Bonds are now pricing in an extremely bleak economic outlook, making
them susceptible to any spike in long-term rates. The rise in
equities has been less pronounced, leaving room for further gains as
a pick up in global demand boosts corporate earnings.
The tricky part for investors, however, is to precisely time their
exit from bonds. Strictly speaking, bonds can continue to feed off
the supply of cheap money from central banks in developed markets.
Plus, there is the nagging risk of a hard landing in China and
escalating crises in Iraq and Ukraine, which could push investors
back into the safety of fixed-income assets.
"It's a bubble in caution," said Markus Rosgen, Asian equity
strategist at Citi.
"The bond market is too bearish on the outlook for growth, and
people will say if growth is improving, then I have a claim on
growth through equities which I don't through bonds, then I ought to
switch out of bonds into equities."
"So it's generally equity-friendlier than it is bond-friendlier,"
Investment bank analysts warn bond levels are frothy and there are
traces of a shift of retail money from bond funds to equity. But the
actual decision to sell bonds is complicated by powerful but
The Federal Reserve is reducing its bond purchases, but appears in
no rush to raise interest rates. European authorities are easing
policy. Britain has hinted at early rate rises. A handful of Asian
central banks, including in New Zealand and the Philippines, are
The growth picture is changing, with Japan, the United States and
even parts of Europe showing improvements in demand, although
analysts now expect 2014 to be less robust than they did before.
That means the long end of the U.S. Treasuries yield curve may stay
lower for longer and so preclude a rise in global yields.
That would leave fund managers at risk of underperforming global
bond indexes if they sold bonds prematurely.
CARRY TRADE BUBBLE
As things stand, however, there is not much value in bonds,
particularly not for carry traders who borrow cheap short-term funds
and seek to exploit interest rate differentials.
Even in markets offering nominal yields above 8 percent on bonds,
namely India and Indonesia, returns have shrunk. Foreigners raising
money in the offshore rupee swap market and buying a 10-year Indian
government bond would make just 150 basis points (bps) or so, less
than a third of what they made in 2011.
In Indonesia, it is merely 220 bps, and in other markets such as
South Korea and the Philippines it is less than 70 bps.
[to top of second column]
It is trickier to spot a top in credit markets as the composition of
benchmark bond indexes changes frequently, but even JPMorgan's
emerging market Asian credit index is trading at a spread of 241 bps
over comparable U.S. Treasuries, the narrowest in almost three
"The carry that we are getting in markets like Malaysia and Korea,
which are relatively lower-yielding markets, is not attractive and
not offsetting the duration risk we are holding," said Prashant
Singh, lead portfolio manager at Neuberger Berman in Singapore. The
fund has $247 billion under management globally, of which $101
billion is in fixed income.
Equities, in comparison, have seen pockets of exuberance, such as in
India and the Philippines. But the Asia MSCI index is up just 14
percent since October 2011.
Both the price-to-book ratio and price-to-earnings ratio for Asia,
key measures of relative value, remain well below historic averages
and are far from the peaks hit during the 1997 Asian financial
crisis and the 2007 global crisis.
The region is cheap versus global equity markets, with the potential
to outperform as company earnings improve, said Citi's Rosgen.
Simon Derrick, head of the markets strategy team at BNY Mellon,
worries about the bubble-like values in Asian bond markets. BNY
Mellon has $1.6 trillion under management and is custodian to a
further $27.9 trillion of assets.
"I am starting to think that this is looking like quite a mature
rally and certain markets are starting to look a little tired," said
Derrick. "But it is impossible to say when it will peak out."
"The carry trade worries me a lot because there are echoes of
1996-1998 and of 2005-2007," he said. "But that does not mean it
will be a repeat."
(Editing by Jacqueline Wong)
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