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Colombia's Economic Dilemma: Steering Through Fiscal Turbulence Under Petro's Lead

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Benjamin Hughes

May 20, 2024 - 11:28 am

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Colombia's Fiscal Forecast: Navigating Economic Turbulence Under President Petro

Gustavo Petro's government will present a mid-term fiscal update next month.

Colombia finds itself embroiled in a troubling cycle characterized by stagnant economic growth paired with diminished tax revenues. As President Gustavo Petro's administration comes to grips with this sobering reality, it is contemplating the introduction of broader budget deficits, a move leaving investors apprehensive about the country's fiscal prospects.

In the previous year, Colombia endured its most significant economic downturn since the late nineties, barring the calamitous repercussions exacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Recent figures exacerbate concerns, revealing that gross domestic product growth has decelerated to a mere 1.1% over the preceding quarter, reflecting a figure scarcely half of anticipated rates. This slump signifies worrisome implications for the Colombian government's fiscal aspirations.

Finance Minister Ricardo Bonilla braves the brewing storm, exploring various avenues to mitigate the situation. Efforts include negotiating a reprieve on court-ordered financial obligations, galvanizing support among legislators, and voicing criticism directed toward the chief of the tax agency over faltering revenue inflows. Concurrently, Petro points to central bank-imposed high-interest rates as a contributing factor to curtailed demand and impeded economic advancement.

Looking ahead, the government has signaled to the market its prediction of a budget shortfall corresponding to 5.3% of the nation's GDP within the current year. Bonilla, however, has broached the prospect of requesting congressional support to alter a mandate aimed at curbing unchecked government borrowing. Furthermore, the administration has slated the publication of revised macroeconomic projections as an element of an upcoming fiscal strategy.

Market Sensitivities and Analyst Perspectives

Market experts underscore that unexpected developments that accompany more dismal figures in a mid-term economic update have the potential to exert downward pressure on bond prices. William Snead, a strategist at Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria, underscored this viewpoint during an interview.

It is noteworthy that Colombian bonds have not weathered the year well, emerging as among the poorest performers in South America, with returns for investors languishing at 3.2% losses, while a broader index of emerging market sovereign bonds shows a 2.1% gain.

Interestingly, there has been a noticeable rebound in these returns over the past month. Yet, additional concerns about the fiscal climate threaten to apply further strain. There exists a school of thought among investors that current fiscal risks may already be reflected in pricing, particularly given that Colombian bond spreads present a broadened gap when matched against similar investment opportunities.

Armando Armenta, an emerging market strategist at AllianceBernstein, holds that absent continued deterioration implicating fiscal policy revisions and subsequent downgrades, Colombian bonds may still represent a value proposition.

Credit Ratings and the Fiscal Outlook

Credit rating agencies observe with vigilance, as evidenced by a recent caution from Fitch Ratings regarding the augmented risk of the Colombian government failing to achieve its preexisting fiscal objectives. Prior devaluations by both Fitch and S&P Global have relegated Colombia's credit status to non-investment grade, while Moody's Ratings maintains a more optimistic classification of Baa2 with a stable forecast.

Moody's analyst Renzo Merino vocalized that modifications to the fiscal structure that could potentially exacerbate debt metrics might place the nation's credit profile under duress.

Economic Projections and Policy Challenges

Forecasting what the future holds for Colombia's economy, Bonilla predicts a modest 1.5% growth in 2024, marking yet another year of tepid economic activity. Despite repeated solicitations for commentary, Bonilla's office remained silent on the issue. However, earlier in May, he insightfully commented on the impact of different growth rates on the viability of fiscal regulations.

Facing the highest interest rates amongst its contemporaries targeting inflation, Colombia contends with an investment atmosphere that has contracted severely. The International Monetary Fund has attributed this, in part, to a misalignment in fiscal policies and an undertow of uncertainty surrounding Petro's ambitious reform agenda.

Fiscal Sustainability Under Scrutiny

A vital concern for rating agencies is the emergent risk associated with escalating debt to levels that challenge sustainability. Despite this concern, the Colombian peso's appreciable rally — over 18% in the past year — has contributed to a reduction in the country's debt-to-GDP ratio. Nonetheless, government projections suggest an uptick to 57% in the current year.

Compounding the fiscal strain is the revelation that tax revenues have lagged behind projections. A revelation from a union representing tax workers has shown a shortfall of approximately $3.1 billion, or 0.8% of GDP, compared to government expectations. This has prompted Bonilla to publicly seek an explanation from the director of the tax agency.

Minister Bonilla's Fiscal Maneuvers

Appointed in April 2023 following the dismissal of renowned economist José Antonio Ocampo, Bonilla, as one of President Petro's key allies, endeavors to scavenge any obtainable revenue to cushion the fiscal deficit.

He recently petitioned the Constitutional Court to delay implementing a directive that mandates the refund of $1.8 billion in tax royalties to the oil and mining sectors. Although a verdict is anticipated in about two weeks, skepticism from the judicial panel about the risk to fiscal sustainability, as proposed by the minister, seems palpable.

Repercussions of Fiscal Policy Missteps

When Colombia's fiscal credibility waned, as recognized in Fitch's demotion of its investment-grade rating in 2021, it revealed the vulnerability of the government in the face of such fiscal and debt metric declines. Fitch analyst Richard Francis expressed little surprise at the developments, noting that macro policy credibility could no longer be touted as a strength for Colombia.

The revisions are continuous, with another assessment from Fitch forthcoming around July, and Francis indicated that signs of economic recovery to a 3% growth rate and a viable strategy to stabilize debt are crucial.

Similarly, S&P assesses Colombia on an equal footing with Fitch; however, in January, the agency tempered the country's outlook to negative, drawing attention to the potential for an extended period of muted economic expansion. Manuel Orozco, an analyst situated in Mexico at the agency, alluded to the negative outlook potentially leading to another credit downgrade if private investment and growth remain lackluster.

Government Response to Fiscal Challenges

Gustavo Petro's administration, with Bonilla at its financial helm, has found itself in a difficult position, impacting the nation's economic stability and future growth prospects. With a variety of strategies, including possible amendments to fiscal rules and a forthcoming revised fiscal plan, the Colombian government hopes to steer the nation through these challenging economic times with minimal disruption.

As globalization and market dynamics continually influence national economies, Colombia's situation offers a clear example of how delicate the balance between fiscal policies and external confidence can be. The impending decisions and actions by Petro's government, as well as the responses of credit agencies and investors, will play an undeniable role in shaping Colombia's fiscal narrative in the months to come.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Colombia stands at a crossroads, with the Petro administration working diligently to address a myriad of economic and fiscal issues. The country's bonds face a critical eye from investors, fiscal policies undergo stringent scrutiny, and amidst this backdrop of economic uncertainty, Colombia grapples with high-interest rates and investment concerns.

The next steps are critical—the upcoming mid-term fiscal update, the possible changes to budget deficits, and the handling of tax revenue shortcomings will set the tone for Colombia's economic journey. As international observers, credit agencies, and investors watch closely, the government's ability to navigate these troubled waters will determine the nation's fiscal fate and its position in the global economic landscape.

For the latest economic and fiscal updates on Colombia, click here to access the full Bloomberg article.