Foreign investors see Chinese bonds as a safe haven while trade war rages

  • China is increasingly opening its market for government debt to foreign investors and it is providing some security amid escalating trade tensions.
  • Though participation is still small, more foreign investors are showing interest and the number of investors in the market is expected to keep growing.
  • Chinese debt offers several attractions, investors say, including its relative immunity to market turmoil elsewhere.
A Chinese soldier stands guard in front of Tiananmen Gate outside the Forbidden City in Beijing.
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A Chinese soldier stands guard in front of Tiananmen Gate outside the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Chinese government bonds are offering increasing opportunity for foreign investors seeking a haven from the trade war storm, portfolio managers said.

The tariff fight between Washington and Beijing has scored a direct hit on China's stock markets and yuan currency, which have both fallen sharply this year. But steps China is taking to increase access for foreign investors to its less-tariff-vulnerable government debt, combined with some timely technical factors, is making for an attractive option, investors say.

Opportunity, according to Jason Pang, a portfolio manager at J.P. Morgan Asset Management in Hong Kong, lies in several factors.

According to Pang, China's bonds outperformed other Asian currency sovereign debt in the first six months of 2018 as domestic investors sought safety amid turmoil in stocks.

And while overall foreign holdings of government debt is about 7 percent, low compared with other countries, outsiders have been increasingly jumping on board as seen in government bonds attracting net inflows of foreign cash even as investors have fled equities.

A key attraction for foreigners, Pang said, has been cheaper costs for hedging — or insurance against currency risk which protects, for example, U.S. dollar investors buying bonds denominated in the Chinese yuan.

And Pang and other investors said China's bond market is also in vogue because it is less correlated with other markets, meaning it doesn't automatically move in lock step in times of turmoil.

"Because you have very low foreign representation in it, the country itself actually is less susceptible to foreign investment outflows, for bonds, in particular," Pang told CNBC on Monday.

'Big effort'

Erwin Sanft, managing director and senior portfolio manager for international investment at E Fund Management in Hong Kong, said that the Chinese bond market's lack of overall scale also provides some immunization from trade tensions.

"The trade conflict impacts on the currency but in terms of direct impact on the bond market, very little, because the bond market has yet to really encompass the whole economy," he said, citing, for example, the lack so far of riskier debt instruments such as junk bonds.

The world's second-largest economy has been allowing more outside participation through a "connect" program with Hong Kong that allows purchases through the former British colony, now a semi-autonomous Chinese region.

The last technical hurdles for inclusion next year of Chinese government bonds into the Bloomberg-Barclays Global Aggregate Index, a key benchmark, have been cleared and that is also expected to increase foreign investment through the connect program.

China announced last week the approval of a trading measure necessary for portfolio managers to simultaneously deal on behalf of more than one fund and waived for three years tax on interest income on domestic bond investments by foreigners.

"These back-to-back policy announcements demonstrate (Chinese) authorities' determination to accelerate the opening up of China's bond market," HSBC said in a report on Friday.

Pan Gongsheng, deputy governor of the People's Bank of China, underscored that in an interview published Monday, saying China is "unswervingly" committed to further openness for foreign bond investors.

J.P. Morgan Asset Management's Pang and E Fund Management's Sanft both said foreign buying of Chinese debt was increasing even before April's scheduled entry into the Bloomberg-Barclays index.

"And with the way now clear for inclusion that will just continue," Sanft said.

"Frankly, this means that investors around the world who haven't yet had a good look at the onshore bond market have to really make a big effort from now on because it can no longer be ignored," he said.