It has been going on now for a year, at least: after stopping Chinese companies on several occasions from buying specific US assets, the US administration has been also looking into banning outward US investments in Chinese assets.
The fund in the spotlight is the Federal Government Thrift Savings Plan Fund (TSPF) – the largest defined contribution plan in the world with assets of about $558Bn. The assets are split in five core funds and one additional overlapping fund as following:
Of those above, it is the I Fund that is now in the spotlight. For the moment, it has no exposure to China as it is invested in MSCI ex US EAFE.
TSPF is an outlier amongst most large retirement plans that it still has no EM exposure. In June 2017, external consultants, Aon Hewitt, made a recommendation to the board to switch to MSCI ex US All Country which is a much broader index followed by all large retirement plans. One characteristic of this index is that it includes many EMs (and yes China). The board studied the proposal and made the decision to switch in November 2017 with a target for that sometime in 2019*.
As the US-China trade war was going in full swing, the threats of possible ramifications on US investments in China started coming in, and the I Fund never made that switch.
How big is this potential US investment?
The MSCI ex US All Country is still about 75% developed markets (DM). But China is about 11% weight (second largest now), which is rather big given the recent index inclusion (the weightings have increased progressively in the last two years). That means the I Fund would have between $6Bn exposure to Chinese equities.
Adding the L Fund exposure. The L Fund will have 9% in the I Fund (from 8% currently). Therefore, given the AUMs in each above, it will have between $1-2Bn Chinese equities exposure. So, total TSPF exposure will be max $8Bn. Note, however, the L Fund’s expected exposure going forward: projections are for a substantial reduction in the G Fund weights at the expense of all others. So, potentially the future Chinese exposure can grow substantially as also China’s weight in the MSCI ex US All Country index also grows.
What is that in the context of the big flow picture?
China is in the cross hairs of deglobalization which started before the Covid crisis, but now, that process is accelerating in direct proportion to the anger towards China amongst some of the major global players, especially the USA. In the USA, globalization coincided with financialization which promoted major capital inflows to offset the trade account outflows. Financialization is now on the wane in the USA (as per the regulations post 2008, and accelerated further post the Covid crisis), while on the rise in China (see flows below).
As the Chinese economy has been catching up to the US (and possibly the Covid crisis also accelerated this process as well), it is likely that we may see a reversal of some of these past flows, namely, a reduction in China’s current account surplus at the expense of net foreign inflows.
Last year passive index inflows in China A shares were $14Bn; total inflows were about $34Bn
Total foreign investment in Chinese A shares is about $284bn
Foreign equity inflows this year are still a positive $5Bn despite the Covid crisis: according to HSBC data, March recorded an outflow (largest ever) but all other months were inflows, with April inflow more or less cancelling the March outflow.
Total foreign holdings are also around $283Bn, 70% of which are in GGBs.
Inflows into GGBs have been consistently positive since the index inclusion announcements last year and the year before.
According to Barclays, YTD net Inflows are at $17Bn (5x more than at same time last year) despite a net outflow in March (but that was only because of selling in NCDs).
Average monthly inflows in Chinese FI is about twice that in equities.
March registered the largest domestic outflow ($35Bn) of any month since the 2016 CNY crisis (largely due to southbound stock connect flow (mainland residents bought the largest amount of HK stocks on record).
According to HSBC, FX settlement data shows that, most likely, domestic corporates have actually been net sellers of foreign currency in Q1 this year.
While Chinese exports are expected to decline going forward, in the short term, so are imports, especially after the collapse in oil prices. However, it is inevitable that if globalization does indeed start reversing, China’s current account will shrink and possibly go into a deficit.
What happens to the overall flow dynamics then, really depends on whether foreigners continue to invest in Chinese assets (and expecting that domestic residents might look to diversify their portfolios abroad once the capital account is fully liberalized, if ever). A potential ban on US Federal Government investments in China might indeed be driven by short-term considerations and emotions following the Covid-19 pandemic developments, however, unless it is followed by also a ban encompassing all US private investment, it is unlikely to amount to anything positive for the US. Moreover, it could actually give the wrong signal to foreign investments in the US, that the administration is becoming not so ‘friendly’. That could spur an outflow of foreign money from US assets, something that I discussed at length here.
China went through three main changes to stem the spread of the Coronavirus:
In the ‘West’, we’ve added ‘Self-quarantine’ first, in some countries. Others are in the delusional phase of ‘Delay’, because, apparently, they are worried that ‘people will get bored and break out of self-isolation if it last too long’. In fairness, there is a logical reason to delay because as China and Italy will find out, the economic costs of going through those stages above are enormous. That reason is that scientists could be able to find vaccine in time. That is a very dangerous bet for the infections grow exponentially, and if a vaccine does not come soon enough, the health care system of the country will be overwhelmed (and no, the coming warm weather in the Northern Hemisphere is unlikely to slow down the infections, like in the normal flu, because this is not the normal flu, and infections have shown to grow also in hot weather like Singapore or Iran). Then, not only the economic costs but also the societal costs will be unspeakable.
Finally, one other country’s leader still thinks this virus could be ‘fake’…
WHO went on a fact-finding mission to China and released a report on February 28. The report is unequivocal:
“China’s bold approach to contain the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic.”
There are also stories about two different strains of the virus, apparently stemming from the desire to explain higher number of infections/deaths in some countries and lower in others. I don’t know. To me this is simply a function of testing more people and proper reporting. It also makes sense to run with that story in countries which have chosen to be in the ‘Delay’ stage. Occam’s razor: even if there were two strains, I don’t see how they can be country-specific.
“Everywhere you went, anyone you spoke to, there was a sense of responsibility and collective action, and there’s war footing to get things done”
~Bruce Aylward, the epidemiologist who led the WHO mission to China
There is no doubt that even in the best cases in the ‘West’, the ones which added ‘Self-quarantine’, it will take longer to get through this also because of culture, different societal structure and more liberal thinking. For example, the talk in Italy is that if things don’t start improving in a couple of weeks the country might have to go to the next stage, ‘Rationing’ (only one person per household can leave the house to replenish supplies).
After decades of general peace, no major natural disasters in the ‘West’, and used to thinking only in financial terms, we cannot comprehend what is happening to us and are unable to quickly make the right decision how to proceed forward. For almost everybody, understandably, limiting our movement is at minimum uncomfortable and for a lot of people, unacceptable. To go through rationing is unimaginable (even though for some of us, who grew up behind the Iron Curtain, this was a feature of daily life). But seriously, it’s not like we have been asked to go to war, like our grandparents; we are just told to sit on the couch at home and play video games!
As if rates going negative was not enough of a wake-up call that what we are dealing with is something else, something which no one alive has experienced: a build-up of private debt and inequality of extraordinary proportions which completely clogs the monetary transmission as well as the income generation mechanism. And no, classical fiscal policy is not going to be a solution either – as if years of Japan trying and failing was not obvious enough either.
But the most pathetic thing is that we are now going to fight a pandemic virus with the same tools which have so far totally failed to revive our economies. If the latter was indeed a failure, this virus episode is going to be a fiasco. If no growth could be ‘forgiven’, ‘dead bodies’ borders on criminal.
Here is why. The narrative that we are soon going to reach a peak in infections in the West following a similar pattern in China is based on the wrong interpretation of the data, and if we do not change our attitude, the virus will overwhelm us. China managed to contain the infectious spread precisely and exclusively because of the hyper-restrictive measures that were applied there. Not because of the (warm) weather, and not because of any intrinsic features of the virus itself, and not because it provided any extraordinary liquidity (it did not), and not because it cut rates (it actually did, but only by 10bps). In short, the R0 in China was dragged down by force. Only Italy in the West is actually taking such draconian measures to fight the virus.
Any comparisons to any other known viruses, present or past, is futile. We simply don’t know. What if we loosen the measures (watch out China here) and the R0 jumps back up? Until we have a vaccine or at least we get the number of infected people below some kind of threshold, anything is possible. So, don’t be fooled by the complacency of the 0.00whatever number of ‘deaths to infected’. It does not matter because the number you need to be worried about is the hospital beds per population: look at those numbers in US/UK (around 3 per 1,000 people), and compare to Japan/Korea (around 12 per 1,000 people). What happens if the infection rate speeds up and the hospitalization rate jumps up? Our health system will collapse.
UK released its Coronavirus action plan today. It’s a grim reading. Widespread transmission, which is highly likely, could take two or three months to peak. Up to one fifth of the workforce could be off work at the same time. These are not just numbers pulled out of a hat but based on actual math because scientist can monitor these things just as they can monitor the weather (and they have become quite good at the latter). And here, again, China is ahead of us because it already has at its disposal a vast reservoir of all kinds of public data, available for immediate analysis and to people in power who can make decisions and act fast, vert fast. Compare to the situation in the West where data is mostly scattered and in private companies’ hands. US seems to be the most vulnerable country in the West, not just because of its questionable leadership in general and Trump’s chaotic response to the virus so far, but also because of its public health system set-up, limiting testing and treating of patients.
Which really brings me to the issue at hand when it comes to the reaction in the markets.
The Coronavirus only reinforces what is primarily shaping to be a US equity crisis, at its worst, because of the forces (high valuation, passive, ETF, short vol., etc.) which were in place even before. This is unlikely to morph into a credit crisis because of policy support.
Therefore, if you have to place your bet on a short, it would be equities over credit. My point is not that credit will be immune but that if the crisis evolves further, it will be more like dotcom than GFC. Credit and equity crises follow each other: dotcom was preceded by S&L and followed by GFC.
And from an economics standpoint, the corona virus is, equally, only reinforcing the de-globalization trend which, one could say, started with the decision to brexit in 2016. The two decades of globalization, beginning with China’s WTO acceptance in 2001, were beneficial to the USD especially against EM, and US equities overall. Ironically, globalization has not been that kind to commodity prices partially because of the strong dollar post 2008, but also because of the strong disinflationary trend which has persisted throughout.
So, if all this is about to reverse and the Coronavirus was just the feather that finally broke globalization’s back, then it stands to reason to bet on the next cycle being the opposite of what we had so far: weaker USD, higher inflation, higher commodities, US equities underperformance.
Following up on the ‘easy’ question of what to expect the effect of the Corona Virus will be in the long term, here is trying to answer the more difficult question what will happen to the markets in the short-to-medium term.
Coming up from the fact that this was the steepest 6-day stock market decline of this magnitude ever (and notwithstanding that this was preceded by a quite unprecedented market rise), there are two options for what is likely to happen next week:
During the weekend, the number of Corona Virus (CV) cases in the West shoots up (situation starts to deteriorate rapidly) which causes central banks (CB) to react (as per ECB, Fed comments on Friday) -> markets bounce.
CV news over the weekend is calm, which further reinforces the narrative of ‘this too shall pass’: It took China a month or so, but now it is recovering -> markets rally.
While it is probably obvious that one should sell into the bounce under Option 1, I would argue that one should sell also under Option 2 because the policy response, we have seen so far from authorities in the West, and especially in the US, is largely inferior to that in China in terms of testing, quarantining and treating CV patients. So, either the situation in the US will take much longer than China to improve with obviously bigger economic and, probably more importantly, political consequences, or to get out of hand with devastating consequences.
It will take longer for investors to see how hollow the narrative under Option 2 is than how desperately inadequate the CB action under Option 1 is. Therefore, markets will stay bid for longer under Option 2.
The first caveat is that if under Option 1 CBs do nothing, markets may continue to sell off next week but I don’t think the price action will be anything that bad as this week as the narrative under Option 2 is developing independently.
The second caveat is that I will start to believe the Option 2 narrative as well but only if the US starts testing, quarantining, treating people in earnest. However, the window of opportunity for that is narrowing rapidly.
What’s the medium-term game plan?
I am coming from the point of view that economically we are about to experience primarily a ‘permanent-ish’ supply shock, and, only secondary, a temporary demand shock. From a market point of view, I believe this is largely an equity worry first, and, perhaps, a credit worry second.
Even if we Option 2 above plays out and the whole world recovers from CV within the next month, this virus scare would only reinforce the ongoing trend of deglobalization which started probably with Brexit and then Trump. The US-China trade war already got the ball rolling on companies starting to rethink their China operations. The shifting of global supply chains now will accelerate. But that takes time, there isn’t simply an ON/OFF switch which can be simply flicked. What this means is that global supply chains will stay clogged for a lot longer while that shift is being executed.
It’s been quite some since the global economy experienced a supply shock of such magnitude. Perhaps the 1970s oil crises, but they were temporary: the 1973 oil embargo also lasted about 6 months but the world was much less global back then. If it wasn’t for the reckless Fed response to the second oil crisis in 1979 on the back of the Iranian revolution (Volcker’s disastrous monetary experiment), there would have been perhaps less damage to economic growth. Indeed, while CBs can claim to know how to unclog monetary transmission lines, they do not have the tools to deal with supply shocks: all the Fed did in the early 1980s, when it allowed rates to rise to almost 20%, was kill demand.
CBs have learnt those lessons and are unlikely to repeat them. In fact, as discussed above, their reaction function is now the polar opposite. This is good news as it assures that demand does not crater, however, it sadly does not mean that it allows it to grow. That is why I think we could get the temporary demand pullback. But that holds mostly for the US, and perhaps UK, where more orthodox economic thinking and rigid political structures still prevail.
In Asia, and to a certain extent in Europe, I suspect the CV crisis to finally usher in some unorthodox fiscal policy in supporting directly households’ purchasing power in the form of government monetary handouts. We have already seen that in Hong Kong and Singapore. Though temporary at the moment, not really qualifying as helicopter money, I would not be surprised if they become more permanent if the situation requires (and to eventually morph into UBI). I fully expect China to follow that same path.
In Europe, such direct fiscal policy action is less likely but I would not be surprised if the ECB comes up with an equivalent plan under its own monetary policy rules using tiered negative rates and the banking system as the transmission mechanism – a kind of stealth fiscal transfer to EU households similar in spirit to Target2 which is the equivalent for EU governments (Eric Lonergan has done some excellent work on this idea).
That is where my belief that, at worst, we experience only a temporary demand drop globally, comes from, although a much more ‘permanent’ in US than anywhere else. If that indeed plays out like that, one is supposed to stay underweight US equities against RoW equities – but especially against China – basically a reversal of the decades long trend we have had until now. Also, a general equity underweight vs commodities. Within the commodities sector, I would focus on longs in WTI (shale and Middle East disruptions) and softs (food essentials, looming crop failures across Central Asia, Middle East and Africa on the back of the looming locust invasion).
Finally, on the FX side, stay underweight the USD against the EUR on narrowing rate differentials and against commodity currencies as per above.
The more medium outlook really has to do with whether the specialness of US equities will persist and whether the passive investing trend will continue. Despite, in fact, perhaps because of the selloff last week, market commentators have continued to reinforce the idea of the futility of trying to time market gyrations and the superiority of staying always invested (there are too many examples, but see here, here, and here). This all makes sense and we have the data historically, on a long enough time frame, to prove it. However, this holds mostly for US stocks which have outperformed all other major stocks markets around the world. And that is despite lower (and negative) rates in Europe and Japan where, in addition, CBs have also been buying corporate assets direct (bonds by ECB, bonds and equities by BOJ).
Which begs the question what makes US stocks so special? Is it the preeminent position the US holds in the world as a whole? The largest economy in the world? The most innovative companies? The shareholders’ primacy doctrine and the share buybacks which it enshrines? One of the lowest corporate tax rates for the largest market cap companies, net of tax havens?…
I don’t know what is the exact reason for this occurrence but in the spirit of ‘past performance is not guarantee for future success’s it is prudent when we invest to keep in mind that there are a lot of shifting sands at the moment which may invalidate any of the reasons cited above: from China’s advance in both economic size, geopolitical (and military) importance, and technological prowess (5G, digitalization) to potential regulatory changes (started with banking – Basel, possibly moving to technology – monopoly, data ownership, privacy, market access – share buybacks, and taxation – larger US government budgets bring corporate tax havens into the focus).
The same holds true for the passive investing trend. History (again, in the US mostly) is on its side in terms of superiority of returns. Low volatility and low rates, have been an essential part of reinforcing this trend. Will the CV and US probably inadequate response to it change that? For the moment, the market still believes in V-shaped recoveries because even the dotcom bust and the 2008 financial crisis, to a certain extent, have been such. But markets don’t always go up. In the past it had taken decades for even the US stock market to better its previous peaks. In other countries, like Japan, for example, the stock market is still below its previous set in 1990.
While the Fed has indeed said it stands ready to lower rates if the situation with the CV deteriorates, it is not certain how central bankers will respond if an unexpected burst of inflation comes about on the back of the supply shock (and if the 1980s is any sign, not too well indeed). Even without a spike in US interest rates, a 20-30 VIX investing environment, instead of the prevailing 10-20 for most of the post 2009 period, brought about by pulling some of the foundational reasons for the specialness of US equities out, may cause a rethink of the passive trend.
The market has been predicting the coming collapse of China ever since it joined the WTO in the early 2000s and people started paying attention to it*. The logic being, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, China would be next: the free market must surely assure the best societal outcome. But with the re-emergence of China thereafter, and, especially, that it is still ‘going strong’ now, on top of the slowdown (‘secular stagnation’ or whatever you want to call it) of the developed world, I think the verdict of what the best model of resource optimization is, is still out.
The Soviet models of resource optimization in the 1960s and 1970s were very sophisticated for their time (and even ours): In the late 1950s, Kitov proposed the first ever national computer network for civilians; in the early 1960s, Kantorovich invented linear programming (and got the Nobel prize in Economics); shortly after Glushkov introduced cybernetics.
Kitov’s idea was for civilian organizations to use functioning military computer ‘complexes’ for economic planning (whenever the latter are idle, for example during the night). Kantorovich brought in linear programming which substantially improved the efficiency of some industries (he is the central character in a very well written book about the Soviet planning system called ‘Red Plenty’). Glushkov combined these two ideas and his OGAS (The All-State Automated System for the Gathering and Processing of Information for the Accounting, Planning and Governance of the National Economy) was intended to become a real-time, decentralized, computer network of Soviet factories. The idea was very similar to a version of today’s permissioned blockchain: the central computer in Moscow would grant authorizations but users could then contact each other without going through Moscow.
The Soviet planning system failed not necessarily because it would not work (limited, though, as it was in terms of computational power and availability of data) but because of politics: Khruschev, who had taken over after WW2 and denounced the brutality of Stalin, was ousted by Brezhnev. The early researchers were pushed aside (in fact, those Brezhnev years were characterized by fierce competition among scientists for preferential political treatment). One could say, the Soviets’ model of resource optimization failed because it was not socialist enough (compared to how the Internet took root in the US on the back of well-regulated state funding and collaboration amongst researchers). In other words, the 1970s Soviet Union was a political rather than a technical failure.
I should know, I guess. I grew up in one of the Soviet satellites. My father was in charge of a Glushkov-style information data centre within a large fertilizer factory. When we were kids, we used to build paper houses with the square punched cards he would sometimes bring home from work. Later on, when I became a teenager, my father would teach computer programming as an extracurricular activity in my local school (I never learned how to program – I preferred to spend my time playing Pacman instead!). At that time, Bulgaria used to produce the PC, Pravetz (a clone of Apple II), which was instrumental in the economy of all the countries within the Soviet sphere of influence.
By the time I was graduating from high school, though, things had begun deteriorating significantly: even though everyone had a job, ‘no one was working’ and there was not much to buy as the shops lacked even the essentials. Upon graduation and shortly after the ‘Iron Curtain’ fell down, I left to study in America.
Eventually, I ended up spending much more time in the ‘trial and error’ economy of the developed world, working at the heart of the ‘free market’ in New York and London. I am certainly not unique in that sense as many people have done this exact same thing, but it does allow me to make an observation about the merits of the planned economy vs the free market.
My point is the following. The problem of the planned economy was not so much technical misallocation of resources, but, ironically, one of proper distribution of the surplus. The Soviet system did not exactly create an extreme inequality, like the one there is now in America (even though some people at the top of the Party did get exorbitantly rich) but instead of using the production surplus for the betterment of the life of the population NOW, politicians continued to be obsessed with further re-investment for the future. There was perhaps a justification for that but it was purely ideological, a military industrial competition with America, nothing to do with reality on the ground.
So, while the Soviets were perhaps winning that competition (Sputnik, Gagarin, Mir, etc.), the plight of the common people was not getting better. And while they ‘couldn’t’ simply go in the street and protest or vote the ruling party out, they expressed their anger by simply pretending to work. Of course, that eventually hurt them more as the surplus naturally started dwindling, productivity collapsed and the quality of the finished products deteriorated. The question is, given a chance, would the planned optimization process have worked? If Glushkov’s decentralized network with minimum input from humans had been developed further, would the outcome now be different?
There is a lesson here somewhere not just for China but also America. Both have created massive surpluses using the two opposing optimization solutions. And both are running the risk of squandering that surplus, in a similar fashion to the Soviet Union of the 1980s, if they don’t start distributing it to the population at large for general consumption. In both cases this means transferring more income to ‘labour’: in China away from the state (corporates), in America away from the capital (owners). But because the differences at the core of the two systems, it is easier for China to do this consciously; in America, the optimization process of the free market, unfortunately, ensures that the capital vs labour inequality goes further to the extreme.
So, can China then pull it off?
While I am not privy to the intricacies of their ‘planned’ resource optimization model, just like in the Soviet Union, the risks there seem more political. But after an additional 50 years of Moore’s law providing computational power and after digitalization has allowed access to data the Soviets could never even dream of, China stands a much better chance of making it than the Soviet Union ever did.
*I actually use “The Coming Collapse of China”, Gordon Chang, 2001 as a reference point
Why do smart people do obviously ‘irrational’ things? It must be the
incentive structure, so for them they do not seem irrational. So, I am wrecking
my brain over China’s decision to issue EUR-denominated bonds (and a few weeks
ago USD-denominated ones), in light of its goal of CNY and CGBs
internationalization, 40-50bps over the CGB curve (swapped in EUR).
The rationale China is putting forward is that enables it to diversify its investor
base on the back of the trade tensions! Seriously? Do they really mean that or
are they getting a really bad advice? Wasn’t the intention to actually go the
other way as a result of the trade war? Didn’t China want to be become more
self-reliant? In any case, China does not need foreign currency funding given
its large, positive NIIP. China has the opposite problem. It has too much idle
domestic savings and not enough domestic financial assets. This, among other
things, creates a huge incentive for capital flight which, despite its closed
capital account, China is desperately trying to prevent.
In that sense, China does need foreign investor but to
invest in CGBs (and other local, CNY-denominated bonds) to act as a buffer to
the potential domestic capital outflow as the capital accounts gates slowly
open up. It is for this reason that BBGAI and JPM have started including CGBs
into their indices this year.
It is for this reason SAFE decided to scrap the quota restrictions on both QFII and RQFII in
September. It is for this reason that Euroclear signed a memorandum of understanding
with the China Central Depository & Clearing to provide cross-border
services to further support the evolution of CIBM. That opens up the path for
Chinese bonds to be used as collateral in international markets (eventually to
become euro-clearable), even as part of banks’ HQLA.
All these efforts
are done to make access to the local fixed income market easier for foreign
investors. And now, what does China do after? Ahh, you don’t need to go through
all this, here is a China government bond in EUR, 50bps cheaper (than if you go
through the hassle of opening a Bond Connect account and hedging your CNY back
only goes against China’s own goals regarding financial market liberalization but
also against the recent trend of other (EM) markets preferring to issue in domestic
currency than in hard currency. And while other EMs may not have had the choice
to issue in hard currency from time to time, China does. And while the investor
base for other EMs between the domestic and the hard currency market is indeed
different, and the markets are very distinctive, China does not have much of an
international investor base. Issuing in the hard currency market may indeed ‘crowd
out’ the domestic market. Especially when you come offering gifts of 50bps in a
negative interest rate environment.
When speaking to investors, the two most common questions I get asked, given rather extreme levels and valuations of (most) asset classes, are:
asset allocation change dramatically going forward? and
the best risk diversifier for my portfolio?
I have previously
opined on this here.
Very broadly speaking, on the equity portion, one should reduce exposure to US
equities and increase allocation to EM equities (unhedged). On the fixed income
side, one should move completely out of the long end of UST and put everything into
T-Bills to 2yr UST; exposure to EU-denominated sovereigns should also be reduced
to zero at the expense of EM local (unhedged) and hard currency bonds. In the
normally ‘Others’ section of the portfolio, one should include soft commodities
(or alternatively, scale everything down to make space for them). Finally, in
terms of FX exposure, apart from EM currencies through the unhedged portions of
the bonds and equities allocations, one should hedge the USD exposure with EUR.
Here I am
adding some more general thoughts on what I consider to be the best portfolio
diversifier for the next 5 years, possibly even longer. To my knowledge, ‘noone’
is invested in any meaningful way in Chinese bonds (I am excluding the special
situations credit funds, some of which I know to be very active in the Chinese credit
space – but even they are not looking at Chinese government or bank policy
fixed income funds, the pension/mutual funds, the insurance companies have zero
allocation to Chinese bonds. Some of the index followers started dipping their
foot in the space but most of them are either ignoring China’s weight or are massively
underweight the respective index. Finally, a sign of how unloved this market
is, on the passive/ETF side, the biggest fund is just a bit more than $100mm.
Let me just
say here that we are talking about the third (possibly even the second, by the end
of this year) largest fixed income market in the world. And no one is in it?
Chinese bonds merit a rather significant place in
investors’ portfolios. They offer diversification thanks to their low
correlation and superior volatility-adjusted return relative to other developed
and emerging markets. In addition, Chinese bonds are likely to benefit significantly from
both the passive and active flows going forward: I expect up $3 trillion of foreign inflows
over the next decade on the back of indexation.
Bloomberg Barclays Global Aggregate Index (BBGAI) and JP Morgan Global
Diversified have already confirmed Chinese bonds inclusion in their respective
indices. FTSE Russell WGBI is likely to do that next March. This inclusion is a big deal! It
will have huge repercussions on the global bond industry. It is a much more
important and far-reaching development than a similar inclusion of Chinese
equities in global indices last year. And the market is not only not ready for
this, but it is also underestimating its impact overall.
China is a
highly rated sovereign with a much better risk/return profile than other
high-quality alternatives. Chinese bonds
offer a significant scope for portfolio diversification because they have very low correlation to global interest
rates which means lower return volatility.
Therefore, China sovereign bonds offer a much
better volatility-adjusted return than Global Bonds, EM Hard Currency and Corporate Bonds, US HY and
Equities, Global Equities and Real Estate.
Among the plethora of negatively yielding sovereign bonds, China sovereigns offer a good pick-up over other DM bonds while yielding not too much lower than EM bonds. In addition, they offer much more opportunity for alpha generation than both DM or EM sovereign bonds. This alpha partially comes from the fact that Chinese fixed income market is still not so well developed and partially from the fact that there are not many sophisticated foreign players in it, as access to it is still not that straightforward.
things are rapidly improving on the access side. Bond Connect has already
started to revolutionize the onshore market. Before the setting-up of CIBM, and
especially Bond Connect in 2017, access to the China bond market was extremely
cumbersome through a lengthy process requiring approvals from high authority (QFII
and RQFII). Bond Connect, on the other hand, does not require domestic account
and custody while following international trading practices. In addition, not
long ago, it started real-time settlement and block trading. As a result, Bond
Connect volumes doubled.
in September this year, SAFE decided to scrap the quota restrictions on both QFII
and RQFII, while Euroclear signed a memorandum of understanding with the China
Central Depository & Clearing to provide cross-border services to further support
the evolution of CIBM. That opens up the path for Chinese bonds to be used as
collateral in international markets (eventually to become euro-clearable), even
as part of banks’ HQLA. Such developments are bound to make access to the
Chinese bond market much easier for overseas investors.
to be a very important month for the China bond market also because the authorities
finally delivered on the interest rate reform agenda. The central bank eliminated the benchmark policy loan and deposit
rates in favor of a more flexible reference rate. This should be positive
for yield curve formation and the continued expansion of interbank liquidity.
China does not have some of the weaknesses typical of emerging markets. On the opposite, it has very little sovereign FX debt, has large FX reserves, and it is a net creditor to the world. Moreover, some of the foreign debt is most likely offset by foreign assets.
Corporate-sector leverage, however, is still high, though default rates, despite lots of recent media focus, are still relatively low. On the other hand, the recovery rates are high, while the official, banking and household sectors are in relatively strong position which, reflects degrees of freedom to deal with these challenges. China has large amounts of debt with implicit state backing and a culture averse to defaults. In effect, the government controls both the asset and the liability side of the domestic debt issue thus a debt crisis is much less likely than in a fully free-market economy. The fact that China has the ‘fiscal’ space to deal with the private debt issue is one big advantage it has over DM countries with similarly high private debt burdens but which have also already used the option of shifting that debt to the government balance sheet.
The high debt issue and the authorities’ attitude to it, the structure of the economy (export-driven) as well as the potential transition from an extremely high growth rate to a more ‘normal’ one, makes China’s situation very similar to Japan’s in the late 1980s. Yet, there are also major differences. China’s urbanization rate is much below Japan’s before the 1990 crisis, the real estate bubble is only in the top tier cities as opposed to country-wide as in Japan, the Renminbi is more likely to depreciate going forward than massively appreciate which is what happened to the Yen after the Plaza accord.
The high debt issue is a problem China shares not only with Japan but also with most advanced countries in the world. Similar to them, China is fully sovereign (the government has full control of the overall economy balance sheet; the currency peg is a “question mark”, not a real issue given China’s large positive NIIP). Of all these advanced economies with similarly high non-financial debt to GDP, only China has not reached the zero-bound*. It is, therefore, likely for the Chinese policy rate to continue to move lower until it eventually hits 0%.
Similar to Japan, it has a high household savings rate and a rapidly ageing population. Yet, Chinese households have relatively low exposure to financial assets and especially to bonds. Given the policy agenda of financial market reform and the life-cycle savings behavior (i.e. risk-aversion increases with age), Chinese households’ allocation to bonds is bound to increase manifold. Moreover, with the looming of the property tax law (sometime next year), I expect the flow into bonds to start fairly soon.
flow aspect makes the case for investing into China bonds much stronger. Given the size of the Chinese fixed income market, its
rapid growth rate and the reforms undertaken most recently, global bond indices had ignored
Chinese bonds for too long. However, last year BBGAI announced that it would
include China in its index as of April 1, 2019. Purely as a result of this, China bond inflow is expected to reach
$500Bn by 2021 as the weights gradually increase from 0.6% to 6%. By then
China will be the 4th largest component in the index (after US,
Japan and France – and bigger than Germany!)
BBGAI’s inclusion, there had never been a bond market that large, that was not
included in an index, as the Chinese bond market. In fact, China already represents the third largest bond market in the world,
growing from $1.6 trillion in 2008 to over $11 trillion now.
And even after these
inflows, China bonds are still likely to remain relatively under-owned by
foreigners as they would represent just 5% of China’s total bond market (currently foreign ownership of the overall bond market is around 3%,
PBOC expects it to reach 15%). Foreign ownership of China sovereign bonds (CGBs)
is slightly higher, but even at around 6%, it is materially lower than in other
major sovereign bond markets. This under-ownership is even more pronounced relative
to the emerging market (EM) universe (the ranges there are between 10% and 50%).
foreign investors are expected to continue to get very favorable treatment from
the Chinese authorities. The government has an incentive to make things easier as they need
the foreign inflows to balance the potential domestic outflows once the current
account is liberalized. For example, the tax changes implemented last year allowed
foreigners to waive the withholding tax and VAT on bond interest income for a
period of three years.
I am still
frankly shocked how little time investors have to discuss these developments
above but, at the same time, how eager they are to discuss the Chinese economy
and the trade tensions. From one hand, they acknowledge the importance of China
for their investment portfolio, but on the other, they continue to ignore the
elephant in the room being the Chinese bond market. I understand that this choice
is perhaps driven by investors’ inherent negative bias towards any Chinese
asset, but the situation between asset and asset is much more nuanced.
fixed income space, one can be bearish select corporate credit and bullish CGBs
or bank policy bonds (in fact, the more bearish one is on corporate credit, the
more bullish sovereign bonds one should be). Finally, I do acknowledge that the
big unknown here is the currency. But even there, the market has become much
more sophisticated: one can now use a much longer CNY/CNH forward curve to hedge.
Bottom line is that if you are still looking for a fixed income alternative to diversify your portfolio and you are not looking at Chinese sovereign bonds as an alternative, you are not being fiduciary responsible.
*For more details, see JP Morgan’s economics research note, “China’s debt: How will it evolve?”