GCC debt a bargin amid the uncertainty over global fixed income markets
Regional paper is set to become more attractive with inclusion in JP Morgan’s emerging market bond indexes
As investors around the world brace for an uncertain 2019 that will test the steeliest of nerves, the outlook for debt markets in the GCC is a much brighter one, with the potential for strong risk-adjusted returns.
We expect GCC debt to outperform US and Emerging Market peers again in 2019, as it has done for much of the previous five years. Since 2013, GCC bonds have delivered stronger risk-adjusted returns than many traditional bond sectors. By adding GCC bonds, investors would have, in fact, improved portfolio returns and, perhaps more importantly today, reduced portfolio risk, a common misconception among some investors.
With many of the key ingredients for local market outperformance still in place, we expect the GCC to side step angst-filled global events like potential trade wars, new taper tantrums or emerging-market meltdowns.
One major factor supporting a positive outlook for next year is our view that the US Federal Reserve won’t aggressively raise interest rates as it trims its expectations of rate increases to two from the previous forecast of three in 2019. We don’t see rates being an important driver of returns in 2019 as they were in 2018.
Inflation, after all, isn’t a pressing issue, while the outlook for economic growth is more uncertain. All of this makes a case for US interest rates rising marginally, not aggressively.
One of the big themes last year was that we were at the early stage of a “credit cycle” in the GCC. We think this has further to run in next year. We have come out of three-to-four tough years and we are now entering a period where governments in the region are moving their focus to growth, from a previous fixation on fiscal consolidation. We started seeing signs of this change at the end of 2018 with several governments announcing expansionary budgets.
On top of this, the likes of Abu Dhabi this year announced a raft of stimulus measures aimed at jump-starting growth. Overall, we expect on average of 2 to 3 per cent expansion in economic activity across the GCC in 2019. This means, that as we push through next year, the region is very much on an improving trajectory.
While a stable economic backdrop remains supportive for GCC debt, perhaps the most significant event for local bonds next year is the GCC’s inclusion in JP Morgan’s emerging market bond indexes.
From late January, Saudi Arabia and four other Gulf states will enter JP Morgan’s emerging market government bond indexes, bringing with it billions of dollars of foreign investment. The move is significant as the indexes are closely followed by international investors and inclusion will not only assist GCC countries in selling bonds, but also potentially help reduce borrowing costs.
We expect more demand from international and emerging-market buyers to rise next year, helping to rectify what has traditionally been a chronic underweight stance on the region’s debt.
Another factor that underlines our constructive view on GCC debt next year is value. Relative valuations are better right now than they were 12 to 18 months ago. This makes us want to maintain significant corporate exposure, as well as high-yield exposure, an area of interest we expect to resonate with investors in 2019. Regardless, the risk versus reward proposition remains attractive. Even when conditions deteriorated during the past five years, annualised returns for GCC debt have been upwards of 5 per cent, underscoring the region’s resilience and stability.
While the outlook for GCC debt in 2019 is promising, there are potential speed bumps that could unsettle investors and markets. For instance, there is a risk that that the pace of fiscal reform across the GCC will slow, a situation that could dampen investor sentiment.
In 2018, we saw the likes of Bahrain make a significant breakthrough in terms of securing financial support from its GCC neighbours. Investors, however, need reassurance that Bahrain and others can follow through with fiscal reform measures to maintain confidence that the change is real. Fiscal “slippage” will remain a big concern next year.
Lastly, any major break down in oil prices will have repercussions for the still hydrocarbon-dependent GCC region, especially when you consider the ambitious spending plans currently under way. Our view remains that co-operation between Opec and Russia will persist. Earlier this month, Opec along with Russia and its allies reached a deal to cut production by 1.2 million barrels per day, a move that helped stabilise oil prices, giving GCC government coffers a welcome fillip as well.
As we head into 2019, we are still in an environment where GCC bonds are under-represented in most investment portfolios. But as the list of worries for investors grows, GCC debt can provide the type of resilience and stability that mitigates an uncertain global backdrop.
Mohieddine Kronfol is the chief investment officer of Global Sukuk and Mena fixed income at Franklin Templeton Investments
Updated: December 24, 2018 08:10 PM