Fitch Affirms Sri Lanka at 'BB-'; Outlook Stable
Fitch Ratings-Hong Kong-04 July 2012: This announcement amends the version published on 4 May 2012 to include the disclosure that The Central Bank of Sri Lanka has a 10% equity stake in Fitch Ratings Lanka Ltd.
Fitch Ratings has affirmed Sri Lanka's Foreign- and Local-Currency IDRs at 'BB-'. The Outlook for both ratings is Stable. The Country Ceiling has also been affirmed at 'BB-', and the Short-Term Foreign Currency IDR at 'B'.
"The ratings reflect Fitch's view that the authorities have taken the appropriate action to correct recent pressure on the balance of payments and place it on a more sustainable trajectory," said Philip McNicholas, Director in Fitch's Asia-Pacific Sovereign Ratings group. "Given the weakened state of Sri Lanka's external finances and a heavy external debt refinancing schedule through to 2013, the authorities' ability to persist with policies that address existing macroeconomic imbalances and improving external liquidity is crucial."
Although Sri Lanka was able to record real GDP growth over 8% for the second consecutive year in 2011, such economic performance, coupled with policy missteps, resulted in the current account deficit rapidly widening to 7.8% of GDP from 2.2% in 2010. This, in conjunction with deterioration in the external economic environment and limited currency flexibility, led to balance of payment pressures and in turn a sharp depletion of foreign exchange (FX) reserves to USD5.8bn (3.4 months of imports) in January 2012 from USD8.1bn (equivalent to 5.7 months of imports) in July 2011.
The pace of deterioration in external buffers, rather than their level, is Fitch's main focus. The level of FX reserves meets with international conventions and does not indicate an immediate risk of substantial balance of payments stress. However, Fitch believes the rapid depletion of FX reserves in H211 has heightened the vulnerability of the Sri Lankan sovereign credit profile to a spike in global risk aversion.
Therefore, the resumption of IMF tranche disbursements following the implementation of policy measures aimed at macroeconomic rebalancing is a positive development. More importantly, measures implemented by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka and the government since February 2012 have tightened monetary conditions and could help Sri Lanka to return to a more sustainable GDP growth trajectory over the long-term.
In the near-term, certain policy measures have resulted in adverse risks to both growth and inflation that have the potential to impact policy consistency. Due to the authorities' pro-growth bias and the fragile balance of payments, Fitch believes developments in the coming months warrant close monitoring.
Fitch notes that the government has been able to rationalise expenditure and continue consolidation efforts despite lower-than-expected fiscal revenues. As a result, the fiscal deficit (including grants) narrowed to 6.9% of GDP in 2011 from 8% in 2010 and public debt declined to 78.5% of GDP from 81.9%. Further simplification of the tax system could bolster measures announced in previous budgets and aid in the attraction of greater foreign direct investment inflows.
Successful implementation and persistent application of policies aimed at improving external liquidity, including further monetary tightening if required, would support the ratings. Concerted efforts to persist with fiscal consolidation, by both enhancing the tax revenue base and rationalising expenditure, in tandem with lowering public debt would be supportive of Sri Lanka's ratings.
Conversely, reversal of policy measures leading to further balance of payment pressure would be negative for the ratings. Further FX reserve depletion, resulting from domestic policy or an external shock would likely have the same effect. Deterioration in public debt and budget deficit ratios owing to revenue shortfalls and/or failure to rationalise expenditure would also be negative for the ratings.