Saudi rating to be judged on ‘reform progress’ not oil price warns Moody’s

Higher oil revenues may persuade GCC countries to slow down economic diversification programs and non-oil sector development. (Shutterstock)
Updated 16 May 2018

Saudi rating to be judged on ‘reform progress’ not oil price warns Moody’s

  • “A simple reversion to oil price strength” will not result in an automatic strengthening of Saudi Arabia’s or any other GCC state’s sovereign ratings
  • Development of non-oil economies increasingly important when assessing sovereign credit quality, agencies caution

LONDON: Saudi Arabia’s future sovereign credit rating will be judged on the success of its reform program rather than its oil revenues, rating agency Moody’s has told Arab News.
The global credit rating agency’s Managing Director of Global Sovereign Ratings, Alastair Wilson, said he attached importance to institutional determination to implement change and would also look at efforts made to diversify the economy to make it less reliant on fossil fuels.
He said “a simple reversion to oil price strength” would not result in an automatic strengthening of Saudi Arabia’s or any other GCC state’s sovereign ratings, “hence this was a wake-up call and the authorities recognized this.”
“In other words, structural weakness … based on hydrocarbon dependence needs to be corrected. That’s not going to go away.”
The successful implementation of the Kingdom’s plans over the next 10-12 years would be “challenging” but by no means impossible, he said.
Wilson said he was expecting “some success” over time, but no one anticipated “transformation overnight.”
Moody’s would take into account a number of factors before assigning a revised rating for KSA, he said. These would include the success of efforts to diversify revenue streams in order to insulate the government from “further oil price shocks.”
There were four cornerstones to credit ratings, he said — “accounts’ strength, institutional strength, fiscal strength and the ability to withstand exposure to shocks.”
“Institutional strength is linked to effective implementation of policies, the way policy reforms are articulated, and the attainment of stated objectives. All this, we will feed through our analysis … to help us to assess institutional fortitude.”
He explained that Moody’s wasn’t necessarily looking at metrics based on quantity, so there would be an element of judgment linked to quality (of institutional oversight) in the short to medium term.
“Over time we will see the benefits of reforms that the governments expect to see. Perhaps we will get higher growth because we will get higher growth in the non-oil economy.”
Wilson said an important indicator of a more resilient fiscal position was the non-oil balance sheet. “The non-oil fiscal deficit in most of these (GCC) countries is very high. We expect to see this coming down. We would expect to see lower volatility in economic growth over a period of time, say during a five, 10 or 15-year period.”
Over the next few years Moody’s would deliver “essentially a qualitative judgment” on reform efficacy, said Wilson. Although the oil price would be largely ignored, he agreed that a high price could buy time for GCC governments.
But he warned: “The supply and demand drivers in the market are not a great deal different from where they were a year or so ago… Yes, oil could go to $100 per barrel, but we don’t think that’s sustainable …. we think GCC countries have learnt from the oil price shock that what has been happening is structural in nature. The oil price can alleviate pressure, but is not central to our analysis,” he said.
David Staples, managing director and head of emerging EMEA corporates, said at a London emerging market forum that GCC governments had been clear about what they wanted to achieve, so “in a way we are measuring them against their own (stated) goals.”
Rehan Akbar, vice president of Middle East and Turkey corporates for Moody’s, said at the forum that there had been an acceleration of debt issuance in the past couple of years. Growth opportunities for businesses in the GCC were less than average, he said. Scope for businesses to grow organically were slightly subdued as new taxes and the withdrawal of subsidies had constrained consumption.
“We will probably see more cost control, and more M&A both in the region and outside,” said Akbar.
Earlier this month, Moody’s said in its annual credit analysis report on Saudi Arabia that the Kingdom’s (A1 stable) credit strengths included a strong fiscal position, substantial external liquidity buffers, a large stock of proved oil reserves combined with low extraction costs, and prudent financial system regulation.
“The stable outlook reflects our view that risks to Saudi Arabia’s credit profile are broadly balanced. The government’s reform program, including the plans to balance the fiscal budget by 2023, could over time offer a route back to a higher rating level,” said Moody’s.

Iran sanctions shadow falls on smaller German banks

Updated 31 min 59 sec ago

Iran sanctions shadow falls on smaller German banks

  • Some German companies plan to press on with Iran dealings
  • German exports to Iran rose 15.5 percent last year

Germany’s biggest lenders have shied away from business with Iran after past penalties for breaching US sanctions, but smaller banks have leapt on opportunities afforded by the nuclear deal rejected by Donald Trump.

There are just months to go until a November deadline issued by Washington after the US president abandoned a hard-fought agreement that loosened business restrictions on the Islamic Republic in exchange for Tehran giving up its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

But some firms plan to press on in their dealings with Iran despite the looming threat of penalties.

“We will continue to serve our clients,” for now, said Patrizia Melfi, a director at the “international competence center” (KCI) founded by six cooperative savings banks in the small town of Tuttlingen in southwest Germany.

The center, which supports companies operating in sensitive markets like Iran or Sudan, has seen demand “rising sharply in the last few years, from firms listed on the Dax (Germany’s index of blue-chip firms), from all over Germany and from Switzerland,” she added.

German exports to Iran have grown since the nuclear deal was signed in 2015, adding 15.5 percent last year to reach almost €2.6 billion ($3.0 billion) after 22-percent growth in 2016.

Such figures remain vanishingly small compared with Germany’s €111.5 billion in exports to the US — its top customer.

Nevertheless, the KCI will “wait and see what the sanctions look like” before turning away from Iran, Melfi said.

Already, firms dealing with Tehran must take great care not to fall foul of US restrictions.

Transactions are carried out in euros, and the KCI does not deal with businesses that have American citizens or green card resident holders on their boards.

What’s more, products sold to Iran cannot contain more than 10 percent of parts manufactured in the US.

One of the most important inputs for the business is “courage among our managers” given the high risks involved, Melfi said.

Germany’s two biggest banks, Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank, avoid Iran completely after being slapped with harsh fines in 2015 over their dealings there, with Deutsche alone paying $258 million in penalties.

DZ Bank, which operates as a central bank for more than 1,000 local co-op lenders, is withdrawing completely from payment services there, a spokesman told AFP.
That left KCI to seek out the German branch of Iranian state-owned bank Melli in Hamburg.

Even that linkage could break if Iran’s biggest business bank appears on a US list of barred businesses as it has before.

Meanwhile, among Germany’s roughly 390 Sparkasse savings banks, business with the regime is mostly limited to producing documents linked to export contracts.
“We will be looking even more closely at those” in the future, a person familiar with the trade told AFP.

Elsewhere in the German economy, the European-Iranian Trade Bank (EIH) founded in 1971 is another conduit to Tehran.

Also based in Hamburg, it for now remains “fully available to you with our products and services,” the bank assures clients on its website, although “business policy decisions by European banks may result in short term or medium term restrictions on payments.”

Neither does the Bundesbank (German central bank) believe that much has so far changed for business with Iran.

“Only the European Union’s sanctions regime will be decisive,” if and when it is changed, the institution told AFP.

Any payment involving an Iranian party would have to be approved by the Bundesbank if things return to their pre-January 2016 state.

German banking lobby group Kreditwirtschaft has called on Berlin and other EU nations to clarify their stance — and to make sure banks and their clients are “effectively protected against possible American sanctions.”

KCI’s Melfi said time is running out for EU governments to act.

“Many firms just want to stop anything with Iran, since they can’t calculate the risk of staying,” she noted.

On Friday for the first time since the Iran nuclear deal came into force in 2015, China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany gathered in Vienna — at Iran’s request — without the US, to discuss how to save the agreement.