Scope affirms the Land of Berlin's AAA rating with Stable Outlook
Scope Ratings GmbH (Scope) has today affirmed the Land of Berlin’s local- and foreign-currency long-term issuer and senior unsecured debt ratings at AAA. Scope has also affirmed the local- and foreign currency short-term issuer ratings at S-1+. All Outlooks remain Stable.
The associated rating report is available here.
Summary and Outlook
The AAA rating is underpinned by the highly integrated institutional framework under which Berlin operates, characterised by a very strong revenue equalisation system and the federal solidarity principle, which results in a close alignment of Länder’s creditworthiness with the German federal government’s AAA/Stable ratings. The rating also reflects Berlin’s conservative budgetary management, track record of fiscal consolidation, favourable debt profile, excellent capital market access, prudent liquidity management and strong economic base. In addition, sizeable federal support measures have mitigated the adverse effects of the Covid-19 crisis and the Russia-Ukraine war, and related energy and inflationary developments, on the economy and Berlin’s finances.
Credit challenges relate to high direct debt, low revenue flexibility given limited leeway to adjust revenue via own taxes, unfunded pension commitments weighing on long-term expenditure flexibility as well as sizeable but manageable contingent liabilities.
The Stable Outlook represents Scope’s view that risks to the ratings over the next 12 to 18 months are balanced. The ratings could be downgraded if: i) the German sovereign rating were downgraded; ii) changes affected the institutional framework, resulting in notably weaker support; and/or iii) the individual credit profile deteriorated significantly and structurally.
Like all of Germany’s Länder, Berlin benefits from a mature and highly integrated institutional framework. The key elements of the framework are: i) a strong revenue equalisation mechanism; ii) wide-ranging participation of the Länder in national legislation and veto rights; iii) equal involvement of the Länder in negotiations on federal reforms; and iv) a solidarity principle that ensures extraordinary system support in a budgetary emergency. The strong integration in the co-operative federal system closely links the credit ratings of the German Länder with the AAA rating of the federal government.
The established German federal institutional framework, with a proven record of institutional support from the federal government and strong policy coordination, was able to tackle economic challenges and mitigate the pressure on sub-sovereign finances caused by the Covid-19 and energy crises. The federal government confirmed its role as a primary countercyclical shock absorber during these crises in 2020-2023, shouldering a large part of the costs to the economy, leading to federal budget deficits averaging 3.3% of GDP over 2020-2022.
Second, Berlin’s AAA rating is supported by the Land’s conservative budgeting and accommodative financing conditions. This is underpinned by Berlin’s record of strong budgetary performance before the start of the Covid-19 and energy crises with controlled expenditure growth and operating surpluses averaging a high 14% of operating revenue for the period 2012-19. As a result, Berlin posted eight successive annual surpluses after investment activities and interest payments averaging 2.6% of total revenues in the 2012-19 period, which supported a gradual reduction of its direct debt. Berlin’s improved budgetary flexibility is further supported by interest payments relative to operating revenues declining to around 2.6% in 2022, from 9.7% in 2012. At the same time, due to rising interest rates, Scope expects the net interest burden of the Land, which also benefits from rising rates for invested term deposits, to gradually rise from next year, but to remain well below levels observed ten years ago.
As was the case for the German federal government and other Länder, Berlin’s budgetary planning and fiscal outcomes were heavily impacted by the Covid-19 and energy crises between 2020 and 2022. Berlin’s senate reacted promptly to the shock and made the necessary adjustments to strengthen flexibility for the 2020/21 budget to counteract lower tax revenue and implement support measures for regional businesses and expand healthcare, testing and vaccination capacity. In reaction to the energy shock, the Land implemented an amending budget for 2022/23, including several measures amounting to a total EUR 2.6bn to support businesses and households during the cost-of-living shock, without the need for additional borrowing.
Berlin’s budget balance turned to a deficit (before debt movement) of EUR 1.4bn, or 4.6% of total revenue, in 2020 and 0.3% in 2021. In 2022, the state posted strong results, ending the year with a EUR 750m surplus before debt movement, or 2.0% of total revenue.
Financial performance in 2022 benefitted from very strong nominal tax revenue, similar to 2021. Tax revenue stood at EUR 28.9bn, up 10% from 2021. This was primarily driven by robust growth in shared taxes, such as VAT and personal income tax, but also due to strong trends in inheritance tax, real estate transfer tax and corporate income tax. Operating expenditure was broadly stable at 2021 levels.
Scope expects Berlin’s financial result in 2023 to be in line with budgeted levels and therefore to be in moderate deficit before debt movement of around 1% of total revenue. Tax revenues are expected to be in line with budgeted levels at around EUR 28bn for 2023. The Land had already incorporated last year’s tax relief implemented at the federal level in its projections, leading only to moderate effects on the Land’s expected tax revenues of the latest tax projections in May 2023. At the same time, this would result in a decrease of tax revenues by around 3% relative to 2022, in contrast to the high growth rates in 2021 and 2022, highlighting that the rising budgetary pressures related to inflationary developments on the expenditure side are unlikely to be mitigated as strongly as in 2021/22 by higher-than-budgeted revenues.
Over the medium-term, Berlin’s fiscal consolidation strategy will be supported by conservative budgetary management, low financing costs, budgetary flexibility in view of high capital expenditure (10% of total expenditure on average from 2015-22) and accumulated budgetary reserves, as well as solid economic and demographic outlooks. At the same time, Berlin’s financial planning until 2026 re-balances personnel and other operating costs and re-prioritises investment activity. The plan also foresees the need for tight expenditure control in view of high and rising spending and investment needs.
A third strength supporting Berlin’s AAA ratings is its excellent capital market access and prudent liquidity and financial management. Berlin’s conservative debt-management strategy entails a long average maturity of issued debt (8.3 years at YE 2022), no new foreign currency risks (at YE 2022, 99.8% of total debt was denominated in euro) and limited interest rate risks (after swaps, 96.4% of debt was at fixed rate) with a declining use of interest rate swaps.
Berlin’s liquidity management is sound due to comprehensive inter-year cash planning and the availability of numerous sources of liquidity. Berlin increased its funding activity over 2020/21 in response to the pandemic, although not all funds raised were needed and thus placed into a budgetary reserve. Consequently, Berlin’s cash balance increased markedly over the last three years. Access to liquidity for intraday needs, if required, is available through credit facilities from financial institutions. An additional source of liquidity is provided by commercial cash transactions between the Länder, which lend excess liquidity to each other. In combination with proven market access, the risk of liquidity shortages is negligible.
The AAA rating is also supported by Berlin’s favourable economic and demographic long-term trends as well as its competitive advantages as an attractive location for international investors and businesses, particularly in the dynamic information and communication sector. Berlin’s GDP per capita surpassed the German average in 2018 for the first time since 2000 and stood at 104.7% of the national average at YE 2022. This trend is expected to continue, with rising working-age population growth projected until 2030 at an annual 0.35% on average, contributing to the state’s growth potential. Population growth has been robust with inhabitants increasing from 3.4m in 2012 to 3.7m in 2022, underpinned by annual net immigration of an average 16,300 from 2017-21. In 2022, the influx of around 43,000 refugees from Ukraine led to a sizeable increase of net immigration. The country-wide census is expected to be completed in March 2024, and will set the official number of inhabitants as of 15 May 2022, which will form the future base for redistribution of value added tax under the fiscal equalisation scheme. In the previous census in 2011, this recalculation of inhabitants had adverse fiscal effects on Berlin, as the number of inhabitants was reduced by around 180,000. To account for this risk, Berlin has created a budgetary reserve.
Berlin’s economy has outperformed the country-wide economy since the outbreak of the Covid-19 crisis in 2020, with real GDP at the end of 2022 standing 6% above its 2019-level, versus 1% for Germany as a whole. Berlin’s relative economic resilience was strengthened by sectors that were adaptable to pandemic restrictions, such as its growing information and communication sector, as well as relatively lower reliance on manufacturing, including energy-intensive industry such as chemical products and basic metals. Real GDP growth recovered to 4.9% in 2022, significantly above the German rate of 1.8%. This was partly driven by one-off factors relating to the professional services sector, but also hints at structurally robust growth trends in the capital. Scope expects Berlin’s positive demographic trend to continue over the medium term, reflecting the metropolitan city’s attractiveness, which underpins a favourable economic outlook.
Despite these strengths, Berlin’s AAA rating faces several challenges.
First, Berlin’s direct debt levels are high by national and international standards. In 2020, after eight years of debt reduction, Berlin’s budgetary response to the Covid-19 crisis caused direct debt to rise to EUR 63.7bn from EUR 57.6bn in 2019. In 2021, Berlin’s nominal debt stock increased further to EUR 65.9bn, above its previous peak in 2012, and remained broadly unchanged in 2022. Debt relative to operating revenue amounted to 180% at YE 2022, down from 189% a year before, but still well below a peak of 289% in 2012.
Scope notes the newly-formed government’s plan to invoke the safeguard clause of the debt brake for credit authorisations to fund the state’s green transition, an intention shared with the City State of Bremen and the Land of Saarland. These credit authorisations would amount to EUR 5bn in a first step, and a further potential EUR 5bn in 2024. Under the assumption of otherwise broadly stable debt, this would increase Berlin’s debt levels by around 20pp of operating revenue to around 200%.
Previously, in response to the pandemic and in line with other Länder and the federal government, Berlin’s parliament invoked the safeguard clause of the state’s debt brake law and implemented credit authorisations of EUR 7.3bn in 2020. The Land made use of the full envelope of authorisations to issue the corresponding amount of debt. Funds raised but not needed in 2020 of EUR 5.4bn were placed in a pandemic reserve earmarked for tax revenue shortfalls and pandemic-related expenditures. In 2021, the size of the pandemic reserve was broadly unchanged at EUR 5.4bn. Due to the better-than-budgeted result in 2022, there are still substantial funds available in the reserve for 2023. The Land plans to fully use the reserve by the end of 2023, including for redemption of EUR 810m of debt incurred under the pandemic credit authorisations, three times the foreseen annual instalments of EUR 270m until 2049.
Further, Berlin faces high pension payments to its civil servants over the long-term. Pension payments amounted to 8% of total expenditure in 2022, which was slightly below the national average of 9%. This is because after reunification, civil servants in the new Länder were not included in the pension scheme but in a pay-as-you-go system under the Pension Transition Act. To ease the pressure from pension obligations, Berlin provides mandatory payments to the pension contribution plan of annually EUR 80m, which were paused in 2020/21, resulting in largely unfunded pension commitments. The Land plans to tap the pension reserve from 2031 to ease the spending pressure based on the ageing profile of the Land’s civil servants.
As for all German Länder, Berlin has little flexibility to adjust revenue and little room for revenue increases via own taxes. Berlin receives shared taxes in line with constitutional arrangements between the Länder and the Bund. These revenues initially flow into Berlin’s budget but are later redistributed at a national level in accordance with revenue-sharing agreements and additional transfer mechanisms, weakening their link to the Land’s economic performance.
Finally, due to the extensive shareholdings of Berlin, an elevated level of contingent liabilities is a notable credit challenge. This exposure is mitigated by the low-risk aggregate profile of companies partially or wholly owned by Berlin. While the Covid-19 crisis has adversely affected the profitability of some of Berlin’s holdings – most notably the Berlin Brandenburg Airport of which Berlin holds 37% of equity, which required financial support from the Land in the last years, the budgetary impact for Berlin is overall moderate. Scope views positively that almost all of the Land’s holdings are profitable and generally have low leverage. Most of Berlin’s holdings’ liabilities are incurred by low-risk entities such as the regional development bank Investitionsbank Berlin and social housing associations.
Institutional framework assessment
Scope’s institutional framework assessment determines the intergovernmental integration between sub-sovereigns and their rating anchor, which is the sovereign or a higher-tier government. To perform this assessment, Scope applies the Institutional Framework scorecard (QS1), centred on six analytical components: i) extraordinary support and bailout practices; ii) ordinary budgetary support and fiscal equalisation; iii) funding practices; iv) fiscal rules and oversight; v) revenue and spending powers; and vi) political coherence and multilevel governance.
Scope considers the institutional framework under which the German Länder operate to display full integration for: i) extraordinary support and bailout practices; ii) ordinary budgetary support and fiscal equalisation; iii) fiscal rules and oversight; iv) revenue and spending powers; and v) political coherence and multilevel governance. The institutional framework displays medium integration for: i) funding practices. Consequently, Scope’s assessment results in an indicative downward rating distance of up to one notch between the German sovereign (AAA/Stable) and the rating of an individual state.
Individual credit profile
Scope assesses the individual credit profile based on quantitative and qualitative analysis of four risk categories: i) debt and liquidity; ii) budget; iii) economy; and iv) governance. These are further complemented by additional adjustments for environmental and social factors & resilience.
The outcome of these assessments, as reflected in the application of the Individual Credit Profile scorecard (QS2), is an individual credit profile score for Berlin of 50 out of 100.
The mapping of this score to the range defined by the Institutional Framework assessment results in an indicative rating for the Land of Berlin aligned with the sovereign rating, corresponding to an AAA indicative rating.
The review of potential exceptional circumstances that cannot be captured by the Institutional Framework and Individual Credit Profile scorecards did not lead to further adjustments to Berlin’s indicative rating. As such, the final rating corresponds to the indicative rating of AAA.
The results have been discussed and confirmed by a rating committee.
Factoring of Environment, Social and Governance (ESG)
ESG factors material to Berlin’s credit quality are captured by Scope’s rating approach through several analytical areas.
Scope’s assessment of Germany’s sovereign credit quality includes an appraisal of ESG risks, as detailed in Scope’s Sovereign Rating Methodology.
Governance considerations are material to Berlin’s rating and are included in Scope’s institutional framework assessment and its assessment of the Land’s individual credit profile. These highlight the high quality of governance alongside the administration’s record of sound liquidity and debt management practices, in line with other sector peers.
The institutional framework assessments capture governance factors under fiscal rules and oversight, assessed as ‘full integration’ for the German Länder. This reflects the comprehensive and credible fiscal framework in the form of the debt brake, as well as the strong oversight role of the Stability Council. Governance factors are also captured under political coherence and multilevel governance, assessed as ‘full integration’, reflecting Germany’s predictable and supportive federal system, where any major reforms are discussed and agreed upon well in advance and in consultation with the Länder.
The individual credit profile captures governance factors under the quality of governance and financial management, where Berlin is assessed as ‘stronger’, reflecting its i) track record of nominal debt reduction and build-up of budgetary reserves before the Covid-19 pandemic and a commitment to return to structurally balanced budgets by 2028; ii) regular fulfilment of policy objectives defined in strategic plans; and iii) ability to weather economic downturns by cutting costs to compensate for adverse budgetary developments.
Social considerations are included in Scope’s assessment of Berlin’s ‘economy and social profile’, highlighting a healthy labour market and favourable demographics, but also the need to support its citizens in the context of rising pressures on housing affordability. Examples of the Land’s policies to support affordable housing during the recent cost-of-living crisis include a moratorium for its housing associations to evict tenants based on late payments, as well as freezing rent levels until the end of 2023 for the Land’s housing associations.
Alongside the assessment of rating-relevant credit risks, Scope also considers long-term environmental developments that did not play a direct role in this rating action. Scope notes policy objectives to achieve a reduction of CO2 emissions by 70% relative to 1990 levels by 2030, by 90% by 2040, and to achieve climate neutrality by 2045. To achieve this, the Land is i) utilising an internal CO2 price of EUR 195 per tonne, ii) renovating its own housing stock for more energy efficiency, and iii) building charging infrastructure for electric vehicles across the city, among other measures. Further, the phaseout of energy generation from coal has been set for 2030.
Additional environmental and social factors can be material for sub-sovereign creditworthiness beyond what is already captured in other sections of the methodology. However, in the case of Berlin, no additional adjustments to the individual credit profile apply for social and environmental factors & resilience beyond what is already reflected under other risk pillars.
The main points discussed by the rating committee were: i) institutional framework for German Länder; ii) debt and liquidity profile; iii) budget performance, revenue and expenditure flexibility; iv) economic developments; v) governance, regional socioeconomic and environmental risks; and vii) peer comparison.
The methodology used for these Credit Ratings and/or Outlooks (Sub-sovereigns Rating Methodology, 11 October 2022) is available on https://scoperatings.com/governance-and-policies/rating-governance/methodologies.
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-governance/definitions-and-scales. Historical default rates of the entities rated by Scope Ratings can be viewed in the Credit Rating performance report at https://scoperatings.com/governance-and-policies/regulatory/eu-regulation. 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-governance/definitions-and-scales. 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://scoperatings.com/governance-and-policies/rating-governance/methodologies.
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
The Rated Entity and/or its Related Third Parties participated in the Credit Rating process.
The following substantially material sources of information were used to prepare the Credit Ratings: public domain, the Rated Entity.
Scope Ratings considers the quality of information available to Scope Ratings on the Rated Entity or instrument to be satisfactory. The information and data supporting these Credit Ratings originate from sources Scope Ratings considers to be reliable and accurate. Scope Ratings does not, however, independently verify the reliability and accuracy of the information and data.
Prior to the issuance of the Credit Rating action, the Rated Entity was given the opportunity to review the Credit Ratings and Outlooks and the principal grounds on which the Credit Ratings and Outlooks are based. Following that review, the Credit Ratings were not amended before being issued.
These Credit Ratings and Outlooks are issued by Scope Ratings GmbH, Lennéstraße 5, D-10785 Berlin, Tel +49 30 27891-0. The Credit Ratings and Outlooks are UK-endorsed.
Lead analyst: Julian Zimmermann, Associate Director
Person responsible for approval of the Credit Ratings: Alvise Lennkh-Yunus, Executive Director
The Credit Ratings/Outlooks were first released by Scope Ratings on 14 July 2017. The Credit Ratings/Outlooks were last updated on 17 June 2022.
See www.scoperatings.com under Governance & Policies/EU Regulation/Disclosures for a list of potential conflicts of interest related to the issuance of Credit Ratings.
Conditions of use / exclusion of liability
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