Fitch Keeps Nigeria at ‘B-‘; Cites Downsides
Fitch Ratings has affirmed Nigeria’s Long-Term Foreign-Currency Issuer Default Rating (IDR) at ‘B-‘ with a stable outlook on account of the country’s multiple downsides. According to the rating note, Nigeria’s ‘B-‘ rating is supported by a large economy, a developed and liquid domestic debt market, and large oil and gas reserves.
However, the country’s rating is constrained by weak governance, structurally very low non-oil revenue, high hydrocarbon dependence, security challenges, high inflation, low net FX reserves and ongoing weakness in the exchange-rate framework.
On the stable outlook accorded, Fitch noted the important steps the government has taken to reduce fuel subsidies and reform the exchange rate framework much more quickly than we anticipated and has ambitions to substantially raise revenue.
However, there has recently been some backtracking on reforms, notably a lower degree of price discovery in the FX market than in late June, raising doubt about the strength of this positive momentum.
Fitch said in addition, new data on the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) suggests its net foreign exchange position is substantially weaker. The rating note reads that reform progress since President Bola Tinubu’s government came to power in May 2023 has been faster than anticipated at its last review.
In June, the government removed fuel subsidies, which cost nearly 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2022. It also unified the multiple exchange rate windows, and the official investors and exporter rate was allowed to depreciate by close to 40%, with renewed volatility around end-October.
Fitch views the cabinet, particularly Finance Minister Wale Edun, and the new CBN governor as supportive of reform. However, it noted that there are still sizeable socio-political challenges to implementation, including an acceleration in inflation, which could account for recent backtracking of some reforms.
FX shortages continue to weigh on economic activity and further FX liberalisation and deter foreign capital. In October, the CBN lifted the ban on providing FX for imports of 43 items and is currently taking forward plans to clear nearly USD6.7 billion of unmet FX forwards.
However, there has been a renewed widening of the gap between the official and parallel exchange rates since July with a premium of over 30% over the official rate.
Average daily FX turnover at the official exchange rate window has fallen back to near April 2023 levels (well below pre-pandemic), at USD95 million in September.
The CBN’s gross FX reserves fell to USD33.2 billion in September, from USD37.1 billion at end-2022. In August 2023, the CBN published its consolidated financial statements for 2022, its first since 2015.
According to Fitch, these indicate its net foreign exchange position is weaker than we understood, although sizeable gaps remain, preventing a reliable assessment. Short-term CBN liabilities at end-2022 included USD5.5 billion of foreign-currency (FC) securities lending and USD6.8 billion of foreign currency forward payables.
“There is a particular lack of detail on additional near USD32 billion of “FX forwards, OTC futures, and currency swaps”, which is recorded as an off-balance-sheet “commitment” and not broken down.
“While this likely includes some non-deliverable contracts settled in naira and commitments of a longer tenor, it suggests domestic bank swaps with CBN are probably higher than the USD10-12 billion Fitch previously estimated.
“Nevertheless, we expect most swaps will continue to be rolled over, reflecting incentives for banks to invest the naira received in high-yielding sovereign securities and the sector’s limited reliance on swaps for FC liquidity, given sizeable foreign currency placements with international banks”.
Fitch forecasted a broadly flat current account surplus, averaging 0.5% of GDP in 2023-2024. It said there is a lack of detail on a recent government announcement to raise USD10 billion of FX, including whether this includes World Bank budget support loans of USD1.5 billion.
Following the sharp depreciation this year, Fitch assumes exchange-rate adjustments proceed more gradually in subsequent years. It sees near-term sovereign external debt service as moderate, at USD4.3 billion in 2024.
The rating note hints that there has been only a partial recovery in oil production, to 1.57 mbpd (including condensates) in September from a low of 1.25 mbpd in September 2022.
“…we anticipate a moderate increase in 2024-2025, averaging 1.81 mbpd, helped by improved onshore surveillance”, Fitch said. However, this is still well below the 2.09 mbpd in 2019, reflecting chronic underinvestment in the sector, and likely ongoing production outages.
Fitch forecasts the budget deficit to narrow by 0.2 percentage points in 2023, to 5.2% of GDP, as strong non-oil revenue growth and fuel subsidy removal are offset by higher capital spending and underperformance in oil profits from Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation Limited.
“We project a 1.1% of GDP rise in government revenue in 2023-2025, to 8.5% of GDP, helped by increased government efforts to mobilise non-oil tax revenue (including establishing a presidential fiscal and tax reform committee), but this remains one of the lowest ratios of any Fitch-rated sovereign”.
This underpins our forecast for the budget deficit as a percentage of GDP to narrow to 5.0% and 4.6% in 2024 and 2025. Nigeria’s public debt (excluding CBN loans) has a fairly long average maturity of 9.7 years.
The securitisation of N23 trillion of CBN loans at a lower interest rate of 9% has helped contain general government interest costs, but at nearly 42% of revenues, overall interest expenditure is well above the ‘B’ median of 10.9%.
“We expect much lower recourse to CBN financing in 2023-2024 than in 2022, although there is a risk demand from the domestic banking sector turns out to be weaker than expected, despite its ample liquidity and strong deposit growth”.
Fitch forecasts general government debt/GDP to stabilise at 43.9% of GDP in 2024-25, having risen from 35.2% at end-2022 on the depreciation of the naira, and below the projected 2024 ‘B’ median of 54.8%.
The global rating agency projected GDP to slow to 2.6% in 2023, from 3.3% in 2022, and to expand to 3.2% in 2024 driven by the services sector and higher oil production. Nigeria’s already structurally high inflation rose to an average of 25.5% year on year in 3Q 2023, from 20.3% in 3Q22, partly reflecting fuel subsidy removal and naira devaluation.
Fitch projects inflation moderates to 21.1% in 2024 from an average of 24.8% in 2023, helped by lower deficit monetisation, but well above the ‘B’ medians of 6.0% and 4.9%, respectively.
CBN has raised the policy interest rate by 725bp to 18.75% since April 2022, tightened reserve requirements, and phased out credit support schemes, but liquidity and credit growth remain strong, reflecting still relatively loose policy settings. No Shortage of Naira Notes, CBN Assures Nigerians