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Arab News, Thursday, May 17, 2018 | Ramadan 1, 1439

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

Saudi Arabia: 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.

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