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China fixed income: the impact of FTSE Russell inclusion and relative attractiveness of China bonds

The recent announcement by FTSE Russell to include China government bonds (CGBs) in its flagship index has deepened investor interest in the asset class. While the structural theme of index inclusion should drive foreign inflows over the medium term, investors should also be aware of other positive short-term drivers. We analyze the impact of FTSE Russell’s inclusion on CGBs and look at the constructive cyclical factors supporting the relative attractiveness of China’s bond market.

On September 24, 2020, FTSE Russell announced that China's renminbi (RMB)-denominated government bonds (CGBs) are scheduled to be included in the firm’s flagship World Global Bond Index (WGBI) from October 2021, pending a final confirmation of inclusion date in March 2021.¹ CGBs' inclusion into the index will be phased in over a 12-month period. 

CGBs had originally been placed on the firm’s WGBI inclusion watch list in September 2018, but were ultimately rejected in 2019, as the country’s bond market didn't meet the firm's selection criteria. However, in making its most recent decision, FTSE Russell cited key progress in numerous areas, including improvements to secondary market bond liquidity, enhancements in the foreign exchange market structure, and the development of global settlement and custody processes.² 

CGBs are already included in several large global bond indexes, such as the J.P.  Morgan and Bloomberg Barclays index suites;³ the asset class's inclusion in the FTSE Russell WGBI is arguably more significant due to the large amount of passive investor flows expected from the decision. 

What does FTSE Russell’s index inclusion mean for fund flows into China bonds?

While FTSE Russell won't release the implementation details of the inclusion process until March 2021, estimates suggest that CGBs will make up around 5.7% of the WGBI upon full inclusion.⁴ Based on an estimated US$2.5 trillion (from both passive and active funds) that tracks the WGBI, it's predicted that inclusion in this index could lead to around US$140.0 billion entering China’s government bond market over time.⁵ In the first seven months of 2020, China’s onshore bond market had attracted RMB474.0 billion of foreign inflows, representing a year-over-year increase of 61.0%.⁶ 

Over the full year, foreign inflows into China bonds are seemingly on track to be between RMB800.0 billion and RMB1.0 trillion. This figure could potentially rise to between RMB1.0 trillion and RMB1.2 trillion in 2021. While foreign ownership of CGBs is currently around 8.5% of the total market, it could increase to around 20.0% by the end of 2022.⁶ Foreign ownership of the overall China bond market could grow from the current 2.6% to almost 4.0%.⁶

Why are China bonds attractive in the short to medium term?

Clearly, the index inclusion theme, including the latest FTSE WGBI announcement, has been important in drawing investor interest into China bonds. This momentum is likely to continue over the medium term, as investors progressively reallocate from other bond markets into China bonds. As this structural theme plays out, the increased demand for China bonds should be supportive for the asset class.

In reaching its decision to include CGBs in the WGBI, FTSE Russell has acknowledged the progress made in improving the market infrastructure for Chinese bonds, which has made market participation by international investors easier.  

One recently announced improvement is that regulators have extended trading hours in the China Interbank Bond Market to 8:00 P.M. (12:00 GMT) to facilitate greater access for Europe-based investors. Looking ahead, we believe the Chinese authorities will continue to make further enhancements to facilitate access for international investors, which will further broaden the appeal of the country’s bonds. 

China bonds are also attractive relative to other bond markets from a nominal and real-yield perspective. The 10-year CGB is currently yielding around 3.1% in nominal terms and 0.74% in real terms.⁷ In response to the COVID-19 crisis, global central banks have been cutting interest rates aggressively, with the U.S. Federal Reserve effectively reducing its official rates to zero, while simultaneously signaling to the market its intention to keep interest rates low over the next two to three years. As a result, the 10-year U.S. Treasuries are now yielding around 0.67%.⁷ Consequently, the current spread between 10-year CGBs and 10-year U.S. Treasuries is around 2.4%, making China bonds attractive on a relative basis.⁷

Chart showing the yield-spread between German, U.S., and China 10-year government bonds in the last 12 months. The chart shows that the spread between Chinese government bonds and U.S. Treasures as well as German government bonds has widened since April.

Another attractive aspect of China's bond market is its historically low correlation with other global bond markets, meaning that it could offer diversification benefits. Currently, the correlation for CGBs versus global aggregate bonds is around 0.29.⁸

We believe that the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) will likely maintain a stable interest-rate environment over the next six months, during which it’ll focus on targeted easing and money market operations to ensure there's sufficient liquidity to support growth in the real economy. At the same time, the PBOC wants to underline that financial risks are also being adequately addressed.  On the foreign exchange front, we expect the RMB to trade close to its current range of between 6.8 to 7.0 against the U.S. dollar into year end.

Conclusion

The FTSE Russell announcement of the inclusion of CGBs in the WGBI is an important and expected development that should lead to a further and gradual expansion in demand for this asset class from international investors—particularly as authorities continue to work on improving market access. In our view, China bonds also stand out in the current market cycle, relative to other global bond markets, due to their high nominal and positive real yields and diversification opportunities.

 

1 FTSE Russell, September 24, 2020. In March 2021, FTSE Russell advisory committees and some index users will give final affirmation of CGBs’ inclusion date and implementation timeline based on whether recently announced reforms have made the anticipated practical improvements to the market structure. 2 FTSE Russell, September 24, 2020. 3 In January 2019, Bloomberg Barclays announced that Chinese RMB-denominated government and policy-bank debt would be added to the Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Index from April 2019. In September 2019, J.P. Morgan stated that Chinese government bonds would be included in its Government Bond Index Emerging Markets suite from February 2020. 4 Goldman Sachs, September 19, 2020. 5 Goldman Sachs, September 29, 2020, based on the estimated US$2.5 trillion in assets under management tracking the FTSE WGBI index. 6 Standard Chartered, as of August 31, 2020. 7 Bloomberg, as of September 21, 2020. 8 Based on 10 years, from 30 September 2010 to 30 September 2020. Aggregate bonds are represented by Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Total Return index; China government bonds are represented by ICE BofA China Government Index.

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Paula Chan, CMT

Paula Chan, CMT, 

Senior Portfolio Manager, Asia ex-Japan Fixed Income

Manulife Investment Management

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