Corporate Bonds

Does corporate Asia face reckoning as rates rise?

Leslie Shaffer | Writer for
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Corporate Asia has taken advantage of ultra-low interest rates over the past few years, loading up on debt, but with rates set to rise, there may be risks ahead.

"With the U.S. Federal Reserve expected to begin normalization of policy early next year, so too will begin the end of a prolonged downtrend in borrowing costs for corporates," ANZ said in a note last week. "Corporate Asia -- [which] has benefitted significantly from the abundance of liquidity in this low interest rate environment -- is not entirely immune."

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Overall, ANZ believes Southeast Asian and Indian corporates didn't overextend themselves, with economies likely to continue growing robustly and companies likely to remain profitable.

Asia seeing strong demand for bonds: JP Morgan
Asia seeing strong demand for bonds: JP Morgan

But it added, "Any shock to growth and profits may lead to a rise in NPLs (non-performing loans), especially for the high yield corporates."

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In addition, some companies may face risks from currency and duration mismatches, ANZ said, noting a significant portion of debt and syndicated loans will mature over the next few years.

"If this debt and lending is to be completely rolled over, it will most likely have to occur at higher interest rates," it said.

"High and increasing foreign currency borrowing remains a key vulnerability," it said. "The maturity structure of foreign-currency debt and lending appears to be shorter which suggests some pressures could emerge in this space sooner."

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ANZ is also concerned about the substantial increase in high-yield issuance since 2012, citing the deteriorating quality of these borrowers, but it noted that the level of these loans compared with gross domestic product (GDP) appears manageable.

High-yield bonds are not in bubble territory: Pro
High-yield bonds are not in bubble territory: Pro

Some signs of stress in Asia's high-yield segment have already begun to emerge. The high-yield default rate for Asia-Pacific companies rose to 4.1 percent at the end of July from 2.2 percent at the end of 2013, according to a report from Moody's last week. The rising trend contrasts sharply with U.S. and European high-yield issuers, which saw their default rate fall to around 1.8 percent at the end of July, the rating agency said.

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"Relatively slower growth in and weak demand from China have a significant negative impact on the global economy, especially commodity exporters in [Southeast Asia], including Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand," Moody's said, noting that India has also seen slowing growth and tighter financing conditions.

"We maintain a mildly negative credit outlook for Asian corporates in view of slowing regional growth and continued tight liquidity," Moody's said.

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Some are not as concerned about upcoming debt maturities in Asia.

Standard & Poor's estimates around $212 billion of rated financial and nonfinancial corporate debt will mature in emerging Asia from the second half of 2014 through the end of 2019, compared with around $456 billion new corporate bond issuance in the region in 2013. But it noted that about 81 percent of the maturing debt is investment grade, rather than high-yield, which should help temper refinancing risks.

"The strong issuance activity in recent quarters has helped many companies extend their maturities through debt refinancings or prefinancings, and the attractive terms on offer have served to lower their debt service obligations," S&P said in a note last week. "The region's economic momentum, should help maintain healthy investor interest and continue to support robust bond issuance."

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