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Fitch Affirms Ukraine at 'B-'; Outlook Stable

News April 28 2017

(The following statement was released by the rating agency)

Fitch Ratings-London-28 April 2017: Fitch Ratings has affirmed Ukraine's Long-Term Foreign- and Local-Currency Issuer Default Ratings (IDRs) at 'B-' with a Stable Outlook. The issue ratings on Ukraine's senior unsecured foreign- and local-currency bonds have also been affirmed at 'B-' and the sovereign's short-term senior unsecured local currency bonds at 'B'. The Country Ceiling has been affirmed at 'B-' and the Short-Term Foreign-Currency and Local-Currency IDRs at 'B'.

KEY RATING DRIVERS

Ukraine's ratings balance weak external liquidity, a high public debt burden and structural weaknesses, in terms of a weak banking sector, institutional constraints and geopolitical and political risks, against improved policy credibility and coherence, the sovereign's near-term manageable debt repayment profile and a track record of multilateral support.

International reserves rose to USD16.7 billion in early April boosted by the latest IMF disbursement (USD1 billion), and the second instalment (EU600 million) of the EU Macro-Financial Assistance Programme. Reserves could increase further to USD18.1 billion (3.6 months of CXP) by year-end, but Ukraine's external buffers remain weaker than 'B' peers (4 months of CXP). Increased exchange rate flexibility, manageable foreign-currency commitments and moderate external imbalances mitigate near-term pressures on international reserves. FX controls still cushion external liquidity, although they have been gradually reduced.

The continuation of the Fund programme (third review completed) is positive for Ukraine's credit profile, as it supports external financing, underpins confidence and provides reform momentum. However, further disbursements from the IMF and other international partners will depend on progress in the structural reform agenda, which is subject to delays and execution risks. Key reforms benchmarks include pensions, land sales, privatisation and progress in the fight against corruption.

External debt repayments to multilateral and bilateral creditors are manageable, and external market debt amortisations resume only in 2019. Domestic debt roll-over risk is limited, as the majority of the debt stock is held by the central bank (58%) and state-owned banks. Some USD900 million in cash in Ukraine's treasury provides the sovereign with space to bridge gaps in external disbursements in the short term. Increased access to external financing will be key to meet restructured debt commitments starting in 2019.

A trade blockade with occupied territories in the East will result in wider current account deficits and lower growth. The current account deficit is expected to widen to 4.3% of GDP in 2017-2018 from 3.6% in 2015 due to reduced exports of steel and increased demand for energy imports (coking coal). Improved commodity export prices and increased export volumes from the agricultural sector should mitigate the increase in the trade deficit.

Ukraine's 2016 GDP growth of 2.3% surpassed expectations, but the blockade will negatively impact the mining, metallurgical and electricity sectors. We forecast growth to decelerate to 2% in 2017 before picking up to 3% in 2018 on the back of improving consumer demand and investment.

Annual headline inflation increased to 15.1% in March, while core inflation has averaged 6.3% since September 2016. Average inflation is forecast to decline to 11.2% in 2017, down from 14.9% in 2016 but still well above the 5.3% 'B' median. In Fitch's view, the National Bank of Ukraine's (NBU) institutional commitment to sustainably lowering inflation while maintaining exchange rate flexibility, and continued coordination with fiscal policy to improve macroeconomic stability are important support factors for Ukraine's credit profile.

The general government deficit is projected to increase to 3% of GDP (the target in the IMF program) in 2017. Adhering to the deficit reduction path outlined in the IMF EFF (2.5% and 2.3% of GDP in 2018 and 2019, respectively) will likely require additional policy measures due to spending pressures, most notably pension transfers and the public sector salary bill. Defence spending will remain high at 5% of GDP over the forecast period.

General government debt rose to 72% of GDP (84% including guarantees) in 2016, substantially above the 56% 'B' median, partly reflecting the recapitalisation bill for Privatbank, which is forecast to add 5.6% of GDP to the country's debt burden. Debt dynamics remain subject to currency risks (68% FX denominated).

After the nationalisation of Privatbank, state-owned banks' (SOBs) share of the banking sector rose to 50% of total system assets. Since 2015, the government has issued UAH151.5 billion (6.6% of GDP) to capitalise SOBs. The NBU has resolved 92 banks since 2014, bringing down the system's total to 93. The NBU has reviewed the assets of 95% of the banking sector. The banking sector has stabilised. Nevertheless, low capitalisation levels and non-performing loans of over 50% of total loans pose risks to macro stability and constrain economic recovery.

In late March, the UK High Court rejected Ukraine's request for a full trial on the USD3 billion outstanding debt dispute with Russia. Ukraine will appeal and the Court has granted a stay on enforcing Russia's claim. Fitch expects the dispute resolution process to be complex and protracted, but assumes that it will not affect Ukraine's ability to access external financing and service its debt commitments.

The unresolved conflict in eastern Ukraine remains a risk for overall macroeconomic performance and stability. In addition to continued clashes, the government decided to suspend trade with the Non-Government Controlled Area in the aftermath of protest from veterans and politicians against trade with this area and separatists' seizure of Ukrainian assets.

The IMF programme continues to face risks of reform fatigue and execution delays. The government of Prime Minister Volodomyr Groysman does not currently face risks to governability, but an early start of the electoral season for the 2019 general elections could further slow reform momentum.

SOVEREIGN RATING MODEL (SRM) and QUALITATIVE OVERLAY (QO)

Fitch's proprietary SRM assigns Ukraine a score equivalent to a rating of 'CCC' on the Long-Term FC IDR scale.

Fitch's sovereign rating committee adjusted the output from the SRM to arrive at the final Long-Term Foreign Currency IDR by applying its QO, relative to rated peers, as follows:

Macro: +1 notch, to reflect Ukraine's strengthened monetary and exchange rate policy which will likely support improved macroeconomic performance and domestic confidence. Increased exchange rate flexibility allows the economy to absorb shocks without depleting reserves.

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 LTFC 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 and/or not fully reflected in the SRM.

RATING SENSITIVITIES

The Stable Outlook reflects Fitch's assessment that upside and downside risks to the rating are currently balanced. Nonetheless, the following risk factors could, individually or collectively, trigger negative rating action:
• Re-emergence of external financing pressures, loss of confidence and increased macroeconomic instability, for example stemming from delays to disbursements from, or the collapse of, the IMF programme.
• External or political/geopolitical shock that weakens macroeconomic performance and Ukraine's fiscal and external position.

The following risk factors could individually or collectively, trigger positive rating action:
• Increased external liquidity and external financing flexibility.
• Sustained fiscal consolidation leading to improved debt dynamics.
• Improved macroeconomic performance.

KEY ASSUMPTIONS

Fitch expects neither resolution of the conflict in eastern Ukraine nor escalation of the conflict to the point of compromising overall macroeconomic performance. Fitch assumes that the debt dispute with Russia will not impair Ukraine's ability to access external financing and meet external debt service commitments.

 

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