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Sri Lanka rupee debt rating downgraded to ‘CC’ by Fitch on debt restructure risks

ECONOMYNEXT – Fitch Ratings has downgraded Sri Lanka’s local currency rating to ‘CC’ from ‘CCC’ citing probable restructure of domestic debt.

“Sri Lanka continues to service its local-currency debt, but the downgrade of the Long-Term Local-Currency IDR reflects our view that a local-currency debt default is probable, in view of an untenably high domestic interest payment/revenue ratio, high interest costs, tight domestic financing conditions and rising local-currency debt/GDP in the context of high domestic fiscal financing requirements, which authorities forecast at about 8% of GDP in 2022,” the rating agency said.

The full statement is reproduced below:

Fitch Downgrades Sri Lanka’s Long-Term Local-Currency IDR to ‘CC’; Affirms ‘RD’ Foreign-Currency IDR

Thu 01 Dec, 2022 – 10:05 AM ET

Fitch Ratings – Hong Kong – 01 Dec 2022: Fitch Ratings has downgraded Sri Lanka’s Long-Term Local-Currency Issuer Default Rating (IDR) to ‘CC’, from ‘CCC’, and has affirmed the Long-Term Foreign-Currency IDR at ‘RD’ (Restricted Default). Fitch typically does not assign Outlooks to ratings of ‘CCC+’ or below.

Fitch has also removed the Long-Term Local-Currency IDR from Under Criteria Observation, on which it was placed on 14 July 2022, following the publication of the updated Sovereign Rating Criteria.

A full list of rating actions is at the end of this rating action commentary.

KEY RATING DRIVERS

Challenging Domestic Financing Outlook: Sri Lanka continues to service its local-currency debt, but the downgrade of the Long-Term Local-Currency IDR reflects our view that a local-currency debt default is probable, in view of an untenably high domestic interest payment/revenue ratio, high interest costs, tight domestic financing conditions and rising local-currency debt/GDP in the context of high domestic fiscal financing requirements, which authorities forecast at about 8% of GDP in 2022.

According to authorities, domestic interest payments in 8M22 were LKR718.8 billion, taking the domestic interest/revenue ratio to an estimated 56% in 8M22; the highest among sovereigns rated ‘CCC+’ and below. Reliance on central bank financing has increased, as domestic options are limited. Domestic debt rose to about 53% of government debt by end-July 2022, according to official provisional data. Treasury bill issuance has been increasing. We expect a local debt restructuring would aim to maintain financial system stability, for example, by extending maturities or lowering coupon payments, rather than a reduction in face value. Sri Lanka continues to service its local-currency debt.

External Debt Restructuring: The sovereign remains in default on foreign-currency obligations and has initiated a debt restructuring arrangement with official and private external creditors. The Ministry of Finance issued a statement on 12 April 2022 that it had suspended normal debt servicing of several categories of external debt, including bonds issued in international capital markets, foreign currency-denominated loan agreements and credit facilities with commercial banks and institutional lenders.

Fitch downgraded the Long-Term Foreign-Currency IDR to ‘RD’ following the expiry of the 30-day grace period on coupon payments that were due on 18 April 2022. A staff level agreement with the IMF was reached on 1 September for USD2.9 billion, for 48 months, under the Extended Fund Facility. The facility will not be approved until Sri Lanka has implemented agreed actions, financing assurances have been received from official creditors and good-faith efforts have been made to reach agreement with private creditors. The timing of completion of the external debt restructuring remains uncertain.

Banking Sector Faces Tight Liquidity: Sri Lankan banks’ access to foreign-currency funding is constrained by the sovereign default. Any local-currency debt restructuring would elevate funding and liquidity stress, given the predominance of local-currency funding, at 74% of the total, and large holdings of local currency-denominated government securities. A restructuring could necessitate recapitalisation by the government, though further regulatory forbearance measures could keep banks compliant with regulatory minimums on a reported basis, however, underlying capital positions could stay weak.

Budget Aims for Fiscal Consolidation: In the 2023 budget authorities aim to lower the deficit to 9.8% of GDP in 2022 and 7.9% of GDP in 2023, factoring in high revenue growth and a pickup in spending. It also aims to raise government revenue to 15% of GDP by 2025 and reduce public sector debt to no more than 100% of GDP over the medium term, in line with the IMF’s target of a primary surplus of 2.3% of GDP by 2025. We expect a contraction in GDP in 2023 and so are less optimistic on the government’s fiscal consolidation path. We expect general government debt/GDP to reach around 109% by end-2022.

Political Risks Weigh on Fiscal Outlook: Political instability could threaten reform implementation. The government’s parliamentary position appears strong, but the government lacks public support. This increases the risk of further destabilising protests if economic conditions do not improve or reforms generate public opposition. President Wickremesinghe was prime minister in the previous administration under President Rajapaksa, who was brought down by protests. Parliament and the government also remain dominated by politicians who are affiliated with the Rajapaksa family.

High Inflation: Inflation is high, although it has declined from its September peak of 69.8% as measured by the Colombo Consumer Price Index. We expect headline inflation to fall further in 2023 on easing domestic supply conditions, lower food prices and the impact of policy rate hikes. Risks remain, from a potential commodity-price shock, particularly owing to the war in Ukraine. Financing from the Central Bank has been a key funding source for the government, but a new Central Bank Act, may limit such financing in the future. We believe rate hikes have peaked, after a policy rate hike of 950bp in 2022.

Economy Contracting: Sri Lanka’s economy contracted by a sharp 4.8% yoy in 1H22 and we expect a full-year GDP contraction of 6.0%. There is still uncertainty about the pace of the country’s economic outlook in 2023, partly because the timing of the external debt restructuring is unknown. We forecast growth to contract by 2.2% in 2023 then to pick up in 2024 under our baseline.

ESG – Governance: Sri Lanka has an ESG Relevance Score of ‘5’ for Political Stability and Rights as well as for Rule of Law, Institutional and Regulatory Quality and Control of Corruption, as is the case for all sovereigns. This reflects the high weight World Bank Governance Indicators (WBGI) have in our proprietary Sovereign Rating Model. Sri Lanka has a medium WBGI ranking in the 46th percentile, reflecting a recent record of peaceful political transitions, and moderate levels of rights for participation in the political process, institutional capacity, established rule of law and a level of corruption.

ESG – Creditor Rights: Sri Lanka has an ESG Relevance Score of ‘5’ for Creditor Rights, as willingness to service and repay debt is highly relevant to the rating and is a key rating driver with a high weight. The downgrade of Sri Lanka’s Long-Term Foreign-Currency IDR to ‘RD’ reflects a default event.

RATING SENSITIVITIES

Factors that could, individually or collectively, lead to negative rating action/downgrade:

– The Long-Term Local-Currency IDR would be further downgraded if the government announces plans to restructure or defaults on its local currency-denominated debt.
Factors that could, individually or collectively, lead to positive rating action/upgrade:

– Completion of a commercial debt restructuring that Fitch judges to have normalised the relationship with private-sector creditors.

– The government puts local-currency debt service on a sustainable path, and avoids a default or debt restructuring.

SOVEREIGN RATING MODEL (SRM) AND QUALITATIVE OVERLAY (QO)

Fitch’s proprietary SRM assigns Sri Lanka a score equivalent to a rating of ‘CCC+’ on the Long-Term Foreign-Currency IDR scale. However, in accordance with its rating criteria, Fitch’s sovereign rating committee has not utilised the SRM and QO to explain the ratings in this instance. Ratings of ‘CCC+’ and below are instead guided by the rating definitions.

Fitch’s SRM is the agency’s proprietary multiple regression rating model that employs 18 variables based on three-year centred averages, including one year of forecasts, to produce a score equivalent to a Long-Term Foreign-Currency IDR. Fitch’s QO is a forward-looking qualitative framework designed to allow for adjustment to the SRM output to assign the final rating, reflecting factors within our criteria that are not fully quantifiable and/or not fully reflected in the SRM.
BEST/WORST CASE RATING SCENARIO

International scale credit ratings of Sovereigns, Public Finance and Infrastructure issuers have a best-case rating upgrade scenario (defined as the 99th percentile of rating transitions, measured in a positive direction) of three notches over a three-year rating horizon; and a worst-case rating downgrade scenario (defined as the 99th percentile of rating transitions, measured in a negative direction) of three notches over three years. The complete span of best- and worst-case scenario credit ratings for all rating categories ranges from ‘AAA’ to ‘D’. Best- and worst-case scenario credit ratings are based on historical performance. For more information about the methodology used to determine sector-specific best- and worst-case scenario credit ratings, visit https://www.fitchratings.com/site/re/10111579.

REFERENCES FOR SUBSTANTIALLY MATERIAL SOURCE CITED AS KEY DRIVER OF RATING

The principal sources of information used in the analysis are described in the Applicable Criteria.

ESG CONSIDERATIONS

Sri Lanka has an ESG Relevance Score of ‘5’ for Political Stability and Rights as WBGIs have the highest weight in Fitch’s SRM and are highly relevant to the rating and a key rating driver with a high weight. As Sri Lanka has a percentile rank below 50 for the respective governance indicator, this has a negative impact on the credit profile.

Sri Lanka has an ESG Relevance Score of ‘5’ for Rule of Law, Institutional & Regulatory Quality and Control of Corruption as WBGIs have the highest weight in Fitch’s SRM and are therefore highly relevant to the rating and are a key rating driver with a high weight. As Sri Lanka has a percentile rank below 50 for the respective governance indicators, this has a negative impact on the credit profile.

Sri Lanka has an ESG Relevance Score of ‘4’ for Human Rights and Political Freedoms, as the Voice and Accountability pillar of the WBGIs is relevant to the rating and a rating driver. As Sri Lanka has a percentile rank below 50 for the respective governance indicator, this has a negative impact on the credit profile.

Sri Lanka has an ESG Relevance Score of ‘5’ for Creditor Rights as willingness to service and repay debt is highly relevant to the rating and is a key rating driver with a high weight. The downgrade of Sri Lanka’s Long-Term Foreign-Currency IDR to ‘RD’ reflects a default event.

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Sri Lanka utility to continue power cuts, regulator says no

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s state-run Ceylon Electricity Board has decided to continue power cuts, as the dry season hits the country despite orders to give 24 hours of power.

The utility said its Board “has decided to continue the demand management programme” and it has informed the regulator of this decision on January 27.

The Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka said it had not approved the power cuts “as it violate and affect the rights of 331,000 students sitting for the Advanced Level exams.”

Sri Lanka’s CEB has high running costs due to long term scuttling of planned coal plants by activists and lastly President Maithripala Sirisena.

‘CEB’s costs went up as demand went up since the last coal plant opening and steady collapse of the currency from 131 to 182 to the US dollar due to open market operations unleashed to suppress rates and operate a flexible inflation targeting by the central bank.

Even more aggressive liquidity injections after 2020 to target an output gap then busted the currency from 182 to 360 to the US dollar.

CEB has to use extra fuel from around February to April 2022 as the dry season hits reducing hydro power.

Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission has ordered the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation to supply fuel and banks to give credit for extra power.

Power Minister Kanchana Wijesekera has alleged that CPC officials agreed under duress and threat of jail sentence to supply fuel.

The CEB has to cut power in case demand outstrips supply to maintain frequency at 50 Hz to avoid cascading failures, according to sector analysts. (Colombo/Jan28/2023)

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Sri Lanka president suspends parliament till Feb 08

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe has suspended parliament till February 08, according to a gazette notice.

Parliament will re-convene at 1000 am on January 08.

President Wickremesinghe told party leaders that he would make a speech, officially declaring his intention to give effect to the 13th amendment to the constitution on provincial councils.

Provincial councils, a power sharing arrangement backed by India as a solution to the ethnic Tamil have not yet been given police and land powers. (Colombo/Jan28/2023)

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Sri Lanka, other defaulting nations have widely differing debt indicators: Expert

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka other recently defaulting nations have widely differing debt indicators, and some other countries survive with even higher levels of debt, a US based analyst has said.

“If you look at the ratio of debt to GDP, the size of the economy the number is very high, mostly because there has been a lot of depreciation, so the debt in dollars keeps growing relative to GDP,” Sergai Lanau, Deputy Chief Economist at Washington based Institute of International Finance said.

“This is sometimes over-emphasized… but this ratio at 120 is a lot.”

He was speaking at a forum organized by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka.

“Just for a reference point about 6 or 7 years ago Italy’s debt was 120 percent GDP, there was a lot of concern in the Euro area and that is a country that has the ECB. So Sri Lanka at 120 is a lot.”

Italy however is in a monetary union with Euro which is a floating exchange rate without anchor conflicts and forex shortages and basic external payment problems.

Sri Lanka is trying to bring the ratio down to 95 percent by 2032 under an International Monetary Fund backed program, according to a leaked letter from India.

“Typically for many years there was as lot of emphasis on debt ratios, when people looked at debt restructuring – or at least economists,” Lanau said.

“And that is something that always puzzled bond traders who came from the corporate sector. For them it is all about the flows and gross financing needs.

“The IMF has shifted its focus a lot financing needs over the years and it is a less of a problem now.”

Ghana has defaulted and it is trying to reduce its debt from around 90 percent to below 60 percent by 2028. It is starting at a much lower level and correcting within a shorter period to an even lower level.

Sri Lanka’s debt ratio is high but it “may or may not be a constraint”, he said.

What the … was that?

The IMF’s default workout framework is a work in progress, which has changed over the years since mass defaults hit market market countries which were denied monetary stability through intermediate regimes especially in Latin America from the early 1980s.

Until 1980, when the so-called BBC policy (now called exchange rate as the first line of defence) where countries were encouraged to bust their currencies instead of withdrawing inflationary policy, sovereign defaults were not a problem.

“During the 1970s, the risk of sovereign default was not perceived as a major concern,” the IMF itself admits.

“Most “external arrears” generated by a country were created by exchange restrictions. For example, an importer might miss a payment because the authorities were slow to release foreign exchange.

“Sovereign default had not been a problem since the Second World War.

“Therefore, the IMF’s policy framework was not equipped to confront the complications that arose in the context of the sovereign debt difficulties that emerged in the 1980s.

“In fact, it took until 1980 for the IMF’s Executive Board even to agree that a default on sovereign debt should also be covered under the external arrears policy.”

Washington based policy circles began to prescribe, inconsistent, anchor conflicting intermediate regimes with aggressive open market operations to anyone who was willing to listen after the Fed floated, in the false belief that currencies fell due to ‘overvaluation’ and not liquidity injections.

Countries like Sri Lanka where there is no doctrinal foundation in sound money and no knowledge of classical monetary theory, were easy prey, critics say.

East Asia and Japan rejected such regimes. Malaysia is a prime example which despite not having a legal hard peg, fixed itself, repaid debt ahead of time, when tin and other commodity prices collapsed in the wake of Volcker tightening, while Latin America defaulted.

Elephant in the room

A country with a soft pegged central bank (flexible exchange rate or intermediate regime) will see debt rocket each time it suppresses interest rates to target a policy rate and triggers a currency crisis.

Once a currency crisis hits, on one had the domestic currency value of external debt which is denominated in dollars protecting sovereign bond holders, goes up.

Interest rates of domestic debt also have to go up to stop the money printing and halt forex shortages which can widen the overall deficit in the short term.

The currency collapse also kills purchasing power and the real economy slows or contracts.

Once the credibility of the exchange rate has been lost, due to excess money injected the country loses the ability to settle both imports and debt repayment by exchanging domestic money for dollars.

The reserves (savings of past years) are used for current imports and debt repayments more money is injected to sterilize the interventions to maintain the policy rate, reserves collected over several years are run down in a few months.

Falling reserves, a depreciating currency then trigger rating downgrades (usually due to so-called exchange rate of as the first line of defence which saw downgrades in 2018 and 2020 in Sri Lanka) and sovereign bond as yields soar, and market access is lost, triggering a default.

As reserves dwindle further due to holding the policy rate with new money, more downgrades follow.

Countries with flexible exchange rates/flexible inflation targeting with market access can default at virtually any level of debt, critics say.

Market Access

Sri Lanka’s debt to GDP ratio shot up over 100 percent and lost almost all its reserves following a currency crisis in 2000/2001.

But at the time (or in earlier soft-peg crises in 1988/89 and earlier) the country did not have market access and bullet repayment debt.

In Sri Lanka bonds are big part of the country’s debt.

“Once you have lost market access there is virtually no level of gross financing needs that is sustainable,” Lanau said.

Analysts say the once market access has been lost, and the IMF declares that debt is unsustainable, which blocks the World Bank and ADB from giving loans, default is almost certain.

Argentina which has the archetypal soft-pegged Latin America central bank, which sterilizes interventions, strikes zeros off the peso at intervals and get into forex trouble.

“The country got into an IMF program in mid-2018, it was a very optimistic set of IMF targets, policy adjustments,” Lanau said.

“And this IMF program did not work and the situation got critical in August 2019 at which point Argentina defaulted.”

In March 2020 the IMF had presented a debt sustainability analysis where it was expected to to get its debt to 40 percent of GDP by 2030 and foreign exchange debt service to 3 percent of GDP, Lanau said, compared to 4.5 percent for Sri Lanka to make debt sustainable.

Ecuador which had a successful pre-emptive debt re-structuring, had debt levels of around 60 percent when it went talked to bond holders.

It was an ‘easy re-structuring, Lanau said.

It was a “lot about a bunch of maturities coming due in very few years as opposed to a very high debt ratio or a situation that was very unsustainable economically.”

Ecuador however is a dollarized country where its central bank effectively died in the 1990s after the sucre collapsed to 25,000 to the US dollar.

The Central Bank of Ecuador is no longer capable of creating forex shortages or driving the people to starvation and external debt is effectively in domestic currency.

Ecuador’s gross financing needs are now down to around mid single digits, while Sri Lanka’s has shot up to around 30 percent of GDP following the currency collapse.

Ecuador central bank was set up by Edwin Kemmerer, a US money doctor, with a gold peg (no obstinate policy rate) but was corrupted in 1947 by Robert Triffin, a US Keynesian who set up Argentina style central banks in several Latin America countries that frequently defaulted from the 1980s.

Sri Lanka’s central bank was also set up in 1950 by a US money doctor with broadly similar sterilizing powers.

Sri Lanka also started to depreciate the currency from around 1980 without withdrawing inflationary policy (an earlier re-incarnation of first line of defence strategy) triggering strikes, social unrest but no sovereign default due to lack of market access.

Sovereign defaults were mostly absent during the Bretton Woods era even in Latin America when countries maintained their pegs more or less with complementary monetary policy and the IMF also supported external anchors.

However after 1980 when the US tightened policy under Chairman Paul Volcker there were widespread defaults in pegged Latin American countries which did not hike rates in tandem or sterilized interventions (resisted the BOP) trying to operate independent monetary policy.

Now there are a number of market access countries in Africa and Asia with reserve collecting central bank which are trying to operate flexible inflation targeting, another monetary policy which are in conflict with the balance of payments which are ripe for serial currency crises and default.

Clean floating central bank do not use foreign reserves for imports nor collects them. (Colombo/Dec27/2022)

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