Fitch Ratings has downgraded Sri Lanka’s Long-Term Foreign-Currency Issuer Default Rating (IDR) to ‘CC’, from ‘CCC’. Fitch typically does not assign Outlooks or apply modifiers for sovereigns with a rating of ‘CCC’ or below.
A number of rating actions are as follows.
The downgrade reflects our view of an increased probability of a default event in coming months in light of Sri Lanka’s worsening external liquidity position, underscored by a drop in foreign-exchange reserves set against high external debt payments and limited financing inflows. The severity of financial stress is illustrated by elevated government-bond yields and downward pressure on the currency.
We have affirmed the Long-Term Local-Currency IDR at ‘CCC’, as authorities have continued access to domestic financing, despite high and still-rising government debt and an elevated debt service burden.
Sri Lanka’s foreign-exchange reserves have declined much faster than we expected at our last review, owing to a combination of a higher import bill and foreign-currency intervention by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. Foreign exchange reserves have declined by about USD2 billion since August, falling to USD1.6 billion at end-November, equivalent to less than one month of current external payments (CXP). This represents a drop in foreign-currency reserves of about USD 4 billion since end-2020.
We believe it will be difficult for the government to meet its external debt obligations in 2022 and 2023 in the absence of new external financing sources. Obligations include two international sovereign bonds of USD500 million due in January 2022 and USD1 billion due in July 2022. The government also faces foreign-currency debt service payments, including principal and interest, of USD6.9 billion in 2022, equivalent to nearly 430% of official gross international reserves as of November 2021. Cumulative foreign-currency debt service, including interest and principal, amounts to about USD26 billion from 2022 through to 2026.
The timing and availability of external resources is unclear and may not be readily available for debt service. The central bank published a six-month roadmap in October that outlined plans to raise additional external borrowings through a number of channels, including bilateral and multilateral sources, syndicated loans and through the monetization of under-utilized assets in 1Q22.
A drawdown on the existing currency swap facility with the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) could boost reserves by up to CNY10 billion (USD1.5 billion equivalent). However, even with resources from the swap facility, foreign exchange reserves are likely to remain under pressure, in our view. Additional sources of financing could come from an economic support package from India, which contains a swap facility under the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation currency framework of USD400 million, a swap facility with the Qatar Central Bank, remittances securitization and a revolving credit facility with the Bank of China Limited (A/Stable). However, even if all these sources are secured, we believe it will be challenging for the government to maintain sufficient external liquidity to allow for uninterrupted debt servicing in 2022.
Press reports suggest the government may be contemplating IMF financing; an IMF program would unlock multilateral financing, but we believe the Fund could well suggest restructuring to bring about debt sustainability.
Sri Lanka’s external finances are further challenged by a persistent current account deficit, resulting in downward pressure on the exchange rate. We estimate that the deficit widened to about 5.7% of GDP in 2021 and expect it to remain at about 4.0% in 2022, before falling to 2.1% by 2023. A plunge in remittances, a weak tourism recovery and rising imports have contributed to the wider current account deficit. Travel and tourism, an important economic driver, has been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and the outlook for a recovery remains uncertain given the emergence of new highly transmissible virus variants.
The Sri Lankan rupee/US dollar spot exchange rate depreciated by 7%-8% since end-2020, and the central bank intervened to support the currency, exacerbating the decline in reserves.
Wide fiscal deficits continue to worsen the outlook for debt sustainability. The 2021 fiscal deficit target of 8.9% of GDP was missed by a wide margin, and we expect the government deficit to widen to about 11.5% of GDP in 2022. We believe 2022 revenue targets are optimistic, especially in light of our expectation of weak economic activity. We forecast general government debt to reach about 110% of GDP by 2022, and to keep rising under our baseline, absent major fiscal consolidation.
We also believe it is unlikely that Sri Lanka will meet its 2025 government debt reduction target of about 89% of GDP or narrow the fiscal deficit to 4.8% of GDP. Rising interest payments are a major driver of the widening deficit and the interest/revenue ratio of at about 95.0% is well above the peer median of 11.3%.
Sri Lanka’s economic performance is likely to weaken in 2022, as the challenging external position and exchange-rate pressure will have knock-on effects on economic activity. Foreign currency shortages in 2021 hampered food and fuel imports, and continued external liquidity stress could worsen supply shortages, hurting economic activity. We expect growth to slow to 2.0% in 2022, from an estimated 3.6% in 2021, before recovering to 4.3% in 2023 partly due to base effects and a gradual easing of domestic pressures, although downside risks to our forecasts remain. Sri Lanka’s economy was expanding at a modest pace prior to the pandemic, which led real GDP to contract by 3.6% in 2020.
ESG – Governance: Sri Lanka has an ESG Relevance Score of ‘5’ for Political Stability and Rights. This reflects the high weight that the World Bank Governance Indicators (WBGI) have in our proprietary Sovereign Rating Model. Sri Lanka has a medium WBGI ranking at the 47th percentile, reflecting a recent record of peaceful political transitions and a moderate level of rights for participation in the political process. As Sri Lanka has a percentile rank below 50 for the governance indicator, this has a negative impact on the credit profile.