Markets mull Brazil junk-rating impact

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Battle-ready long-term investors could pick up equity and debt on the cheap, according to research, as S&P finally cuts Brazil to junk after Euromoney Country Risk rankings.

by Sid Verma, Rob Dwyer

Standard & Poor’s surprised the market with its downgrade of Brazil’s sovereign rating to BB+, a speculative grade-rating, late on Wednesday, confirming foreign-investors’ love-affair with the country is firmly over.

As one macro trader observes: "Brazil downgrade been hanging over the market like a Sword of Damocles. Slowest guys in the room finally acknowledged what everyone knows."



Indeed. In July, Euromoney Country Risk reported Brazil was on the brink of losing its investment-grade status, after the sovereign’s risk score fell by 2.5 points to 56.5 out of a maximum 100 points, culminating in a seven-place drop in the global rankings, to 50th out of 186 countries surveyed. 

This move pushed Brazil deeper into tier-three category – the middle of ECR’s five categories commensurate with a credit rating towards the lower end of the BB+ to A- range. 

Brazil is presently ranking on a similar scale to Botswana (47th in the survey), Italy (49th) and Uruguay (52nd) in terms of its total risk score. Despite the fall in Brazil’s creditworthiness in the eyes of markets, most had expected rating agencies would respond in kind early 2016.

Although Brazilian assets tumbled following the news, especially since S&P also slapped a negative-outlook on the junk rating, the immediate market impact for fixed-income investors might be contained in the near-term. 

BNP Paribas, for example, reckons the downgrade is well-justified, but the news was already priced in, especially in the CDS market. "The downgrade itself was not a major surprise, although the speed was [Brazil was only placed on negative outlook less than two months ago]," states BNP Paribas analysts.

A litany of fiscal errors and the end of the commodity boom have handicapped Brazil’s creditworthiness since 2012, with debt-to-GDP likely to hit 65% of GDP end-2015 compared with 53% this year, while the deficit is expected to hit 8% of GDP this year. 

The government has persistently missed its fiscal targets while the central bank has typically overshot its 2.5% to 6.5% inflation target range for the past three years, savaging real wages and consumption and foreign-investor confidence.

Fitch and Moody’s rate the sovereign BBB and Baa2, respectively, and both with negative outlooks. Brazil joins junk-rating peers that include Russia, Bulgaria, Indonesia, Hungary, Guatemala and Paraguay. The IMF forecasts the economy will contract 1.5% and 0.7% in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

BNP analysts add: "The agency correctly argues the government's 2016 budget proposal envisions yet another change to the primary fiscal target less than six weeks after the previous downward revision, which would mean three consecutive years of a primary deficit and net general debt continuing to rise if subsequent revenue or expenditure measures are not taken."

Typically, fixed-income investors’ investment-grade portfolios require a sovereign to be downgraded to junk by at least two agencies before they are forced to divest their exposures. Despite market perception to the contrary, at the index-level, such as the GBI-Emerging Market Global Diversified Index, rating restrictions don’t apply, while liquidity and accessibility are big factors that determine a given sovereign’s inclusion. 


However, Brazil could eventually be excluded from the investment-grade sub-component of the index, though BNP analysts are largely sanguine. 

They state: "In the investment grade sub-component, Brazil accounts for 15% of the index, with an estimated $9 billion in total assets under management. Therefore, the exclusion would imply only $1.35 billion of potential outflows from LTN/NTNF [domestic] bonds, which is insignificant compared to a total foreign participation of $150 billion at the end of June 2015 (2% of the current foreign ownership)."

While the Brazil downgrade will inevitably hike borrowing costs for companies and the sovereign, debt capital market bankers counter that all-in issuance costs will, in part, be capped by stubbornly low US Treasury yields.

The key question for equity investors is should they buy the news?

Research by UBS, published on August 18, suggests courageous investors could profit from buying a country’s equities at the point of downgrade from investment grade. UBS analyzed the six instances when a MSCI GEM country was cut to sub-IG since 1996: