Dec 23, 2019 (LBO) – Fitch Ratings has revised the Outlook on Ceylon Electricity Board’s (CEB) National Long-Term Rating to Negative from Stable and has affirmed the rating at ‘AA+(lka)’.
The Outlook revision follows the Outlook revision on Sri Lanka’s ‘B’ Long-Term Foreign-Currency Issuer Default Rating (IDR) to Negative from Stable.
The rating on CEB, which is fully state owned, is equalised with that of the Sri Lankan sovereign to reflect strong linkages, in line with Fitch’s Parent and Subsidiary Rating Linkage criteria. The equalisation takes into consideration CEB’s strategic importance to Sri Lanka in ensuring power security and supply of affordable electricity to the public.
KEY RATING DRIVERS
Strong Linkages with State: Fitch assesses linkages between CEB and the state to be strong, reflecting explicit guarantees and financial support through equity infusions and debt funding. The government also implicitly guarantees CEB’s project loans, which account for around 80% of its outstanding debt. These loans are extended by bilateral and multilateral agencies and routed through the government for power infrastructure development. CEB’s strategic importance to the state stems from its position as the country’s sole grid operator and distributor and the generator of 80% of Sri Lanka’s electricity.
Fitch believes the Sri Lankan government uses CEB as a vehicle to provide an essential public service. CEB provides electricity at subsidised tariffs without adequate and timely financial compensation from the government. We do not expect CEB’s linkages with its parent to weaken in the medium term, as the provision of electricity at subsidised rates can be carried out only by a state entity such as CEB, because private companies would not be willing to bear losses.
Weak Standalone Credit Profile: Fitch assesses CEB’s Standalone Credit Profile to be much weaker than its support-driven rating and believes providing a notch-specific standalone credit view of CEB is difficult due to poor margin visibility and the need for continued state support to sustain operations. CEB continues to make operating losses because tariffs are lower than its average generation, distribution and transmission costs – which compel the company to borrow to sustain its day-to-day operation. The balance sheet is further weakened by large investment in new generation capacity and network upgrades, which are funded primarily through borrowings.
Weak Financial Profile: We expect CEB’s operating EBITDAR to remain weak in the medium term, especially in the absence of tariff increases and rising generation costs. Similarly, we expect free cash flow (FCF) to remain negative over the medium-term due to the company’s aggressive expansion plans, which will increase debt and further weaken its balance sheet. CEB’s operating EBITDAR was LKR17 billion in 2018, but FCF was negative LKR66 billion due to high interest costs, working capital outflows and capex.
Unfavourable Tariff Structure: We do not expect the government to adopt a tariff structure for electricity that reflects the cost of production and distribution ahead of elections in 2020. CEB’s average tariff, which has not been revised since 2013, is around 10%-15% below the average cost of supplying electricity. The government has introduced cost-reflective pricing formulas for other essential goods, such as fuel and liquefied petroleum gas, but there is no indication that this will be adopted for electricity. By law, the government has to bear the costs of any subsidies provided by CEB to its customers. However, CEB has not been fully compensated for subsidy-related losses in the past.
Significant Investment in Generation: The regulator expects electricity demand to increase by about 6% a year in the next five years, which will require significant capacity expansion if the industry is to make up for the existing supply shortage. Hydro power, which accounts for around 41% of domestic power generation, has been volatile due to unfavourable weather patterns. This pushed CEB to look for alternative supplies, such as natural gas and renewable energy sources. CEB, which is tasked with improving the country’s power infrastructure, will bear bulk of these investments, which management estimates at around USD1.7 billion over 2019-2022.
Fitch rates CEB at the same level as the sovereign due to the strong linkages with its parent. The equalisation reflects strong legal, operational and strategic linkages, as evidenced by the state’s record of financial support through explicit guarantees, equity infusions and subsidised debt funding. CEB provides electricity at subsidised rates, fulfilling an essential service for the sovereign. CEB has almost full network connectivity and accounted for more than 80% of Sri Lanka’s generation capacity in 2018.
Our assessment of CEB’s linkages with the sovereign can be compared with that for other Sri Lankan government-related entities, such as Sri Lanka Telecom PLC (SLT, AA+(lka)/Negative), which we also regard as having strong operational and strategic linkages with the sovereign. However, CEB’s credit profile is weaker than that of the sovereign and its rating is equalised due to strong state linkages, while SLT has a stronger credit profile than the sovereign and its rating is constrained by strong linkages with the state.
Fitch’s Key Assumptions Within Our Rating Case for the Issuer
- Sri Lanka’s annual electricity demand growth to average 6% over 2019-2021
- No material increase in electricity tariffs in the next 12-15 months
- Generation mix to broadly remain at 25% coal, 25% fuel, 35% hydropower and 15% other.
- Capex of LKR90 billion-100 billion a year in the next two years; mainly for new generation capacity.
Developments that May, Individually or Collectively, Lead to a Revision of the Outlook to Stable
- A revision of our Outlook on Sri Lanka’s Long-Term Foreign-Currency IDR to Stable from Negative.
Developments that May, Individually or Collectively, Lead to a Negative Rating Action are:
- A significant weakening of the strong linkages between the sovereign and CEB.
- A downgrade of the Sri Lankan sovereign’s Long-Term IDR would result in corresponding action on CEB’s National Long-Term Rating.
Sovereign Rating Sensitivities
Fitch’s release of 18 December 2019 sets out the following rating sensitivities for the Sovereign Long-Term Foreign-Currency IDR.
The main factors that individually, or collectively, could trigger a downgrade are:
- Failure to place the gross general government debt/GDP ratio on a downward path due to wider budget deficits or the crystallisation on the sovereign balance sheet of contingent liabilities that are linked to state-owned entities or government-guaranteed debt.
- Increase in external sovereign funding stresses that threaten the government’s ability to meet upcoming debt maturities, particularly in the event of a loss of confidence by international investors.
- A further deterioration in policy coherence and credibility, leading to lower GDP growth and/or macroeconomic instability.
The main factors that, individually or collectively, could lead to a revision of the Outlook to Stable:
- Stronger public finances, underpinned by a credible medium-term fiscal strategy that places gross general government debt/GDP on a downward path, accompanied by higher government revenue.
- Improvement in external finances, supported by lower net external debt or a reduction in refinancing risk; for example, from a lengthening of debt maturities or increased foreign-exchange reserves.
- Improved macroeconomic policy coherence and credibility, evidenced by more predictable policy-making and a track record of meeting previously announced economic and financial targets.
LIQUIDITY AND DEBT STRUCTURE
Government Linkages Support Liquidity: CEB had LKR18.0 billion of unrestricted cash and LKR11.0 billion of unutilised credit facilities as at end-2018 to meet LKR22.0 billion of debt falling due in the next 12 months. However, we expect CEB to incur around LKR90.0 billion in capex, which would not be met through internally generated funds as it has operating losses. As such, we expect the government to step in and provide funding support, as seen in the past.