Fitch Downgrades France to 'AA'; Outlook Stable
Fitch Ratings has downgraded France's Long-term foreign and local currency Issuer Default Ratings (IDR) to 'AA' from 'AA+'. This resolves the Rating Watch Negative (RWN) placed on France's ratings on 14 October 2014. The Outlooks on France's Long-term ratings are now Stable. The issue ratings on France's unsecured foreign and local currency bonds have also been downgraded to 'AA' from 'AA+' and removed from RWN. At the same time, Fitch has affirmed the Short-term foreign currency IDR at 'F1+' and the Country Ceiling at 'AAA'.
KEY RATING DRIVERS
The downgrade reflects the following factors and their relative weights:
When it placed the ratings on RWN in October, Fitch commented that it would likely downgrade the ratings by one notch in the absence of a material improvement in the trajectory of public debt dynamics following the European Commission's (EC) opinion on France's 2015 budget. Since that review, the government has announced additional budget saving measures of EUR3.6bn (0.17% of GDP) for 2015, which will push down next year's official headline fiscal deficit target to 4.1% of GDP from the previous forecast of 4.3%. On its own, this will not be sufficient to significantly change Fitch's projections of France's government debt dynamics.
The 2015 budget involves a significant slippage against prior budget deficit targets. The government now projects the general government budget deficit at 4.4% in 2014 (up from 3.8% in the April Stability Programme with the slippage led by weaker than expected growth and inflation) and 4.1% in 2015 (previously 3.0%), representing no improvement from the 4.1% of GDP achieved in 2013. It has postponed its commitment to meet the headline EU fiscal deficit threshold of at most 3% of GDP from 2015 until 2017.
In the draft 2015 budget, the authorities projected the gross general government debt (GGGD) to GDP ratio to peak higher at 98% and later in 2016 (previously in the Stability programme at 95.6% in 2014 and 2015) and fall more slowly to 97.3% in 2017 (previously 91.9%) and 92.9% in 2019. The projections compare with the 'AA' category median for GGGD of 37%. The only 'AA' range country with a higher debt ratio is Belgium (AA/Negative). Even under the official forecast, the capacity of the public finances to absorb shocks has been significantly reduced. Fitch expects the debt to GDP ratio to peak higher at close to 100% of GDP, with a slower decline to 94.9% of GDP by the end of the decade.
Risks to Fitch's fiscal projections remain on the downside owing to the uncertain outlook for GDP growth and inflation in the near term and the increased uncertainty over the government's ability to deliver on a fiscal consolidation path. Reflecting these concerns, Fitch's medium-term growth forecasts are somewhat weaker and budget deficits wider than official projections.
The weak outlook for the French economy impairs the prospects for fiscal consolidation and stabilising the public debt ratio. The French economy underperformed Fitch's and the government's expectations in 1H14 as it struggled to find any growth momentum, in common with a number of other eurozone countries. Underlying trends remained weak despite the economy growing more strongly than expected in 3Q, when inventories and public spending provided an uplift. Euro depreciation and lower oil prices will provide some boost to growth in 2015. Fitch's near-term GDP growth projections are unchanged from the October review of 0.4% in 2014 and 0.8% in 2015, down from 0.7% and 1.2% previously. Continued high unemployment at 10.5% is also weighing on economic and fiscal prospects.
The on-going period of weak economic performance, which started from 2012, increases the uncertainty over medium-term growth prospects. The French economy is expected to grow less than the eurozone average this year for the first time in four years. The French government is implementing a programme of structural reforms. However, the quantitative impact of recent structural reforms is uncertain, and in Fitch's view does not appear sufficient to reverse the adverse trends in long-term growth and competitiveness.
The OECD estimates that the impact of economic reforms could take longer to materialise than expected by the authorities. Its October 2014 report on French structural reforms suggests that measures already undertaken could raise GDP by a cumulative 1.2ppt in five years and 3.0pp in ten years. This is equivalent to an annualised impact on growth of 0.2ppt and 0.3pp, respectively. Adding announced measures yet to be implemented, the impact on GDP rises to 1.6ppt over five years and 0.3ppt annually. However, these estimates are highly sensitive to assumptions and there are risks to policy design and implementation of some of the measures. We continue to believe estimates of long-term growth potential around 1.5% are plausible, down from over 2% in the 1980s. This would be consistent with applying the OECD's estimates for the impact of structural reforms on growth to the EC's current estimate of trend growth at 1.2%.
In Fitch's view, the latest deviations from budget targets and EU excessive deficit procedure commitments weaken fiscal credibility. This is the second time the French government has postponed meeting the EU 3% headline deficit threshold since end-2012. This is despite the introduction of a High Council of Public Finances and new fiscal framework in France and the reinforced EU policy framework.
Despite the additional measures, the EC November opinion on 2015 was that France is at risk of non-compliance with the provisions of the Stability and Growth Pact. Furthermore, it states that "the information available so far indicates that France has not taken effective action for 2014". If that is its final view and agreed by the EU Council, and France then fails to take effective action it could potentially incur a fine in the form of a deposit of 0.2% of GDP. The EC will reassess France's position in March 2015 after official data on 2014 budget performance is made available by Eurostat and consider the next steps.
The French High Council of Public Finance's (HCPF) opinion on the government's latest economic forecast was that the lower GDP growth rates projected for 2016-2017 were more realistic than previous forecasts but still reflect an optimistic view of the external environment and domestic investment potential. The HCPF's opinion on the government's fiscal projections in the draft 2015 budget was that there is a risk of deviation from the medium-term objective of lowering the structural deficit from 2.5% of potential GDP in 2013 to 0.4% by 2019.
France's 'AA' IDRs and Stable Outlooks also reflect the following main factors:
Fitch judges financing risk to be low, reflecting an average debt maturity of seven years, low borrowing costs and strong financing flexibility. Government debt is entirely euro-denominated rather than in foreign currency.
The government has stated its intention to continue with structural reforms in 2015, including territorial reform and a law on growth. As stated above, these have the potential to raise trend growth.
France has a wealthy and diversified economy. It has a track record of relative macro-financial stability including low and stable inflation. It also benefits from moderate levels of household debt and a high household savings rate. Political stability and governance is entrenched by strong and effective civil and social institutions.
While the current account balance has generally been on a deteriorating trend for the past 10 years due to France's loss of export market share, at 1.3% of GDP in 2013 the deficit is not excessive. Fitch projects the deficit to stabilise around current levels. However, France's net external debt is significantly higher than most rating peers.
There is low risk from contingent liabilities. In recent years, the financial sector has been cleaning up its balance sheets, strengthening funding, liquidity, capital and leverage. The risks from the eurozone crisis management mechanism including the EFSF and ESM have also eased owing to the actions of the ECB and the on-going gradual economic recovery of the single currency area.
The main factors that could lead to negative rating action, individually or collectively, are:
- Weaker public finances reducing confidence that public debt will peak in 2017 and be placed on a downward trajectory.
- Deterioration in competitiveness and weaker medium-term growth prospects.
Future developments that could individually or collectively, result in positive rating action include:
- Sustained lower budget deficits, leading to a track record of a decline in the public debt to GDP ratio from its peak.
- A stronger economic recovery of the French economy and greater confidence in medium-term growth prospects particularly if supported by the implementation of effective structural reforms.
In its debt sensitivity analysis, Fitch assumes a primary surplus averaging 0.5% of GDP over the next 10 years, trend real GDP growth averaging 1.5%, an average effective interest rate of 2.7% and GDP deflator of 1.5%. On the basis of these assumptions, the debt-to-GDP ratio would peak at 99.4% in 2017, before declining to 87.6% by 2023.
Fitch assumes the eurozone will avoid long-lasting deflation, such as that experienced by Japan from the 1990s. Fitch also assumes the gradual progress in deepening fiscal and financial integration at the eurozone level will continue; key macroeconomic imbalances within the currency union will be slowly unwound; and eurozone governments will tighten fiscal policy over the medium term.
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