Saturday, February 21, 2015

21/2/15: Moody's Downgrade: Russia Risks and Politics

Moody's downgraded Russian sovereign debt last night from Baa3 to Ba1 with negative outlook. Moody's put Russian ratings on a review back on January 16.

The bases for the downgrade were (quotes from Moody's statement):

  1. "The continuing crisis in Ukraine and the recent oil price and exchange rate shocks will further undermine Russia's economic strength and medium-term growth prospects, despite the fiscal and monetary policy responses". In more specific terms, "Russia is expected to experience a deep recession in 2015 and a continued contraction in 2016. The decline in confidence is likely to constrain domestic demand and exacerbate the Russian economy's already chronic underinvestment. It is unlikely that the impact of recent events will be transitory. The crisis in Ukraine continues. While the fall in the oil price and the exchange rate have reversed somewhat since the start of the year, the impact on inflation, confidence and growth is likely to be sustained." As I noted on numerous occasions before, monetary policy environment remains highly challenging. Per Moody's "The monetary authorities face the conflicting objectives of keeping interest rates high enough to restrain the exchange rate and bring down inflation and keeping rates low enough to reinvigorate economic growth and bank solvency."
  2. "The government's financial strength will diminish materially as a result of fiscal pressures and the continued erosion of Russia's foreign exchange (FX) reserves in light of ongoing capital outflows and restricted access to international capital markets." I will post a quick note on this matter later today, so stay tuned. Here's Moody's view: "Taking at face value the government's plans to proceed with its planned fiscal consolidation for 2015, Moody's expects a consolidated government deficit of approximately RUB1.6 trillion (2% of GDP) as well as a widening of the non-oil deficit. The deficit would likely be financed by drawing on the Reserve Fund, which is specifically designed for circumstances when oil prices fall below budgeted levels. Moody's also expects that widespread demands for fiscal easing are likely to emerge if, as the rating agency projects, the recession persists into 2016. In a scenario in which the government would turn to borrowing in the domestic market to finance at least a share of these deficits, higher spending could result in an increase of the debt-to-GDP ratio to 20% or more."
  3. "The risk is rising, although still very low, that the international response to the military conflict in Ukraine triggers a decision by the Russian authorities that directly or indirectly undermines timely payments on external debt service." In other words, we are facing a political risk. Capital controls and debt repayment stops are two key risks here and these were visible for some time now, especially if you have followed my writing on the Russian crisis.

What's the driver for the negative outlook? Uncertainty. Per Moody's: "The negative outlook on the Ba1 rating reflects Moody's view that the balance of economic, financial and political risks in Russia is slanted to the downside, with scenarios incorporating either an escalation of the Ukraine crisis and/or damage caused by recent shocks being greater than in Moody's baseline scenario. Essentially, the probabilities associated with the downside scenarios are higher than those associated with an upside scenario in which the recession is shorter and shallower than Moody's baseline."

Conclusion: an ugly, but predictable move by Moody's. One can say part of it is down to rating agencies activism in trying to establish some sense of credibility post-Global Financial Crisis, whereby getting tougher on ratings is a major objective, and it is well-served by getting tougher on politically softer targets, like Russia. But one can equally argue that the ratings downgrade is consistent with economic environment and some longer-run fundamentals. My view would be is that we are seeing both, with the balance of impetus tilted toward the latter argument.

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