Friday, 25 September 2009

Seeking Safety In Aussie Bonds

Despite the current re-flation attempts by the world's monetary policymakers, I still see deflation as the overriding theme going forward, owing to private sector deleveraging. With this in mind, Australian long duration bonds look particularly attractive for a number of reasons:

1. Yield Looks Attractive:
The current yield on the Australian 10-year bond is an attractive 5.4%, having risen from a low of 3.7% in December 2008, and is back to levels seen in 2006 when the global credit binge was in full swing. The nominal yield compares with the trailing dividend yield of 4.2% for Australia's ASX200 equity index.

2. Public Sector In Credit, Private Sector In Turmoil:
At the end of 2008, the Australian government was actually a net creditor, with net assets of roughly 7% of GDP. While the figure is likely to deteriorate this year as a result of the fiscal stimulus measures, the government's net debt ratio is still expected to remain in balance. This is extremely rare in today's world, and compares very favourably with Japan (95%), Italy (90%), and the US (60%) according to OECD figures.

By comparison, Australia's private debt burden is massive. Having peaked at roughly 165% of GDP in 2008, it has since fallen to around 150% and remains at twice the level seen at the start of the Great Depression. While government handouts have helped support private sector demand so far this year, a major private sector deleveraging process has begun, which will see savings rates rise for years to come. Indeed, the household saving ratio rose to 3.6% in Q209, continuing the uptrend seen since 2002 when the rate reached a low of -4.0%. This should continue rising towards the long-term average rate of 7.6%, with an overshoot highly likely. This could make for a perfect storm in the long-term government debt market.

3. Prudent Policy Limits Inflation Risk:
Unlike in the US and UK, where there is a huge risk that policymakers will continue to try everything they can to devalue their currencies to combat the ensuing deflationary forces, the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) is likely to continue acting relatively prudently. The Australian government has also been less willing to assume the debts of the corporate sector than the US and UK governments, which should keep gross debt levels low over the coming years. The government, which has run surpluses in its fiscal accounts for the past decade, will run a nominal fiscal deficit of 'just' 4.6% of GDP this year, way below the double-digit levels of the US and the UK. The relatively low willingness to take on more debt should continue to drive down perceived default risk at a time when other developed world governments are facing heightened default concerns.

JGB Bull Run Nearing An End?
One way to hedge the near-term risk would be to take a bearish stance on Japanese 10-year government bonds, as we see increasing potential for yields here to rise over the medium term.
I know I am not the only ones over the past decade to suggest that the bull market in Japanese government bonds could be ending. However, given the continued deterioration in the economy, this is becoming increasingly likely. Indeed, it is not inconceivable that Japan's balance of payments surplus could turn to a deficit, such is the weak outlook for global demand, which would likely force the Japanese government to offer higher interest rates on its debt in order to entice savings from overseas. On the contrary, we could also see Australia's current account deficit flip to a surplus as the private sector pays down the external debt it has accumulated from decades of current account deficits. This would add to the forces driving down long-term yields.

Australia More Creditworthy
Supporting my view that Australian long-term bonds will outperform those of Japan going forward is the current 10-year bond interest rate differential. At 411bps the spread is historically high and we believe that it is nearing its cyclical peak. What is more, given that the CDS market is currently pricing in a higher default risk in Japan than in Australia (and rightly so), this highlights the attractiveness of the current sovereign bond spread in terms of default risk.