Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.
Although the US is embarking on a gradual path toward higher interest rates, low and even negative yields continue to proliferate across much of the developed world. As a result, fixed-income investors who normally stick close to home are searching far and wide to find ways of generating additional income in their portfolios. As investors leave their tiny place in the world to discover new opportunities, emerging markets have increasingly become a preferred destination. While on first glance emerging markets debt may seem a world away from where the traditional fixed-income investor has typically visited, this asset class has much to offer in terms of diverse markets and issuers, and can provide portfolios with the potential for both yield and diversification.1
There are many reasons why emerging markets remain a bright spot amid the many uncertainties surrounding the global economy as a whole. Economic growth is mounting a gradual recovery, and large numbers of young workers are fuelling consumer demand. Governments are generally stable with manageable amounts of debt.
Furthermore, yields for emerging markets debt are attractive relative to other types of fixed income, and a number of central banks still have enough flexibility to cut interest rates if further economic stimulus is needed.
We invite you to travel with us on an adventure to see the world of emerging markets debt. Our itinerary includes a look at the history of the asset class, followed by a journey to the different regions that comprise the emerging markets. We will also learn about key themes and risks that should be considered, as well as the various components of the emerging markets debt universe and how they can be used within a portfolio.
Off we go!
Starting a new journey often involves learning from where we’ve already been. The history of what is now known as emerging markets debt began in the 1970s, when multinational banks in Europe and the US lent money directly to governments in emerging markets, particularly in Latin America. This was known as lesser developed countries (LDC), loans.
At the time, there was no secondary market. Therefore, lenders found themselves unable to decrease their exposure to these loans when problems arose. For example, soaring oil prices, high interest rates and inflation in the double digits in the late 1970s and early 1980s contributed to a financial crisis in Latin America in 1982, when a number of countries were unable to make their debt payments. Mexico, for example, placed a moratorium on paying interest on its loans, and many other nations followed its lead, leaving lenders with non-performing assets on their balance sheets.
A secondary market was established as banks began swapping their loans with one another in exchange for loans in other countries, and in other cases selling the loans they had to other entities in order to reduce their risk exposure. In 1983 and 1984, a small group of traders began acting as intermediaries between the buyers and sellers of these investments.
In 1985, US Treasury Secretary James Baker created a program where $9 billion from multilateral agencies and $20 billion from commercial banks was promised to recipients who would in turn adopt more market-friendly reforms, such as privatising state-owned enterprises, reducing trade barriers and deregulating investments. But this plan fell short of helping LDC nations grow their way out of the debt they had accumulated.
In 1986 and 1987, countries such as Chile and Mexico adopted debt-for-equity plans, where debt holders could exchange the debt for equity in state-owned companies. Trading became easier as more banks looked to sell their loans for less than their face value after increasing their loss reserves.
The Brady Plan
Historically, LDC loans were restructured and payments rescheduled on a case-by-case basis if a borrower had trouble paying back the loan. The idea was that when these LDC economies recovered, the problems with debt payments would vanish. Unfortunately, this idea never became a reality, even after numerous rounds of debt restructuring took place, and countries generally were in no better position to repay their debt than they were in the first place.
The Brady Plan, named for US Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady and introduced in 1989, sought to provide debt relief for emerging nations in exchange for adopting significant reforms, so that these nations could improve their tenuous financial positions and regain access to international capital markets for financing. The principles of the Brady Plan were based on what was already used for debt forgiveness among US corporations and their creditors, including:
- offering to reduce the debt in exchange for greater assurance of being paid back principal and interest;
- basing debt relief on whether or not economic reforms were made; and
- making the new securities easier to trade in order to disperse the risk to other investors, instead of it being concentrated with one lender.
As a result of the Brady Plan, emerging nations were able to reduce their debt burdens through negotiations with lenders while also establishing more market-friendly economic policies and programs to enhance their credit profiles.
New securities were issued with principal and rolling interest payments collateralised by zero-coupon US Treasuries, which were bought with proceeds from loans provided by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As a result of the Brady Plan, emerging nations were able to reduce their debt burdens through negotiations with lenders while also establishing more market-friendly economic policies and programs to enhance their credit profiles. At the same time, commercial banks were able to reduce the risks they faced holding LDC loans by engaging with an expanded investor community through the use of the new standardised securities.
Symbolic of the move away from emerging markets’ volatile past, nearly the entire stock of Brady bonds, peaking at US$150 billion in 1994, was retired in 2006 during a period of marked improvement in sovereign credit ratings. This shifted the bulk of their debt financing to their respective local currency markets. The retirement of the remaining Brady bonds also marked a definitive shift from the dominance of hard currency debt to a more widespread issuance of local currency debt, while reducing the credit risk of investment-grade hard currency sovereign debt.
Until relatively recently, emerging markets debt represented only a small part of the bond market universe. Primary issuance was limited, credit quality was often poor, markets were generally illiquid and crises were more common than not. Essentially, political, social and economic turmoil overshadowed any investment potential that lay within emerging countries.
Today, however, emerging nations are home to some of the most dynamic growth opportunities. Relative to their developed-world counterparts, they offer greater capacity for economic growth; the IMF recently forecasted 2016 gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 4.1%, rising to 4.6% in 2017.2 It's some way off the growth of 6% to 7% that emerging markets experienced at the beginning of the century, but it's a far cry from the paltry growth forecast of 1.6% for developed markets in 2017.
There is still a lot of work to be done, and risks remain, but investing in emerging markets debt today is not the risk it once was.
As these nations have grown and developed, so too has emerging markets debt as an asset class. It now stands at an impressive $10.3 trillion (as of 31 December 2016). Market commentators may have painted a negative picture of emerging markets debt over the last few years, but performance for 2016 was surprisingly strong, highlighting the resilience of these economies. There is still a lot of work to be done, and risks remain, but investing in emerging markets debt today is not the risk it once was.
Many emerging nations have built up large foreign exchange reserves while undergoing substantial monetary and fiscal adjustment. Policymakers are now able to control inflation more easily when currencies weaken, ultimately helping to restore competitiveness. Nowhere is this more evident than in current account balances where deficits have narrowed. Additionally, many emerging markets central banks continue to garner institutional credibility among international investors thanks to their mature and conformist approach to monetary policy.
Additionally, credit quality has evolved and improved since the early days of the asset class. Defaults are low despite emerging markets issuers often being portrayed as the more likely candidates to default on their debt repayments. In local currency debt, no country has defaulted on a bond issued in its own currency since Russia in 1998. And although they are viewed as being similar in terms of how risky they are, default rates for emerging markets corporate debt are relatively lower than default rates for US high-yield bonds. This trend is expected to continue into 2017.
Global conditions have become increasingly supportive in recent times after several years of sporadic volatility. While the US Federal Reserve (Fed) has begun a gradual path of interest rate hikes, the lower-for-longer central bank environment elsewhere in the developed world has seen investors move into the asset class in the hunt for attractive yields. China continues its orderly rebalancing of its economy, while macro fundamentals across emerging markets continue to show signs of stabilising. Valuations also remain attractive relative to their credit fundamentals, especially when compared against the negative yields in many developed markets.
Uncertainties surrounding policies under US President Donald Trump could pose a risk for emerging markets, particularly if large trade tariffs are imposed on China and Mexico. Rising US Treasury yields from fiscal stimulus could also provide headwinds for emerging markets debt, but the prospect of higher yields in the latter will likely appeal to income-sensitive investors.
Half-formed travel plans, language barriers and the strangeness of foreign terrain haven’t stopped many people from trekking to new destinations. What’s been keeping investors from venturing into emerging markets?
In the past few years, emerging markets saw a decline in popularity following greater volatility, influenced in part by economic policies that were largely hard to predict along with renewed political risk. Now a different tilt may benefit emerging markets. Events in the developed world such as Brexit and low interest rates have sent investors on a search for income and growth elsewhere. Despite continued global uncertainty, emerging markets fundamentals remain sound.
Despite continued global uncertainty, emerging markets fundamentals remain sound. Levels of emerging markets debt remained attractive as current account deficits narrowed. Policymakers worked hard to control inflation when currencies weakened. Many central banks are now in a better position to cut interest rates, which could restart growth and help offset the impact from further rate hikes by the Fed. Consumer demand in the region has also increased in tandem with a growing middle class.
All of these factors put emerging markets on the path of gradual recovery. Emerging markets can offer compelling long-term growth, though it isn’t always easy to chart where the opportunities lie within emerging markets debt given the vast diversity and complexity of its issuers. Emerging markets are typically found within the following three regions:
Asia remains the fastest growing region in the world. Recent numbers from the Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) surveys have been reassuring for many emerging markets countries, especially in emerging Asia. Improved trends in export growth could help emerging markets countries regain their footing.
Structural reforms can help rebalance demand and supply while reducing vulnerabilities and increasing economic efficiency.
Pushing ahead with high-impact reforms, including state-owned enterprise reform in China, will be critical to ensuring Asia’s position on the global growth platform, according to the IMF. Structural reforms can help rebalance demand and supply while reducing vulnerabilities and increasing economic efficiency.
In India, Urjit Patel’s selection as the new Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor sent a signal of commitment to inflation targeting and strict adherence to monetary policy. In China, economic and financial market stability was markedly improved, thanks to the advent of further stimulus policies. Chinese infrastructure investment has increased 18% year over year (to end of November 2016), which is evidence of the country’s dedication to expansion.
This year, Latin America should begin a path toward resumed economic growth. Although the ride hasn’t exactly been smooth for the region over the past few years, the IMF estimates a return to 1.5% growth within the year.
Mired in political turmoil, export declines and volatile financial conditions, many Latin American countries faced setbacks in trying to reach their economic goals. Some Latin American countries continued to face large exchange rate depreciations because of sluggish trade prospects. Although the region could be returning to a growth cycle, it will be at modest annual rates in the range of 2-3%, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
The solution may already be within the region. It is in its young population.
But there could be another way to transport Latin America to where it needs to be in terms of economic health. The solution may already be within the region. It is in its young population. Latin America has abundant untapped potential, with a quarter of its population aged between 15 to 29 years old. That’s 163 million people. This could present a unique demographic opportunity to build out the region’s skills in an era where skills are prized in the job search process.
The governments of Latin America could be a major influential factor. About 64% of its young population still lives in poor households, leaving many with access to poor quality public services, savings and social mobility, the OECD recently reported. Youth entrepreneurship and the improvement of skills could help this demographic get off the ground.
Eastern Europe, Middle East and Africa (EEMEA)
Like Latin America, the EEMEA region (notably Russia) has had a challenging ride. Key oil-exporting countries, which include Russia, have endured fiscal and financial stress amid uncertainty across the energy sector and falling oil prices. Again similar to Latin America, Russia could begin to rebound this year. The IMF projects the country will return to growth in the year, unless oil prices plummet. Turkey is likely to encounter sluggish growth amid the ongoing political noise and rising local rates, while growth is set to pick up in Sub-Saharan Africa, which is the high-yield area of the region.
Overall, it’s been a bumpy road for countries across the developed and emerging markets. Still, there are many reasons to be optimistic about the future. Many emerging markets countries have maintained their fundamental attractiveness despite recent events and may be poised for a return to economic growth as policymakers steer their countries towards the future.
Are you ready to set forth into the world of emerging markets debt? Before you leave, it helps to have a plan in place. Let’s take a look at some of the major macroeconomic themes impacting emerging markets debt, as well as the potential risks with respect to the asset class.
Mapping the lay of the land
Although there has been a recent global sell-off in government bonds, yields in developed markets remain relatively low. Europe and Japan are still facing a number of hurdles to mounting a strong economic recovery. And many central banks in the developed world are committed to keeping loose monetary policy in place to support economic growth.
Outlooks are less clear at this point.
In general, outlooks are less clear at this point, given the unexpected Trump victory in the US presidential election. The Fed may keep rate hikes to a minimum to support the fragile recovery and guard against global market uncertainty and volatility.
Then again, Mr. Trump has talked about appointing a more hawkish Fed chair and nominating Fed governors with similar philosophies to fill the two existing vacancies. This may mean that US interest rates will rise quicker than originally anticipated. That would be a concern if growth in the US doesn’t accelerate.
Investors are gravitating towards emerging markets debt because of the ability to pick up additional yield relative to developed markets debt. And interest rates are high enough in emerging markets that many central banks can be flexible in implementing policy changes, such as cutting interest rates if necessary.
Although the global economy has been mired in a pattern of sluggish growth, economic data has shown that emerging markets are embarking on a gradual recovery. 1) The IMF currently predicts that economic growth will accelerate this year for these markets. The recent rebound in commodities is helping to sustain this trend.
Emerging markets debt is far from homogenous. Emerging markets hard currency debt and local currency debt are two distinct asset classes with different credit quality and regional compositions. They each respond to varying return drivers. The same applies for emerging markets corporate bonds and frontier bonds, which have their own characteristics. Investors looking to journey into emerging markets debt may want to consider which of these to bring or add into their portfolios.
- Emerging markets hard currency debt
Emerging markets hard currency debt is the asset that started it all in emerging markets debt. It is ultimately a spread asset. In other words, it is compared to the yields of developed markets sovereign debt instruments and can offer attractive investments in a low-return environment. The emerging market spread (which measures the difference in yields between emerging markets debt and US Treasuries) is currently around 3.3 percentage points, as measured by the JP Morgan EMBI Global Diversified Index. Current valuations within this asset class have fared positively.
Emerging markets hard currency bonds offer low correlation to developed markets and emerging markets equities, which can be a valuable diversification tool in today’s uncertain global climate.
- Emerging markets local currency debt
Emerging markets hard currency debt may have started it all, but emerging markets local currency debt is now the leader in terms of market capitalisation. This means investments in local currency debt tend to have a profound influence on the economy of its respective country. How can it accomplish this?
A domestic bond that is rising in value can support local economic growth. In turn, the country’s debt profile improves, making it easier for the government to borrow at lower costs. This eventually creates a healthy cycle of development for emerging markets countries, and for investors in these markets.
Although increased volatility has made it a more difficult path for emerging markets local currency debt over the past few years, emerging markets local currency bonds have become an appropriate asset class for a wider range of investors because of their size, growing liquidity and dedicated research platforms.
- Emerging markets corporate bonds
Corporate bonds in emerging markets have also been attracting investor interest. Both US high yield and European high yield had strongly rallied with the yield on the core indices converging with the yield on emerging markets corporate debt. This happened despite a higher average credit rating at BBB on the JP Morgan emerging markets corporate debt index.
Relative value can also be found by comparing the spread differential against US corporate debt with the same credit rating. Emerging markets corporate debt has traded at wider spreads, despite having a lower overall leverage in the same rating buckets as its US counterparts. In short, emerging markets corporate bonds can be advantageous assets, but because of lower liquidity, it’s often better to hold them rather than frequently trading in and out of the asset class.
- Frontier market bonds
Leaving emerging market countries to travel to an even less developed region may be too much of a risk for some investors. But for those with a long-term mindset who are able to take on additional risk within their portfolios, there are the frontier markets.
Frontier markets have become an important part of the emerging markets story. They were once viewed by investors as one-dimensional, in that they were mostly driven by commodities. But that has evolved. Improving country fundamentals provided market access to many frontier countries, including the ones that are scarce in natural resources.
Today, much of the growth in frontier markets is influenced by what is known as the demographic dividend. The demographic dividend is a term for economic growth that results from declining mortality and fertility, and the resultant change in the age structure of a country’s population. The labour force in frontier markets has grown faster than the population dependent on it, and infrastructure investment has expanded. As these factors strengthened business activity, the market for bonds has gradually expanded.
Those willing to buckle up for a long ride could be the first to broaden their horizons and take advantage of future opportunities.
Frontier markets bonds represent only a fraction of the emerging markets debt universe. As frontier markets continue to grow, opportunities continue to open up. Until then, those willing to buckle up for a long ride could be the first to broaden their horizons and take advantage of future opportunities.
You have figured out what you’re packing for your trip. Now for the real challenge: making sure it fits in your bag. Having a sense of how it all works together can help you through this process.
The same can be said for constructing a blended portfolio consisting of different segments of the emerging markets debt universe. Not all emerging markets debt is the same, and it is essential to know how each segment will react to various market conditions.
The primary drivers of returns for emerging markets hard-currency sovereign debt are a country’s default rate and the levels of US Treasury yields. A country’s probability of default is determined by a variety of factors, including economic growth, level of public debt and fiscal conditions. Emerging markets corporate debt is subject to these drivers as well, and also considers the credit quality of the corporate issuer. And emerging markets local currency debt is driven by currency valuations in addition to interest rates. So each segment’s performance is dependent upon different circumstances.
Each segment has strong merits as a standalone asset class. But a blended approach results in a portfolio that is diversified across a range of different countries, instruments and currencies. This can help the portfolio perform well in a variety of market environments, as each component will react differently as conditions change.
Each type of emerging markets debt has different characteristics, which leads to differentiated sources of alpha.
Another advantage of using a blended approach applies to generating alpha, or excess return over a certain benchmark. Each type of emerging markets debt has different characteristics, which leads to differentiated sources of alpha. For example, risk assets such as emerging markets currency can provide investors with attractive return prospects when risk appetite increases, while high-grade hard currency corporate bonds can offer downside protection during more difficult periods in the market cycle. All of these types of emerging markets debt have advantages during various points in the market cycle.
When constructing a blended portfolio, it is important to understand the various components and how they complement one another. Emerging markets hard currency debt, emerging markets local currency debt, emerging markets corporate bonds and frontier markets bonds are distinct asset classes that exhibit different credit quality and regional compositions while responding to different drivers of return. Each asset class has its own unique characteristics and advantages.
It is possible for some investors to make their own asset allocation decisions to achieve a blended portfolio. Another option is to hire a specialist fund manager to help find attractive return prospects within the asset class. Either way, making sure it all fits together when you first begin your journey will make for much smoother sailing as you continue on your adventure.
To paraphrase Robert Burns, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” This observation may come to mind for the world traveller dealing with delayed flights, lost baggage and road closures. It also describes the often unexpected political events we experienced around the globe in 2016.
In June, we had the UK’s referendum on whether or not to remain part of the European Union (EU). While consensus expectations and pundits predicted that the UK would vote to remain in the EU, it turned out that UK voters had other ideas. While the referendum was anything but a landslide for one side over the other, a majority of voters indicated they wanted to leave, resulting in the resignation of former Prime Minister David Cameron and the election of Theresa May as his successor.
There are many uncertainties that still need to be worked through.
The ‘Brexit’ vote sent markets reeling at first, as many believed that leaving the EU would cause an immediate recession in the UK. So far, though, this threat hasn’t materialised, although there are many uncertainties that still need to be worked through. Markets have stabilised, and bond yields have stayed near record lows as central banks in developed markets held rates steady to guard against the risk of a global economic downturn.
While the developed world continues to process what Brexit will mean from a trade and immigration standpoint, emerging markets don’t seem to be as concerned about the situation. As time has passed, investors have begun to view Brexit as a local problem rather than a global one. For this reason, many of them are looking at investments that stay as far away from any potential Brexit trouble as possible, and the developing world fits the bill.
Although governments and consumers in some emerging markets may be as strapped for cash as their developed market counterparts, many are not. And many of these countries still have leeway for some policy response from their respective central banks if the situation takes a turn for the worse. Considering the proliferation of zero and negative interest rates, this isn’t an option available to many central bankers in the developed world.
And then there’s the US presidential election. While few predicted that Donald Trump would emerge victorious against his rival Hillary Clinton, this is exactly what happened. Similar to Brexit, the polls and commentators got it wrong, and many predicted that this outcome would immediately lead to Armageddon in the financial markets. And again, many of these initial predictions have been mistaken thus far, as equity markets have continued to rise on the hope that Trump’s policies will indeed spur growth in the US economy.
But unlike Brexit, which is mainly centred on the relationship between the UK and the EU, US policies under the Trump administration could have a direct impact on emerging markets, if Mr. Trump’s campaign rhetoric is to be taken seriously. Throughout the campaign, Mr. Trump called for bringing production back to the US and renegotiating trade deals that he believes are hurting American workers. If tariffs are imposed, it would hurt profitability for companies in emerging markets such as China and Mexico.
If Trump follows through with some of the trade policies he has proposed, this is likely to be a negative for global trade, particularly for Asia and some of the countries in the broader emerging markets. However, there is also a greater probability of expansionary fiscal policy, which would allow for the possibility of a slightly higher path for global inflation. But for now, a greater degree of uncertainty exists, as the actual policies that will be delivered by a Trump presidency are difficult to predict.
It is important to prepare for the unexpected as much as you possibly can.
There will always be uncertainties surrounding a new journey – whether related to travel or investments. In both cases, it is important to prepare for the unexpected as much as you possibly can. When traveling, it can mean keeping copies of your passport handy in case the original document is lost, or having a carry-on bag packed with essentials in case your checked bag doesn’t arrive at your destination. When investing, a diversified portfolio of global investments can help you prepare for the many changes that the financial markets often endure. A blended portfolio of emerging market debt can help you with this effort.
Our travels through the world of emerging markets debt have taken us through various regions of the globe and allowed us to explore the many opportunities that the asset class has to offer. But the journey doesn’t end there:
- Over the past two years, over 100 million households have moved into the middle income range within emerging markets.3
- The share of global retail sales attributed to emerging markets grew from 32% in 2000 to 51% in 2015.4
- By 2020, a further one billion unique mobile subscribers will be added globally, with the vast majority of this growth coming from emerging economies.5
These trends are expected to continue as emerging markets expand and develop. With their favourable demographics and continued economic expansion, emerging markets are forecasted to become even larger contributors to the global economy in the years to come. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, expectations are that China, India, Indonesia and Brazil will be four of the five largest economies in the world.6
Emerging markets are already major players in the global economy, and emerging markets debt will continue to gain prominence as a global investment opportunity. Not only does this asset class offer relatively higher yields than comparable bonds in developed markets, but it also can provide a way to gain further diversification, which can help manage risk within a portfolio. For those who are traveling the world far and wide in the search for income, emerging markets debt should prove to be a popular destination – one that offers a world of opportunity.
- Diversification does not ensure a profit or protect against a loss in a declining market.
- Projections are offered as opinion and are not reflective of potential performance. Projections are not guaranteed and actual events or results may differ materially.
- Credit Suisse. “Mega-Trend of Growing Emerging Middle Class Remains on Track.” 4 January 2016.
- A.T. Kearney. “Emerging Market Retailing in 2030: Future Scenarios and the $5.5 Trillion Swing.” 2016.
- Source: GSMA, February 2016.
- PricewaterhouseCoopers, “The World in 2050,” February 2015.
The value of investments and the income from them can go down as well as up and you may get back less than the amount invested.
Investing globally can bring additional returns and diversify risk. However, currency exchange rate fluctuations may have a positive or negative impact on the value of your client's investments.
Emerging markets or less developed countries may face more political, economic or structural challenges than developed countries. This may mean your client's money is at greater risk.
Bonds are affected by changes in interest rates, inflation and any decline in creditworthiness of the bond issuer. Bonds that produce a higher level of income usually also carry greater risk as such bond issuers may not be able to pay the bond income as promised or could fail to repay the capital amount used to purchase the bond. Where a bond market has a low number of buyers and/or a high number of sellers, it may be harder to sell particular bonds at an anticipated price and/or in a timely manner.
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