ECONOMYNEXT - Fitch Ratings has downgraded Sri Lanka by one notch to 'B+' from 'BB-' with a negative outlook at the lower level, on falling foreign reserves, high debt maturities and lack of policy coherence.
Sri Lanka's sovereign rating is now four levels below the lowest investment grade rating.
Sri Lanka external liquidity ratio was too far below BB and even B rated countries, Fitch said.
"The Sri Lankan sovereign faces increased refinancing risks on account of high upcoming external debt maturities, the rating agency said.
"Further, the sovereign's external liquidity position remains strained, reflecting pressure on foreign exchange reserves.
"In Fitch's view, this partly reflects a weakening in policy coherence that increases the likelihood of Sri Lanka requiring external liquidity support from the IMF and other multilateral institutions."
The full rating commentary is reproduced below:
Fitch Downgrades Sri Lanka to 'B+'; Outlook Negative
Fitch Ratings-Hong Kong-29 February 2016: Fitch Ratings has downgraded Sri Lanka's Long-Term Foreign- and Local-Currency Issuer Default Ratings (IDRs) to 'B+' from 'BB-'. A Negative Outlook has been assigned to the IDRs. The issue ratings on Sri Lanka's senior unsecured foreign- and local-currency bonds are also downgraded to 'B+' from 'BB-'. The Country Ceiling is downgraded to 'B+' from 'BB-' and the Short-Term Foreign-Currency IDR is affirmed at 'B'.
KEY RATING DRIVERS
The rating action reflects the following key rating drivers:
- Increasing refinancing risks. The Sri Lankan sovereign faces increased refinancing risks on account of high upcoming external debt maturities. Further, the sovereign's external liquidity position remains strained, reflecting pressure on foreign exchange reserves. In Fitch's view, this partly reflects a weakening in policy coherence that increases the likelihood of Sri Lanka requiring external liquidity support from the IMF and other multilateral institutions. Sri Lanka's external liquidity ratio, as measured by Fitch at the end of 2015, was 70.9%, which is far below the median of 'B'-rated peers' of 171.9% and the 'BB' median of 152.4%.
- Significant debt maturities. Sri Lanka faces significant debt maturities in 2016 amid the country's vulnerability to a shift in investor sentiment. Fitch estimates the sovereign's external debt service to be close to USD4bn for the rest of 2016, compared with FX reserves of USD6.3bn (end-January 2016). Sri Lanka's vulnerability to a shift in investor sentiment was evident when investors sold-off the equivalent of nearly USD2bn in local-currency government securities in 2015. A further outflow from treasury bills and treasury bonds, which account for about 31% of the country's FX reserves, could put more pressure on reserves. However, prevailing low oil prices will continue to support Sri Lanka's current-account deficit in the near term. Fitch expects the current-account deficit to remain manageable at about 3% of GDP over 2016-17.
- Weaker public finances. The deterioration in Sri Lanka's fiscal finances is driven partly by consistently low general government revenues. At an estimated 13% of GDP, Sri Lanka's gross general government revenues remain far below the 'B' median of 25.4% and the 'BB' median of 26%. The 2016 budget did little to address this issue directly and absent any significant fiscal consolidation, Fitch expects continued fiscal slippage over 2016-17. Sri Lanka's gross general government debt (GGGD) burden is estimated to have increased to more than 75% of GDP by the end of 2015, up from 71% at the end of 2014 and much higher than the 'B' median of 52% of GDP and 'BB' median of 43.6%.
- Decline in foreign-exchange reserves. Fitch has revised downwards its forecast for foreign-exchange reserves, with reserve coverage of current external payments now forecast to decline to 2.9 months in 2016 from an estimated 3.4 months in 2015. This forecast compares unfavourably with Fitch's earlier forecast of 3.9 months for 2016 and is well below the 'BB' median of 4.2 months. While the authorities have undertaken certain measures to support external finances, including entering into bilateral swaps with other central banks, Fitch does not view this to be a sustainable way to improve the stability of the external finances.
- Foreign-currency debt portion remains high. Sri Lanka has also increased its issuance of foreign-currency debt, which Fitch estimates now makes up close to 46% of total public debt, up from nearly 42% at the end of 2014. This has increased vulnerability of Sri Lanka's public debt to a significant depreciation of the exchange rate, which would increase the debt burden in local currency terms.
- Favourable economic growth. Sri Lanka's macroeconomic performance remains stronger than some of its peers' in the 'B' and 'BB' range with real GDP growth for the five-year period ending 2015 averaging close to 6%, compared with the 'B' median of 4.6% and 'BB' median of 3.9%. Sri Lanka also continues to score highly, compared with the 'B' median, on basic human development indicators, such as education, health and literacy, which is indicated by its favourable ranking in the UN's Human Development Index. These relative structural strengths, combined with a clean external debt service record and smooth transition of power during the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015 indicates a basic level of political stability, which supports the rating at 'B+'.
The Negative Outlook reflects the following risk factors that could, individually or collectively, result in a downgrade of the ratings:
- A further increase in external vulnerability driven by a sustained decline in FX reserves reflecting, for instance, reduced international market access and/or a sudden reversal in portfolio inflows.
- A further deterioration in policy coherence and credibility that widens macroeconomic imbalances and/or heightens external vulnerabilities.