The frontier market misnomer: rethink old labels if you want the full EM debt opportunity set

EM in Discussion

27 May 2021

58 minutes

Werner Gey van Pittius
Thys Louw
In the latest session of our EM in Discussion series Werner and Thys examine the world of frontier markets and reveal their increasing importance for EM debt investors today.

The fast view

  • The globally diverse frontier market universe is as big as the US high-yield bond market and its importance for EMD investors has risen significantly. Frontiers account for half of the number of markets and 40% of the spread of the JP Morgan EMBI.
  • Despite their enviable growth rates, frontier markets have particular challenges to overcome as they develop and reach their potential, relating to relatively low savings rates and revenues, and high debt interest costs (despite relatively low levels of debt).
  • Reform is a key determinant of success for these economies, with investors also playing an important role in these countries’ development paths.
  • ESG will be a major part of this in terms of providing new and more targeted funding vehicles. COVID has highlighted the size of funding required in this space and policymakers/multilaterals are putting in place the necessary frameworks.
  • Frontier markets are not as volatile as many investors assume and their yields are compelling. But there is significant dispersion in the universe and selectivity is key in this under-researched area of the market.
  • Identifying early those frontier markets that are moving in the right direction in terms of reform and structural improvement can bring significant rewards to investors as these markets move to the mainstream.

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Key takeaways

What are frontier markets?

At Ninety One we consider the entire EM debt investment space as a continuum. Regardless of its national income or credit rating, we take the same approach to analysing each market, and we use volatility and liquidity measures to classify markets as low/medium/high risk or frontier.

How big is the market?

This globally diverse frontier market universe is as big as the US high-yield bond market and its importance for EMD investors has risen significantly – half of the markets in the JP Morgan EMBI (hard currency) market today are frontiers and these account for 40% of the index spread. These markets offer sufficient liquidity for investors to take meaningful – and vital – exposure.

How strong are the fundamentals?

The economic growth premium enjoyed by frontier markets relative to emerging and developed market peers is widely known, stemming from both the demographic make-up of these countries (younger populations with more people moving into the workforce each year) and structural dynamics (e.g. moving from an agriculture-driven to a services economy). This growth trajectory should help frontier markets’ (COVID-impacted) debt balances to stabilise and fall significantly in 2022.

But debt/GDP only tells half the story. Key for investors in the current environment are frontier markets’ fiscal balances, specifically the ratio of debt interest costs to revenues. Frontier markets have particular challenges to overcome as they develop and reach their potential:

  1. Low savings rates often mean government attempts to stimulate the economy “crowds out” private sector investment.
  2. High levels of informality and inefficient tax collection regimes result in relatively low levels of government revenue.
  3. Despite debt levels similar to their EM peers and lower than DM peers, frontier markets face substantially higher interest costs on their debt.

The key to frontier markets’ success is how they tackle these three challenges. Reforms are needed that increase revenue – broadening the tax base and reducing levels of informality – while also stabilising and lowering the interest costs of their debt. While the IMF’s US$650 billion of Special Drawing Rights will help with the latter, investors will also play a key role.

What role will ESG play in the post-COVID era?

In the post-COVID world, ESG will play a key role in terms of new (more targeted) funding vehicles for frontier countries. A global conversation is taking place involving policymakers, the IMF and the World Bank over how to lower interest costs facing these countries while allowing investors to invest into the projects and parts of the economy that really matter. As investors we also want to have surety about how our capital is used.

COVID has highlighted the size of funding required in this space and has brought the two sides together: countries are looking to put frameworks in place; investors are encouraging countries to move in this direction; and multilaterals are looking to facilitate it all.

Which markets should investors focus on within this diverse universe?

While frontier markets as a group are not as volatile as many investors assume, there is significant dispersion among the universe. Furthermore, over the past five years all of the top 10 performing markets and eight of the bottom 10 markets in the JP Morgan EMBI were frontier markets – highlighting that an investor’s ability to generate alpha in this universe is inextricably linked to their skill in frontier market selection.

Our approach sees us hone in on markets that are taking significant steps to grow their domestic pensions and savings markets and improving the functioning of these markets – both of which will help reduce the country’s real interest rates.

It is also imperative to differentiate between markets with vulnerable finances and those on more solid ground. Our forward-looking credit vulnerability model sees us favouring markets like Serbia and Ivory Coast, where we see strong growth potential and robust funding models and which over-compensate investors simply because they as less researched and “frontier” names.

Why should investors consider off-benchmark names?

Timing really is important for investors wishing to get the most out of their frontier market exposure and waiting for index inclusion can bring significant opportunity costs. Egypt is a good example of a country that has undergone a strong reform agenda and significant structural shift to allow it to graduate from frontier to emerging market. Over recent years Egypt has seen its popularity continue to grow given the attractive risk-adjusted returns it offers fixed income investors; those who invested early will be rewarded when it enters the JP Morgan GBI-EM index and becomes part of mainstream investment universe.

General risks
The value of investments, and any income generated from them, can fall as well as rise.

Specific risks
Emerging market (inc. China): These markets carry a higher risk of financial loss than more developed markets as they may have less developed legal, political, economic or other systems. Currency exchange: Changes in the relative values of different currencies may adversely affect the value of investments and any related income. Geographic / Sector: Investments may be primarily concentrated in specific countries, geographical regions and/or industry sectors. This may mean that the resulting value may decrease whilst portfolios more broadly invested might grow. Liquidity: There may be insufficient buyers or sellers of particular investments giving rise to delays in trading and being able to make settlements, and/or large fluctuations in value. This may lead to larger financial losses than might be anticipated.

All investments carry the risk of capital loss. The value of investments, and any income generated from them, can fall as well as rise and will be affected by changes in interest rates, currency fluctuations, general market conditions and other political, social and economic developments, as well as by specific matters relating to the assets in which the investment strategy invests. If any currency differs from the investor’s home currency, returns may increase or decrease as a result of currency fluctuations. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results.

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Authored by

Werner Gey van Pittius
Portfolio Manager
Thys Louw
Portfolio Manager

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Important Information

This communication is provided for general information only should not be construed as advice.

All the information in is believed to be reliable but may be inaccurate or incomplete. The views are those of the contributor at the time of publication and do not necessary reflect those of Ninety One.

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