Global fixed-income specialist Pimco intends to introduce an Asian local-currency bond fund sometime this year, says Brian Baker, Hong Kong-based CEO and director of the firmÆs Asia ex-Japan business.

Late in 2007 Pimco won a mandate from an Asian central bank to manage a US dollar-denominated Asian bond mandate (the central bank also issued a local-currency mandate to another fund house), which in PimcoÆs view has demonstrated emerging demand by institutional investors for Asian bonds as an asset class.

Pimco already manages around $4 billion in a global local-currency bond product, and it won the central bank mandate by isolating the performance from the Asian units represented therein. Since then it has been running the Asian piece internally on a standalone basis under the direction of Lian Chia-liang, Singapore-based head of Asian fixed income. His team is now working on structuring a standalone product.

In the meantime Baker and his business development people are gauging interest in Asian local currency among investors both in Asia and worldwide. Baker expects the most demand to come from US and European institutions seeking diversification and access to appreciating Asian currencies.

But Baker admits the firm is not certain what kind of reception this product will receive. He says it has not set a target for asset raising, and notes a few potential challenges in marketing it.

For Asia-based institutions, including central banks and public funds, the asset class has not held as much interest. They have local-currency holdings already and so the diversification story is limited.

Moreover, third-party uptake of the Asian Bond Fund 2, managed by State Street Global Advisors and originally seeded by Asia-Pacific monetary authorities, has been modest. Active Asian bond funds managed by other fund houses have not seen huge asset inflows, Baker adds. One reason could be fears over rising interest rates in many Asian jurisdictions, including China, Korea and Taiwan.

But Pimco plans to forge ahead and launch some time in 2008. The interest-rate story could change, if Asian governments decide they need to start cutting rates in order to maintain their currency arrangements without suffering losses in US dollar holdings at a time when the US Federal Reserve is slashing rates. More strategically, the product would deepen PimcoÆs range. Lastly, Baker says the firmÆs performance in emerging-market and Asian local-currency bonds has been good enough to attract investors.