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Saudi Investors May Have Got What's Needed to Hold Credit Rating

Updated on
  • Spending cuts could support debt outlook: Moody's analyst
  • Eating into $664 billion of reserves as oil prices plunge

If investors were looking for a sign that Saudi Arabia is doing more than just pumping oil at a record pace to shore up its finances, they may have just got it.

The world’s biggest crude exporter is seeking advice on how to cut billions of dollars from next year’s budget because of the slump in crude prices, two people familiar with the matter said Tuesday. The cost of insuring Saudi bonds against default fell for the first time in six days after the report.

“Saudi Arabia is moving in the right direction at this point,” Steven Hess, senior vice president at Moody’s Investors Service, said by phone from New York on Tuesday. “We think that’s positive. We’ll have to see how that pans out over the next year or two.”

Widening Deficit

The desert kingdom is eating into $664 billion of reserves as plunging oil prices and fighting in Yemen has potential to leave the country’s biggest budget deficit in almost three decades. Brent oil is near a six-year low as Saudi Arabia is starting to tap into the domestic bond market for the first time in eight years. Fitch Ratings Ltd. cut its credit outlook on the country to negative last week, citing falling oil prices and lack of spending cuts.

Saudi Slowdown

Saudi credit-default swaps retreated to 100 basis points after the report that the government is studying spending cuts and were at 105 at the close of trading on Wednesday. The measure of how much investors must pay to insure against a Saudi default had doubled over five days to Aug. 24, according to prices compiled by CMA. That’s more than the average 43 basis-point gain for CDSs of government debt in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Saudi Arabia.

The Arab world’s largest economy is expected to post a budget deficit of
$97 billion in 2015, Fitch estimates. Last year, the gap was $17.5 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The country sold at least 35 billion riyals ($9.3 billion) of bonds on local markets this year, turning to the bond markets for the first time since 2007.

Oil prices have dropped 58 percent in the past year as the 12-country Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries exceeded its production target while the U.S. hasn’t cut back. Saudi Arabia will probably keep oil production close to current levels to support government income, Fitch said in a Aug. 24 report. The country pumped a record 10.48 million barrels a day in June.

Moody’s Rating

Moody’s rates Saudi debt Aa3, the fifth-highest investment grade and has a stable outlook for the country. It can rely on government reserves and bond sales for a year or two before risking a downgrade, Hess said. That assumes oil prices staying at the current level of about $45 a barrel. Spending cuts could support the credit rating, he said.

Fitch on Aug. 21 revised the outlook for the country to negative for the first time, from stable. Fitch’s Jan Friederich, senior director, said he needed more details on the possible spending cuts to comment if it changes the outlook.

“In the situation of a declining oil price, a challenge for the government is can they make a significant effort to address that by cutting expenditures,” Friederich said. “So that’s what we are quite focused on, are there going to be more substantial reactions in terms of expenditure adjustment over the next year?”

— With assistance by Samuel Potter, and Matthew Martin

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