Fitch Ratings has assigned Iraq a long-term foreign currency Issuer default rating (IDR) of 'B-' with a stable outlook. The agency has also assigned a country ceiling of 'B-' and a short-term IDR of 'B'. No surprise perhaps that political risk and insecurity are among the highest faced by any sovereign rated by Fitch. Sectarian conflict has raged with varying intensity since 2003, ISIS militants currently effectively hold three of the country’s 18 provinces, relations with the Kurdish regional government are volatile and governance indicators are exceptionally weak.
Iraq holds the world's fifth largest oil reserves and significant amounts of gas. Oil production has risen rapidly to 3.3m b/d in May 2015, from an average of 2.4m b/d in 2010, with Iraq becoming the world's second largest exporter in 2014. Production costs are low. The bulk of oil production facilities and infrastructure are away from areas of domestic insecurity. Investment is under way to further raise production capacity, although infrastructure bottlenecks remain a constraint and investment plans were set back by payment arrears in 2014.
Even so, Iraq's fiscal position has deteriorated rapidly since 2013 and Fitch forecasts a double-digit fiscal deficit for 2015, owing to lower oil prices, higher military spending and costs associated with civil conflict.
Savings buffers built during previous years of high oil prices have been largely eroded and the deficit will be financed by debt, likely including a eurobond and funding through an IMF rapid financing instrument that was approved in July.
Rising oil production and prices should lead to a narrowing of the budget deficit in 2016, although it will remain large and another more substantive IMF programme is likely in 2016. We forecast a small deficit for 2017. The government has cleared the USD9bn of payment arrears to international oil companies that were run up in 2014.
Government debt is forecast by Fitch at 51% of GDP at end-2015, in line with the 'B' range median and sharply up on the end-2014 level owing to deficit financing and a contraction in nominal GDP. Debt/GDP is forecast to peak in 2016.
Debt reflects the inclusion of funds (and accumulated interest) provided by GCC countries during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war amounting to 22% of estimated 2015 GDP. Iraq faces no pressure to repay the GCC debt, which has not been subject to a haircut of 80% in line with terms to the Paris Club (in a 2004 restructuring covering debt under the pre-2003 regime).
Commodity dependence is among the highest of all rated-sovereigns. Oil accounts for around 40% of GDP and over 90% of fiscal and current external receipts. Despite some modest initiatives to introduce new excise and consumption taxes this year, there is little prospect of revenue diversification over our forecast period to end-2017. Limited economic policy tools complicate the response to oil price volatility.
Fitch estimates Iraq's net external creditor position to have totalled 22% of GDP at end-2014, reflecting current account surpluses averaging 7.5% of GDP in the decade to 2014. However, we forecast a current account deficit of 7.4% of GDP for 2015; this should gradually narrow as oil revenues rise. Foreign exchange reserves, at USD67bn at end-2014, were sufficient to cover over 10 months of current external payments. External debt service ratios are well below the peer median.
Non-oil GDP contracted by an estimated 9% in 2014 and Fitch forecasts it to decline faster in 2015, owing to the impact of the lack of security in the country. This is offsetting the boost to GDP from rising oil production. A return to growth looks possible in 2016. Inflation is lower than peers, averaging 3.7% over the five years to end-2014, supported by the nominal anchor of the exchange rate peg to the USD. Weak domestic demand and subdued external price pressures have pulled down inflation to below 2% so far in 2015.
The banking sector remains under-developed and fundamentally weak. Private sector credit-to-GDP was just 8.1% at end-2014, the lowest of any rated sovereign. The two large state-owned banks Al-Rafidain and Al-Rasheed, which have high NPLs and exceptionally low capital adequacy, dominate the sector. There has been little progress in restructuring these banks; an exercise that Fitch assumes will require recapitalisation by the government.
Monetary policy flexibility is constrained by the exchange rate peg, weak banking system and limited monetary and credit transmission in the economy. At times this year, a small spread between the parallel market and official exchange rate has opened up as the central bank holds limited auctions of foreign exchange.
Iraq scores the worst of all Fitch-rated sovereigns on the composite World Bank governance indicator, reflecting not only insecurity and political instability but also corruption, government ineffectiveness and weak institutions. Doing Business indicators are below the peer median, although there is outperformance in some areas. GDP per capita, at USD5,300, is almost 50% greater than the peer median, but the Human Development Index is in line.
Fitch forecasts Brent crude to average USD65/b in 2015, USD75/b in 2016 and USD80/b in 2017. Iraqi oil production is conservatively forecast to increase to an average of 4.2m b/d in 2017. It also assumes that the Kurdish region will not try to break away over the forecast period and that periodic tensions will not descend into serious military confrontation with the federal government or result in serious damage to oil export infrastructure.
Moreover, the ratings agency assumes ongoing serious security threats, with large parts of the north east outside of the government's control.