Emerging perspectives

Colombia downgrade: more to come or a catalyst for change?

Our Latin America specialist, Nicolas Jaquier, puts S&P’s downgrade of Colombia’s debt in perspective and reflects on what it might mean for investors.

21 May 2021

2 minutes

Nicolas Jaquier
What happened?

S&P’s one-notch downgrade of Colombia’s foreign currency debt with a stable outlook has moved it from an investment grade to high yield (BB+) rating. The country’s local currency debt also got a one-notch cut but it remains in the investment-grade bucket (BBB-).

While the probability of a downgrade was widely considered to be high, it’s the timing of it that has taken the market by surprise, coming less than a month after S&P affirmed its rating on the country.

Why now?

S&P’s decision was motivated by the Colombian government withdrawing its ambitious fiscal reform proposal amid widespread protests in the country.

The proposal focused on increasing tax revenues by broadening the VAT base (introducing the levy on some previously untaxed essentials) and lowering the tax-free personal income tax bracket – much-needed reforms to set the country’s debt on a sustainable path. Although the proposals included plans to increase social programs, its unpopular design and unfortunate timing (just as a severe second wave of COVID ripped through the country) triggered widespread protests which turned violent.

The country’s finance minister has since resigned and his replacement has promised a different package with a greater focus on raising the tax burden on corporates. However, S&P’s assessment of that as likely to fall short of the structural increase in revenues that Colombia needs to fix its finances prompted the pre-emptive downgrade.

Should investors worry?

The timing was certainly unexpected, particularly as rating agencies typically wait until a clear picture emerges on what Congress-adopted reforms look like. However, we think the impact on the country’s hard currency sovereign debt market will be relatively muted. Before the downgrade, prices already reflected a high chance of a rating cut. Furthermore, international investors’ positioning in the market is relatively light (i.e. less susceptible to sentiment-driven capital outflows), so we expect the market reaction to be relatively contained.

While the country’s local currency debt rating remains investment grade, investors might expect some pressure on the market in coming weeks given the more significant positioning among the international investment community. However, we think that the very steep yield curve coupled with the fact that the currency has already depreciated significantly this year (ranking among the worst performing EM currencies) means that current market prices are already reflective of those risks.

What next?

At BBB- and on negative outlook, Fitch is the rating agency most likely to follow with the next downgrade, however we expect it to wait and see what fiscal reform Congress ends up passing. Market prices already reflect a second downgrade to high yield.

We believe the S&P downgrade could prove to be a wake-up call for Colombia’s politicians and spur them into taking more significant – and more carefully considered – action to set the economy on a more sustainable path. We will watch closely for signs of a positive shift of this nature. Given the premium built in to local bond yields and hard currency bond spreads, we think investors will be well rewarded if this shift materialises.

Specific risks

Emerging market: These markets carry a higher risk of financial loss than more developed markets as they may have less developed legal, political, economic or other systems.

General risks

All investments carry the risk of capital loss. The value of investments, and any income generated from them, can fall as well as rise and will be affected by changes in interest rates, currency fluctuations, general market conditions and other political, social and economic developments, as well as by specific matters relating to the assets in which the investment strategy invests. If any currency differs from the investor’s home currency, returns may increase or decrease as a result of currency fluctuations. Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results.

Authored by

Nicolas Jaquier
Portfolio Manager

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