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Fitch Ratings has downgraded Ethiopia's Long-Term Foreign-Currency Issuer Default Rating (IDR) to 'CCC' from 'B'.

 

Fitch typically does not assign Outlooks or apply modifiers to sovereigns with a rating of 'CCC' or below.

 

KEY RATING DRIVERS

The downgrade reflects the government's announcement that it is looking to make use of the G20 "Common Framework for Debt Treatments beyond the Debt Service Suspension Initiative (DSSI)" (G20 CF), which although still an untested mechanism, explicitly raises the risk of a default event.

 

The G20 CF, agreed in November 2020 by the G20 and Paris Club, goes beyond the DSSI that took effect in May 2020, in that it requires countries to seek debt treatment by private creditors and that this should be comparable with the debt treatment provided by official bilateral creditors. This could mean that Ethiopia's one outstanding Eurobond and other commercial debt would need to be restructured, potentially representing a distressed debt exchange under Fitch's sovereign rating criteria. There remains uncertainty over how the G20 CF will be implemented in practice, including the requirement for private sector participation and comparable treatment. Fitch's sovereign ratings apply to borrowing from the private sector, so official bilateral debt relief does not constitute a default, although it can point to increasing credit stress.

Within the context of Paris Club agreements, comparable treatment requirements are not always enforced and the scope of debt included can vary. The Paris Club states that the requirement for comparable treatment by other creditors can be waived in some circumstances, including when the debt represents only a small proportion of the country's debt burden.

 

The focus of Ethiopia's engagement with the G20 CF will be on official bilateral debt, as reprofiling of this will have the biggest impact on overall debt sustainability. Nonetheless, the terms of the framework clearly create risk that private sector creditors will also be negatively affected. The G20 statement on the G20 CF indicates that debt treatments will not typically involve debt write-offs or cancellation unless deemed necessary. The focus will instead be on some combination of lowering coupons and lengthening grace periods and maturities. The extent of debt treatment required will be based upon the outcome of the IMF's Debt Sustainability Analysis for Ethiopia, which is currently being updated. However, any material change of terms for private creditors, including the lowering of coupons or the extension of maturities, would be consistent with the definition of default in Fitch's criteria.

 

The bulk of Ethiopia's public external debt is official multilateral and bilateral debt. Government and government-guaranteed external debt was USD25 billion in fiscal year 2020 (FY20, which ended in June 2020). Of this, USD3.3 billion was owed to private creditors. This includes Ethiopia's outstanding USD1 billion Eurobond (1% of GDP) due in December 2024, with minimal annual debt service of USD66 million until the maturity; and USD2.3 billion government-guaranteed debt owed to foreign commercial banks and suppliers. Other SOE debt to private creditors which relates to Ethio Telecom and Ethiopian Airlines is a further USD3.3 billion. While this is not guaranteed by the government, it represents a potential contingent liability.

 

Ethiopia's external finances are a rating weakness and this is the main factor behind the intention of using the G20 CF. Persistent current account deficits (CAD), low FX reserves and rising external debt repayments present risks to external debt sustainability. Ethiopia's external financing requirements, at more than USD5 billion on average in FY21-FY22 including federal government and SOE amortisation, are high relative to FX reserves, which we forecast to remain at around USD3 billion. Reserves cover only around two months of current external payments.

 

The CAD narrowed to 4.1% of GDP in FY20 as imports declined, maintaining the trend since FY15 when the CAD was 12.5% of GDP. We forecast the CAD to hover around 4% of GDP, although this does not incorporate potential import costs associated with vaccines to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Smaller CADs have not eased pressure on FX reserves because net FDI has been lacklustre (averaging 2.7% of GDP in FY19-FY20) and net external borrowing has moderated with negative net borrowing by SOEs. The central bank has allowed sharper exchange rate depreciation, but the currency nonetheless remains overvalued, with a weaker rate in the parallel market. Proposed sales of mobile licenses and a stake in Ethio Telecom, the state-owned telecoms company, are an upside risk to FDI inflows and reserves in FY21-FY22.

 

The IMF assessed Ethiopia at high risk of external debt distress in its latest assessment in 2020, with Ethiopia breaching thresholds on external debt service/exports and the present value of external debt/exports. An improvement from high to moderate risk is a central aim of the three-year arrangement with the IMF agreed in late 2019 under the Extended Credit Facility and the Extended Fund Facility. Given the difficulty of substantially boosting exports in the near term, the main route to achieve this is via reducing debt service costs. Within the IMF programme, the authorities planned by the first review to undertake additional reprofiling of bilateral loans but this has not yet happened. The pandemic has placed further emphasis on debt reprofiling.

 

Ethiopia and the IMF reached staff-level agreement on the first review of the programme in August 2020, but this awaits board approval. The Fund's press release recognised that performance had mostly been good, but also emphasised the need for financial support from Ethiopia's international partners including through debt reprofiling.

 

Ethiopia's 'CCC' IDRs also reflect the following key rating drivers:

Strong economic growth potential and an improving policy framework support the rating, while double-digit inflation, low development and governance indicators and elevated political risks weigh on the rating.

 

The coronavirus pandemic continues to present significant risks to Ethiopia, but the negative economic impacts since the onset have been somewhat contained so far. Given that the fiscal year ends in June, we do expect more of a hit to growth in FY21 than FY20, but forecast a return to growth rates in the 6%-7% range over the medium term. The government has maintained considerable budgetary discipline, with moderate increases in the general government budget deficit, to 2.8% of GDP, and government debt/GDP (31.5%), while total SOE debt/GDP (25.6%) has fallen. However, the pandemic presents risks of upward pressure on spending. Government financing has continued its transition towards market-based T-bill auctions and away from the long-standing system of direct advances from the National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE, the central bank). This is a core part of the IMF programme, which seeks to promote monetary policy reforms to help gradually tackle inflation that has remained extremely high at close to 20%.

 

The military conflict in the Tigray region from November 2020 has underlined ongoing political risks in Ethiopia as well as for Ethiopia's international relations. Considerable domestic political uncertainty, related to the delayed 2020 parliamentary election (now planned for June) and ongoing ethnic and regional tensions within the country, remains a risk to Ethiopia's credit metrics, in Fitch's view. Greater political unrest could, for example, act as a drag on FDI and tax collection and exert further upward pressure on inflation. It could also lead to worsening relations with some bilateral partners and hold up donor flows, as illustrated by the suspension of some flows from the EU in December.

 

ESG - Governance: Ethiopia has an ESG Relevance Score (RS) of 5 for both Political Stability and Rights and for the Rule of Law, Institutional and Regulatory Quality and Control of Corruption, as is the case for all sovereigns. Theses scores reflect the high weight that the World Bank Governance Indicators (WBGI) have in our proprietary Sovereign Rating Model. Ethiopia has a low WBGI ranking in the 25th percentile, reflecting in particular political instability, as well as low scores for voice and accountability and regulatory quality.

 

RATING SENSITIVITIES

The main factors that could, individually or collectively, lead to negative rating action/downgrade:

- Structural Features: Stronger evidence that Ethiopia's engagement in the G20 CF will lead to comparable treatment for private sector creditors consistent with a default event under Fitch's criteria.

- External Finances: Increased external vulnerability that heightens the risk of default irrespective of the G20 CF, such as the emergence of external financing gaps and downward pressure on already low foreign-exchange reserves.

 

The main factors that could, individually or collectively, lead to positive rating action/upgrade are:

- Structural Features: Clarity that the G20 CF will not lead to a default event.

- External Finances: Stronger external finances with acceleration in exports, for example, leading to smaller CADs and higher foreign-currency reserves.

 

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