Thursday, 30 July 2009

Sovereign credit quality and foreign currency borrowing

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the Telegraph has an article about Iceland. He notes that the Icelandic krona has fallen by half against the euro since the dark days of 2008, and as a result there has been something of a recovery in Iceland. Unemployment is high, at 9.1%, but still below the Eurozone average. The head of the central bank is quoted as saying: "If you lean back and look you can see that fall of the krona accentuated the shock at first, but it is also now working as a turbocharger for recovery.

So, when can countries devalue their way out of trouble?

One important factor is the currency of debt. If most of a countries' debt is in local currency, then devaluation is more likely to be effective. Clearly you can use a combination of inflation and devaluation to reduce the real value of your debts. If you have a significant amount of debt - government or otherwise - in foreign currency, then things are a lot more difficult. This is partly why I am sceptical about buying the Icelandic recovery hook, line and sinker. (They are, after all, reliant on ever decreasing fish stocks too.) A lot of retail borrowing in Iceland was in Euros. The same applies to the Baltics and the Eastern rim of the Eurozone. Ambrose-Pierce admits this is a problem, noting that `Some 13% of households in Iceland hold mortgages in euros, Swiss francs, or God forbid, yen [and] some 70% of corporate loans are in foreign currencies.' That strikes me as a fact pattern that justifies Iceland's foreign currency debt rating. Clearly Iceland is on the up, but it is not out of the woods yet, and it won't be until investors are confident that it can pay its debt in their currency of denomination.

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