A decent rating from Fitch this month has Vietnam riding high on the small victory, despite some of the less favorable economic trends connected to this first-of-its-kind rating.
The state monopoly Vietnam Electricity, or EVN, clinched a "BB" score June 6 from Fitch Ratings, which until then had never officially assessed the credit of a non-financial company owned by the Hanoi government. That prompted a cross-section of officials in the southeast Asian country to gush about the promise in store for one of the world's fastest-growing economies.
"This positive rating enables EVN to issue international bonds, diversify our financing sources, and reassure domestic and foreign institutional investors," said Dinh Quang Tri, the acting CEO of EVN. "We are now on a stronger footing to deliver more reliable electricity to Vietnam."
The ebullience, however, is tempered by two questions: Will this be enough for investors to trust EVN? And how much should government become involved in business?
EVN underscores the mixed sentiments that analysts express about Vietnam, a communist country transitioning to capitalism. The fact that the government runs EVN contributed to Fitch's confidence in its report card.
"We believe the company can secure adequate funding in light of its position as an entity closely linked to the sovereign," it said in a media release.
Yet businesses want even more promises from the government. Vietnam has spent years courting investment in renewable power, for example, but with limited success. That is in part because businesses that generate wind, solar, and other alternative energy sources can sell it only to EVN, and they are afraid of losing money if the company does not buy their electricity.
For renewables, "there is no provision for any form of government guarantee, assurance, or support to enhance the creditworthiness of EVN as the sole off-taker/purchaser," corporate law firm Baker McKenzie said in a September report.
State vs. free market
Some would like to see more government involvement in general, especially to bail out companies in trouble. Others would like to see less involvement, as evidenced in the push for Vietnam to privatize further by selling stakes in its many state-owned enterprises. The country has not settled on a balance between the free market and the government.
Hanoi used to give iron-clad pledges that it would pay up in case of default at one of its state firms or public works projects. The government is doing that less often now because it is moving away from a centrally-planned economy, as well as reducing its sovereign debt.
Public anxiety mounted in recent years as Vietnam approached its debt ceiling of 65 percent of gross domestic product, though the country has made progress in reining in the debt.
That means EVN must tread lightly. Now that the power company has a Fitch Rating, it is eyeing international bonds to borrow money from investors around the world.
Going through this financing process is "helping EVN benefit from the discipline that comes with access to capital markets," said Jordan Schwartz, who is the director of the World Bank group overseeing infrastructure, guarantees, and public-private partnerships.
The World Bank gave EVN funds and technical assistance to prepare for the Fitch assessment. Its credit rating shows how tightly EVN's fate correlates with that of the government. Electricity prices, for example, will have to increase for the utility to make profits and improve its rating. Big increases, however, require approval from Hanoi, which also wants to keep power affordable for citizens.
The correlation is even blunter in Fitch's analysis. The overall credit rating for Vietnam's government itself also is BB. If that improves, so could the score for EVN, Fitch said, "provided EVN's linkages with the state do not deteriorate significantly."