The new frontier for global bond investors

Jean-Charles Sambor, head of global emerging market debt at BNP Paribas, explains why Chinese fixed income offers unique opportunities

by Jean-Charles Sambor
The new frontier for global bond investors
Investors are advised to get to where the financial action is now happening – in China. File photo by Reuters.  

(ATF) Despite increases in foreign holdings in every quarter over the past three years, less than 3% of China's vast domestic bond market — the world's second-largest — was owned by foreign investors as of the end of June, according to Moody's.

Jean-Charles Sambor, head of global emerging market debt at BNP Paribas, explains why Chinese fixed income offers unique opportunities to global bond investors.

* In today’s world of negative bond yields, China's onshore fixed income markets really stand out, offering nominal yields above 3% for 10-year government bonds.

- Besides offering diversification via a relatively low correlation with other asset classes, Chinese onshore fixed income is denominated in renminbi (RMB), a currency that stands to benefit from strong inflows as it gains its place among the world’s reserve currencies;

- Chinese bonds offer strategic exposure to long-term trends such as the inclusion of China in global bond benchmarks, the growth of China's pension industry, and of course China's status as one of the world's largest economies.

WHY ARE CHINESE BONDS SO IMPORTANT FOR GLOBAL BOND INVESTORS?

Firstly, with outstanding issuance of around US$14 trillion, China is now the world’s second largest sovereign bond market. As such, global bond investors simply cannot afford to ignore it. Funds tracking global bond benchmarks are increasingly incorporating Chinese bonds. Chinese fixed-income instruments will inevitably become more prevalent in international investors’ portfolios. This process is underway but, in my opinion, it has much further to run.

In addition, in an environment where fixed income investors are starved of yield on sovereign bonds, Chinese onshore government bonds offer positive yields. That matters in a world where for the first time, in 60% of the global economy — including 97% of advanced economies — central banks have pushed policy interest rates below 1%. In one-fifth of the world, policy rates are negative.

For multi-asset investors, positive real yields are critical in protecting real income returns. Chinese real yields on 10-year government bonds have been consistently higher than those in developed markets during the past five years. Since 2019, this differential has increased significantly.

This is partly explained by diverging monetary policy – G3 central banks have pushed their real yields steadily below zero – where we expect they will stay for some years yet. Despite strong GDP growth in China over the last 10 years, inflation has remained under control. As a result, China now has inflation rates similar to those in developed economies but significantly higher real bond yields. This makes Chinese bonds a standout opportunity, in my view.

The relatively low correlation of Chinese bonds to almost all other asset classes is another consequence of China's monetary policy being largely independent from those of other major economies. China's growth is more dependent on internal dynamics than on other economies.

This low correlation also reflects that China remains largely a self-sufficient capital market. Currently, China is one of the largest net creditor nations in the world. Domestic investors are dominant in China, having the largest deposit base in the world, equivalent to around $40 trillion and still growing.

ONSHORE RENMINBI BONDS

Investors should understand that China’s bond market is composed of three different segments, and the largest by far of these is the market for Chinese bonds listed onshore and priced in renminbi (see Exhibit 1 below for a breakdown by sector of the onshore Chinese bond market).

This represents around 90% of China’s bond market (the other segments being Chinese debt issued in offshore renminbi, listed in an offshore clearing centre like Hong Kong, and China’s foreign currency issuance).

The onshore bond market is by far the largest segment of China’s bond markets - the graph shows the breakdown (in %) of China’s onshore bond market by sector

Onshore Chinese Bond Market Breakdown (%). Source: Bloomberg, PBoC, CCDC, SHCH, JP Morgan, 2019

IMPROVED ACCESSIBILITY 10 ONSHORE BONDS FOR GLOBAL INVESTORS

Several recent changes in China have made it easier to invest in onshore bonds, which over time will be part of the tools that China uses to promote financial stability, while also offering a new investment frontier to global fixed-income investors.

Chinese regulators have made considerable efforts to increase the accessibility of the onshore bond market to foreign investors. Programmes Like the Bond Connect scheme and China Interbank Bond Market (CIBM) Direct represent major breakthroughs, as they allow foreign investors to trade Chinese bonds more easily and freely. Investors can now proceed via an offshore account and are no longer subject to restrictions such as quotas or lock-up periods.

Up until 2018, the only option for offshore investors to hedge their renminbi exposure was via deliverable offshore or non-deliverable onshore forwards. However, in 2018, China announced that onshore deliverable forwards would be made available to foreign investors as a hedging tool.Hedging of renminbi exposure is now available to foreign investors accessing the market via both the CIBM direct and Bond Connect schemes. The cost of hedging versus the US dollar has fallen significantly to levels well below the historical average of recent years.

WHAT IS THE OUTLOOK FOR THE RENMINBI?

We are positive on the outlook for emerging market currencies generally in 2021 and on the renminbi in particular. We anticipate strong capital flows back into emerging markets as risk appetite rises once vaccines for Covid-19 become available.

China, we think, will lead the way in 2021 as the fundamentals for the Chinese currency are positive: the balance of payments is healthy, exports are growing strongly and import growth is relatively contained.

We have already seen significant inflows into Chinese equity markets, but flows into the onshore Chinese bond market have been three to five times stronger than equity inflows.

China is keen to promote greater cross-border use of the renminbi and Beijing is doing its utmost to attract foreign investors to develop China's financial markets. The ultimate goal is to improve the allocation of capital and develop long-term pension and insurance products.

We see considerable scope for the renminbi to appreciate, but it will not be without volatility. Indeed, the Chinese authorities see some volatility as part of the process of exposing the currency more to market forces. They are seeking a more market-based exchange rate.

The Chinese yuan has appreciated significantly in 2020 - the graph below shows changes in exchange rate of the yuan to the US dollar from 02/01/2020 to 09/11/2020. 

The Chinese yuan has appreciated significantly in 2020. Source: BNP Paribas Asset Management/Bloomberg.

INCLUSION OF CHINA IN GLOBAL GOVERNMENT BOND INDICES - A GAME CHANGER?

The inclusion of Chinese government bonds (CGBs) in global bond indices is the elephant in the room for global bond investors. I have been covering this market for over 20 years but things are moving even faster than expected. It is very exciting. Foreign flows into China's government bond market have been supported by the following news:

* The 20-month phased inclusion of Chinese government and policy bank bonds in the Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Index, which began in April 2019.

* JP Morgan's decision, in February this year, to start adding Chinese government bonds in its Government Bond Index Emerging Markets (GBI-EM) series over 10 months.

* The announcement last month by FTSE Russell that Chinese Government Bonds will be included in the FTSE World Government Bond Index (WGBI) starting in October 2021 (this date is subject to final affirmation in March 2021).

Index inclusion recognises the efforts made by Chinese authorities to simplify market access and regulation, and to resolve trading issues, among other things. In the process of opening up Chinese capital markets, this will be another milestone. I expect $200-300 billion in inflows into Chinese government bonds just related to the index inclusion.Index inclusion should boost foreign ownership of Chinese government bonds. It has already risen from 2%-3% to around 8% now. In the medium term I believe it could easily rise to 20%-25%.

I think this is a conservative estimate because if foreign ownership rises to the level that we see in South Korea – around 15% – it would imply inflows into the Chinese government bond market of up to $1 trillion. That is why index inclusion is potentially a game changer for one of the most under-owned sovereign bond markets in the world.

 # Jean-Charles Sambor is BNP Paribas AMC head of global emerging market debt 

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