Fitch Downgrades Sri Lanka to ‘B-‘; Outlook Negative

Fitch Ratings – Hong Kong – 24 Apr 2020: Fitch Ratings has downgraded Sri Lanka’s Long-Term Foreign- and Local-Currency Issuer Default Ratings (IDR) to ‘B-‘, from ‘B’. The Outlook is Negative.  

KEY RATING DRIVERS

The downgrade of Sri Lanka’s IDRs reflects the following key rating drivers. The shock to Sri Lanka’s economy from the coronavirus pandemic will exacerbate already-rising public and external debt sustainability challenges following tax cuts and an associated shift in fiscal policy late last year. The pandemic will especially hurt the tourism sector, which, combined with weaker domestic demand, will further damage Sri Lanka’s public and external finance metrics. Sri Lanka’s external financing challenges have increased in the current environment of global risk aversion and financial market volatility, with large upcoming external debt redemptions and limited foreign-currency (FX) reserves. Its reserves are about USD7.2 billion, while the sovereign’s external debt payments from May to December 2020 amount to USD3.2 billion, including a USD1.0 billion international sovereign bond payment due in October. Fitch estimates Sri Lanka’s external liquidity ratio, defined as liquid external assets/external liabilities, at about 64%, among the weakest in the ‘B’ rating category. The authorities are seeking to meet external funding needs in 2020 through multilateral and bilateral support, but securing these funds could be challenging due to the pandemic and its effect on global liquidity and financing conditions. Our projections assume the sovereign will not have access to international bond markets in 2020. Fitch understands that the government is in discussion with various parties, including regional central banks on the use of possible bilateral swap lines and the IMF on its Rapid Financing Instrument for Covid-19-related funding. However, even after such support, the country’s FX debt service obligations and financing challenges will remain substantial over the medium term. Official figures suggest roughly USD13.8 billion of FX debt will come due over 2021-2023. Fitch expects the budget deficit to widen to 9.3% of GDP in 2020, from an estimated 6.8% in 2019. This is weaker than the authorities’ forecast of 7.5%, as we expect significantly lower revenue due to the impact of the pandemic on economic activity and the spillover of tax cuts announced late last year. We also anticipate that authorities may need to increase spending over time to support the economy, although they have yet to formalise any large scale measures beyond 0.2% of GDP for relief to vulnerable groups. General government debt is high and the pandemic has increased risks to public debt sustainability. Our baseline forecast is for gross general government debt/GDP to rise to about 94% in 2020 and 96% in 2021, from an estimated 87% in 2019, and to continue rising, increasing the risk of debt distress. This will see gross general government debt stay far greater than the ‘B’ median of 52%. Fitch forecasts GDP to contract by 1.0% in 2020, from 2.3% growth in 2019, on account of the pandemic. Sri Lanka has so far recorded a relatively small number of coronavirus cases, and authorities have begun to loosen lockdown restrictions. Nevertheless, private consumption, which makes up almost 70% of GDP, is likely to stay muted as a result of partial lockdowns, domestic travel restrictions, and other social distancing measures. Travel and tourism, which the World Bank says accounts for 12.5% of Sri Lanka’s GDP, will be particularly hard-hit, with commercial flights into the country suspended. We expect GDP growth of 4% in 2021 on the basis of a gradual recovery in tourism receipts beginning in late 2020. However, this forecast is subject to an unusually high degree of uncertainty and downside risk, depending on the evolution of the pandemic both within Sri Lanka and globally. The Negative Outlook reflects our view that risks are skewed clearly to the downside. The central bank has responded to market pressures by ensuring liquidity and allowing the currency to adjust, thereby protecting reserves. Nevertheless, capital outflow pressure and market refinancing risks remain in the current risk-averse environment. The potential for an economic recovery in 2021 hinges on an early return of tourism receipts and increasing domestic activity, which is highly uncertain and is dependent on the course of the pandemic. A second wave of infections that prompt further periodic lockdowns would result in weaker GDP for 2020 and 2021. Sri Lanka’s ‘B-‘ IDR also reflects the following key rating drivers: Parliamentary elections set for April 2020 have been postponed because of health concerns from the pandemic and have been provisionally rescheduled for June, but the timing could be further delayed as circumstances warrant. The delay has prolonged policy uncertainty. This, in turn, has made it difficult to complete the seventh and final review under the IMF Extended Fund Facility arrangement. Discussions over a new arrangement may be possible only after the parliamentary elections and once next year’s budget is approved. The discussions could also be complicated by the challenge of reaching an agreement on policies to place Sri Lanka’s public finances on a sustainable path. A decline in tourism, lower remittances, and weaker exports are likely to widen the current account deficit to 3.3% of GDP this year – despite some relief from lower oil prices – from 2.2% in 2019, before narrowing to 2.3% in 2021, in line with our expectations for a gradual recovery in the global economy. Large interest payments as a share of revenue of around 65%, according to Fitch estimates for 2020, a low fiscal revenue ratio and high public debt/revenue ratio continue to highlight the weak structure of Sri Lanka’s public finances. The government debt/revenue ratio was about 690% in 2019, significantly higher than the ‘B’ median of 258%. FX debt continues to be about half of total government debt, leaving Sri Lanka’s public finances vulnerable to renewed currency depreciation. Sri Lanka’s basic human development indicators, including education standards, are high compared with the ‘B’ and ‘BB’ medians, based on the UN Human Development Index Score, which positions Sri Lanka in the 60th percentile, well above the 37th percentile for the ‘B’ median. The country’s per capita income of USD3,939 at end-2019 is also modestly above the ‘B’ median of USD3,335. Fitch’s banking sector outlook was revised to negative in March, reflecting a more challenging operating environment due to the pandemic, which has pressured banks’ asset quality and profitability. Demand for credit is likely to remain muted in 2020 due to the weaker growth outlook. Authorities took a range of measures since the Easter terrorist attacks in 2019 to accelerate loan growth, including lending rate caps and policy rate cuts totalling 100bp, but Sri Lanka’s gross loans rose by just 5.6% in 2019, the slowest rate since 2009. ESG – Governance: Sri Lanka has an ESG Relevance Score of ‘5’ for Political Stability and Rights as well as for the Rule of Law, Institutional and Regulatory Quality and Control of Corruption, as is the case for all sovereigns. These scores reflect the high weight that the World Bank Governance Indicators have in our proprietary Sovereign Rating Model. Sri Lanka has a medium World Bank Governance Indicator ranking in the 46th percentile, reflecting a recent record of peaceful political transitions, a moderate level of rights for participation in the political process, moderate institutional capacity, established rule of law and a moderate level of corruption.  

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

Fitch’s proprietary SRM assigns Sri Lanka a score equivalent to a rating of ‘B’ on the Long-Term Foreign-Currency IDR scale. Fitch’s sovereign rating committee adjusted the output from the SRM to arrive at the final Long-Term Foreign-Currency IDR by applying its QO, relative to rated peers, as follows: External Finances: -1 notch to reflect high refinancing needs and greater uncertainty surrounding financing availability in the short term, as well as a low level of FX reserves that leaves the external position vulnerable to adverse shifts in investor sentiment. 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.  

RATING SENSITIVITIES

Factors that Could, Individually or Collectively, Lead to Negative Rating Action/Downgrade: – Further increase in external funding stress, reflected in a narrowing of funding options and weaker refinancing capacity that threatens the ability to meet external debt repayments – Prolonged policy uncertainty that contributes to a loss of investor confidence – Failure to arrest the upward trajectory of the general government debt/GDP ratio, potentially reflecting an inability to constrain the fiscal deficit Factors that Could, Individually or Collectively, Lead to Positive Rating Action/Upgrade: – Improvement in external finances, supported by higher non-debt inflows or a reduction in external sovereign refinancing risks from an improved liability profile – Improved policy coherence and credibility, leading to more sustainable public and external finances and a reduction in the risk of debt distress – Stronger public finances, underpinned by a credible medium-term fiscal consolidation strategy  

BEST/WORST CASE RATING SCENARIO

International scale credit ratings of Public Finance 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.  

KEY ASSUMPTIONS

The global tourism industry experiences a gradual recovery from late 2020 or early 2021 after the initial, sharp shock from the pandemic this year. Global economic assumptions are consistent with Fitch’s latest Global Economic Outlook.  

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 World Bank Governance Indicators have the highest weight in Fitch’s SRM and are highly relevant to the rating and a key rating driver with a high weight. Sri Lanka has an ESG Relevance Score of 5 for Rule of Law, Institutional & Regulatory Quality and Control of Corruption as World Bank Governance Indicators 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. Sri Lanka has an ESG Relevance Score of 4 for Human Rights and Political Freedoms, as strong social stability and voice and accountability are reflected in the World Bank Governance Indicators that have the highest weight in the SRM. They are relevant to the rating and a rating driver. Sri Lanka has an ESG Relevance Score of 4 for Creditor Rights, as willingness to service and repay debt is relevant to the rating and is a rating driver for the U.S., as for all sovereigns. Except for the matters discussed above, the highest level of ESG credit relevance, if present, is a score of 3. This means ESG issues are credit-neutral or have only a minimal credit impact on the entity, either due to their nature or to the way in which they are being managed by the entity. For more information on Fitch’s ESG Relevance Scores, visit www.fitchratings.com/esg

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