Investors are buying Colombian bonds based on expectations that the country will soon regain its investment credit grade rating, but the government faces a tough reform agenda that could drag the process out.
President Juan Manuel Santos, inaugurated on Aug. 7, is sending bills to Congress aimed at reining in Colombia’s central government fiscal deficit, estimated at 4.4 percent of gross domestic product this year, up from 4.2 percent in 2009.
Colombian bond spreads, which measure risk as compared with U.S. Treasuries, have narrowed to the same range of more fiscally sound investment-grade countries like Peru and Brazil, indicating that investors have already priced in an upgrade.
“The market is assuming this is going to happen sooner than it will,” said Bret Rosen, senior credit strategist for Latin America at Standard Chartered.
“Colombia … is already trading as an investment grade credit,” he added. “But there is an ambitious reform agenda ahead and the fiscal numbers are not good, so we think there may be room for disappointment.”
Santos is asking Congress to approve a fiscal rule that would oblige the state to save money and cut debt during boom times. The goal is to reach fiscal equilibrium by 2014.
He also wants to revamp the public healthcare system to keep it solvent, move unregistered workers onto the tax rolls, and centralize the way mining and oil royalties are spent.
Investors have welcomed this reform agenda as the last step toward an upgrade by credit agencies such as Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, and Fitch, all of which currently rate Colombia one notch below investment grade.
The rating upgrade would lower government borrowing costs and make it easier for companies to raise money. This would in turn spur investment, support economic growth, and help plug the fiscal hole.
Colombian global bonds were at 165 basis points over U.S. Treasuries on Monday, according to JP Morgan’s Emerging Markets Bond Index Plus . Brazil spreads were 204 basis points and Peru’s were at 160.
“Colombia’s international bonds have already discounted most of the upgrade, which could come next year if the government has success in implementing its reforms,” said Camilo Perez, chief economist at Banco de Bogota.
“Local government bonds, particularly on the long end, are lagging. That’s where you should go if you are looking for value as a possible upgrade approaches,” he said.
When Brazil won investment grade in 2008 the country widened its investor base and smaller Brazilian companies received an increase in acquisition offers from foreign firms.
On the flipside, capital inflows to Brazil have dramatically strengthened the local currency. That’s a problem already well known in Colombia, where the peso is near two-year highs that have exporters, who get paid in U.S. dollars, howling for relief.
Colombia’s credit rating has been mired in junk bond territory since an economic crisis in 1999 tore its banking sector apart.
One tax and pension reform bill after another has been watered down by Congress since then while previous President Alvaro Uribe was criticized for high spending meant to shore up his popularity while his government tried, and failed, to change the constitution to allow him to run for a third term.
But Uribe made the country much safer with his U.S.-backed crackdown on leftist rebels. As a result investor confidence improved sparking a mining and oil boom that should help shore up fiscal accounts.
Fitch has Colombia’s long-term sovereign rating at ‘BB-plus’ with a stable outlook. The next step up would be to the investment-grade rating of ‘BBB-minus’, where Brazil, Peru and Panama are currently scored by the agency.
“Santos has a competent team that is bringing new initiatives. We will have to see how those initiatives develop, both in terms of their passage in Congress and their implementation,” said Fitch analyst Erich Arispe.
David Rolley, who co-manages a portfolio of over $25 billion for Loomis Sayles in Boston, said fiscal results from Santos’ reform agenda should start to appear during 2011.
“But there are going to be some headwinds from a very possible global slowdown,” he added. “So I’d be surprised if an upgrade comes within a year.”
Colombian lawmakers have a history of voting against reforms that would save money by cutting benefits for their constituents, so there is some uncertainty about how well Santos’ program will fare in Congress.
The hardest bill to get passed appears to be a proposal that would take control of mining and oil royalties away from regional authorities. The president wants to use commodities sector royalties to feed an overseas savings fund and to pay for infrastructure projects nationwide.
“If this is not approved during his first year in power, it won’t happen,” said Liberal party Senator Juan Cristo, who supports the measure. “Of all the reforms, the royalties bill will be the toughest because local governors and mayors in in commodities-producing provinces are against it.” (Hugh Bronstein / Reuters)