Retail bonds belong on Main Street

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 December, 2001, 12:00am
 

Bonds run a distant last in the race for Hong Kong's private investment dollars.


Property, of course, is the runaway winner; followed by the great licence to dream that comes with a punt on the stock market - or maybe the races.


That's a pecking-order in the typical retail-investment portfolio which is unlikely to change. Not much, anyhow.


But on the margin, or more colourfully expressed, along the fault-lines deep beneath this rarely ruffled surface, something is afoot. The tectonic plates under the island's investment landscape are shifting and here and there the first tremblings of change in investor habits may be detected.


The impact of those tremblings should not be exaggerated. They have not set bond investments on a roll among retail players, and fixed-interest assets are unlikely ever to reach the levels recommended for a classical investment portfolio - one-third property, one-third stocks, and one-third cash (or fixed-interest investments that can be readily liquidated).


But there is no doubt that bonds are beginning to attract more attention than they have enjoyed before, and with a little creative effort from those who would like to see the bond market expand, the emerging retail appetite for bond investments could be cultivated.


Signs of a growing interest in bonds came recently from among the ranks of those investors who remain leery of putting hard-earned cash on the stock market but are distressed - to put it mildly - by the 0.25 per cent interest their cash earns in a bank savings account.


Riding to their rescue last month came the Hong Kong Mortgage Corp (HKMC), which ingeniously parcelled-up a bond issue in such a way that retail investors could get a slice of the action.


Indeed, luring private investors to the issue was its clearly stated intention.


Accordingly, subscriptions could be made in amounts of just HK$50,000 and three 'placing banks' were appointed to distribute the bonds (Dao Heng Bank, HSBC, and Hang Seng Bank). The three undertook to trade the bonds in a secondary market which they would make by quoting daily bid prices.


That ensured customers could readily cash in bonds if they needed to raise funds in a hurry.


Two tranches were on offer - a three-year note, which finally went at an effective annualised yield of 3.44 per cent; and a five-year note which gave investors a yield of 4.32 per cent.


Small surprise then, given interest rates on bank deposits (below 1 per cent for 12-month fixed deposits in many cases), that the issue was heavily oversubscribed notwithstanding looming tax bills.


Some 1,660 investors submitted applications which reached a record HK$651.4 million - 5.5 times the minimum issue amount of HK$100 million set by the HKMC.


Readers of the Business Post would have been aware of the invitation to buy the bonds, and the extremely competitive returns on offer, since we published the story - along with the news that three agent banks had been selected by the HKMC to distribute the bonds.


But how many more investors might the issue have attracted had there been a well-developed and accessible marketing and distribution network available for the issue?


The inclination of Hong Kong bank customers to keep substantial sums of money on deposit is legendary.


But with interest rates at their present historic lows - and likely to stay there for much of next year - these savvy depositors realised the benefits of taking their money out of bank accounts to buy bonds which came with a virtual capital guarantee.


For the next step in promoting the sale of such bonds to retail investors, how about replacing that marketing and distribution network of three placing banks with something far more ambitious?


How about 126 conveniently located outlets which already serve the very population that is likely to take an interest in another bond issue?


How about using the Post Office?


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