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Friday, August 07, 2020

The Indian corporate bond market: From the IL&FS default to the pandemic

by Rajeswari Sengupta and Harsh Vardhan.

The banking sector is the most important financial intermediary in India's debt market. Over the last few years the bond market has emerged as an alternative to the banking sector especially for the top rated firms. This trend has been pronounced ever since the banking sector started reporting high levels of non performing assets. Figure 1 below shows the flow of commercial credit in India from various sources and highlights the growing relative importance of bond issuance especially from 2015 onwards.

The bond market has faced two big shocks in recent years: (i) the default by IL&FS (Infrastructure Leasing and Financial Services Limited) in September 2018, followed by other relatively low-impact shocks due to problems in companies such as DHFL (Dewan Housing and Finance Limited) and IndiaBulls Housing Finance as well as Yes Bank, and (ii) the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in India since March 2020. As a result of these shocks the risk perceptions in the bond market have gone up. In this article, we take a look at changes in the risk perceptions in the corporate bond market especially in the ongoing context of the pandemic and ensuing economic slowdown. We also highlight the asymmetry in the risk perceptions of the markets towards private sector corporate bonds vis-a-vis public sector unit (PSU) bonds and discuss the likely implications of changes in the risk perceptions, for the future funding model of non-banking finance companies (NBFCs).

Figure 1: Flow of Commercial Credit in India (Source: RBI)

Measuring risk perception

The most important metric for assessing risk perception in the bond market is the credit spread which is the difference between the yield of a corporate bond and of a government security of comparable maturity. Highly rated bonds (with ratings of AAA and AA) are traded relatively actively and their yields reflect changing perceptions of investors regarding the riskiness of these bonds. Movement over time of credit spreads on corporate bonds is therefore a good indicator of the bond market's perception of risk.

We look at the credit spreads of AAA rated bonds of 3 years and 5 years maturity from April 2018 to June 2020. The data is sourced from Bloomberg. The bonds in our data are separated into 3 categories - NBFCs (non-banking finance companies) and HFCs (housing finance companies), private corporations and public sector undertakings (PSUs), which may include public sector NBFCs such as Power Finance Corporation (PFC) and Rural Electrification Corporation (REC). The figures 2 and 3 below show the evolution of credit spreads for these three categories of bonds for the two specific maturities.

The IL&FS default

Figure 2: Credit Spreads on 5 Year AAA Paper (Source: Bloomberg)

As we see from figure 2 above, prior to September 2018, the credit spreads on the NBFC, private corporate and PSU bonds were fairly stable, between 50 and 100 basis points for the 3 year paper and between 40 and 60 basis points for the 5 year paper. In the rest of our discussion we focus on the credit spreads on the 5 year paper. The pattern is more or less the same for the 3 year paper, only the absolute levels of credit spreads are different.

Figure 2 shows that credit spreads on NBFC AAA paper of 5 year maturity nearly doubled between September 2018 and November 2018 and reached 160 basis points by February 2019. This shows that the IL&FS episode that unfolded in the 3rd week of September significantly enhanced the risk perception of the bond market regarding all top rated NBFCs.

After a small dip, the spreads went back to around 140-150 basis points by July 2019 and stayed at this high level, with some fluctuations, till November 2019. During this period, crisis in other NBFCs (such as the Dewan Housing and Finance Limited (DHFL)) as well as in Yes bank, added to the overall risk perception of the bond market. This is reflected in the credit spreads remaining high one year after the IL&FS default.

Private corporate and PSU bonds' credit spreads also widened in the aftermath of the IL&FS default, but not by the same magnitude as the NBFCs. The IL&FS default triggered a liquidity crunch primarily for the NBFC sector. The corporate sector experienced spill over effects owing to a rise in risk aversion in the bond market.

While in the pre IL&FS default period the spreads of all three categories of bonds were closely bunched together, the difference between them began increasing from October 2018 onwards. The difference was particularly acute between the NBFC and private corporate bond spreads on one hand and the PSU bond spreads on the other hand especially in the second half of 2019. This is despite the fact that these bonds were all rated AAA. This reflects the implicit government guarantee enjoyed by the PSU bonds.

The government and the RBI took several actions to deal with the ensuing crisis in the NBFC sector. Government appointed a new Board for IL&FS. RBI took several steps including open market operations to inject liquidity into the system, reducing the risk weights on bank lending to NBFCs, instructing banks to disburse sanctioned but undisbursed credit to NBFCs etc.

These eventually resulted in enhanced credit flow to the NBFCs which reduced the credit spreads in the later part of 2019. For both NBFCs and private corporate sector, the spreads declined by about 50 basis points to settle at about 100 and 50 basis points respectively. These spreads, especially for the NBFCs, were still higher than pre-IL&FS episode but much lower than their peak. We see a similar dynamic with the 3 year maturity bonds as well as shown in figure 3 below, except the absolute levels of the spreads were different.

Figure 3: Credit Spreads on 3 Year AAA Paper (Source: Bloomberg)

The Covid-19 outbreak

Just as the bond market was recovering from the shock of IL&FS default followed by crises in DHFL and Yes bank, the Indian economy got hit by another massive shock in the form of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Credit spreads in the bond market began rising sharply from the middle of March once again reflecting growing risk perceptions. Figure 2 shows the increase in the spreads around the time when the nationwide lockdown was announced on 24 March.

For both NBFC and corporate bonds, the spreads rose by about 30-40 basis points between February 2020 and April 2020. For both categories of bonds the credit spreads reached their peak in the first half of May, close to 180 basis points for NBFCs and 170 basis points for the corporate bonds. The peak of the credit spreads during the pandemic has so far been higher than the peak reached in the aftermath of the IL&FS default episode.

Spreads on PSU paper also went up, but by a smaller amount. The average spread on these bonds in March and April was only 30-35 basis points. The difference between the credit spreads on NBFC and corporate bonds on one hand and PSU bonds on the other widened significantly to about 100 basis points. The large gap in spreads for bonds of the same ratings is worth noting. Similar to the post-IL&FS period, this too is a reflection of the market's perception of implicit government guarantee to the public sector units.

The impact of policy actions on credit spreads

The sharp rise in credit spreads of NBFC and corporate bonds in April 2020 could be attributed to the announcement by the RBI to grant moratorium on loan repayments for all borrowers in order to alleviate the financial stress triggered by the pandemic and the lockdown. Following this announcement, NBFCs had to offer moratorium to their borrowers but at the time it was not clear whether they themselves would also receive a moratorium from banks on their repayment obligations.

In the second half of May, the government announced a package to boost the economy. This included Rs 20 lakh crore of 'benefits' and effectively entailed an outlay of around Rs 3 lakh crore for 2020-21. RBI also adopted several policy initiatives such as cutting the policy interest rates aggressively and establishing new long term targeted repo operations (T-LTRO) that would provide 3 year funding to banks under a repo arrangement. RBI made the repo arrangement `targeted' so as to ensure that the funds raised by the banks were made available to the NBFCs.

These policy actions increased the credit supply to all issuers. Consequently, by the 3rd week of June, the credit spreads on both NBFC and corporate bonds came down from their respective peak levels of mid May by about 50 basis points.

However, the RBI and government actions notwithstanding, the credit spreads for NBFCs and private corporate sector continue to be substantially high. In fact the spreads in June 2020 were similar to the spreads in December 2018 in the aftermath of the IL&FS default. For PSUs the spreads have come down to around the same levels that prevailed before the IL&FS crisis.

This shows that the bond market remains concerned about the riskiness of the corporate sector and the NBFCs. PSUs on the other hand, benefit from implicit government guarantee. The significantly lower credit spreads they are experiencing in the time of the pandemic reflect a `flight to safety' by the bond investors.

Credit spreads and funding costs

As we interpret the bond market data, it is important to understand the difference between credit spreads and funding costs. Credit spreads going up does not necessarily mean that the cost of funding for the issuer is going up. Cost of funding for a company that raises capital in the debt market depends on the market determined yield on the security it issues This yield on debt consists of two components: risk free rate and credit spreads. RBI's monetary policy impacts the risk free rate but not the credit spreads. Credit spreads reflect the premium that the investor charges over and above the risk free rate, taking into account the inherent riskiness of the underlying bond.

Since the IL&FS episode, the risk free rate has been coming down steadily due to the actions by the RBI such as reduction in the policy interest rates (repo and reverse repo rate) and large scale open market operations to inject liquidity in the financial system. Figure 4 below depicts the yield on 5 year and 3 year government securities from the April 2018 to June 2020 period.

Figure 4: Government Securities Yield

The 5 year risk free interest rate has come down from about 8.4% in September 2018 (before the IL&FS episode) to about 5.5% in June 2020 indicating a decline of 300 basis points. The 3 year risk free interest rate has declined even more to about 4.5% over this period, a decline of nearly 350 basis points.

Since RBI's monetary policy does not affect the credit spreads, the impact of policy action on the actual cost of funding will not be the same as the reduction in the risk free rate. If risk aversion in the market goes up, then investors will demand higher price for the credit risk which will result in rising credit spreads. Thus, the net cost of funding for an issuer may decline to a lower extent compared to the reduction in the policy rates.

This is what has been happening since the IL&FS episode. Risk free rate has been declining but owing to high risk aversion, credit spreads have remained elevated. As a result, funding costs of companies have not come down by as much as the risk free rate. This implies that in an environment of high and rising risk perception such as the ongoing Covid-19 period, the effectiveness of policy rate cuts will be constrained.

The widening gap between the credit spreads on PSU debt versus private sector points to lower risk perception for PSU entities which are perceived to have implicit sovereign guarantees. The combined effects of rising risk perception, widening gap between credit spreads of identically rated issuances and reduction in the policy interest rates would mean that the debt market will skew towards government owned issuers who might experience the greatest reduction in funding cost.


Bond market credit spreads provide important information about the risk perception of an important class of investors. Sustained high credit spreads (compared to long term average levels) suggest elevated risk perception and imply heightened risk aversion. Specifically, it also points to the role that individual episodes of corporate defaults and the associated policy responses (or lack thereof) play in shaping risk perceptions.

Wide spreads between bonds of the same ratings issued by private companies and those owned by the government clearly indicates a strong perception of the implicit government guarantee enjoyed by public sector companies. This raises important questions as to whether the debt of government owned companies should be treated as a part of government's debt.

Finally, economic recovery in India in the post Covid-19 period will depend crucially on the flow of credit in the economy. The economic package recently announced by the government depends largely on the financial sector. Nearly 70% of the 'benefits' of Rs 20 lakh crore in the package are expected to be routed through the financial sector. In a recent article we discussed the rise in risk aversion in the banking sector. With both the banks and the bonds markets showing high levels of risk aversion, growth of credit may be less than envisaged in the package. This may dilute the overall effectiveness of government's monetary and fiscal policy actions.

Harsh Vardhan is an Executive-in-Residence at the Center for Financial Studies and an Adjunct Faculty at the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research, Mumbai. Rajeswari Sengupta is an Assistant Professor of Economics at IGIDR, Mumbai.

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