Bond fund exodus well under way as credit rating teeters

South Africa’s precarious credit rating was put back in play once again last month after a bleak mid-term budget statement that showed government debt racing to more than 70% of gross domestic product by 2023. Picture: iStock/Gallo Images
South Africa’s precarious credit rating was put back in play once again last month after a bleak mid-term budget statement that showed government debt racing to more than 70% of gross domestic product by 2023. Picture: iStock/Gallo Images

South Africa’s struggle to safeguard its last investment-grade credit rating has failed to convince the most credit-sensitive global investors and many active fund managers have already voted with their feet.

The precarious credit rating of the continent’s most industrialised nation was put back in play once again last month after the government issued a bleak mid-term budget statement that slashed the growth forecast and showed government debt racing to more than 70% of gross domestic product by 2023.

Days after, Moody’s kept South Africa teetering on the brink of junk by confirming its Baa3 rating – the lowest rung of investment grade – but revising the outlook to “negative”, opening a 12- to 18-month window in which a downgrade could be delivered.

Fitch Ratings as well as Standard & Poor’s already relegated South Africa to junk status in 2017.

Data shows that many funds have not been prepared to wait for the final shoe to drop and have been jettisoning South African debt over the past few years.

“It’s holding on [to investment-grade status] by a whisker,” said Salman Ahmed, chief investment strategist at Lombard Odier.

“But, from a fiscal point of view, it’s definitely not investment grade.”

Allocations to South Africa by global fixed-income fund managers with an investment-grade mandate have tumbled from 13.5% of assets under management five years ago to just 2.3% at the end of September, according to the latest available data by flow tracker EPFR.

The sample, derived by EPFR from mutual fund filings tracking $35 trillion in assets under management, shows that much of the drawdown happened in 2015 when many emerging markets came under pressure from a sharp commodity price tumble.

However, the percentage of allocations by active funds nearly halved again in the summer of 2017 after a Fitch downgrade to junk and a negative outlook by Moody’s, which it rescinded months later.

Allocations to South Africa by global fixed-income fund managers with an investment-grade mandate have tumbled from 13.5% of assets under management five years ago to just 2.3% at the end of September

Many expect the latest dire budget prediction to accelerate outflows of foreign money from the $155 billion government bond market.

“It was a slow-burn deterioration and the budget was clearly not great,’ said Ray Jian at French asset management company Amundi Pioneer.

“They are kicking [the can] down the road but, from a market perspective, nobody wants to wait until February for the details. It is a case of selling the bonds first and looking at the budget later.”

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni will present the full fiscal picture at the national budget speech in February next year.

The situation looked different a decade ago when Moody’s admitted the country to its coveted club of A-rated, or upper investment grade, sovereigns. In 2012, South Africa joined the benchmark World Government Bond Index (WGBI), which measures the performance of fixed-rate, local currency, investment-grade sovereign bonds.

Fast forward through years of stalled reform, economic policy missteps and a failure to tackle the burden of loss-making state-owned enterprises and the spectre of losing more money comes at a difficult time.

Nedbank estimates that outflows of foreign money, both active and passive, from South African bond markets totalled $2.1 billion year-to-date.

The move by active investors is seen as a precursor to forced selling that might be triggered by a WGBI eviction in the wake of a Moody’s downgrade.

Estimates of forced selling range between $750 million and more than $5 billion, according to Nedbank and Goldman Sachs.

Funds tracking the WGBI are estimated to have $172 billion under management, while South Africa’s weighting in the benchmark, at just less than 0.5%, has barely budged over the past five years.

As a result, South Africa is forced to borrow at one of the highest real rates for any investment-grade credit. Its 10-year bonds yield more than 8%, with inflation running at less than half that.

Yet for many the risk is still too high.

“South Africa is underweight compared with other emerging markets,” said Georg Schuh, chief investment officer for Europe, Middle East, and Africa at the German asset management firm DWS.

“The situation is really quite fragile.” – Reuters


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