Corporate Bonds

Is this a gamechanger for Asia’s bond markets?

Leslie Shaffer | Writer for

Asia's corporate bond markets remain relatively underdeveloped compared to their Western peers, but a plan from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to "harmonize" the region's regulations could be a gamechanger.

"Right now, it's really hard for a Malaysian company to issue Thai baht bonds. Or a Philippine company (to issue) an Indonesian rupiah bond – partly because the rules are different and partly because they just don't know how to do it," noted Karen Lane, an external relations specialist at the ADB.

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That's why the ADB is trying to standardize bond-issuance across the Asean plus-three region, which includes the eight Southeast Asian markets as well as Japan, South Korea and China.

Asia's bond markets have seen rapid growth since the global financial crisis, rising to 24.2 percent of Asian gross domestic product (GDP) in 2012 from just 16.7 percent in 2008, Deutsche Bank said in a January note.

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But it added, "Asia's corporate bond markets remain, with few exceptions, small and illiquid," with the region's corporate funding still overwhelmingly bank-based. In addition, despite the region's pickup in bond issuance, secondary markets have low trading volume and the segment lacks investor diversity, it said.

Bond issuance in many markets is dominated by a handful of players, it said, noting that in Taiwan and Indonesia, the ten largest issuers were responsible for more than 80 percent of the total bond issuance last year.

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"The Asian bond market initiative is to promote greater investment by making it easier for the region's investors' to invest in each other's bond markets," said Thiam Hee Ng, senior economist at the ADB. "They try to work together with both market regulators and participants to harmonize rules in the region for issuing bonds," he said.

It's a change that would likely be met enthusiastically.

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"A single rule for all of Asia would be fantastic," said Kumar Palghat, managing director at Kapstream Capital. "It would make trading easier," he said, noting each country currently has its own rules and regulations and different withholding taxes.

Palghat expects the change also would make it easier to develop benchmarks as well as create a yield curve with similar maturities. Currently, "it's difficult because when you look at all the issues, they are all in different currencies and denominations. The covenants are not the same," he said. "It would make liquidity a lot better and transparency a lot better."

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Developing the region's bond markets may be key to continuing economic growth. For a consumer-based high-income economy, consumers and businesses need to have improved access to capital and modern financial products, Warren Hogan, chief economist at ANZ, said in a note.

Many Asian central banks have a buildup of foreign exchange reserves due to high savings rates across the region and controlled financial systems, he noted.

(Read more: Corporate debt fever rises to new record in 2014)

"This has meant that the Asian surplus of the past 15 years has been 'recycled' back into the international financial system via official portfolio flows," with central banks buying developed-nation government bonds, he said.

"The 'trapping' of the Asian surplus in FX reserve portfolios has resulted in a much slower financial development than would have been the case if the private sector had played the primary role in allocating those savings."

He estimates reforms would result in the total Asian financial system accounting for half of the global system by 2030, up from around 22 percent currently.

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