By Davide Barbuscia and Yousef Saba
DUBAI (Reuters) – Abu Dhabi has been in talks with banks for potential debt sales in the international markets this year as the oil-rich emirate plans to engage global fixed income investors on a more regular basis amid low oil prices, sources said.
Abu Dhabi, which has one of the best credit ratings in the region, issued its latest international bonds in September last year, raising $10 billion for budgetary purposes and garnering almost $20 billion in demand.
After a reshuffling at its finance department last year, the government has been in talks with banks on several fundraising options, taking a more proactive approach to debt financing, said the sources.
“They want to issue more regularly and in smaller sizes, rather than huge $10 billion deals like last year,” one of them said.
“As part of its mandate, the Abu Dhabi Department of Finance constantly evaluates options under the existing bond issuance program,” it told Reuters in an emailed statement.
“However, as a matter of policy, the Department does not respond to market rumors,” it added.
Rated AA by S&P and Fitch and Aa2 by Moody’s, Abu Dhabi’s finances are backed by one of the world’s largest sovereign net foreign asset positions and low levels of debt.
But its ratings are also constrained “by dependence on volatile oil and gas revenue, an underdeveloped economic policy framework and weak governance indicators relative to ‘AA’ peers,” said Cedric Berry, associate director at Fitch Ratings.
In its talks with banks, Abu Dhabi has said it plans to modernize its approach to raising financing and to improve transparency when it engages with fixed income investors, said one of the sources.
“They want to pay less for their borrowing. They’re rated double A but they pay some 10-15 basis points more than their peers and they want to fix that.”
Abu Dhabi’s fiscal balance depends almost entirely on revenue from hydrocarbon royalties and taxes and dividends received from ADNOC, its national oil company.
After oil prices collapsed in 2014 and 2015, it reduced public spending and increased dividends from state-owned entities. Still, it had forecast a deficit of 27.2 billion dirhams ($7.41 billion) for 2019, according to its latest bond prospectus.
Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates, is also the largest contributor to the federal government budget, with contributions expected to account for 40% of the emirate’s expenditure last year.
The UAE government – which passed a law in 2018 allowing it to issue debt at federal level – plans to sell federal bonds for the first time in 2020, an official said last year.
Last year, Emirates Development Bank, owned by the UAE federal government, sold $750 million in bonds, becoming the first federal entity to tap the international capital markets under the new debt law.
($1 = 3.6730 UAE dirham)