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Emerging market debt: no longer a niche investment

Emerging Markets

BNP Paribas Asset Management


The USD 18.9 trillion emerging debt market is highly diverse and yet remains under-invested by foreigners despite offering good valuations, low default rates and better risk/return potential than emerging equities.

  • A diverse yet largely overlooked universe whose composition is shifting
  • Low default ratees similar to those on US high yield; and high recovery rates
  • Despite expected volatility, the economic picture in 2019 is unlikely to impede emerging debt performance
  • Local knowledge and expertise are critical to effective emerging debt asset management

Emerging debt has matured from being a marginal choice in major institutional investors’ portfolios to having greater prominence, through direct investments or multi-management funds. It has become a core portfolio investment, which better reflects the size of the emerging debt market. When all asset classes were included (local and hard-currency government and corporate bonds), the market expanded from USD 9.3 trillion in 2010 to USD 18.9 trillion in 2018 (vs. USD 1.2 trillion for dollar-denominated high-yield bonds (US HY, based on the ICE – Bank of America Merrill Lynch index). We think this justifies taking a new look at investment in emerging debt.

Our integrated approach to managing emerging market debt

The old way of thinking – choosing an emerging market mainly on the basis of its macroeconomic criteria and investing in its equities, bonds and currencies – just won’t do anymore. In fact, our management team is no longer organised geographically but by asset class (corporate debt, government bonds in local and hard currencies, and currencies).

What’s more, our team includes 11 different nationalities, and most of our specialists come from emerging markets. The fact that they or their colleagues have gone through (and learned from) emerging market crises makes it possible to take factors into consideration other than mere valuation criteria or the quest for yield at any price when investing.

Lastly, our local investment teams in the main emerging markets provide us with clear added value with their knowledge of local investor flows. We consider these far more relevant than international flows, particularly for local-currency debt.

Our investment principles

The benchmark indices of our emerging debt strategies are highly diversified, covering some 70 countries. We replicate systematic beta, but we deliberately focus on active positions, generally, in 20 to 25 countries. At almost USD 5 billion at the end of 2018, the scale of our assets under management means we can take on large enough exposures to have an impact on performance, without disrupting the markets, even in frontier countries.

Our approach is ‘contrarian’, which entails a high concentration of exposures but can also lead us to sit out the last phase of a bull market.

Taking on aggressive positions vs. the benchmark rather than diversifying also requires thorough risk management. A stop-loss is set up for each position and is adjusted to each asset class. If the market is highly liquid with low transaction costs, the position can be unwound rapidly, even in the event of a slight decline. When the market is illiquid, we set an ambitious target so that we don’t have to rush for the exit at the slightest mishap.

Lastly, we integrate ESG (Environment, Social and Governance) criteria into our portfolios. The rating process (for 90 countries) is currently being revised in cooperation with BNPP AM’s Sustainability Centre.

A broad, diversified – but overlooked – universe

That the emerging debt market has more than doubled in size in less than 10 years mainly reflects a shift in the breakdown of debt, with the share of bank loans receding because of changes in regulations on banks’ prudential ratios. Governments and companies in emerging markets have therefore had to seek financing by issuing debt instruments on the markets.

Default rates are not significantly higher on emerging debt than on US HY debt. The default rate on emerging HY debt was 2.0% in 2017, which is very low. Sovereign defaults are also uncommon. Recovery rates are generally very high in ‘small countries’ that are assisted by the IMF in their decision to default.

A review of total annual returns of the various emerging debt segments shows this is not a uniform asset class. The macro and microeconomic factors behind shifts in each segment vary greatly. Moreover, the sudden drops on some markets in summer 2018 did not spill over into other geographical markets or other assets. While there remain some idiosyncratic risks in certain countries, there is no longer any systematic risk, in our view.

Exhibit 1 – index returns


Source: JPMorgan, BNPP AM; Feb 2019

Lastly, steep drops in emerging debt (i.e. of more than 10%) have generally been followed by an appreciable rally, very seldom by another decline – hence our contrarian approach.

Chart – After a drawdown in distribution returns of more than 10%


Source: BNPP AM, Dec 2018

Another reason for our contrarian approach is foreign investors’ marked underweighting of emerging debt and in particular Chinese debt, despite China being the world’s third-largest bond market and the largest emerging bond market. As the inclusion of onshore Chinese sovereign and quasi-sovereign bonds in global bond indices from spring 2019 is likely to generate heavy inflows, foreign investors’ current 2%-3% of total holdings could ultimately rise to 12% or 13 %, comparable to that in South Korea, for example.

2019 outlook

In 2018, the emerging debt market underperformed significantly mainly due to:

  • The Fed’s decision to raise its key rates by 100bp and the fear of more to come. Jerome Powell’s recent statements show that this risk is mostly behind us. However, it is still possible that the Fed’s forward guidance, which has become a little less assured, will lead to fluctuating expectations and thus new disruptions in emerging assets.
  • Tensions between the US and China on customs duties. Relations between the two countries could see further ups and downs that could trigger erratic shifts.
  • Idiosyncratic risks remain in countries such as Argentina and Turkey, whose economies’ fundamentals are still poor, but these risks do not apply market-wide.

Given the above, while we expect 2019 to be volatile, the economic environment is unlikely to impede emerging debt performance. After a topsy-turvy 2018 and pricing in too much bad news, the market should see a gradual, modest improvement in economic growth in a still-favourable interest-rate environment. Following the rally in all risky asset classes so far this year, we have a conservative stance on the near term, but emerging debt valuations still look good. Emerging debt can offer a more attractive risk-return than emerging equities, and we feel that now is the time to take a new look at emerging debt when considering one’s asset allocation.


This material is issued by BNP PARIBAS ASSET MANAGEMENT UK Limited (“BNPPAM UK”). BNPPAM UK is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Registered in England No: 02474627, registered office: 5 Aldermanbury Square, London, England, EC2V 7BP, United Kingdom. In Australia, BNPPAM UK is exempt from the requirement to hold an Australian financial services license under the Corporations Act 2001 in respect of the financial services. BNPPAM UK is regulated by the FCA under UK laws, which differ from Australian laws. This document is distributed in Australia by BNP PARIBAS ASSET MANAGEMENT Australia Limited ABN 78 008 576 449, AFSL 223418.
This material is produced for information purposes for wholesale Investors only and does not constitute:

1. an offer to buy nor a solicitation to sell, nor shall it form the basis of or be relied upon in connection with any contract or commitment whatsoever or
2. investment advice.

This material makes reference to certain financial instruments authorised and regulated in their jurisdiction(s) of incorporation.
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The value of investments and the income they generate may go down as well as up and it is possible that investors will not recover their initial outlay.
Investing in emerging markets, or specialised or restricted sectors is likely to be subject to a higher than average volatility due to a high degree of concentration, greater uncertainty because less information is available, there is less liquidity, or due to greater sensitivity to changes in market conditions (social, political and economic conditions).
Some emerging markets offer less security than the majority of international developed markets. For this reason, services for portfolio transactions, liquidation and conservation on behalf of funds invested in emerging markets may carry greater risk.

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Given the economic and market risks, there can be no assurance that the financial instrument(s) will achieve its/their investment objectives. Returns may be affected by, amongst other things, investment strategies or objectives of the financial instrument(s) and material market and economic conditions, including interest rates, market terms and general market conditions. The different strategies applied to financial instruments may have a significant effect on the results presented in this material. Past performance is not a guide to future performance and the value of the investments in financial instrument(s) may go down as well as up. Investors may not get back the amount they originally invested. The performance data, as applicable, reflected in this material, do not take into account the commissions, costs incurred on the issue and redemption and taxes.

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