closely monitoring exogenous factors, such as changes to the U.S. Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program and November’s U.S. presidential election, which will likely have an effect on the Asian currency markets.

Asian interest rates

Asian interest rates have been relatively well behaved compared with credit and currencies. Most Asian local rate markets have seen yields drift lower year to date (with the exception of Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia) amid safe haven flows.²

In our view, Indian local government bonds are looking increasingly interesting at this juncture. India’s headline inflation rose by 7.59% year over year (YoY) in January, but is likely to have peaked. The main driver for inflation to overshoot was higher food prices, which is expected to be transitory. Furthermore, India is a net importer of oil and can be expected to benefit from lower energy costs, which translates into an improved trade balance and lower inflation that should be supportive of the economy on a relative basis. As concerns about inflation ease, the Reserve Bank of India will have more room to resume monetary policy easing (the bank had kept interest rates on hold from October 2019 to February 2020 due to rising inflation, and resumed with a rate cut on March 27, 2020²). 

Chart of India’s consumer price index, showing year-on-year percentage change, from February 2014 to February 2020. The chart shows that inflation in India fell in February 2020, after hitting a high in January 2020.

In our view, Asian bonds can provide potential diversification benefits for investors, thanks to the diverse makeup of Asian economies; for example, China onshore bonds were positive performing year to date among Asian bonds from a total return perspective in USD terms⁵ (income from coupon and bond price appreciation more than offsetting currency movements) primarily due to safe haven flows, expectations of further monetary policy easing, and increasing inclusion into global and regional bond indexes. Going forward, we believe that once markets stabilize, the sharp fall in U.S. Treasury yields, when compared with—the now even higher—Asian yield premiums, should be broadly supportive for Asian hard and local currency bonds. In the medium term, with U.S. Treasury yields lower, and once COVID-19 has been largely contained in Asia, liquidity conditions should normalize and help recover some of these price dislocations. 

 

1 J.P. Morgan Asia Credit Index, as of March 31, 2020. 2 Bloomberg, as of March 31, 2020. 3 asianbondonline.abd.org, as of December 2019. 4 Bloomberg, as of March 31, 2020. 5 Bloomberg, as of March 31, 2020. Based on the year-to-date performance of the Markit iBoxx ALBI China Onshore Index.

A widespread health crisis such as a global pandemic could cause substantial market volatility, exchange trading suspensions and closures, and affect fund performance. For example, the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has resulted in significant disruptions to global business activity. The impact of a health crisis and other epidemics and pandemics that may arise in the future, could affect the global economy in ways that cannot necessarily be foreseen at the present time. A health crisis may exacerbate other pre-existing political, social and economic risks. Any such impact could adversely affect the fund’s performance, resulting in losses to your investment.

Investing involves risks, including the potential loss of principal. Financial markets are volatile and can fluctuate significantly in response to company, industry, political, regulatory, market, or economic developments. These risks are magnified for investments made in emerging markets. Currency risk is the risk that fluctuations in exchange rates may adversely affect the value of a portfolio’s investments.

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Endre Pedersen

Endre Pedersen, 

Chief Investment Officer, Global Emerging Markets Fixed Income & Deputy Chief Investment Officer, Global Fixed Income

Manulife Investment Management

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Neal Capecci, CFA

Neal Capecci, CFA, 

Portfolio Manager, Asia ex-Japan Fixed Income

Manulife Investment Management

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Jimond Wong, CFA, CPA

Jimond Wong, CFA, CPA, 

Portfolio Manager, Asia ex-Japan Fixed Income

Manulife Investment Management

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