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Are EM companies the real debt worry?

Emerging markets have convulsed recently amid concerns about government balance sheets, but investors may want to worry more about corporate ones instead.

Dramatic falls in the currencies of countries such as Argentina and Turkey have triggered widespread selling across the emerging markets with the "Fragile Five" – India, Indonesia, Brazil, Turkey and South Africa –among the worst hit.

But fears of a traditional emerging market sovereign crisis may be misplaced.

"The ordinary precursor measures of a crisis such as current account deficits, foreign-exchange reserves, exchange rate valuations and government debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) might be misleading on their own," the investment bank Jefferies said in a note Wednesday.

(Read more: Will emerging markets become a euro zone-style risk?)

"It is maybe the repayment schedules of borrowers that matter most."

Frank van den Bergh | E+ | Getty Images

The bank noted that there has been a far greater amount of corporate bond issuance in emerging markets than equity issuance, rising to an estimated 1.19 percent of GDP in emerging markets as a whole, compared with only around 0.69 percent in 2010.

Even as data from the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) show emerging markets' international corporate bond issuance rose to around $335.6 billion in 2013 from $151.5 billion in 2010, the average credit quality has been deteriorating, it said.

(Read more: Rout overdone, emerging markets to 'turn' this year)

Indeed, the BIS noted in a working paper that while many emerging market governments have avoided the mistakes that spurred previous crises by issuing debt in their own currencies, rather than in dollars, companies have been expanding their credit issuance into international markets.

This growth over the past few years raises concerns that companies are increasing their exposure to foreign-exchange risks, the BIS said.

As developed markets begin to raise interest rates and dial back quantitative easing over the next few years, "downward pressures on some emerging market currencies could be accentuated, increasing the local currency cost of servicing dollar debt," the BIS paper said.

It also noted that maturing obligations could force companies to borrow in their local currency to pay down foreign-currency debt, potentially further dampening emerging market currencies and complicating monetary policy decisions.

(Read more: What happens in EM stays there, mostly: Goldman)

Emerging market equities appear to have stabilized over the past week or so after their sharp selloffs, but risks may persist.

"While the problem of emerging market offshore borrowing may affect exchange rate and central bank interest rate policies initially, equities are more likely to be affected by refinancing risks and ultimately borrower solvency," Jefferies warned in its note.

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1

Contact World Economy

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