Fitch Downgrades Nigeria to ‘B’ on Weak Fiscal Buffers

fiscal buffers

By Dipo Olowookere

Nigeria’s Long-Term Foreign-Currency Issuer Default Rating (IDR) has been downgraded to ‘B’ from ‘B+ by Fitch Ratings, with the outlook negative.

In a statement issued on Monday, Fitch noted that the lowering of the rating was due to the pressures on the country’s external finances caused by crash in the prices of crude oil at the global market by coronavirus pandemic.

The Brent crude, under which Nigeria’s oil is priced, sold around $23 per barrel some weeks ago and only last week hit just over $30 when news hit town that Saudi and Russia will likely have discussions about the market situation.

Nigeria depends largely on crude oil sales for external revenue and according to Fitch, the intensifying external pressures raise risks of disruptive macroeconomic adjustment given the country’s “precarious monetary and exchange rate policy setting and lack of fiscal buffers.”

It said the shock will also raise government debt and interest payment-to-revenue ratios from already particularly high levels and lead to a renewed economic recession.

Fitch said the shock will worsen the overvaluation of the Naira and remedial policy actions taken by the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), which it stressed will not “suffice to address deteriorating external imbalances.”

The CBN allowed the exchange rate on the Investor and Exporter Window, on which the bulk of foreign-currency (FC) transactions is held, to depreciate by 6.7 percent since mid-January and devalued the official exchange rate by 15 percent in March, the rating agency stated.

According to Fitch, Nigeria’s vulnerability to short-term capital outflows is high given the sizeable stock of portfolio investments in short-term Naira debt securities, equivalent to $27.7 billion (6.9 percent of GDP) at end-2019 and representing around 72 percent of FC reserves at the time.

“Of these liabilities, $14.7 billion was in non-resident investments in the CBN’s open-market operation bills that were attracted by high interest rates and hedging instruments offered to non-residents at non-economic costs under the CBN’s policy of stabilising the exchange rate.

“Continued reluctance to adjust the exchange rate, portfolio outflows and a wide current-account deficit (CAD) will lead FC reserves to fall to 2.5 months of current account payments at end-2020 under our forecasts, well below the historical ‘B’ median of 3.8 months, and their lowest level since 1994.

“We estimate that the CAD will widen to a record level of 4.9 percent of GDP in 2020, exceeding the historical ‘B’ median of 4.3%, under our assumption of only modest depreciation of the Naira.

“Nigeria’s long-standing current account surplus shifted to a deficit of 4.2 percent of GDP in 2019 on an upsurge in imports, chiefly of equipment goods.

“We project the CAD to narrow to 1.8 percent in 2021 reflecting partial recovery of oil prices to $45/b, import compression and tighter restrictions on FC access,” the agency said.

It further said the country’s external finances are highly vulnerable to a further fall in international oil prices below the current forecasts of about $34/b.

It noted that despite the expiry of production caps under the OPEC+ agreement, there is little scope to ramp up Nigeria’s oil production beyond the current assumption of 2.1 mbpd given capacity constraints and the build-up of a global supply glut on oil markets.

“Under a stable oil production assumption, a $10 drop in average Brent benchmark prices below our current projection would cause the CAD to widen by an additional 1.6 percent of GDP.

“Furthermore, the domestic oil sector’s operational breakeven is around $25-30/barrel, based on official estimates, meaning production cuts are likely should oil prices continue to hover well below $30/barrel,” it said.

Fitch further said the collapse in oil revenues and the slowdown in economic activity will take a toll on the government’s already weak fiscal revenues.

“This will be partly cushioned by the devaluation of the official exchange rate, which will boost fiscal oil revenues in Naira terms.

“In addition, the fall in international fuel prices will allow the government to eliminate the implicit fuel subsidy. Nigeria’s fiscal breakeven oil price is high, at $133/barrel under our estimates, given particularly low non-oil fiscal intakes.

“We project the general government (GG) deficit will widen to 5.8 percent of GDP (federal government, FGN: 3.1 percent) in 2020 from 3.8 percent (FGN: 2.4 percent) in 2019.

“There is limited scope for consolidation through spending cuts given fiscal rigidity from payroll and interest outlays, which will represent 150 percent of the FGN’s revenues and two-thirds of its expenditures in 2020. Cuts to other operational outlays and capital expenditures will be largely offset by higher spending on health services and support to sectors affected by the pandemic shock,” it stated.

Dipo Olowookere is a journalist based in Nigeria that has passion for reporting business news stories. At his leisure time, he watches football and supports 3SC of Ibadan. Mr Olowookere can be reached via dipo.olowookere@businesspost.ng

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