The Corporate Edge in Emerging Markets

Why do so many investors restrict their emerging-market bond investments to sovereigns? The corporate bond universe has grown dramatically in recent years—and offers a terrific combination of higher credit quality, wider spreads and potential capital gains.

Investor interest in emerging-market debt has grown significantly in recent years, for good reason. Emerging countries offer robust economic growth, rising per capita incomes and smaller government debt burdens than most of the developed world.

But why stick to sovereign bonds, as so many investors do? My colleague Shamaila Khan suggests that corporate bonds can be an even better way to gain exposure to emerging markets.

One simple exercise we did at the end of February this year was to compare the leading emerging-market corporate benchmark (the J.P. Morgan CEMBI Broad Diversified) and the leading emerging-market sovereign benchmark (the J.P. Morgan EMBI Global Diversified).

The first thing to note is that the credit quality of the corporate index was higher (Display): 71% of the debt in the corporate index was issued by investment-grade companies, while only 63% of the debt in the sovereign index was issued by investment-grade countries. 90% of the companies in the corporate index are located within investment-grade countries. As a result, the average quality of the corporate index is BBB, compared with BBB– for the sovereigns.

EM Corporates: Higher Quality and Spreads, Less Interest-Rate Risk Yet, despite its higher quality, the corporate index paid investors slightly more than the sovereign index: At the end of February it was yielding 5.5% compared with the sovereign benchmark’s yield of 5.4%. Versus comparable US Treasuries, the corporate index provided a yield pickup of almost 4% for corporates, the sovereign index about 3.5%.

The corporate index also carried significantly less interest-rate risk than the sovereign index, as measured by an average duration of 5.2 years compared to 7.2 years for the sovereign index.

This index-level comparison illustrates a principle that applies to individual bond selection: If an investor wants exposure to a given country, it may make sense to express that view by selecting attractive corporate bonds within that country, rather than buying the government’s bonds. The added advantage of this approach is potential capital gains if the corporate outperforms its sovereign (we’ll come back to this in a future blog). Of course, this needs to be done in the context of a well-diversified portfolio that manages both sovereign and corporate risk.

A decade ago, investors had little choice but to invest in emerging-market sovereigns. That’s no longer true. The stock of hard-currency emerging-market corporate debt outstanding has grown by 250% since 2005, while the stock of sovereign debt has risen by only about 50%. We think this is going to continue to be an exciting growth area for years to come.

For added perspective on this topic, see "EM corporate bonds see as a better bet" in FT.com and "AllianceBernsteins Argues for Emerging Market Corporate Bonds" in barrons.com.

This post contains links to third-party websites. AllianceBernstein is not responsible for nor does it endorse the content on these sites.

The views expressed herein do not constitute research, investment advice or trade recommendations and do not necessarily represent the views of all AllianceBernstein portfolio-management teams.

Douglas J. Peebles

Chief Investment Officer—AB Fixed Income
Douglas J. Peebles is the Chief Investment Officer of AB Fixed Income and a Partner of the firm, focusing on fixed-income investment processes, strategy and performance across portfolios globally. As CIO, he is also Co-Chairman of the Interest Rates and Currencies Research Review team, which is responsible for setting interest-rate and currency policy for all fixed-income portfolios. In addition, Peebles serves as Lead Portfolio Manager for AB’s Unconstrained Bond Strategy, and focuses on managing the firm’s strategic client relationships. In 1997, he pioneered AB’s highly successful and innovative approach to global multi-sector high-income investing, which is now being adopted by other firms. Since joining AB in 1987, Peebles has held several leadership positions, including director of Global Fixed Income (1997–2004), co-head of AB Fixed Income (2004–2008) and Head of Fixed Income (2008–2016). He holds a BA from Muhlenberg College and an MBA from Rutgers University. Location: New York

Shamaila Khan

Portfolio Manager—Emerging Market Corporate Debt
Shamaila Khan is a Senior Vice President and Portfolio Manager, focusing exclusively on emerging- market corporate issuers across all of AB’s emerging-market debt and credit strategies. She is a member of the Credit, Emerging Market Debt and Emerging Market Corporate Debt portfolio-management teams, and a member of the Emerging Market Debt Research Review team. Khan has been actively managing and evaluating corporate and sovereign emerging-market debt issuance since 1999. Prior to joining AB in 2011, she served as managing director of emerging-market debt for TIAA-CREF, specializing in hard currency and local-currency emerging-market debt, with a specific focus on corporate issuers. Khan has participated in many emerging-market panels and discussions worldwide, including Fitch’s Annual Emerging Markets Outlook Conference and the Latin America–US Symposium, part of the Harvard Law School Program on International Financial Systems. She holds an undergraduate degree in business administration from Quaid-i-Azam University (Pakistan) and an MBA (with honors) from the Stern School of Business at New York University. Location: New York

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