Fitch Ratings warns Russian bond default ‘imminent’

Russian currency notes.

A leading ratings agency has warned Russia is likely to soon default on its debts, as it downgraded the country’s bonds further into “junk” territory.

Fitch Ratings slashed its assessment of Russia to almost the bottom of its scale, just days after downgrading it from investment status. It is the latest blow to the country’s creditworthiness in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine.

This week, Moscow said its bond payments may be affected by sanctions. “The further ratcheting up of sanctions, and proposals that could limit trade in energy, increase the probability of a policy response by Russia that includes at least selective non-payment of its sovereign debt obligations,” Fitch said.

The announcement from Fitch came after the US and UK said they will ban Russian oil, as they step up the economic response to the invasion of Ukraine. US President Joe Biden said the move targeted “the main artery of Russia’s economy”. Meanwhile, the European Union said it will end its reliance on Russian gas.

As a major exporter of energy, the measures are aimed to hit Moscow’s finances, although experts warn this is also likely to send the price of oil and natural gas higher on global markets. On Sunday, Moscow told investors that it would continue to service its sovereign debt. However, it warned that international sanctions imposed on its energy industry could limit its ability and willingness to meet its obligations.

“The actual possibility of making such payments to non-residents will depend on the limiting measures introduced by foreign states in relation to the Russian Federation,” the finance ministry said in a statement. If Russia did fail to make payments on its debt it raises the possibility of the first major default on the country’s sovereign bonds since the wake of the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.

In recent days, rival ratings agencies Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings have also slashed their assessments of Russian sovereign debt. It means the country’s sovereign debt is now considered to be below investment grade, or in “junk” territory, by three of the world’s major ratings companies. S&P said the move followed measures it believed would “substantially increase the risk of default”.

Shane Oliver of investment management company AMP Capital believes a default on Russian debt was “effectively already occurring”. “It will only service it in much depreciated rouble anyway and foreign investors are offloading it at fire sale prices. Fortunately the global exposure to it is relatively low,” he told the BBC.

The Russian rouble has also hit record lows as countries around the world imposed increasingly tough sanctions on the country. Last month, Russia’s central bank more than double its interest rate to 20% in an attempt to stop the value of its currency from sliding further.

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