Who would have thought a few years ago that Moody's would be one of the biggest supporters of the gold bulls...
Moody's Investors Service has today downgraded Ireland's foreign- and local-currency government bond ratings by one notch to Ba1 from Baa3. The outlook on the ratings remains negative.
The key driver for today's rating action is the growing possibility that following the end of the current EU/IMF support programme at year-end 2013 Ireland is likely to need further rounds of official financing before it can return to the private market, and the increasing possibility that private sector creditor participation will be required as a precondition for such additional support, in line with recent EU government proposals.
As stated in Moody's recent comment, entitled "Calls for Banks to Share Greek Burden Are Credit Negative for Sovereigns Unable to Access Market Funding" (published on 11 July as part of Moody's Weekly Credit Outlook), the prospect of any form of private sector participation in debt relief is negative for holders of distressed sovereign debt. This is a key factor in Moody's ongoing assessment of debt-burdened euro area sovereigns.
Although Moody's acknowledges that Ireland has shown a strong commitment to fiscal consolidation and has, to date, delivered on its programme objectives, the rating agency nevertheless notes that implementation risks remain significant, particularly in light of the continued weakness in the Irish economy.
The negative outlook on the ratings of the government of Ireland reflects these significant implementation risks to the country's deficit reduction plan as well as the shift in tone among EU governments towards the conditions under which support to distressed euro area sovereigns will be made available.
Despite the increased likelihood of private sector participation, Moody's believes that the euro area will continue to utilise its considerable economic and financial strength in its efforts to restore financial stability and provide financial support to the Irish government. The strength and financial capacity of the euro area is underpinned by the Aaa strength of many of its members including France and Germany, and indicated by Moody's Aaa credit ratings on the European Union, the European Central Bank and the European Financial Stability Facility.
Moody's has today also downgraded Ireland's short-term issuer rating by one notch to Non-Prime (commensurate with a Ba1 debt rating) from Prime-3.
In a related rating action, Moody's has today downgraded by one notch to Ba1 from Baa3 the long-term rating and to Non-Prime from Prime-3 the short-term rating of Ireland's National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), whose debt is fully and unconditionally guaranteed by the government of Ireland. The outlook on NAMA's rating remains negative, in line with that of the government's bond ratings.
RATIONALE FOR DOWNGRADE
The main driver of today's downgrade is the growing likelihood that participation of existing investors may be required as a pre-condition for any future rounds of official financing, should Ireland be unable to borrow at sustainable rates in the capital markets after the end of the current EU/IMF support programme at year-end 2013. Private sector creditor participation could be in the form of a debt re-profiling -- i.e., the rolling-over or swapping of a portion of debt for longer-maturity bonds with coupons below current market rates -- in proportion to the size of the creditors' holdings of debt that are coming due.
Moody's assumption surrounding increased private sector creditor participation is driven by EU policymakers' increasingly clear preference-- as expressed during the negotiations over the refinancing of Greek debt -- for requiring some level of private sector participation given that private investors continue to hold the majority of outstanding debt.
A call for private sector participation in the current round of financing for Greece signals that such pressure is likely to be felt during all future rounds of official financing for other distressed sovereigns, including Ba2-rated Portugal (as Moody's recently stated) as well as Ireland.
Although Ireland's Ba1 rating indicates a much lower risk of restructuring than Greece's Caa1 rating, the increased possibility of private sector participation has the effect of further discouraging future private sector lending and increases the likelihood that Ireland will be unable to regain market access on sustainable terms in the near future. This in turn implies that some Irish government bond investors would need to absorb losses. The increased risk of a disorderly and outright payment default or of a disorderly debt restructuring by Greece also increases the risk that Ireland will be unable to regain access to private sector credit.
The downward pressure that this creates is mitigated in Ireland's case by the strong commitment of the Irish government to fiscal consolidation and structural reforms, and by its success, so far, in achieving the fiscal adjustment required by the EU/IMF programme. To date, Ireland has met all of its objectives under that programme. In the first half of 2011, the primary balance target was exceeded, with tax revenues on track and lower-than-anticipated government expenditures. However, Moody's cautions that implementation risks related to the overall deficit reduction aims of the three-year programme are still significant, particularly in light of the continuing weakness of domestic demand.
Apart from Ireland's adherence to fiscal consolidation, Moody's also acknowledges the Irish economy's continued competitiveness and business-friendly tax environment. The considerable wage adjustment that occurred in the course of the crisis reflects the Irish labour market's flexibility. Taking Ireland's economic adjustment capacity into account, Moody's expects that, after a period of prolonged retrenchment, Ireland's long-term potential growth prospects remain higher than those of many other advanced nations. While the government's debt-to-GDP burden is expected to be high compared to similarly rated sovereign credits, Ireland has managed elevated levels of indebtedness in the past, and has shown political cohesion while enacting difficult structural adjustments.
WHAT COULD CHANGE THE RATING UP/DOWN
Moody's would consider a further rating downgrade if the Irish government is unable to meet the targeted fiscal consolidation goals. A further deterioration in the country's economic outlook would also exert downward pressure on the rating, as would further market disruption resulting from a disorderly Greek default.
Moody's also notes that upward pressure on the rating could develop if the government's continued success in achieving its fiscal consolidation targets, supported by a resumption of sustained economic growth, is able to reverse the current debt dynamics, thereby sustainably improving the Irish government's financial strength.