This year started with a bang for emerging market bonds with the major EM trackers making new all-time highs in the first days of January despite the fact that core bonds' performance has been challenged by an overall landscape of increasing yield.
But is the present development sustainable?
The 2016-17 EM rally was interrupted just once by Federal Reserve sabre-rattling, and has brought nice returns (even double digits in some regions). Some of the same factors that propelled the last six-month rally will continue to support the asset class in the short term, the most important being a lack of alternatives due to low global yield curves, strong or stable local currencies due to a weaker dollar, positive developments globally with (still) little inflationary pressure, and the fact that most EM are now more mature and their financial infrastructure much more aligned with global capital markets and standards.
Eventually, some of these factors will change. Rising US yields are a particular danger. The challenge right now is the very flat US yield curve; this either reflects a lack of faith in the Fed and an upcoming slowdown, or on the other hand an accumulation of yield pressure from the short end resulting in "catch-up effect" conditions in longer US and global yields (with a sudden spike if inflation and more Fed hikes become reality – think Deepwater Horizon in the fixed income space).
As stated last week, fear is nowhere to be seen. If and when it materialses, it will likely do so at the last minute due to continued global quantitative easing, the consequent abundance of investible cash, and the epic resilience this creates.
The EM rally:
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Source: Saxo Bank
That leads me to another another risk factor for EM assets: the size of of the market. EM corporate bonds have tripled in size since 2007, but the capacity of the market place has unfortunately not increased (the "marketplace" being equal to the number of participants and their capability to take on risk).
Even though there are more players in EM debt today, trading desks have downscaled in risk terms, resulting in less-committed market making when volatility or stress kicks in.
Investors should therefore work with a liquidity premium of a certain size when entering EM.
As for the question of EM sustainability, one thing to determine is whether risk/reward looks viable from a top-down perspective. One simple approach here is to examine spreads versus US yields.
In that context, I believe we are looking at at a tight market with less upside potential; the only feasible case would be a "non-event 2018" – a year of sideways markets, no sign of an inflation breakout, and more free puts from central banks.
EM bond spreads versus US two- and 10-year yields:
Having identified these risk factors, I remain a big fan of EM bonds as an asset class. EM bonds deserve a place in investor portfolios as they remove some of the inherent "homeland bias" and because they have been proven to have a relatively low correlation to shocks in other regions and assets.
— Edited by Michael McKenna