By Godwin Anyebe
The emerging market debt asset class is worth around $26.3trillion overall and spans numerous mostly developing countries, thousands of issuers, and a wide range of sectors.
The asset class has significantly matured over the past two decades and is no longer a play on commodities; it is today a broader, more diversified, and genuinely stronger asset class, but one needs to distinguish two separate categories – sovereign debt and corporate debt.
The emerging market sovereign debt segment – issued by governments – accounts for most of the emerging market debt universe – $13.6trillion, of which $12.6trillion equivalent is denominated in local currency – and as such tends to attract the most attention from market observers. Erratic economic developments, political risks, and foreign exchange volatility – which are more difficult to analyse, quantify and control – have all contributed to the high-risk image of the asset class.
However, ‘hard currency’ emerging market corporate debt, the risk profile of which is mostly driven by the companies’ fundamentals, suffers from its association with the emerging market sovereign debt asset class.
A quality company with strong and sustainable competitive positions, generating predictable cash flow, is in a solid position to repay the debt, regardless of where it is located.
However, a quality company based in a developed market would pay a yield considerably lower than if it were based in an emerging market, because it is perceived as a lower risk.
In short, investors in hard currency emerging market corporate debt are paid a premium for investing in companies based on the rating of the country they are based in, even if they are global companies with diversified sources of revenue and solid fundamentals. Hard currency emerging market corporate debt currently provides investors with a yield of five per cent and a yield to maturity of seven per cent. This is a higher yield than in March 2020 when the global pandemic was declared.
The perception of the underlying corporate fundamentals is part of the issue itself. One would expect emerging market companies to compare poorly against their developed market peers, but the reality is quite different. Based on two metrics, which are core to all credit investments – leverage and default rates – emerging market corporate debt compares very favourably. Quality emerging market corporates often boast healthier balance sheets than developed market peers, with net leverage at the lowest levels in a decade.
Alongside the higher yields, the asset class provides diversification benefits – particularly when combined with developed market equities and fixed income – to typical asset allocation. By way of example, emerging markets have a correlation of only 57% to US investment-grade bonds and just 45% to US equities.
Of course, no asset class is immune from the current challenges facing investors. With global monetary tightening and higher rates, short-term volatility is likely to remain a feature of the market as it shifts its attention between concerns about the persistence of inflation and recession, and the implications for monetary policy. US rate expectations will likely need to be anchored before markets stabilise.
Emerging market corporate credit ratings are very often constrained by sovereign ratings, so analysts may well see some downward pressure; sovereign balance sheets deteriorated as the public sector bore much of the Covid response, although it was more contained in emerging markets than in developed markets.
Furthermore, there is likely to be political uncertainty in several countries given the election calendar, which may increase volatility in asset prices. Meanwhile, any escalation in geopolitical risks, most notably between China and Taiwan, and Russia and Ukraine, would weigh on risk sentiment more broadly.
Over the past two decades, the emerging market corporate debt asset class has generated over seven per cent annualised returns (in US dollar terms) with very few down years. It has weathered similar periods in the past and although it is down around 13 per cent this year, it is faring better than most other risk asset classes. Indeed, the perceived risks do not appear to fit the narrative.