Tengku Zafrul: Fitch’s rating cut disappointing

In a statement, Finance Minister Tengku Datuk Seri Zafrul Aziz said the revision was primarily driven by the negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Malaysia’s fiscal position and the ongoing political situation in the country.

KUALA LUMPUR: The government is disappointed that Fitch has downgraded Malaysia’s sovereign rating from A- to BBB+, with an improved outlook from negative to stable.

In a statement, Finance Minister Tengku Datuk Seri Zafrul Aziz said the revision was primarily driven by the negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Malaysia’s fiscal position and the ongoing political situation in the country.

“In this regard, the government is disappointed with Fitch’s rating outcome, particularly during these exceptional times as the Covid-19 pandemic is still unfolding.

Fitch’s previous rating downgrade was during the Asian Financial Crisis from BBB- to BB before moving to A- in 2004.

“By honing in on Malaysia’s fiscal position and political situation, Fitch’s decision does not give due justice and credit to our crisis response efforts and our strong economic fundamentals, ” he said in a statement.

Zafrul explained that the government is addressing the Covid-19 crisis with stimulus packages worth RM305bil, or about 20% of gross domestic product (GDP), which would contribute over four percentage points to the economic growth this year.

“The targeted and temporary nature of the stimulus measures have helped limit the impact on the fiscal deficit.

“Structured and transparent monitoring through the National Inter-Agency Economic Stimulus Coordination and Implementation Agency (Laksana) set up specifically for this purpose, has ensured effective and timely delivery of the stimulus measure, he added.

He reiterated the study done by Johns Hopkins University, that Malaysia’s containment measures resulted in the country’s case-fatality ratio to be in the lowest 10% globally.Given the reduction in the country’s fiscal deficit to 3.4% last year from 6.7% in 2009, Zafrul expects the deficit to remain among the lowest within the A category this year.

Moving forward, he pointed out that the country is geared for a sharp recovery.

“Building on the recovery momentum of the stimulus packages implemented this year, Budget 2021 announced on Nov 6, is expected to contribute to the 6.5%-7.5% projected growth in 2021, ” Zafrul said.

Although Fitch is concerned about the domestic political situation, Zafrul said that key legislations have been passed.

“Collectively, sound economic fundamentals and decisive fiscal measures have enabled Malaysia to respond swiftly, effectively and strategically to the challenging environment, whilst maintaining economic growth and resilience for the future.

Fitch statement yesterday said the depth and duration of the pandemic has weakened several of Malaysia’s key credit metrics.

Acknowledging the authorities’ swift respond, the ratings agency nevertheless said pandemic’s impact has been substantial, and has added to its fiscal burden, which was already high relative to peers going into the health crisis.

It said lingering political uncertainty following the change in government last March weighs on the policy outlook, and prospects for further improvement in governance standards.

The recent Covid-19 spread, combined with weak investment and low tourism receipts, have reduced economic activity, as it has in many countries globally. Fitch expected GDP to contract by 6.1% in 2020, before rebounding by 6.7% in 2021 due to base effects but these forecasts are subject to uncertainty.

It expected government revenue to remain low at 19.1% of GDP in 2020. Fitch expected government debt to jump to 76.0% of GDP in 2020 from 65.2% of GDP in 2019.

Debt figures used by Fitch include officially reported “committed government guarantees” on loans, which are serviced by the government budget, and 1MDB’s net debt, equivalent in September 2020 to 12.6% and 1.3% of GDP, respectively.

On this basis, the debt burden is significantly higher than the medians of 59.2% and 52.7% for the A and BBB rating categories, respectively, the statement said.

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