Banks Dump $15 Billion Bonds in India Tug-of-War With Funds

  • “Hardly any trading gains left,” says PNB Gilts’ Sharma
  • Attractive carry, INR stability lure foreigners: Western Asset

India’s $750 billion sovereign-debt market is caught in a tug of war between foreign investors and state-run banks, the biggest holders of the securities.

As lenders sold 952 billion rupees ($14.7 billion) of sovereign bonds last quarter, overseas funds added more than 422 billion rupees to their holdings of the debt. The dichotomy is stemming from the potential for future gains that the two investor classes see in what has been emerging Asia’s best-performing market in the last three months.

For global investors like Franklin Templeton’s star bond-fund manager Michael Hasenstab, structural reforms by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, relatively high yields and a stable exchange rate make India a “sweet spot” among emerging markets. At home, a central bank nearing the end of its monetary easing cycle and risks emanating from farm-loan waivers are stoking caution after a three-year bond run.

“There are hardly any trading gains left in the market, much of the party seems to be over,’’ said Vijay Sharma, New Delhi-based executive vice-president for fixed income at PNB Gilts Ltd., a unit of India’s third-largest state lender by value. “We expect the Reserve Bank of India to deliver a 25-basis point rate cut in August and signal that more reductions won’t be coming.”

Local investors are also worried about a potential increase in debt supply, amid risks that Indian states lining up to rescue indebted farmers will fund a part of such bailouts by borrowing more from the bond market. With their higher yields, securities issued by regional governments could jeopardize the federal administration’s borrowing program.

To read more on the impact of loan waivers on the bond market, click here.

While an RBI easing also risks narrowing the spread Indian notes offer over Treasuries, global money managers say the Asian nation’s real rates will still remain high in relative terms, and shouldn’t cause much harm to its carry-trade potential. Despite falling 231 basis points in the last three years, the nation’s 10-year bond yield is still the highest among major regional markets after Indonesia.

The yield, which fell two basis points on Tuesday to 6.55 percent, will drop to 6.53 percent by the end of this quarter, before rising to 6.60 percent by Dec. 31, according to median estimates in surveys conducted by Bloomberg news.

Overseas investors are also lured by India’s political stability and its central bank’s continued efforts to rein in consumer-price inflation, which eased to a record low of 2.18 percent in May. Borrowing in dollars to purchase rupee assets has earned 7.5 percent so far this year, the highest carry returns in Asia, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

India has drawn interest “due to its attractive carry, against the backdrop of a firm political mandate, a gradually improving macro story, and a stable currency,” said Wontae Kim, a Singapore-based research analyst at Western Asset Management Co., which oversaw $433 billion at the end of March. “Other markets may have higher absolute yields, but there aren’t many offering the kind of yields seen in India that also have the steady environment necessary to engender greater investor confidence.”

Foreign holdings of Indian debt -- including sovereign, corporate bonds and notes issued by state governments -- surged by 804 billion rupees in the three months ended June, the highest for any quarter in National Securities Depository Ltd.’s data going back to 2011.

“Some public-sector banks had bought good amounts at higher yields, and there could be some profit booking happening,” said C. Venkat Nageswar, the head of treasury at State Bank of India, the nation’s largest lender by assets.

Read: RBI Increases FPI Investment Limits in G-Secs, SDL for July-Sept

Rupee sovereign bonds handed investors a return of 3.4 percent in the last three months, the highest in emerging Asia, according to indexes compiled by Bloomberg. The benchmark 10-year yield fell 17 basis points last quarter.

"Unprecedented" structural reforms by PM Modi will have long-lasting, positive implications for Indian markets, Franklin Templeton’s Hasenstab said in a video interview on the firm’s YouTube channel last week. Conditions are “very good for the bond market,” he said, adding that yields are likely to be stable or declining.

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