Holness wants credit rating agencies in on debt crisis talks

Prime Minister Andrew Holness yesterday argued that there is a need to engage credit rating agencies in discussions on what the United Nations is calling a “looming debt crisis”.

“We need to bring the credit rating agencies into our discussions, as many countries are afraid to apply for debt relief because of the threat of a ratings downgrade,” the prime minister told a virtual meeting of heads of government and United Nations officials hosted virtually by Canada’s Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

He suggested that a special framework “applicable only to this extraordinary period” was more than worthy of contemplation, “given the larger medium-term cumulative benefit of more countries achieving earlier recovery with sustainable debt arrangements”.

The prime minister raised the issue a week after Fitch Ratings affirmed Jamaica’s long-term foreign currency issuer default rating at B+ which is considered a stable rating.

However, the Government has come in for criticism from the Opposition for its refusal to increase spending, in order to maintain a credible debt-to-GDP (gross domestic product). During the recent budget debate in Parliament, Opposition spokesman on finance Julian Robinson urged the Government to increase expenditure by one per cent of the country’s GDP, or some $21.5 billion, to stimulate quicker growth, given the blow to the economy delivered by COVID-19.

However, there is concern about factors that could, individually or collectively, lead to a negative rating action/downgrade, including: An increase in Government debt-to-GDP which could be triggered by depreciation of the Jamaican dollar; revenues failing to recover at expected rates; or, economic growth below expectations which could be due to the tourism industry being affected by a third wave of the pandemic.

The “Big Three” credit rating agencies are Standard and Poor’s Global Ratings (S&P), Moody’s, and Fitch Group. S&P and Moody’s are based in the US, while Fitch is dual-headquartered in New York City and London. As of 2013 they are said to hold a collective global market share of “roughly 95 per cent”, with Moody’s and S&P having approximately 40 per cent each, and Fitch around 15 per cent.

A common criticism of them, and one highly linked to bank failures in the 2008 recession, is the dominance they have on the market, leaving little room for competition. It is felt, in some financial circles, that more competition should exist amongst rating agencies, which would diminish conflicts of interest and create more transparent criteria for rating sovereign debt.

Holness also raised the possibility of utilisation of innovative financial instruments such as debt swaps, contingent debt instruments and the creation of specialised liquidity funds which, he suggested, could play an important role in ameliorating the debt and liquidity challenges of developing countries.

He said that in this respect, Jamaica supports the proposal by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean to address the liquidity needs of Caribbean countries, through the creation of a Caribbean Resilience Fund, as well as the proposed Debt for Climate Adaptation Swap facility.

UN Secretary-General Antnio Guterres convened the hybrid meeting of world leaders, including Holness and Trudeau, as well as fellow Caricom leaders Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Mottley and prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda Gaston Browne to urge the international community to take additional and urgent action to ensure a robust post-COVID-19 recovery.

It is the latest follow-up in a series of meetings and round-table discussions held since last year to mobilise action for economic recovery from the pandemic, that resulted in a series of measures by the international community which have not been regarded as enough to address the crisis facing several countries.

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