Scope revises Romania’s Outlook to Stable from Negative, affirms ratings at BBB-
For the rating action annex, click here.
Scope Ratings GmbH (Scope) has today affirmed Romania’s long-term issuer and senior unsecured debt ratings at BBB- in both local and foreign currency and revised the Outlooks to Stable from Negative. The short-term issuer ratings have been affirmed at S-2 in local and foreign currency, with Outlooks revised to Stable from Negative.
Summary and Outlook
The revision of the Outlooks on Romania’s long- and short-term ratings to Stable reflects the following two core drivers: (1) curtailed fiscal risks at minimum short term due to fiscal consolidation actions introduced by the new government – including momentary freezing of public-sector wages and bonuses and suspension of full implementation of a formerly programmed pension hike, with somewhat reduced fiscal risks supported as well by good prospects for economic recovery as well as by strong investment support from European institutions; and (2) enhanced political stability over the forthcoming period, increasing confidence of Scope in the credibility of authorities’ fiscal consolidation agenda due to higher likelihood of the agenda to see a lengthier period of implementation. In the Outlook change, Scope assumes continued commitment to reform over the forthcoming 12-18 months and that this shift towards more-sustainable budgetary policy will be carried forward beyond 2021, resulting in a more measured increase in public debt in coming years. The Outlook change reflects changes in the ‘public finance risk’ category of Scope’s sovereign ratings methodology.
Next, the affirmation of Romania’s ratings at the BBB- investment-grade level considers outstanding credit strengths, including strong medium-run growth potential despite assessed scarring associated with the Covid-19 crisis, EU membership with resulting access to significant EU structural and recovery fund inflows in the coming years, as well as Romania’s still-moderate levels of public debt.
The Stable Outlook represents Scope’s view that risks to the ratings over the next 12 to 18 months are considered balanced. The ratings could be downgraded or the Outlooks revised once more to Negative if, individually or collectively: i) continued elevated budget deficits or a renewed reversal in current fiscal consolidation reforms is witnessed, resulting in substantive deterioration in medium-run debt sustainability beyond Scope’s present expectations; ii) the capacity to absorb EU investment funds is curtailed, undermining growth and public finance outlooks; and/or iii) a deterioration in market conditions including exchange rate depreciation and/or shrinking official reserves raise likelihood of a balance-of-payments crisis.
Conversely, the ratings/Outlooks could be upgraded if, individually or collectively: i) the present adjustment of fiscal policies is sustained and strengthened further, resulting in a stabilisation in Romania’s debt trajectory through the cycle; ii) external sector risks are substantively curtailed, such as via sustained reductions in net external debt, build-up of foreign-exchange reserves and/or tangible steps being taken in the longer-run adoption of the euro, requiring initial concrete steps in the meeting of Exchange Rate Mechanism II (ERM II) entrance criteria; and/or iii) Romania’s institutional weaknesses are redressed, political stability is enhanced more durably and/or the government’s capacity for reform were improved.
The first driver of the revision of the Outlook for Romania’s ratings to Stable reflects curtailed fiscal policy risks in the short run, supported by consolidation efforts as introduced under the government’s 2021 Budget as well as moderation of a previously programmed 2020 pension hike. This resulting improvement in Romania’s nonetheless still adverse public debt trajectory are as well being actively supported by good recovery prospects from the Covid-19 crisis as vaccination advances.
Scope expects gradual reduction in Romania’s elevated budget deficits, to 7.5% of GDP (under ESA terms) this year and 6.3% by 2022, after the more elevated 9.2% in 2020. This slight easing results in more measured increase in Romania’s debt-to-GDP ratio over Scope’s forecast horizon than earlier anticipated, with the public debt ratio rising to 55% of GDP by 2022, from 47.3% in 2020 before stabilising at around 60% by 2024. Here, public debt net of liquid financial assets is estimated to stabilise at a level of above 50% of GDP by 2024. Scope thus assumes a scenario largely consistent with medium-run fiscal consolidation programming of authorities, although with official forecasts conversely envisaging public debt medium run remaining below a euro convergence ceiling of 60% of GDP albeit with reductions in fiscal deficits assumed under official projections achieving an ambitious 3% of GDP by 20241.
The 2021 Budget includes moderate but vital fiscal consolidatory measures on the expenditure side in respect to public sector pensions and wages. This implicitly pulls back on current expenditure growth after multiple years of strongly expansionary fiscal policy, during and, importantly, prior to recessionary conditions. Importantly, the government has frozen public sector wages and bonuses until 2022 at 2020 levels, which Scope estimates might save 1.5-2% of GDP and has deferred to 2023 implementation of a previous administration’s pension law via emergency ordinance as well as frozen state pension outlays during 2021. Pension expenditure growth of 14% last year, curtailed from an originally planned sizeable 40% increase, nonetheless does increase fiscal spending by around 0.7% of GDP in 2021. Scope understands that the government is considering amending the pension law, which could lead to a less severe impact on the health of medium-to-longer run public finances as compared to the original proposal.
In addition, the Outlook revision reflects enhanced near-term political stability under the majority coalition government consisting of National Liberal Party (PNL), Save Romania Union (USR), the Liberty, Unity and Solidarity Party (PLUS), and the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR), which strengthens credibility of the government’s medium-run fiscal programme with a higher assessed likelihood that this budgetary programme could see a lengthier period of implementation.
The results of the December 2020 general elections have delivered the coalition government under PNL’s leadership a sufficient parliamentary majority as to pursue its policy framework with a mandate, as represented in the 2021 Budget. PNL previously as well enacted credit-positive reforms of the justice system and anti-corruption framework during two consecutive minority governments since November 2019, partially addressing deficits in institutional quality. The enhanced political stability is assessed despite tensions within the ruling government as related to a dismissal of the health minister by Prime Minister Florin Cîțu absent consultation of a junior coalition partner. Even with the potential for continued disputes around the government agenda between coalition groups, Scope expects the current government to remain in consensus in respect to the medium-term fiscal agenda as adopted.
Next, the affirmation of Romania’s BBB- credit ratings is supported firstly by strong growth potential. Scope expects the economy to rebound by 4.8% this year before 4.7% in 2022, anchored by recovery of consumption and investment and raised by the sizeable allocation of EU investment fund inflow. Romania’s growth is expected to converge after 2022 towards its medium-run potential estimated of around 4%. These growth rates come after a lesser-than-expected contraction in output of 3.9% in 2020. The government plans to ramp up spending on investment to 5.5% of GDP in 2021 before 5.3% in 2022, from 4.1% in 2019. Under the EU long-term 2021-27 Budget, Romania has been allocated structural funds of a sizeable EUR 49.9bn (23% of GDP) under the Cohesion Policy and Common Agricultural Policy, plus another EUR 29.2bn (13.4% of GDP) via the Recovery and Resilience Facility, of which EUR 14.2bn are expected in grants with the remaining EUR 15bn in the form of concessional loans. This considerable allocation of EU monies helps anchor high medium-run growth expectations and reduce nearer-term pressure on public finances even though historically weak absorption rates of EU funds (of only 50% over the previous 2014-20 EU multiannual period as of 20202) remain a continued growth bottleneck.
The pandemic’s adverse impacts on the economy and the labour market have been eased by government discretionary support for businesses and workers. The fiscal support package of 2020 has been estimated at 3.6% of GDP3. Of this figure, 2.1% of GDP relates to deferrals of specific tax payments, grants given to impaired companies and increased VAT reimbursements; the remaining 1.5% of GDP consists of wage compensations and funding for the health care system. Next, the 2021 Budget embeds further Covid-19-related discretionary action of 1.3% of GDP, in addition to the extension of loan guarantees and subsidised interest payments for the investments of small and medium-sized enterprises of 1.4% of GDP. The unemployment rate nonetheless rose to 5.5% as of March 2021, slightly off February 2021 peaks but compared with 3.6% pre-crisis levels of January 2020.
The affirmation of the BBB- ratings is furthermore helped by Romania’s access to domestic and external financing on relatively favourable terms. This is underpinned by the nation’s EU membership and well-capitalised banking system (with a tier 1 capital ratio of 21.3% of risk-weighted assets at end-2020 compared with 17.2% for the EU average), which holds, moreover, half of all Romanian government securities. This, however, also increases risk from sovereign-bank nexus. During the crisis since 2020, the Romanian central bank has used monetary space to support capital markets through tentative purchases of leu-denominated government bonds in the secondary market – Scope does not expect a return to a sizeable purchasing programme in the near term and notes risks associated with such policies in the case of non-reserve-currency central banks. Financing needs during 2020 were met via domestic debt issuance in the amount of 8.7% of GDP and four Eurobond issues of about 5.4% of GDP in aggregate. For 2021, Scope anticipates gross government financing needs of around 11% of GDP – which Scope considers manageable. Romania issued a Eurobond of EUR 3.5bn in April 2021 in two tranches: EUR 2bn with a 12-year maturity and 2% coupon rate, and a EUR 1.5bn security with a 20-year maturity and 2.75% coupon4.
Despite affirmation of the ratings, significant challenges remain that affect Romania’s BBB- ratings long term.
Firstly, a rigid structure of fiscal accounts and comparatively weak tax base significantly constrain the medium-run budgetary outlook and have resulted in structural budget deficits (estimated of 8.2% of GDP in 2020). Spending on state pensions and wages alone uses up approximately 90% of overall tax collections (the latter including social contributions). In the absence of more significant fiscal reform, including significant expansion of the tax base (Romania’s tax revenues, at 25% of GDP in 2020, are the EU’s second lowest after that of Ireland), the health of the medium-run fiscal outlook remains overly contingent upon sustained high economic growth as well as unsustainable prudence of expenditure policy. The 2021-24 Convergence Programme assumes roughly constant tax revenue with gradual reduction of expenditures as a share of GDP via limitation of personnel and pension cost growth. In Scope’s opinion, Romania’s poor historical track record with respect to sustained fiscal consolidation, record of unstable government, which increases incentives for periods of expansionary fiscal policy around frequent electoral periods, plus governance bottlenecks in spending control and likely increase in debt in future economic crises present challenges to its debt sustainability as well as upside risks to baseline debt projections. These challenges are further underscored by an unfavourable demographic profile and ageing population. Acknowledging risks, any reversal in fiscal discipline being observed of current and future governments and/or renewed challenge to the outlook for debt sustainability could see renewed risk for the BBB- ratings.
Secondly, Romania observes elevated current-account deficits, anticipated by Scope to remain around a 4.5-5% of GDP annual rate over 2021-22. Such external deficits are the result in part of fiscal imbalance as well as of weaker competitiveness as compared with that of regional trading partners on the basis of the economy’s comparatively higher inflation rates and wage growth. As a result, Romania’s net external debt-to-GDP ratio, at 22% at end-2020, remains higher than that of other central and eastern European EU member states.
Romania’s available reserves remain limited in covering foreign-currency liabilities under more stressed economic scenarios, representing an ongoing balance of payment risk. While foreign-exchange reserves cover 83.5% of short-term (by remaining maturity) external debt as of end-February5, the Covid-19 crisis has exposed Romania to higher exchange rate risk as well as risk of sudden stop in capital inflows. The reserves coverage ratio being below an IMF adequacy threshold of 100% short-term external debt coverage is a concern. Scope notes, however, that Romania’s foreign-exchange reserves increased to an all-time high of EUR 38.3bn in April, compared to EUR 33.2bn a year before. In addition, a euro liquidity line agreed between the European and Romanian central banks, of up to EUR 4.5bn (equivalent to around 12% of Romania’s foreign-exchange reserves) and extended currently to March 20226, will constructively support the economy in meeting euro-denominated liquidity needs as well as support the exchange rate over this crisis.
Core Variable Scorecard (CVS) and Qualitative Scorecard (QS)
Scope’s Core Variable Scorecard (CVS), which is based on the relative rankings of key sovereign credit fundamentals, provides a first indicative rating of ‘bbb+’ for Romania. Romania receives no adjustment to this indicative rating under the reserve currency adjustment under the methodology. As such, the ‘bbb+’ indicative rating can be adjusted under the Qualitative Scorecard (QS) by up to three notches depending on the size of relative qualitative credit strengths or weaknesses against a peer group of countries.
For Romania, the following QS relative credit strength has been identified: i) growth potential of the economy. The following QS relative credit weaknesses have been identified: i) fiscal policy framework; ii) debt sustainability; iii) current account resilience; iv) resilience to short-term external shocks; v) financial imbalances; vi) environmental risks; and vii) social risks.
The QS generates overall a two-notch downward adjustment and indicates BBB- long-term ratings for Romania.
A rating committee has discussed and confirmed these results.
Factoring of Environment, Social and Governance (ESG)
Scope explicitly factors in ESG sustainability issues during the ratings process via the sovereign methodology’s stand-alone ESG sovereign risk pillar, with a 20% weighting under the quantitative model (CVS) as well as in the qualitative overlay (QS). Under governance-related factors in the CVS, Romania’s performance is weaker than that of central and eastern European sovereign peers, such as Croatia and Bulgaria, as assessed under the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators. In general, Romania has a record of political instability, also contributing to years of expansionary fiscal policies around electoral periods. Nonetheless, Romania’s EU membership enhances economic governance, the macroprudential framework as well as the quality of macroeconomic policy.
Socially related credit factors are captured under Scope’s CVS, as designated via sharply increasing old-age dependency ratios, high income inequality and lower labour force participation rates – quantitative variables which weigh on the ratings. The CVS score, however, also reflects supportive contributions from Romania’s comparatively low rate of unemployment as well as high economic growth rates. Qualitative assessment of social factors is reflected in the ‘social risks’ evaluation category of the QS, under which Romania is assessed as ‘weak’ compared with its sovereign peers due to Romania’s high poverty rate and elevated risk of social exclusion.
Environment-related credit risks of Romania remain significant. The economy displays one of the highest carbon intensities of economies in the European Union. This comparative dependence upon higher energy-intensity production presents a challenge for policy makers under a context of tightening fiscal policies and nonetheless needed economic transitions towards the green economy. Romania faces investment needs of around EUR 150bn7 (7% of GDP annually) to achieve climate objectives through 2030. Here, the current long-term EU budget presents a critical opportunity for Romania to increase production of renewable energies and make possible such transition to lower-carbon economic designs long term.
The main points discussed by the rating committee were: i) growth outlook; ii) fiscal risks and debt sustainability; iii) labour market and demographics; iv) external risks; v) financial sector developments; vi) ESG-related risks; and vii) peers.
Rating driver references
1. Convergence Programme 2021-2024
2. European Commission: Data Portal for European structural and investment funds
3. Ministry of Finance of Romania
4. Ministry of Finance of Romania
5. National Bank of Romania
6. European Central Bank
7. The 2021-2030 Integrated National Energy and Climate Plan
The methodology used for these Credit Ratings and/or Outlook, ‘Rating Methodology: Sovereign Ratings’, 9 October 2020, is available on https://www.scoperatings.com/#!methodology/list.
Scope Ratings GmbH and Scope Ratings UK Limited apply the same methodologies/models and key rating assumptions for their credit rating services, while Scope Hamburg GmbH’s methodologies/models and key rating assumptions are different from those of Scope Ratings GmbH and Scope Ratings UK Limited.
Information on the meaning of each Credit Rating category, including definitions of default, recoveries, Outlooks and Under Review, can be viewed in ‘Rating Definitions – Credit Ratings, Ancillary and Other Services’, published on https://www.scoperatings.com/#!governance-and-policies/rating-scale. Historical default rates of the entities rated by Scope Ratings can be viewed in the Credit Rating performance report at https://www.scoperatings.com/#governance-and-policies/regulatory-ESMA. Also refer to the central platform (CEREP) of the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA): http://cerep.esma.europa.eu/cerep-web/statistics/defaults.xhtml. A comprehensive clarification of Scope Ratings’ definitions of default and Credit Rating notations can be found at https://www.scoperatings.com/#governance-and-policies/rating-scale. Guidance and information on how environmental, social or governance factors (ESG factors) are incorporated into the Credit Rating can be found in the respective sections of the methodologies or guidance documents provided on https://www.scoperatings.com/#!methodology/list.
The Outlook indicates the most likely direction of the Credit Ratings if the Credit Ratings were to change within the next 12 to 18 months.
Solicitation, key sources and quality of information
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With Rated Entity or Related Third Party Participation NO
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With Access to Management NO
The following material sources of information were used to prepare the Credit Ratings: public domain.
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Lead analyst: Levon Kameryan, Senior Analyst
Person responsible for approval of the Credit Rating: Dr Giacomo Barisone, Managing Director
The Credit Ratings/Outlook were first assigned by Scope Ratings in January 2003. The Credit Ratings/Outlooks were last updated on 12 June 2020.
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