In our previous article, A 15-Year Retrospective Tells a Remarkable Growth Story, we explored how Asia's local-currency bond markets have matured as an asset class and are set to become a new global core.
This month, we will make a case for why we believe that Asian local currency fixed income remains a valuable addition to any portfolio, even amid uncertainty around the global COVID-19 pandemic and geopolitical tensions.
With the uncertainty stemming from COVID-19 sparking a "flight to safety", global investors are wary about shouldering additional credit risk from emerging markets (EM). This is despite the contrast between the potential yield pickup available in the EM space and the lack of return — especially in the developed market world — amid a persistent "lower for longer" yield environment.
Although the pandemic has undoubtedly hit the corporate credit space, Asian government and quasi-government credits have been able to prevent their fundamentals from significantly weakening. It is true that though governments will have to come up with additional funding for stimulus packages and supplementary budgets, many have alternative means of financing such packages — meaning they do not have to rely on bond markets exclusively.
As such, the macro fundamentals of many Asian governments remain robust, and they will likely continue to be a growth driver as the global economy recovers. Investors, therefore, have an opportunity to obtain a good yield pickup without taking on excessive risk.
In fact, Asian bonds have historically demonstrated a risk-return profile that is proportional to that of US Treasuries. This contrasts with many other non-Asian EM governments, where the step-up in potential return may not be fully justified when compared to the additional risk taken.
There is a persistent stereotype when it comes to EM local currency bonds that most of the historical gains were derived from local-currency appreciation. This might have led to some investors staying away, fearing currency volatility.
However, our analysis reveals that for Asian local currency bonds, currency appreciation only accounted for about a third of total returns. The remainder — and majority — of the returns were the result of the economies' growth potential and macro fundamentals.
Nonetheless, we do expect currency appreciation to continue to be an important source of potential returns moving forward. Current US-dollar strength has depressed currency gains in Asian local currency bonds, but over the medium to long term, there is a good chance of a rebound. In the meantime, dollar strength presents attractive entry opportunities for Asian local currency bonds.
The markets' heightened uncertainty will likely persist for some time. It makes sense for investors to take a defensive "back to basics" approach to portfolio construction. This does not entail a universal "flight to safety", but instead focuses on creating a well-diversified portfolio that offers an optimal risk-return profile.
In the increasingly interconnected world, correlations between Asian local currency bonds and other major asset classes have inevitably risen. Still, they remain low enough to allow such assets to add valuable diversification benefits to investors' portfolios.
There is a belief that EMs are less efficient, therefore active strategies must be the optimal way forward. Yet, the evidence tells a different story. Even in so-called less efficient EMs, most active managers underperformed their benchmarks.
According to Morningstar, as at end-2019, 57% of the 30 largest EM local currency debt funds benchmarked to the JPM GBI-EM Global Diversified Index underperformed the index over the past year1.
This "active underperformance" phenomenon is even more apparent over a longer horizon, with 73% of them underperforming over a three-year and five-year period1.
Risks within EMs can be asymmetric and concentrated, making it extremely difficult to outperform benchmarks. The data thus suggests that index funds may be an optimal alternative for gaining exposure to Asian local currency bonds.
1 Source: Morningstar, as of December 2019. 30 largest funds in the Morningstar's emerging market local currency debt category benchmarked to the JPM GBI-EM Global Diversified Index.