LONDON, Feb 14 (Reuters) - Uzbekistan plans to reduce the proportion of gold in its foreign currency reserves and buy U.S. Treasuries instead, the country’s finance minister Jamshid Kuchkarov said on Thursday.
The landlocked ex-Soviet Republic’s foreign currency reserves stood at $26.4 billion as of December, according to central bank data.
“From the beginning of this year the central bank is going to diversify how it manages its reserves, and they are going to buy some U.S. Treasuries,” Kuchkarov told Reuters during a visit to London.
He had been meeting investors as part of the country’s $1 billion international bond market debut.
“Roughly half of our reserves are gold, because we are gold producers,” deputy central bank governor Temur Ishmetov said. “We are planning gradually to reduce the share of the gold in our reserves and add U.S. Treasuries.”
Uzbekistan this week sold a $1 billion bond in its first foray into international capital markets.
Investors were keen to snap up the issue, with order books in excess of $3.8 billion. Many said, however, that pricing for the junk-rated bond was very tight, with the 2024 bond yielding just 4.75 percent and the 2029 tranche 5.375 percent.
Uzbekistan holds a BB- rating with Fitch and S&P, while Moody’s rates it at B1 - one notch below its peers.
Both bonds fell after starting to trade on Thursday. The 5-year issue was indicated at 99.66 cents in the dollar, while the 10-year stood at 99.7750 cents, according to MarketAxess.
Kuchkarov confirmed the government would tap international debt markets on an annual basis, and that two of the country’s banks were likely to follow suit over the course of 2019.
Possible lenders named in investor meetings were Uzbek Industrial and Construction Bank Joint-Stock Commercial Bank (UPSB), Joint Stock Commercial Bank Asaka, SCM Ipoteka Bank and National Bank of Uzbekistan.
Rich in natural resources such as gas, gold and other metals, Uzbekistan is also one of the world’s leading exporters of cotton. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who took over from hardliner Islam Karimov in 2016, has taken some steps to open up the economy, such as liberalising the foreign exchange market.
Karimov rejected market reforms in his 27 years in power, leaving the country of 32 million largely isolated, its economy stagnant and mired in mass unemployment.
Kuchkarov said the government would push ahead with reform efforts and privatise a number of state-owned enterprises.
On top of the list was state utility Uzbekenergo, which will be split into a power generation and a transmission business in 2019, with parts of it open to private investment through public-private partnership.
State-owned Navoi Mining and Metallurgy Combinat - one of Uzbekistan’s largest mining companies - will be listed in 2023, Kuchkarov added.
He predicted the country’s economy would expand by 5.3 percent in 2019, accelerating to its potential rate of 7-8 percent in the years to come. (Reporting by Karin Strohecker; Editing by Jan Harvey)