World News

Ukraine reserves perilously low; lag other emerging markets

LONDON (Reuters) - As the political crisis in Ukraine continues, its severely depleted central bank reserves are putting it at serious risk of a balance-of-payments crunch, its metrics looking worse than almost every big emerging economy.

With demonstrators blockading government buildings in protest at President Viktor Yanukovich’s rejection of closer ties with the European Union, the creaking economy is coming under growing pressure.

Based on a comparison of monthly import needs and maturing short-term debt, Ukraine’s reserves compare poorly with most of its peers, according to the following graphic, based on data released by Bank of America Merrill Lynch on Wednesday:

Ukrainian reserves have almost halved from a 2011 high of close to $40 billion as its currency and exports have faltered.

“Among the big high-yielding emerging markets we would think Ukraine is the riskiest one,” said David Hauner, head of EEMEA fixed income strategy at BofA-Merrill Lynch Global Research, citing the country’s weak reserve adequacy ratios.

One yardstick of reserve adequacy is the number of months of imports the reserves will buy, with three months deemed to be the safe minimum.

The second, based on the so-called Guidotti-Greenspan rule, requires reserves to be at least equal to foreign debt payments in the coming year. The rationale is countries should have enough reserves to resist a sudden stop in external financing.

By the first measure, Venezuela, with less than two months of import cover, fares worst, but Ukraine comes in second, with 2.4 months. A similar comparison made in July found Ukraine’s import cover at three months, but reserves have fallen by $3 billion since then, BofA data shows.

Using the debt yardstick, Ukraine comes in last of all the countries. The ratio of its reserves to short-term debt has slipped to 0.6 percent from 0.7 percent in July.

Worries about reserves and the currency are reflected in spiralling sovereign debt insurance costs and bond yields. The cost of insuring exposure to Ukraine via credit default swaps rose on Wednesday to 1100 basis points, close to four-year highs, according to data from Markit.

Ukrainian debt maturing next year is under heavy pressure, with a sovereign June 2014 bond trading just off a record low hit on Tuesday. A $1.6 billion bond from state energy firm Naftogaz due in September 2014 has fallen 2 points in the past week.

Emerging markets hold most of the world’s central bank reserves of $11.1 trillion, IMF data shows, a legacy of the past decade’s trade and investment boom. Over $3 trillion is in China alone.

Ukraine’s plight contrasts with the reassuring picture across much of the developing world - Turkey is the only other emerging country showing a reserves-to-short-term debt ratio of under 1.

A key difference between Ukraine and most other emerging markets today is that its currency is tightly controlled, meaning authorities must often spend reserves supporting it. The central bank sold dollars again on Wednesday, as the hyrvnia slipped to a new four-year low against the dollar.

“Despite problems in emerging markets, all the talk that we are back to the 1990s is exaggerated,” Hauner said.

“Reserve coverage looks decent in most countries, and the big change from back then is that currencies are flexible. In this context, Ukraine is one of the very few EMs that has not changed very much as it still has a fixed currency,” he added.

Additional reporting by Carolyn Cohn; Graphic by Vincent Flasseur; Editing by Will Waterman and Janet McBride