Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were approached, two of the people said. A third person said Kuwait was also asked. The countries responded by requesting the island kingdom do more to bring its finances under control in return for the money, the people said on condition of anonymity because the discussions were private. The talks are at an early stage, one person said.
The slump in oil prices has battered the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, at times raising questions over whether a dollar peg seen as a bedrock for economic stability for more than three decades was sustainable. While bets against the region’s currencies have subsided this year, a devaluation of a GCC member would risk shifting the attention to others. Gulf central banks, including Bahrain’s, have repeatedly brushed aside talk of abandoning their exchange-rate regimes.
“Most people are fully expecting the other Gulf countries to come to Bahrain’s aid,” said Jason Tuvey, a London-based economist at Capital Economics. “If Bahrain was forced to devalue its currency it would probably start to raise questions about other currency pegs.”
Bahrain, the Gulf’s smallest economy and a close Saudi ally, has been more vulnerable to slumping oil prices and regional political instability than richer neighbors. Several countries in the region have cut spending and curtailed handouts to their citizens. The International Monetary Fund expects Bahrain’s budget deficit to be the highest in the GCC this year even as it narrows.
The central bank’s foreign reserves, including gold, have tumbled about 75 percent since 2014 to just above 522 million dinars ($1.39 billion) in August, according to the most recent official data. Without aid or a recovery in oil revenue, authorities may struggle to keep the currency’s peg to the U.S. dollar — maintained at 0.376 Bahraini dinars.
Expectations among investors and credit-rating companies that rich Gulf states would prevent Bahrain’s difficulties from morphing into a full-blown financial crisis have cushioned its assets and allowed it to tap global bond markets as recently as September, when it raised $3 billion. Bahrain’s debt risk, measured by five-year credit default swaps, has dropped more than 60 basis points to 241 as of Tuesday, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Saudi Arabia led a military intervention to support Bahrain’s government during protests that broke out in 2011. Authorities have repeatedly blamed the instability on Shiite-ruled Iran. Bahrain is also a member of a Saudi-led coalition boycotting neighboring Qatar.
A bond prospectus in September included a warning from authorities that falling reserves carried the risk of a currency depreciation. The central bank, being a “significant” lender to the government, may not be able to maintain the peg, according to the document seen by Bloomberg News. Bahrain didn’t cite that risk in its prospectus in 2013.
Officials in Bahrain, the U.A.E. and Kuwait didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on the aid talks. Saudi officials couldn’t immediately be reached.
Bond Sale Proceeds
Before the September bond sale, Bahrain’s reserves were equivalent to just one month of imports and barely covered currency in circulation, according to BofA Merrill Lynch economist Jean-Michel Saliba.
And even if the kingdom doesn’t spend any of the $3 billion to finance its 2017 needs, the proceeds are only enough to cover part of next year’s deficit, which is expected to reach $4.2 billion, said Ziad Daoud, an economist at Bloomberg Economics. The rest will have to be financed through additional borrowing or “using the government’s reserves,” he said.
Bahrain is rated BB- at S&P Global Ratings, three levels below investment grade. The rating company changed Bahrain’s credit outlook in June from stable to negative. “We continue to factor the potential for external support, particularly from Saudi Arabia, into our ratings,” it said.
Bahrain’s $1.5 billion Eurobonds due 2022 fell on Wednesday. The yield rose seven basis points, the most in two months, to 4.7 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
The IMF estimates that Bahrain needs oil prices at $99 a barrel to balance its budget this year, compared with $73.1 a barrel for Saudi Arabia, which is overhauling its economy. While Brent crude is trading at the highest level in more than two years, it’s still almost $40 below Bahrain’s breakeven price.
In May, Saliba of BofA wrote after an eight-day visit to the GCC that Bahrain’s allies are likely to “nudge” the kingdom toward “greater fiscal reforms.” On Wednesday, he reiterated his view that a bailout will be less costly than cleaning up the mess of a devaluation or a debt restructuring.
“Forcing Bahrain into a debt restructuring is unlikely as it would raise GCC financing costs at a time when regional gross financing needs remain substantial,” he said. “GCC support allows market access to Bahrain, which in turn minimizes Bahrain’s need to access GCC resources.”
— With assistance by Lyubov Pronina, Archana Narayanan, Vivian Nereim, and Claudia Maedler