LONDON (Reuters) - There is still a threat hanging over South Africa’s credit rating, Standard & Poor’s said on Thursday, while the actions of Poland’s incoming central bank chief could be crucial to whether it avoids another downgrade.
Speaking to Reuters, S&P’s EMEA sovereign chief Moritz Kraemer added that the pressure was not necessarily off Russia’s rating and that unpredictable policymaking remained a hurdle to S&P following Fitch in lifting Hungary to investment grade.
S&P’s analysts left South Africa’s BBB- rating on a ‘negative’ outlook last week, sparing it the pain of a cut to so-called ‘junk’ that would have been a major blow for the already struggling country.
Financial markets are betting however that with the economy performing poorly and a power struggle making the political environment highly uncertain, a downgrade may be just be a matter of time.
“We didn’t do it (downgrade) last week but we think there is still a lot to play for,” Kraemer said at an S&P conference.
“The economy is weak, the outlook is weaker than we thought six months ago, and I think there are a lot of important political developments that are going on in the background where different groups are vying for influence.”
S&P’s next planned review of South Africa is on Dec. 2, although it can in theory move a rating at any time if there is a serious enough development.
“We are in very intensive, pretty continuous contact with the authorities,” Kraemer added. “I think they have some plans to mitigate the risks. But the risks have been rising lately and how much buy-in there is across the political spectrum will gradually reveal itself.”
With the global economy still spluttering, rating pressures remain intense on many major emerging markets.
S&P carried out its second cull of oil-producing countries’ ratings earlier this year and China saw its outlook cut, while Poland got its first downgrade since the fall of Communism in January - a move that caught economists off guard.
It was based on the nationalist-minded Law and Justice (PiS) government’s moves to up social spending and tighten control on Poland’s judiciary and media, in changes that have also fanned tensions with Brussels.
“Whether the negative outlook (on Poland’s BBB+ rating) will lead to another downgrade will depend partly on whether we consider that the institutional framework in Poland weakens further from here,” Kraemer said.
A crucial issue for S&P is likely to be Poland’s central bank, where PiS party ally and former rate-setter Adam Glapinski is set to take over as governor next week.
“We are observing how the central bank will operate, whether its independence will be safeguarded. That is a particularly important institution as far as the credit rating is concerned,” Kraemer said.
“What you would need to watch is the pronouncements coming from the central bank and try to derive from that if there is a change in the level of independence.”
Nearby Hungary has just had its ratings lifted back into the coveted investment grade bracket by Fitch.
S&P has kept it one notch below that grade at BB+, however, but with a stable outlook and questions over politics there too, Kraemer suggested it was unlikely to be following Fitch soon.
“The key factor holding back the rating now is the difficult predictability of policymaking, weakened institutional framework and maybe also the dependence on the transfers from the EU budget, which is very large.”
“We are in an environment where there might be risks going forward about the continuation of those transfers, particularly in the next multi-year budget.”
He added that big European countries are questioning whether Hungary, which has effectively closed its borders to avoid a flood of Syrian refugees, should get such large amounts of EU funding given its “lack of solidarity” on the migrant issue.
Editing by Hugh Lawson