Fitch affirms Uzbekistan at 'BB-' with a stable outlook, says bank selloffs timetable challenging

By bne IntelliNews February 26, 2024

Fitch Ratings on February 23 affirmed Uzbekistan's Long-Term Foreign-Currency Issuer Default Rating (IDR) at 'BB-' with a Stable Outlook.

The rating firm said: “Uzbekistan's ratings balance robust external and fiscal buffers, low government debt and a record of high growth relative to 'BB' rated peers, against high commodity dependence and structural weaknesses in terms of low GDP per capita, an uncompetitive and large, albeit reducing, state presence in the economy, and weak but improving governance levels.”

Looking at progress with reforms, it added: “Uzbekistan's government is progressing with key structural economic reforms, most notably a marked reduction in energy subsidies for households that will be implemented in May 2024, following liberalisation of tariffs for industries in October 2023. Fitch believes the successful implementation will benefit long-term public finances and reduce contingent liability risks from state-owned electricity distribution companies.

“However, plans to phase out subsidised lending are proceeding at a slower pace, likely due to social considerations. Also, following the successful privatisation of Ipoteka Bank in 1H23, authorities have extended deadlines for selling controlling stakes in two other large lenders. This reinforces Fitch's expectation that the original timeframe for bank privatisations would be challenging as business model transformations are still being implemented. Investor sentiment may also be affected by ongoing geopolitical uncertainty in the region, which could delay privatisation.”

In a note on fiscal slippage in 2023, Fitch noted that the headline budget deficit—which includes balances of extrabudgetary accounts and the Uzbekistan Fund for Reconstruction and Development, or UFRD—widened by 1.4pp to 5.5% of GDP in 2023, significantly overshooting the original budgeted target of 3%, reflecting delays to energy tariff liberalisation, as well as a slower than expected fall in subsidised lending, and lower than expected corporate profit tax following short-term energy shortages in 1Q23.

Fitch said it “expects the deficit to contract to 4.3% of GDP in 2024 and 3.9% in 2025, as cuts to energy subsidies will permanently reduce expenditure by an estimated 1.5pp of GDP from 2024. Risks to our outlook arise from higher inflation, which may necessitate greater provision of offsetting support measures to the population”.

Gross general government debt (GGGD; including external state guarantees) stood at 36% of GDP as of end-2023 (current 'BB' median: 52%), said Fitch. Authorities issued $660mn (0.7% of GDP) in a eurobond and UZS4.25 trillion (0.4% of GDP) in soum-denominated green bonds in external markets in October 2023, as a revised, larger deficit increased financing requirements. Fitch said it anticipated that GGGD would remain largely flat in 2024-25, averaging 34.3%

“As of end-2023,” said Fitch, “92.6% of government debt was foreign-currency-denominated, although risks are mitigated by the high share of concessional debt (88% of external public debt) and fairly long maturities (2023: 9.1 years) for external debt. The large stock of government deposits and the assets of the UFRD (2023: 18.4% of GDP) will keep net government debt levels low. While the UFRD is an important buffer, the proportion of foreign-currency-denominated assets has nearly halved since 2017 (when economic reforms began) to USD6.5 billion (7.2% of GDP) as of end-2023.”

Uzbekistan's economy is continuing to prove its resilience to spillovers from the Ukraine war and Russian sanctions, with the economy recording growth rates among the highest in the CIS region (2023: 6%; 2024F: 6%), Fitch also observed, adding: “Within the banking sector, Uzbek authorities appear to have increased enforcement of Western sanctions on pertinent Russian individuals and institutions.

“Trade reliance on Russia is high, with Russia accounting for 13.5% of exports and 17.2% of imports in 2023 (although this represents a decline from 16% and 20.3%, respectively, in 2022). In October, Uzbekistan started receiving natural gas under a two-year import agreement with Russia for 2.8 billion cubic metres per year, further deepening economic dependence.

“Remittances from Russia - which amounted to 9% of GDP and 74% of total remittances in 2023- are critical for Uzbekistan's external finances as well as economic growth, and while steps are being taken on diversification of the labour market, they will take time to meaningfully reduce the dependence.”

The rating agency said Uzbekistan’s current account is estimated to have recorded a deficit of 6.9% of GDP in 2023 (current 'BB' median: deficit of 2.5%) following a near-balance in 2022, which was due to a historical surge in remittances from Russia and strong gold prices.

Fitch said it expected the current account deficit to average 4.5% in 2024-25, as significant investment needs would keep the trade deficit large. FDI prospects, particularly in the renewable energy industry appear solid, and SOE privatisation should further enlarge the pipeline of investments, it added.

Fitch also said it anticipated that the external balance sheet would remain a key credit strength, with FX reserves equivalent to nine months of current account payables as of 2023, and the economy in a net external creditor position (projected average of 11.3% of GDP in 2024-25).

Uzbekistan, Fitch said, has enjoyed solid credit growth across all retail segments since 2H22 (2023: 47% yoy in retail loans) with a particularly sharp spike in auto loans (36% of all retail loans issued in 2023) and mortgages.

“Household leverage levels are still relatively low,” said Fitch, “and banks' retail loan quality still appears solid, with the regulatory non-performing loan (NPL) ratio at 3.5% as of end-2023 (4% for state-owned banks). However, in our view the NPL ratio does not fully capture crystallising asset-quality risks as we see risks from the seasoning of loans issued at the start of the reform period (from 2017).”

Dollarisation of bank deposits and loans is fairly high in Uzbekistan, at 30% and 45%, respectively, as of end-2023, although on a declining trend, Fitch added.

Inflation in Uzbekistan has historically been high relative to peers, highlighting weak monetary policy transmission, Fitch also said, adding: “Fitch has factored in a boost of up to 3pp to inflation from higher energy tariffs in 2024, which will result in annual average inflation of 13% this year. Further phases of tariff increases, as authorities seek to achieve full market pricing by 2027-28, will pose upside risks to inflation.

“In 2023, the Central Bank of Uzbekistan decided to postpone adopting the 5% formal inflation target from end-2024 to 2H25, in large part due to inflationary pressures, and Fitch expects the monetary policy stance to remain tight.”

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