Saudi Arabia’s first international debt sale has generated so much interest from Asian investors that the kingdom is weighing a full pipeline of bonds to follow a $15bn initial auction as early as October, according to bankers briefed on the sale.
The clamour for Saudi sovereign debt, which could be the largest emerging market issuance in history, comes as record-low interest rates in mature economies has prompted investors to pour money into developing markets at a record pace, overlooking the risks in some of the world’s least stable economies.
“We are seeing massive, massive demand,” said one banker of the Saudi debt. “Asian banks are throwing around billion-dollar numbers.”
Saudi Arabian leaders are expected to discuss their plans with potential investors at next week’s Group of 20 meeting in China, bankers say.
Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the 31-year-old responsible for the kingdom’s ambitious economic and social reforms, is also planning to visit Japan this week and will chair the kingdom’s G20 delegation in China.
Saudi officials surprised the financial markets earlier this year by hiring bankers to raise international debt, underlining the extent of the economic downturn after an extended oil boom had erased the memory of previous crashes.
Spurred by the collapse in energy prices, Prince Mohammed has spearheaded a sweeping reform programme aimed at diversifying the kingdom’s economy away from dependence on oil reserves. The $15bn offering, expected to come as early as October, is also expected to pave the way for the biggest initial public offering of all time by state oil producer Saudi Aramco.
Detailed plans for the sovereign debt sale are unlikely to be set until after the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha, with many government offices not expected to reopen until September 18.
A roadshow to sell the landmark issuance — which will set the final size and tenor of the deal — could then begin at the start of October with the deal potentially closing around the time of the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in Washington on October 7-9.
Bankers say Saudi government entities, lenders and private corporations are also lining up their own debt issuance to follow in the wake of the sovereign launch.
“Everyone is waiting to see how the appetite will turn out for the government, and at what price, which can then be used as a benchmark,” said a second banker. “There should be some other issuance before the end of the year.”
Saudi Arabia is seen as a safer investment than other emerging economies because it remains nearly debt free and has the world’s largest oil reserves. But it is also benefiting from the desperate hunger for yield among investors starved by record-low interest rates in Europe, the UK and Japan.
Bankers say Asian investors not previously seen in emerging market bond transactions are helping to raise order books to new highs as negative interest rates in Japan leave the majority of Japanese government bonds trading in sub-zero territory.
The demand has prompted countries from Qatar to Mexico to ramp up their borrowing plans, leading JPMorgan to predict that 2016 will set a new record in emerging market sovereign bond sales.
Earlier this year, Argentina ended 15 years in market exile with a sale of debt that attracted bids of more than $70bn. Like Saudi Arabia, the Latin American country had originally planned to borrow $15bn but raised the sum issued to $16.5bn as the result of investor interest.
Initial soundings have shown strong Asian demand for the Saudis’ 30-year paper, while US investors prefer a 10-year maturity.
Riyadh may return to market with a second tranche next year if oil prices remain below $50 a barrel, the second banker said.
Government finances have been hit hard by the sustained slump in oil prices, slowing the overall economy and forcing Riyadh to plunder its foreign reserves and borrow locally, which is further squeezing a private sector already hit by late payments from state entities.
The world’s three largest credit rating agencies — Moody’s, S&P Global Ratings and Fitch — all downgraded Saudi Arabia’s credit rating this year, citing the impact of lower oil prices.