NEW YORK, Sept 11 (IFR) - Pessimism about Brazil deepened this week after Standard & Poor’s downgraded both the sovereign and Petrobras to junk status, reigniting fears of forced selling in a country sinking fast into high-yield territory.
The other agencies are expected to follow suit soon, further clouding the picture for Brazil, which is undergoing its worst economic crisis in decades.
“We shouldn’t underestimate the follow-up impact we could see when Fitch or Moody’s converge with S&P,” said Patrick Esteruelas, a sovereign analyst at Emso.
“(It) will induce some additional forced selling as the sovereign and corporates drop out of the investment-grade indices.”
S&P dropped Brazil to BB+ from BBB-, citing a “lack of cohesion” in President Dilma Rousseff’s cabinet and the uncertainty surrounding the Petrobras corruption scandal.
Analysts now expect Moody’s to drop the outlook on its Baa3 Brazil rating to negative and then downgrade the sovereign to Ba1 early next year.
The more conservative Fitch still rates Brazil at BBB, but is expected to downgrade it this year to BBB-, with a negative outlook.
JP Morgan estimated last month that Brazil’s full downgrade to junk would result in about US$6.2bn in forced selling among investors who hold US$32.2bn of hard-currency sovereign bonds.
That doesn’t include the up to US$14bn of outflows likely to occur among Brazilian corporate debt holders, the bank said.
About US$80bn in Brazilian corporate debt could ultimately be cut to junk - at least partially - as agencies take the sovereign lower, said Anne Milne, managing director for emerging markets corporate research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
Such a move would rebalance the country’s corporate credit profile, qualifying 85% of such debt as high-yield versus just 15% fully eligible as investment-grade, she said.
With Brazilian corporates being some of the most prolific issuers in recent years, downgrades would also dramatically shift the composition of Latin American corporate debt overall.
The shift would increase the percentage of credits with junk ratings to 60% versus 47% today, Milne said.
Petrobras, the state oil entity, is already in the line of fire after S&P followed the example of Moody’s and cut it to junk as well.
Now stuck with two sub-investment-grade ratings, the heavily indebted company is likely to be disqualified from many indices that require two high-grade ratings.
Barclays has already named Petrobras as one of several Brazilian credits likely to be dropped from its Global and US Aggregate Indices.
The company’s credit curve has been going wider, though it was little affected on Thursday following S&P’s sovereign downgrade, partly on the assumption that high-grade accounts have already been quietly exiting over the past month or so.
The calm didn’t last, however, and on Friday Petrobras 2024s were being quoted at 730bp-720bp - around 30bp wide to levels seen on Thursday.
While active investors may have quietly moved out of the paper, it may be a different story for passive accounts.
Sarah Leshner Carvalho, a director of research at Barclays, told IFR this week that a poll of 22 of the largest US high-grade funds found they were still overweight Petrobras overall.
To make matters worse, US high-yield funds are unlikely to absorb the approximately US$3bn-$3.6bn in forced selling among Petrobras bondholders tracking the Barclays Global Aggregate index, according to Citigroup.
That leaves EM-dedicated funds and private banking as the “main landing pad” for Petrobras bonds, Citigroup said.
At this stage, however, EM-dedicated funds are holding fire amid expectations that more bad news for Brazil is on the horizon.
“The direction has been clear for so long, and many have sold on the rumour and bought on the news,” said Bryan Carter, head of EM debt at Arcadian Asset Management.
“However, this is not a typical downgrade, as it is part of a longer-term evolution - and it is not the last event.”
One market-moving development still ahead could be the resignation of finance minister Joaquim Levy, a market favourite who has struggled to put Brazil’s economy on a sustainable growth path.
“The only reason the finance minister has stuck around is to prevent a downgrade,” said Carter. “He has no reason to be there.”
For now, investors see few buying opportunities in Latin America’s largest economy.
“While it is true that a downgrade was priced in to a great extent, we still need to see clear indications of a turnaround in policies,” said Pablo Cisilino, a portfolio manager at Stone Harbor.
This story is featured in the September 12 issue of IFR Magazine, a Thomson Reuters publication
Reporting by Paul Kilby; Editing by Marc Carnegie and Matthew Davies