The dozen countries in JP Morgan’s frontier NEXGEM index continue to outstrip the main external bond gauges as spreads over US Treasuries are at a decade thin 100 basis points, as public debt jumped an average almost 15 percent over the period to 70 percent, resurrecting sustainability fears after large official relief programs. Economic growth and exchange rate stress testing suggests medium term deleveraging could stabilize ratios, and domestic borrowing would increase its relative portion. However levels in Ghana, Jamaica, Mongolia and Ukraine would rise 5-15 percent and translate into higher spreads under normal differentiation, which may not apply currently with sloshing global liquidity and investor positions remaining underweight. Since last year fundamentals have “decoupled,” but the relationship with most specific credits has held up since index introduction, according to the sponsor. In Central America and the Caribbean Moody’s downgraded Costa Rica in February one notch to lower speculative status, a further slip from the previous investment-grade rating. Another blow looms on the horizon with promised fiscal consolidation failing to balance spending and revenue with debt/output already at 65 percent. The government is hamstrung entering next year’s election with control of only one-fifth of legislative seats. Earmarks take up 90 percent of appropriations, and despite announcement of a “budget emergency” and likely wider foreign investment scope for local debt decisive action will await the new administration. The Dominican Republic in contrast was upgraded in September after a well-received $500 million international issue, with debt-to-GDP twenty points less and 5 percent growth on track, with good remittances and tourism before the spate of area hurricanes. Ecuador’s public debt doubled the past five years with oil price collapse and heavy state infrastructure and social outlays. Its main overseas creditor was China until market return in 2014, and President Moreno has yet to signal a break from the loose purse strings of his predecessor and socialist policy champion Correa. The Vice President has been implicated in another Odebrecht bribery scandal around previous construction projects, and dollarization is set to continue with business and financial community support despite populist backlash. Major external bond maturities are not due until end-decade, and relations have resumed with the IMF for possible emergencies beyond a recent earthquake when it was tapped for aid.
El Salvador’s debt stands at 65 percent of GDP and the two main political parties have been at loggerheads over pension reform after missed payments. The opposition recently managed a compromise to hike the contribution rate to 15 percent and extend retirement age over time. The net present value of liabilities is still estimated at 90 percent of national income only expanding at a 2 percent annual pace. Private pension funds must buy the government notes to cover obligations, potentially subjecting them to portfolio and default risks. Jamaica with its world-beating 120% of GDP load has been under IMF supervision for five years, and completed a series of local and foreign debt swaps. A three-year $1.5 billion standby was inked in 2016, and the local dollar continues to depreciate as more flexible currency and inflation-targeting regimes are adopted. A 5 percent-plus budget primary surplus has been regularly achieved but the wage bill has been pared back slowly amid glacial 1% growth.