Fitch Downgrades El Salvador to CCC Weeks Before Bitcoin Bond Issue

The firm cites concerns over the country's ability to service debt, its concentration of power in the presidency and adoption of bitcoin as legal tender.

AccessTimeIconFeb 10, 2022 at 5:39 a.m. UTC
Updated Feb 15, 2022 at 10:23 p.m. UTC

Ratings agency Fitch has downgraded El Salvador’s long-term foreign currency issuer default rating (IDR) to CCC from B- weeks before the country starts issuing its bitcoin bond.

  • The downgrade reflects “heightened risk stemming from increased reliance on short-term debt, limited scope for additional local market financing, uncertain access to additional multilateral funding and external market financing given high borrowing costs,” Fitch said in a report on Wednesday.
  • The Central American nation faces close to $1.2 billion in external debt amortizations in 2023, with $800 million due in January, Fitch noted. Fitch also said that the country faces a financing gap of $1.2 billion in 2022, which will rise to $2.5 billion in 2023.
  • “There is a high degree of uncertainty surrounding other sources of external financing, such as additional multilateral funding, given doubts surrounding an IMF program, as well as the capacity to issue bitcoin-backed bonds," the rating agency said, referring to the International Monetary Fund.
  • El Salvador’s bitcoin-denominated Volcano Bonds offer a 6.5% coupon, compared with the 13% benchmark 10-year yield on El Salvador’s outstanding government bonds.
  • Analysts previously told CoinDesk that the bonds are effectively a giant long on bitcoin rather than an expression of confidence in the financial prudence of President Nayib Bukele’s government.
  • “Anyone buying this bitcoin-backed bond is betting on the cryptocurrency in a very big way, ignoring the credit market currently signaling that El Salvador is very much facing a distressed-debt situation,” Marc Ostwald, chief economist and global strategist at ADM Investor Services International (ADMISI), previously told CoinDesk.
  • At the same time, proponents of the bond program, such as Samson Mow, the founder of Blockstream, the company that developed the bond, said that bitcoin is a way to disintermediate the sovereign debt market and give El Salvador access to cheaper capital.
  • El Salvador’s bitcoin bond program is expected to be implemented by March 15, according to its finance minister.
  • Moody’s lowered the country’s foreign-currency issuer and senior unsecured ratings to Caa1 from B3 last July, citing El Salvador’s adoption of bitcoin as legal tender.
  • Bukele had previously tweeted, colorfully, that he doesn't care about the opinions of ratings agencies, renaming the country 'El Hodlador' in a meme.

CORRECTED (Feb. 10, 6:55 UTC): Corrects second bullet to say "Central American" nation not "South American."

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