MIDEAST DEBT-New issue premium is back in Gulf's bond market
* Premium largely disappeared for region last year
* Changing global climate has restored it
* Trader estimates 15-20 bps; may be underestimate
* Pace of issuance in Gulf slowing down considerably
* More pressure to issue at shorter end
By Dinesh Nair and Mala Pancholia
DUBAI, Feb 12 (Reuters) - After largely disappearing last year, the new issue premium is back in the Gulf's bond market - a prospect which is likely to slow though not halt debt sales by a wide range of issuers this year.
For six months or so, Gulf issuers only had to pay a tiny premium above the secondary-market yields of their outstanding bonds when they issued new debt - or in many cases, no premium at all.
That was because of record-low U.S. Treasury yields as well as the dramatic improvement of the Gulf's image in the eyes of international investors, as Dubai and other economies recovered from the global financial crisis.
In the last couple of weeks, however, it has become clear that a back-up in U.S. Treasury yields and strong global equities mean new Gulf issuers will once again have to pay substantial premiums.
"We have to take into account the global headwinds and investors' mood, as there are periods when the markets go through periods of softness, as the one we are witnessing now in the global markets," said Sami Mahfouz, head of Standard Chartered's global markets business for the United Arab Emirates.
"This needs to be taken into consideration given that significant demand is also from the global investors and not just regional."
In a sense, the Gulf is paying a price for the increase in the popularity of its bonds among international investors last year. Previously, when almost all demand for bonds came from cash-rich institutions within the region, pricing of new issues was partially insulated from global trends; now the global environment cannot be ignored.
After a massive rally at the beginning of this year, emerging market hard currency bond funds experienced outflows for the first time in 35 weeks in the week to Feb. 6, according to data from EPFR Global.
For some analysts and investors, the shift in the bond market is not a short-term phenomenon but the start of a long-term process.
"The great bull market in bonds is coming to an end. People get anchored on a view that a particular asset class is going to give double-digit returns all the time," Gary Dugan, chief investment officer for Asia and the Middle East at Coutts, the private banking arm of Royal Bank of Scotland, said at an event in Dubai last week.
"There is a serious risk that you can lose money in bonds or sukuk this year, so we are telling clients to start looking at equity instruments."
A very few emerging bond markets have been able to ignore the trend. One is Turkey, where Akbank was able to command very tight pricing of its 1 billion lira ($530 million) Eurolira bond at the end of January.
The Gulf is not one of those markets, however. The current mood means issuers will need to "leave something on the table for investors to put in the big orders", said one regional fixed income trader.
Another trader estimated borrowers would now need to pay a 15 to 20 basis point new issue premium for longer-dated bonds.
That may be an underestimate; Russia's VimpelCom had to pay a new issue premium estimated at between 25 bps and 40 bps on the dollar tranches of its $2 billion bond sale last week.
Dubai paid no new issue premium - it actually priced inside its outstanding bonds - when it raised $1.25 billion from a two-tranche bond sale in late January. But the bonds soon came under selling pressure in the secondary market.
The 3.875 percent 10-year sukuk, which priced at par, has traded below par since issue and was bid at 98.0 cents on the dollar to yield 4.116 percent on Tuesday.
The change in the bond market's tone already seems to be influencing Gulf issuers. There have been no conventional bond or sukuk deals from the region since Emirates airline priced a $750 million, 12-year amortising bond in late January.
Just a few weeks ago, the market was expecting the first quarter of this year to be a busy period for new issues.
One potential borrower is state utility Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA), which has said it plans a sukuk issue of up to $1 billion in the first quarter.
Reuters reported last month that the company had mandated banks for the deal, but chief executive Saeed Mohammed al-Tayer said on Monday that the timing of the issue was still to be determined.
"We are studying it and will decide on it next week," Tayer said, without giving any indication of the tenor.
DEWA's existing $1.5 billion, 7.375 percent bond maturing in 2020 was yielding 4.0 percent on Tuesday, about 40 bps wider than a month ago.
"Tightening spreads are good for borrowers but the region has been mainly considered as a yield play, and investors are interested in generating yield from creditworthy names," Standard Chartered's Mahfouz said.
The return of the new issue premium while not deter Gulf issuers forever; yields are still a couple of percentage points or more below their level a year ago, and after a period in which they judge whether the new market environment is here to stay, issuers are likely to return to the market.
Abu Dhabi Commercial Bank announced this week that it had mandated banks for a bond sale of at least $500 million, while National Bank of Abu Dhabi is to consider issuance of convertible bonds and other instruments at a meeting next month.
But issuers may feel more pressure to come to the shorter end of the market to minimise the premiums they pay.
"Long-dated bonds are going to be tough (to issue) at the moment, but the right type of names can still come to the market. Investors are looking for the yield in the short end," said a regional trader. (Additional reporting by Martin Dokoupil; Writing by Rachna Uppal; Editing by Andrew Torchia)