The global agency flagged the country’s inconsistent record on fiscal consolidation as a risk to the medium-term outlook.
Fitch Ratings on Thursday retained its sovereign rating for India at the lowest investment grade of BBB – but trimmed its outlook to “negative” from stable, citing a sharp Covid-induced deterioration in the country’s growth and fiscal metrics.
With this, Fitch joins its peers — S&P and Moody’s — in assigning the same rating to India, although S&P’s “stable” outlook is still a notch higher than assigned by the other two. Recently, while Moody’s had downgraded its India rating by a notch, S&P reaffirmed both its rating and outlook.
In a statement, Fitch said: “The coronavirus pandemic has significantly weakened India’s growth outlook for this year and exposed the challenges associated with a high public-debt burden.”
Fitch expects India’s debt levels to climb to 84.5% of GDP in FY21, against 71% in the last fiscal. It has also predicted real GDP to contract by 5% in FY21 due to the strict lockdown measures imposed since March 25, before rebounding by 9.5% in FY22, mainly on a favourable base.
But it cautioned that its further negative ratings action could be triggered by a structurally weaker growth outlook (for instance due to continued financial-sector weakness or the absence of reform implementation) and failure in fiscal consolidation after the pandemic.
However, it also suggested that the implementation of a credible strategy to reduce general government debt and higher sustained investment and growth rates could trigger positive rating action.
The global agency flagged the country’s inconsistent record on fiscal consolidation as a risk to the medium-term outlook. It also expressed concerns over balance sheet stresses in the banking and shadow banking sectors, which had been staring at a massive spike in bad loans.
However, the overwhelming domestic holdings of India’s public debt and the central bank’s accumulation of a record forex reserves of $502 billion (which suggests higher current account payment coverage than the BBB-median), somewhat eased the rating agency’s apprehensions. The country’s credible inflation-targeting framework and fresh commitment to structural reforms and ease-of-doing-business were a plus, too. Fitch predicts another 25-basis point rate cut by the RBI in FY21.
Nevertheless, the global rating agency cautioned that its forecast are “subject to considerable risks due to the continued acceleration in the number of new Covid-19 cases as the lockdown is eased gradually”. “It remains to be seen whether India can return to sustained growth rates of 6% to 7% as we previously estimated, depending on the lasting impact of the pandemic, particularly in the financial sector,” it said.
It expected an official announcement of further fiscal spending of up to 1 percentage point of GDP in the next few months, which was indicated by a recent announcement of additional borrowing for FY21 of 2% of GDP, “although we do not expect a steep rise in spending”. “Most elements of an announced package (Rs 21-lakh-crore package) totalling 10% of GDP are non-fiscal in nature, with fiscal implication of just 1% of the GDP. India’s debt levels are substantially higher than the median of 42.2% of GDP for the ‘BBB’ category in FY20 and 52.6% for 2020, Fitch said.
The banking sector’s non-performing loan (NPL) ratio may have improved to 9.0% in FY20 from 11.6% two year earlier. But a renewed rise in bad loans and the need for further financial government support now seem inevitable despite regulatory measures announced by the RBI.
A Nomura report says the commentary by the three global rating agencies while they are “cutting the (Indian) economy some slack for the next six months or so, 2021 remains a crucial year for India to either disprove or affirm these concerns”. Nomura expects potential for the next rating action to occur as early as the end of 2020 or the start of 2021.