Key takeaways

  • Taken together, ex-Japan, the Asian bond markets have grown rapidly over the past decade, driven by improved credit ratings and economic performance, along with a surge in new issuance.
  • China’s bond market is positioned to receive a major injection in inflows as the country becomes eligible for inclusion in global bond indexes in Q2 2019.
  • High relative yields, low correlation to other bond markets, and the rise of Asian-based institutional investors are some of the reasons we believe investors may push Asian bonds into global prominence in the year ahead.

Over the past decade, the Asian bond market (which includes primarily local currency bonds but also U.S. dollar, or USD, bonds) has grown rapidly to become one of the largest regional bond markets in the world, with an estimated size of US$13.7 trillion. While still smaller than the U.S. bond market (which remains the world’s largest at US$41.7 trillion), the Asian bond market ex-Japan has already overtaken its Japanese counterpart, expanding at a compound annual growth rate of 13.1% over the past five years—outpacing all other regional bond markets.The region’s USD credit market, in particular, has grown more than fivefold over the past decade and is fast approaching US$1 trillion in market value.2


Although Asian countries and territories are at different stages of economic development, the region is still largely considered an emerging market (EM) and holds significant weight in EM bond indexes. Today, Asia accounts for the largest regional weight (60.7%) in the J.P. Morgan Government Bond Index-EM Broad Index, indicating the region’s dominance within the world of EM.3 The continent also occupies an increasingly important position within the EM credit space, accounting for nearly 45% of the Corporate Emerging Bond Index, which is priced in USD.4


The Asian bond market has significantly grown over the past five years
The Asian bond market has significantly grown over the past five years

Source:  Bank  for  International  Settlements  (BIS),  Asian  Development  Bank,  European  Central  Bank,  Bloomberg, 2018.  All  amounts  outstanding  by  residence  of  issuer.  Manulife  Asset  Management,  as  of  March  31,  2018.  Asia ex-Japan includes China. CAGR stands for compound annual growth rate. LHS refers to left-hand side, RHS refers to right-hand side.


An eye on China: an emerging bond market with vast potential

The growth of China’s onshore bond market is one of the key regional developments in the past decade. The market has doubled in size—growing at a compound annual growth rate of 16.6% over the past five years alone—to become the world’s third largest.5    


Despite rapid growth, we believe the market remains underdeveloped; specifically, foreign participation remains relatively low. However, this is gradually changing due to growing investor interest, partly as a result of China’s inclusion in major global bond indexes, as of Q2 2019. As much as US$600 billion of passive funds could flow into the Chinese bond market as a result of index inclusion.6


We believe onshore Chinese bonds should be considered by global investors for numerous reasons: their attractive yields, China’s strong A+ sovereign rating, and their unique diversification benefits due to China’s monetary policy cycle running differently from G10 countries and demand being driven by its domestic investor base.  


Foreign investment in China's bond market doesn't match its global economic power
Foreign investment in China's bond market doesn't match its global economic power

Source: Bloomberg, Central Banks, National Sources, IMF, Haver Analytics, Goldman Sachs, May 2018.

A stable and local ownership base

Asian institutional investors are key buyers in the region’s USD bond market, providing a stable ownership base for the asset class. Ownership of USD bonds originating from the region among Asia-based investors has risen from 56% to 79% in just five years. In contrast, the share of U.S. and European investors participating in new Asian USD bond issues dropped from 44% to 21% over the same period.3


The rise in Asia-based investors is significant, as they can act as anchors and help to reduce volatility in times of market stress. This, we believe, goes a long way to explaining why volatility among Asian corporate bonds—on a three-year rolling basis—is lower than that seen elsewhere within the EM universe.7


Improved credit ratings track economic performance 

Asia’s increased prominence in global fixed-income markets is due to the region’s improved credit ratings and dynamic economic performance. Indeed, with the exception of Vietnam, almost all Asian countries and territories boast investment-grade sovereign ratings and are generally higher rated than other EM regions and many EM stalwarts, including Brazil (BB–), South Africa (BB+), and Turkey (BB–).7


Burgeoning foreign exchange reserves partially explain the disparity in credit ratings. The total foreign exchange reserves for Asian countries (US$5.7 trillion) far exceed the combined reserves for countries in Latin America (US$834 billion) and EEMA (US$2 trillion).8


EM in general has experienced a challenging year in 2018, largely a result of rising U.S. interest rates and a stronger USD. Nonetheless, we remain constructive on emerging Asia for the medium term. Indeed, in contrast to the 1997 Asian financial crisis, countries such as Indonesia and India have since adopted a more proactive approach to monetary policy to help navigate market volatility. Indonesia, for example, has raised rates six times in 2018, while India has lifted rates twice. As economic fundamentals for both markets remain sound, we believe the currencies and bonds of these two countries hold significant upside potential, which may unlock once sentiment improves for EMs.


Credit ratings have trended upward over the past 10 years
Credit ratings have trended upward over the past 10 years

Source: Bloomberg, local currency long-term ratings, as of September 30, 2018.




Improving economic fundamentals in India and Indonesia over time 
India and Indonesia: prime examples of the region's improving fundamentals
Improving fundamentals in India and Indonesia
India and Indonesia: prime examples of the region's improving fundamentals

Source: Bloomberg, World Bank, as of September 30, 2018.


Attractive real yields provide tailwinds

Real yields are commonly used to assess prospective bond investments. The real yield is simply the nominal yield of a bond (at a given point in time) less the annual inflation rate. We believe it’s important to consider real yields, particularly for EM, as the nominal yields may be misleading: High inflation rates can mean investors actually earn a negative return once inflation is factored in.


The cases of Indonesia and India are particularly worth noting. Ten years ago, while both countries offered high nominal yields, monetary policies in both countries were also relatively inefficient, which meant higher rates of inflation and lower real yields. Today, we believe both countries have more effective monetary frameworks, driving their bonds to the top of the return table. Of note, Indonesia raised interest rates several times in 2018 to protect its currency amid increased financial volatility, while India also raised rates to stem inflationary pressures. Today, the two countries offer the highest real yields in Asia.


Finally, investors may also note the range of yields available across different markets in Asia. China and Malaysia, which are both currently A+ rated, can offer attractive real yields given their strong ratings, while mature markets such as Singapore and South Korea, which today are rated AAA and AA, respectively, can still offer competitive, positive real yields above those of similar developed markets. With many real yields in developed markets offering negative returns (such as Japan and Germany), investors are turning to Asia for higher yields. 


Real yields of major global bond markets (%) 
Real yields of major global bond markets (%)

Source: Bloomberg, as of September 30, 2018.