The risk of corporate bond defaults in Vietnam will keep increasing unless legal loopholes in the market are plugged, according to experts.

Department of Banking and Financial Institutions deputy director Nguyen Hoang Duong noted that total corporate bond issuance in Vietnam had been rising steadily since the second quarter of last year.

Around 658 trillion dong ($29.1 billion) worth of bonds were issued in 2021, up 42 per cent year-on-year.

Private placement took up the lion’s share of over 95 per cent of bond issuance, whereas the rest went to public offering.

The rapid growth of the corporate bond market has attracted much interest from individuals.

However, individuals are not eligible for private placement according to securities law. It is only available to strategic investors and professional investors.

Given such a legal barrier, some banks, financial institutions and counselling organisations have begun to exploit loopholes to turn individuals into professional investors.

This practice is not illegal but puts non-professional bondholders at risk of bond defaults.

“Individuals are just individuals. They are not fully aware of the risks carried by the bonds they’ve bought or by the issuers,” said the deputy director.

By late in the third quarter, nearly 300,000 individuals had put their money in corporate bonds.

According to Duong, many loss-making firms and small firms with low equity have managed to raise a large amount of money through bonds.

Some bond issuers do not use the proceeds for their stated purposes. Instead, they transfer the money to other organisations, which turn out to be the actual beneficiaries of the bond revenues.

Several securities firms also get in on the act by providing issuers with favourable issuance documents to help them draw in money more easily.

The risk of bond defaults is high. Regardless, a lot of investors keep pouring their money into corporate bonds and turn deaf ears to any warnings.

“Many experts advised the Ministry of Finance to allow several bond defaults to occur, so individuals and investors could become more aware of the risk,” Duong said.

FiinGroup JSC chairman Nguyen Quang Thuan said that a large number of bond issuers were financially weak with a low ability to repay, notably unlisted ones.

According to Thuan, 94 out of 383 issuers in 2021 had been accumulating losses, 81 were running at a loss in 2020 and 121 offered bonds with no collateral.

“I want to remind investors, especially non-professional investors, that even professional banks have bad debts. Accordingly, bonds are not risk-free or default-free. It is all about when a default will occur,” warned the chairman.

Vietnam Bond Market Association secretary-general Do Ngoc Quynh believes both professional and non-professional investors will be at risk if the exodus of individuals to the bond market is left unchecked.

To reduce the risk of a bond default, he called for a crackdown on issuers that have manoeuvred to raise money from investors.

Duong believes bond defaults would be detrimental to the financial system as there might be strong links between bonds and banks and financial institutions.

The deputy director urged authorities to continue to refine the legal framework to reduce the market’s risks, safeguard investors and maintain the market’s stability.

In 2021, 56 per cent of corporate bondholders were banks and securities firms. Professional individuals accounted for 8.6 per cent.

Regarding bond issuers, listed firms took up about 54 per cent, whereas unlisted firms took about 46 per cent.