Rich Asian investors are losing billions on fixed coupon notes

Promised payouts of as high as 12% annually have been dwarfed by capital losses tied to stock declines

SINGAPORE, SINGAPORE - APRIL 7: A man crosses an empty road in the central business district on the day a 'circuit breaker' takes effect on April 7, 2020 in Singapore. The Singapore government will close all schools and most workplaces and limit social interactions and movement outside homes for at least a month to stem the spike in local coronavirus (COVID-19) cases. (Photo by Ore Huiying/Getty Images)
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A popular investment among Asia's wealthy in the years of rock-bottom interest rates has been upended in the recent market rout, leaving investors facing losses estimated to be in the billions of dollars.
Structured products called fixed coupon notes attracted scores of private banking clients in Hong Kong and Singapore in recent years, according to half a dozen bankers and advisers who spoke to Bloomberg. Promised regular coupons even in turbulent times, some put 20 per cent or more of their portfolios into the instruments, they said. One catch: the principal was tied to swings in assets like stocks, and losses could mount quickly during deep market declines.

In a bull market, investors keep collecting coupons on these notes and they feel it's a great investment … When the market turns, they get stuck with unimaginable losses.

About 5 per cent, or more than $80 billion (Dh293.8bn), of Asian private banking assets outside mainland China is probably tied to such notes, estimates University of Hong Kong Professor Dragon Tang. They worked smoothly until Covid-19 struck. The promised payouts have since been dwarfed by capital losses as stocks slid and some leveraged holders were forced out of the illiquid notes. Others are hanging on, hoping a turn in sentiment restores their value.
"In a bull market, investors keep collecting coupons on these notes and they feel it's a great investment," says Rahul Banerjee, an ex-Standard Chartered banker and founder of BondEvalue, a FinTech that offers bond pricing services to investors. "When the market turns, they get stuck with unimaginable losses," he says, estimating wealthy Asian investors are seeing losses in the billions of US dollars.
The products work well in a rising market or one moving sideways, where investors recover the initial investment and the coupon owed, which could be as high as 12 per cent per year. But the interest-bearing notes, linked to the performance of underlying assets, open holders to the risk of steep losses if those assets fall below a preset level.

Selling early at steep discounts

Some leveraged investors have been forced into selling early at steep discounts, according to investors who asked not to be identified speaking on private matters. The loan-to-value offered for structured products including fixed coupon notes was over 50 per cent on average, the people familiar said, though lending terms are being tightened given recent margin calls.
Those that continue to hold the notes may see their investments recoup losses in a market rebound. After sinking 21 per cent in the first quarter, the MSCI World Index has risen about 3 per cent in April.
"Investors of structured notes are essentially writing put options," says Mary Leung, head of advocacy for Asia Pacific, CFA Institute, referring to derivative contracts where the seller agrees to buy an asset at a specified strike price. In Asia, higher retail participation in markets, the difficulty of accessing bonds and the hunt for yield drive the popularity of such products, she says.

One Singapore-based financial services professional, who asked to remain anonymous, lost between 30 per cent to 40 per cent of the $400,000 he invested in fixed coupon notes tied to shares including Microsoft, Broadcom and India's ICICI Bank. The notes offered a coupon of about 10 per cent, paid quarterly with a one-year maturity.
He sold the investment, which was leveraged up about 60 per cent, prior to maturity after receiving margin calls and deciding he didn't want the stress of monitoring daily prices and worrying about fresh calls from his bankers.
A second investor, who heads a family office in Singapore, says about 10 per cent of his financial holdings were in notes offering yields of between 6 per cent to 12 per cent. Those tied to energy and the automotive sector were in the red at the end of March, he says, though he remained invested in the hope of a recovery over the next few months.

Tightened disclosure rules

Such products don't offer good risk-adjusted returns, says Professor Tang, who has researched the 2008 implosion of structured notes called Lehman minibonds, which led thousands of Hong Kong investors to protest outside bank branches. Disclosure rules have tightened since then and investors are now better-informed, he says, though there could still be some mis-selling.
New rules following the collapse of Lehman Brothers included narrowing the scope of qualified investors – who must have about $1 million to invest in Hong Kong and $1.4m in Singapore – and categorising clients into different risk tolerance buckets.
"Given the greater risk exposure of fixed coupon notes, we have de-emphasised the product in recent years," DBS Group Holdings said in an emailed response to questions. For clients keen on the product, DBS's bankers recommend structures which include their high-conviction stock picks or incorporate features that "act as safeguards against outsize losses", it said.

epa08350407 Aerial view of the commercial and residential buildings that make up the skylines of Hong Kong Island (foreground) and the Kowloon Peninsula (background), in Hong Kong, China, 08 April 2020. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region's government has announced it is set to roll out a stimulus package worth 137 billion HK dollars (about 17.7 billion US dollars) with measures to help businesses and workers during the ongoing pandemic of the COVID-19 disease caused by the novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.  EPA/JEROME FAVRE

Hunger for yield

The attractions of high-yield offerings have been hard to resist. A 2019 report by Asian Private Banker and Julius Baer showed structured products made up 11 per cent of client portfolios for independent asset managers in 2018, up from 4 per cent in the previous year. Some 42 per cent of non-exchange-traded investment transactions were in such products, according to a 2018 survey by Hong Kong's Securities and Futures Commission.
The hunger for yield will persist as an impending global recession prompts a fresh wave of monetary stimulus and companies slash dividends to preserve capital. "We are seeing a mix of fear of missing out and fear itself – the allure of an annualised yield of 8 per cent to 10 per cent versus increasing risk aversion," says the CFA Institute's Ms Leung.
About $15bn to $20bn of new fixed coupon notes have been issued by private banks in Asia this year, a person with knowledge of the market estimated.
In South Korea, complex structured products have gained traction among both the well-heeled and retail investors, driving the total outstanding to 106 trillion won (Dh319.5bn) as of April 1.

For banks, it's a lucrative business. Investment banks make money from structuring the notes and try to manage their exposure by passing the risk on to other parties. The product is then sold by private bankers at the likes of UBS, Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley, Standard Chartered and DBS. Commissions come from sales to investors and banks can also pitch for additional fees by offering leverage. UBS, Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley and Standard Chartered declined to comment.
Such products have "proliferated" in recent years with banks making a strong push as they delivered good revenues, according to Nick Xiao, Hong Kong-based chief executive of wealth manager Hywin International. Investors liked the tailored features, he says, adding that as long as the risks are clear there shouldn't be complaints. "You cry foul when you bought an umbrella but found out it was a walking stick."
Kerry Goh, chief executive of multifamily office Kamet Capital Partners, is one investor who has heeded the risks and stayed away. He says he prefers to put the more than $1bn his firm manages into investments with more transparent pricing and ease of exit.
"While most pitches from our bankers are professional in laying out the returns and risks, we are aware of potential mis-selling, disguising these products as yield-enhancement products."