July 11, 2017 / 11:23 AM / a year ago

Fitch Affirms the Republic of Congo at 'CCC'

(The following statement was released by the rating agency) HONG KONG, July 11 (Fitch) Fitch Ratings has affirmed the Republic of Congo's Long-Term Foreign- and Local-Currency Issuer Default Ratings (IDRs) at 'CCC'. The issue ratings on Congo's senior unsecured foreign-currency bond are also affirmed at 'CCC'. The Country Ceiling has been affirmed at 'B+' and the Short-Term Foreign- and Local-Currency IDRs at 'C'. KEY RATING DRIVERS The Republic of Congo's rating reflects large fiscal and external deficits caused by a limited policy response to the fall in oil prices, increasing constraints on deficit financing, rapidly accumulating debt, high domestic and external arrears, and poor public finance management with a weak track record of debt repayment. While talks about IMF credit facility are on-going, an agreement on and implementation of a programme remain uncertain. Fitch expects the tight financing conditions brought about by the drop in oil prices in 2014 to persist over the coming two years. As a result of wide budget deficits, averaging at 15% of GDP in 2014-2016, financing needs are substantial while the main financing sources have dried up and there is a high concentration of debt maturities in 2017-2020. Reflecting the erosion of fiscal buffers, deposits with Banque des Etats d'Afrique Centrale (BEAC, the central bank of the CEMAC region) and commercial banks have dropped to 5% of GDP in 2016, from 19.6% in 2014. In parallel, statutory advances from BEAC reached their ceiling and have been frozen under a decision taken by the CEMAC heads of States in December 2016. Access to new external bilateral loans, including from China, has reportedly been tightened. The authorities have explored alternative sources of financing. A XAF150 billion (3.2% of GDP) bond was issued on the regional market in November 2016 and a USD250 million (3.1% of GDP) loan was granted to Congo by the African Export-Import bank in 1Q17. However, the limited absorption capacity of the regional market is poised to reduce further, as BEAC has embarked on a gradual tightening of the monetary policy to ease pressures on the exchange rate peg. While public debt remains mostly concessional, continued recourse to high-cost market financing would aggravate the strain on public finances. Support by regional multilateral institutions could also wane if Congo continues to lag other CEMAC members in entering an IMF programme. Although an IMF credit facility would ease financing constraints and could crowd-in support from other creditors, the prospect for Congo to conclude an agreement remains uncertain. The fund's negotiations with Congo are continuing, while IMF support programmes for Cameroon and Gabon have been approved in June 2017. A failure to reach an agreement with the IMF, or low compliance with programme targets in case an accord is reached would aggravate the strain on liquidity and compound the weaknesses of public finances over the medium term. The partial recovery in oil revenues over the coming two years will provide only limited relief to public finances. Fitch forecasts oil receipts to average 15% of GDP in 2017-2018, up from 9% in 2016, but still well below the 31% registered in 2010-2014. This improvement is due to the moderate increase in oil prices and to new oil fields coming online, with Moho Nord production having started in March 2017. The government predicts oil production growth of 13% in 2017 and 24% in 2018. As oil production has systematically under-achieved against forecasts during the last few years, Fitch assumes an increase of just 10% in 2017 and 23% in 2018 and a gradual decline starting in 2019. The willingness of the authorities to implement fiscal consolidation sufficient for a substantial narrowing of the budget deficit is uncertain. Despite the drop in oil revenue, public investment remained elevated in 2016, at 12% of GDP, although down from the staggering 23% average recorded in 2012-2015. This has resulted in the general government deficit only narrowing to 13.5% of GDP in 2016 according to official figures and 16.5% according to Fitch's estimates based on the use of financing sources. We forecast the deficit to shrink to 3.5% of GDP in 2017 on a commitment basis and 7% on a cash basis, as oil revenues recover while investment spending targets are revised downwards due to funding constraints. According to Fitch's estimates, general government debt (GGD) rose to 85% of GDP in 2016 and will edge up further to 86% in 2017, more than quadrupling since Congo reached the completion point under the HIPC initiative in 2010. This figure includes official estimates for domestic and external arrears worth XAF595.7 billion, equivalent to 12.6% of GDP and the estimate may be revised upwards. The high level of arrears illustrates the structural shortcomings of public finance management, which Fitch regards as a major credit weakness, with a poor payment track record, high susceptibility to oil price fluctuations, and low data quality and transparency. Weak public finance management has resulted in a temporary failure to pay interest and principal of USD17 million on a Eurobond mid-2016, amid severe cash strain for the government. Macroeconomic performance is weak, with real GDP dropping 2.7% in 2016 and expected to decline again in 2017. Non-oil activity is in recession due to lower public investment, shortages caused by the disruption of the transport network between Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire following the destruction of major bridges by armed rebels, and high public arrears weighing on private-sector financing conditions. However, the spill-over from the oil sector should lead to a gradual recovery in 2018. The poor quality and limited availability of national accounting data remain an obstacle to an accurate assessment of economic activity. The current account deficit (CAD) is forecast to narrow to 10% of GDP in 2017 from 29% in 2016, as oil revenue recover and imports moderate in line with public investment. Consequently, foreign exchange reserves should gradually increase, contributing to the stabilisation of reserves on the regional level. However, this improvement is highly dependent on the recovery in oil revenue, which have accounted for 70% of current external receipts since 2010, as well as on the authorities' willingness to exercise restraint on public investment. Congo ranks among the lowest of Fitch-rated sovereigns in terms of governance and development indicators. A challenging institutional framework and poor business climate are weighing on foreign investment in the non-oil sector and impeding the diversification of the economy, with the country's high potential in agriculture and mining remaining untapped. Political risks are high as tensions flared around the re-election of President Sassou N' Guesso in March 2016. Parliamentary elections are due in July 2017. Ongoing fighting between the government and armed rebels in the Pool region is disrupting economic activity, displacing thousands of citizens, and pose a continued threat to political stability. SOVEREIGN RATING MODEL (SRM) and QUALITATIVE OVERLAY (QO) Fitch's proprietary SRM assigns the Republic of Congo a score equivalent to a rating of 'CCC' on the Long-Term Foreign Currency IDR scale. Fitch's sovereign rating committee did not adjust the output from the SRM to arrive at the final Long-Term Foreign Currency IDR. 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 or not fully reflected in the SRM. RATING SENSITIVITIES The Long-Term IDRs do not have an Outlook. Developments that could result in a downgrade include: -Intensified economic and financial stress leading to heightened risk of non-payment on principal or interest due on debt securities issued in public markets. Developments that could, individually or collectively, result in an upgrade, include: -Material and sustained improvement in the liquidity of the government, resulting from rising budget revenue, a sustained reduction of investment spending or improving deficit financing options; -A sustained improvement in fiscal balances leading to a marked decline of the government debt-to -GDP ratio; -Evidence of a material improvement in public finance management capacity. KEY ASSUMPTIONS Fitch assumes no break-up of the CEMAC monetary zone and no devaluation of the CFA franc. Global economic trends and commodity prices are expected to develop as outlined in Fitch's Global Economic Outlook. Fitch assumed that Brent crude will average USD52.5/barrel in 2017, USD55/barrel in 2018 and USD60/barrel in 2019. Contact: Primary Analyst Mahmoud HARB Director +852 2263 9917 Fitch (Hong Kong) Limited 19/F Man Yee Building 68 Des Voeux Road Central Hong Kong Secondary Analyst Eric Paget-Blanc Senior Director +33 144 299 133 Committee Chairperson Ed Parker Managing Director +44 20 3530 1176 Media Relations: Peter Fitzpatrick, London, Tel: +44 20 3530 1103, Email: peter.fitzpatrick@fitchratings.com; Wai-Lun Wan, Hong Kong, Tel: +852 2263 9935, Email: wailun.wan@fitchratings.com. Additional information is available on www.fitchratings.com Applicable Criteria Country Ceilings (pub. 16 Aug 2016) here Sovereign Rating Criteria (pub. 18 Jul 2016) here Additional Disclosures Dodd-Frank Rating Information Disclosure Form here Solicitation Status here Endorsement Policy here ALL FITCH CREDIT RATINGS ARE SUBJECT TO CERTAIN LIMITATIONS AND DISCLAIMERS. 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