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India received a 'surprise' upgrade, but other ratings agencies may not be quick to follow

Key Points
  • India received a surprise upgrade from Moody's last Friday
  • It remains to be seen whether Fitch and Standard & Poor's will follow suit
  • Analysts said India's fiscal health will be the key to the country getting similar nods from the other two major rating agencies

After receiving a surprise rating upgrade from Moody's last Friday, India now has to watch its fiscal health if the country wants similar nods from the other two major agencies, analysts said.

The Moody's upgrade, the first since January 2004, lifted India up a notch to the second-lowest level of investment grade. Standard & Poor's and Fitch have had the country, the third-largest economy in Asia, at the lowest investment grade level for about a decade.

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The timing of the Moody's move was actually surprising given questions around India's fiscal health, three different analysts said. The rating upgrade also came at a time when the most recent gauge of economic growth had shown the country slowing to a three-year low of 5.7 percent — with consumption hit by the new Goods and Services Tax and a ban on high-value notes.

"The timing of the upgrade is odd," Vishnu Varathan, Mizuho's head of economics and strategy, wrote in a note on Friday.

He added that India's widening deficit is made worse by a pick-up in oil prices, while creeping inflation will limit the Reserve Bank of India's options in managing policy to boost growth. Furthermore, the risk that New Delhi may waive more loans by farmers to gain political favor adds to concerns about the government's finances and credit discipline, Varathan said.

As such, the other two major rating agencies, Fitch and S&P, would not be in a rush to follow suit, analysts said.

"The timing of (Moody's) announcement is a positive surprise," Nomura analysts wrote in a Friday note. "The question now is whether or not S&P and Fitch follow. Our bias is that they will likely wait for the government's fiscal position to actually improve before making any changes."

India's fiscal deficit hit a four-year high of $14.3 billion in the quarter that ended in June — a figure that's 2.4 percent of the country's gross domestic product — according to latest data by the central bank.

Adnan Abidi | Reuters

The Nomura analysts said they expect India's deficit for the fiscal year ending March 2018 to be larger than the targeted 3.2 percent of GDP. They estimated the shortfall to come in around 3.5 percent of GDP.

But Prime Minister Narendra Modi's reforms will benefit India over time, Moody's said on Friday explaining the rationale behind the upgrade. Even though India's government debt is high — 68 percent of GDP compared to the median 44 percent among countries of the same rating category — reforms have "reduced the risk of sharp increase in debt, even in potential downside scenarios."

Bank analysts said they agree with Moody's assessment of India's outlook. Nomura said the government's effort may pay off in the next fiscal year with its deficit likely to come down.

"In our view, Moody's upgrade confirms the positive direction of government reforms and their expected benefits over the medium term. These include implementation of the GST, bankruptcy reforms, infrastructure spending and the large-bank recapitalisation, among others," Nomura said.