S&P keeps Cyprus at BB+ rating, positive outlook, citing NPLs

Standard & Poor’s has affirmed Cyprus’s BB+ sovereign credit rating and kept its outlook on positive citing the risks the economy faces from the banks’ non-performing loans whose reduction is not “discernible”.

“Cyprus’ economic recovery continues unabated, allowing for a reduction in general government debt,” the rating company said in a statement on its website on Friday. “The impaired banking system still remains an important vulnerability, however”.

While Cypriot banks, which are struggling with a €20bn mountain of bad debt, roughly two fifths of their loan portfolio, are making efforts to reduce them via loan write-offs and restructuring and outsourcing to debt servicing companies, the reduction was slow, Standard & Poor’s said. While resorting to debt-to-asset swaps also helps reduce problematic loans, they do not lead to immediate cash inflows and banks.

“With the increasing use of this method, banks now have about 4.5 per cent of their gross loans in real estate,” the rating company said. “If loans to the real estate sector are included, the exposure to the sector rises to nearly 25 per cent of gross loans.”

Standard & Poor’s, which upgraded Cyprus’s rating a year ago to a notch below investment grade, said that while it expects economic growth to slow down this year to 3.2 per cent from 3.9 per cent in 2017, and to an average of 2.8 per cent over the next three years, it could upgrade the rating in response to a reduction of its “unusually high” stock of non-performing loans allowing a convergence with credit and monetary conditions in the euro area.

Should “the economy’s external debt metrics improve further, particularly via a decline in its short-term debt burden,” and “the economic recovery and direction of macroeconomic policy provides impetus for further meaningful general government and private sector debt reduction,” it could also give Cyprus an investment grade rating.

“We could revise the outlook to stable if economic growth is significantly lower than we currently expect,” the rating company continued and added that it could do the same should fiscal relaxation made a reduction of the ratio of public debt to economic output doubtful over the next three years.

“We could also revise the outlook to stable if we saw risks emanating from greater economic concentration in certain sectors, for instance, construction or tourism, or if fresh concerns around financial stability emerge while the sector is still impaired,” Standard & Poor’s said.

Cyprus is rated non-investment grade by all major rating companies and is as a result ineligible to participate in the European Central Bank’s quantitative easing.

Source: CyprusMail

Strong economic growth a credit positive for banks, Moody’s says

Strong economic growth – the highest growth rate since 2008 – is credit positive for Cypriot banks Moody’s ratings agency said on Thursday, noting however that despite the growth reduction of non-performing exposure will be slow.

According to Moody’s, Cyprus’ Statistical Service data showing that the country’s annual GDP growth rate had accelerated to 3.9 per cent in 2017 from 3.4 per cent in 2016 is positive for the banks because it supports asset values, improves the repayment capacity of a large number of defaulted households and businesses, and provides banks with increased lending opportunities, which will support their declining pre-provision profits.

The pick-up in economic activity strengthens businesses’ cashflows and improves labour market conditions for households — unemployment in Cyprus dropped to 9.8 per cent as in January 2018, from 10.3 per cent in December 2017, and 16.7 per cent in January 2015.

“Ultimately, the stronger GDP growth will enhance borrowers’ debt repayment capacity, facilitating loan restructurings, particularly in the small and midsize enterprise sector, which is more vulnerable to economic changes and benefits from an economic recovery”, the agency’s report said.

However, Moody’s noted the disconnect between the economy’s performance and the quality of retail loans, which has barely improved in the past three years of economic recovery.

This, according to Moody’s, suggests that a significant reduction in banks’ high stock of nonperforming exposures (NPEs), as defined by the European Banking Authority, will be particularly slow. Cyprus’ system-wide NPEs comprised 44 per cent of gross loans as of November 2017.

Cypriot banks will also benefit from stronger real estate prices, which will buttress collateral values, containing the need for additional provisions on existing NPEs.

The Bank of Cyprus will gain the most given that it has the largest direct exposure to domestic real estate.

The bank had €1.6bln of foreclosed assets on its balance sheet as of December 31, 2017 and will be in a better position to sell them as a result of increased activity in the real estate market.

Additionally, Moody’s expects Cyprus’ improving economy to create new lending opportunities, which will soften the competition between banks to attract creditworthy borrowers by offering lower interest rates than competitors.

New lending opportunities will increase banks’ income-generating assets, supporting their net interest income, which declined 12 per cent in September from year-earlier levels, and their pre-provision profit.

“Notwithstanding the improving economic environment, it will take time for Cypriot banks to rehabilitate their balance sheets because of the long cure periods for restructured loans before they are reclassified as performing, and the substantial volume of distressed debt”, it said.

Moody’s added that the majority of NPEs are household loans that have improved little in recent years, despite economic growth which suggests that organic reduction of such NPEs will be particularly slow.

Consequently, excluding a national initiative currently being considered to support the restructuring of defaulted mortgages, the credit agency expects the Cyprus Cooperative Bank to have the most gradual improvement in its asset quality metrics because loans to households comprised 80 per cent of gross loans as of June 2017.

Source: CyprusMail

MPs determined to act over title deed fiasco

In the absence of tangible government action, main opposition Akel said on Wednesday it will be preparing two proposals designed to iron out kinks in a 2015 law that sought to sort out the title deed mess, offering relief to so-called trapped buyers.

The law sought to resolve the problems for homeowners who had paid for their properties but were not issued with their title deeds either because it was mortgaged by the developer, or the state could not go ahead with the transfer because of outstanding taxes.

Since developers’ land and buildings were counted as assets that need to be offset against their debt to banks, this gave lenders a claim on people’s properties that had been mortgaged by developers.

However, following a string of court decisions in cases where banks objected to the law, the government had said it would seek ways to plug any loopholes.

Akel MP Aristos Damianou said the matter was revisited by parliament in July 2017, after decisions, mainly by courts in Paphos and Limassol, that found the law unconstitutional.

It had been decided at the time that government departments would look into the matter together with the Legal Service, in a bid to make corrections and secure the rights of trapped buyers.

“We waited for over six months. We had warned at the time that in the absence of government initiative parliament would not remain idle,” Damianou said.

On Wednesday, the party’s parliamentary group decided to prepare and submit next week, two proposals that will be jointly tabled with all parties aiming at tackling “this huge social problem”.

Damianou said government departments will be invited in due course to offer their views but parties could no longer wait for the executive to act.

The Akel MP said the proposals will seek to safeguard buyers who have paid the full amount of their purchase and were not at fault. Encumbrances will be taken into account but the proposals will weigh the wider public interest.

“In our understanding, the wider public interest is to cover all those people who have paid off the price as per sales contract, but they cannot get a deed because the businessman has outstanding issues with the banks,” Damianou said.

He said banks will have a say in the matter but they will not be able to veto decisions.

Some of the court cases have been won by the banks, largely on the grounds that the buyer’s claim on the property infringed on the contract between the bank and the developer.

But in September, the Larnaca district court upheld the 2015 law, allowing trapped property buyers to obtain their title deeds irrespective of the developers’ own commitments to banks.

The attorney-general had instructed the departments involved to continue implementing the law while appeals were filed at the supreme court, which will have the final say on the matter.

Earlier this year, Interior Minister Constantinos Petrides said that despite the matter not being resolved, the ministry had prepared a bill which it sent to the Legal Service for processing last October.

“As it transpired from the differing district court decisions, it is a complicated legal issue and due to this an in-depth study is required,” the minister said.

Damianou said parliament knew about the problems but it could not remain idle any longer.

“Inaction on this matter cannot be justified in any way.”

Source: CyprusMail

Lakkotrypis confirms Shell’s interest to buy Cypriot gas

Energy Minister Yiorgos Lakkotrypis said Royal Dutch Shell has showed interest in buying Cypriot and Israeli gas over the next 10 years.

Lakkotrypis, who was speaking on state radio CyBC, confirmed a Bloomberg report saying Shell was interested in buying 10bn cubic metres of Cypriot and Israeli natural gas over the next 10 years for $25bn (€20.3bn).

The minister said Cyprus was “close to a deal,” relating to talks to sell gas to one of the two liquefaction plants on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast via pipeline, without revealing additional details.

“I don’t want to specify if it is the terminal in Idku managed by Shell to which the Bloomberg report was referring to.”

“The talks involve both terminals and are at a quite advanced stage,” he said.

Lakkotrypis declined to say whether Noble Energy, the Houston-based gas company which together with Shell and Israel’s Delek Drilling, has the licence to develop the 4.5 trillion cubic feet (tcf) Aphrodite field in block 12 of Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), insisted on reducing the government’s share in the revenue from the project before going ahead.

“The only thing I can say is that we have difficulties with the prices,” he said in reference to the drop of the oil prices in 2014, which led to a reduction in the development of hydrocarbons worldwide.

Lakkotrypis added that Eni’s failed attempt to drill at Cuttlefish last month, as the target in block 3 is dubbed, after Turkey sent warships to the area to prevent the company from doing so, while it “was a bad development,” it was only a postponement.

Talks with Eni about its future exploratory programme are ongoing, Lakkotrypis said.

Eni has the hydrocarbon exploration and exploitation licence for several blocks in Cyprus’s EEZ, either on its own, as it is the case with block 8, or together with France’s Total (blocks 6 and 11) and South Korea’s KoGas (blocks 2, 3 and 13).

His comments were made as a vessel is about to begin surveys in block 10 owned by the consortium of ExxonMobil and Qatar Petroleum, ahead of an exploratory drilling in the second half of the year, likely in October, he said.

The Ocean Investigator, is scheduled to carry out an environmental survey, a precondition ahead of the submission of an environmental impact study ahead of the drilling.

A second vessel will carry out an archaeological survey to determine whether antiquities are located in the area.

Lakkotrypis said that while the two vessels will carry out operations which other companies did repeatedly in the past without attracting media attention, in their case, things are different after Turkey’s latest military action.

Source: CyprusMail

Cyprus ready for scrutiny of Golden Visa scheme says Georgiades

Finance Minister Harris Georgiades said the government is ready to provide information related to its controversial citizenship-by-investment scheme and have it scrutinised together with that of other member European Union member states, Politis reported on Tuesday.

The finance minister, commenting to the daily newspaper, also announced the publication of an independent study which will highlight the economic impact of the scheme and added that reports that the impact, while positive, was in the range of several billion euros were “wrong and misleading”.

The scheme allows foreign investors to acquire Cypriot citizenship within months by investing as little as €2m in assets or companies, including real estate. Until September 2016, when the cabinet modified the scheme relaxing its financial criteria, investors were required to invest as much as €5m or participate in a collective investment with a minimum of €2.5m per person totalling at least €12.5m.

According to official data, the scheme has allowed 1,685 foreign investors and 1,651 family members to acquire Cypriot citizenship from 2008 to 2018. According to press reports, the version of the scheme introduced in 2014 and subsequently repeatedly revised to exclude bank deposits or the acquisition of government bonds as criteria for eligibility generated an investment inflow of up to €4.8bn.

A week ago, a spokesperson for the European Commission said they were planning to carry out a study into these type of schemes, also implemented by several other member states of the EU, dubbed as Golden Visas. The decision came after reports on the websites of the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP.org) and The Guardian, prompted anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International to warn that Golden Visas are vulnerable to abuse. They also undermine the fight against corruption and the increase the risk of money laundering.

In his interview to Politis, Georgiades defended the Cypriot scheme against criticism, which he said was unjustified. Total naturalisations of foreign citizens in Cyprus account for only 0.3 per cent of total naturalisations in the EU, while the Cypriot Golden Visa scheme accounts in turn for only 30 per cent of total naturalisations, he continued.

The minister added that investment (projects) in the real economy remain the focus of the scheme and that they continuously undergo an evaluation process.

On January 9 the council of ministers decided to introduced a “Supervision and Control Committee” comprised of officials from the ministries of interior, finance and from the Cyprus Investment Promotion Agency (CIPA), a government-sponsored body tasked with attracting investment to Cyprus.

The decision also provides for the setting up of a register of “Investors’ Naturalisation Scheme Service Providers” in which individuals and legal entities that offer related services will be registered after meeting certain “entry criteria”. The scheme will also ban advertising the visa programme.

Chairman of CIPA Michalis Michael said a week ago that the body was about to introduce stricter criteria and procedures governing the Cypriot Golden Visa programme, with the inclusion of a registry of related service providers, as instructed by the cabinet on January 9.


One of two ExxonMobil survey ships on its way to Limassol

One of the two ExxonMobil research vessels scheduled to carry out explorations in block 10 of Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) departed from Greece on Sunday and is headed towards Limassol port, according to marinetraffic.com.

Ocean Investigator has been moored at the port of Lavrio, Greece. The second vessel Med Surveyor was still located off the port of Haifa, Israel on Sunday.

The former is expected at Limassol port in the next 48 hours.

The two ships are headed ultimately to Cyprus’ block 10. They will be deploying remotely-operated underwater vehicles which will take further readings of the seabed at three selected locations in block 10.

Their purpose is to gather more data to narrow down the most likely targets for gas drilling, which ExxonMobil is planning during the second half of the year.

ExxonMobil will reportedly be drilling two back-to-back exploratory wells in late summer or early autumn.

What remains to be seen is whether Turkey will intervene with the two survey ships heading for block 10, in the same way it blockaded ENI’s drillship Saipem 12000 recently, stopping it from carrying out its mission. Though Ankara does not lay claim to hydrocarbons in block 10, the Turkish Cypriot side has threatened that plans in all of Cyprus’ EEZ blocks would be stopped by Ankara.

According to a report in Kathimerini on Sunday, both ExxonMobil and the Cyprus government have studied closely what happened in block 3 and feel certain there will be no Turkish interference this time around, the paper said, citing sources.

All the relevant preparations have been completed in order for the two ships to reach their final destination and to proceed seamlessly with their work, the paper said.

Although speculation was rife during the week that a fleet of US warships was in the region and attempts were made to link the move to ExxonMobil’s plan, this was denied by the US navy.

Also, Turkey has issued a new navigational warning this weekend bounding the island’s east, south, and western coasts from Monday through tuso next Sunday and also from March 22 to 29.

According to the warning, which also skirts an offshore block earmarked for natural gas exploration by the republic, a Turkish warship will be towing an underwater device during that time.

Cyprus responded by issuing its own Navtex stating that Turkey’s action had not been authorised by the republic.

Source: CyprusMail

Israel expects decision on Cyprus-Greece-Italy pipeline in 2019

Israel expects a decision to go ahead with the construction of a 2,000 kilometre pipeline linking vast eastern Mediterranean gas resources to Europe to be made by early 2019, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told Reuters.

The pipeline, which will cross from Israel and Cyprus into Greece and Italy in deep waters, would mark a major milestone for the rapidly developing gas industry in the Levantine Basin in the east corner of the Mediterranean, offering access to a large market.

The European Union considers the pipeline, estimated to cost $7 billion, as “extremely competitive” as the four partner countries continue construction plans for the technically complex line, Steinitz told Reuters late on Wednesday on the sidelines of the CERAWeek conference in Houston.

“This summer we will reach a detailed agreement between the four founding states of the East Med pipeline and at the beginning of 2019 we hope to see a final investment decision,” he said.

The pipeline, known as East Med, will be able to transfer between 9 to 12 billion cubic meters (bcm) annually, he said. The project owners are IGI Poseidon, a joint venture between Greece’s natural gas firm DEPA, and Italian energy group Edison.

More than 900 bcm of gas have been discovered offshore Israel while Cyprus’ Aphrodite gas field holds an additional 128 bcm. Both areas are expected to hold more reserves.

Israel, where gas consumption has risen sharply over the past decade, will have 400 to 500 bcm available to export, Steinitz said.

The vast amounts of gas discovered since the early 2000s in Israel have transformed the region’s economic reality as it signed a number of deals to sell natural gas to neighbours Jordan and Egypt.

Israel is also considering the construction of a pipeline to Turkey, where gas demand is rapidly growing, although the project appears to have stalled in recent years amid political tensions between the two countries.

“We can export to Egypt, Jordan and Turkey and still have enough extra gas for the pipeline,” he said.

Source: CyprusMail

Government starts repaying €2.5bn Russian loan

Cyprus last week paid 312.5m to the Russian Federation as a first instalment of a €2.5bn loan agreed more than six years ago and restructured in 2013, a finance ministry source said.

The loan, agreed in late 2011 by the government of former president Demetris Christofias, which lost access to financial markets and was trying to avoid requesting a bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), will be repaid in eight biannual instalments of €312.5m. The next payment is scheduled in September.

The Russian loan accounted in September for 13 per cent of the total public debt of €18.8bn, according to the latest available figures on the website of the Public Debt Management Office.

As part of the initial loan agreement, Cyprus had to pay a 4.5 per cent annual interest on the borrowed amount and repay it in one instalment in 2016. The restructuring of the loan provided for a reduction of the interest rate to 2.5 per cent and the extension of the repayment period to 2021.

In November, the government which last year generated a budget surplus of €360.7m on a cash basis, also made a €614.9m payment against a loan from the Central Bank of Cyprus, reducing the debt to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio below the 100 per cent mark.

Source: CyprusMail

ExxonMobil: Our top priority is the safety of vessels' crews

ExxonMobil`s top priority is the safety of its vessels` crews and of others in the Eastern Mediterranean, its spokeswoman Suann Guthrie has told CNA, asked about the company`s exploration drilling operations in Cyprus` Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

"Our plan is to drill two exploration wells starting in second half 2018," Guthrie noted, adding that "part of the preparation is acquiring the relevant permits, which includes collecting environmental data using survey vessels."

"We expect the surveys to be concluded within the next couple of months. Our top priority is the safety of the crews conducting the survey and of others in the area," she concluded.

The Cyprus government and the consortium of companies ExxonMobil Corporation and Qatar Petroleum signed in April 2017 the exploration and production sharing contract for Block 10 of the Republic of Cyprus EEZ.

Source: Stockwatch

MPs discuss how to manage future gas revenues

After almost a year, MPs on Monday resumed discussion of a government bill providing for the creation of a National Investment Fund to manage future hydrocarbons proceeds.

The bill, drafted by the finance ministry, was submitted to parliament in June 2016; the first discussions in parliament got underway in mid-September of that year. The last time the bill was discussed was in May 2017. The International Monetary Fund had been consulted during the bill’s preparation.

Averof Neophytou, chair of the House finance committee, told reporters that a different format has been decided going forward: rather than MPs submitting their amendments to the bill at the House plenum, as per normal legislative procedure, the committee would now be discussing the amendments exhaustively before the item goes to the House floor.

MPs have been given a week to submit any additional amendments to the bill, he said. The amendments are to be immediately relayed to the finance ministry, which will provide its own feedback, after which a final discussion will be held in committee before a vote takes place at the plenum.

According to Neophytou, the fund’s revenues are primarily geared at future generations of all Cypriot citizens – Greek and Turkish Cypriots, as well as the religious minorities.

But responding to questions, he dismissed the notion that the impetus for revisiting the bill were the recent events in Cyprus’ economic waters, where Turkey prevented the drilling of a gas well and with Turkish Cypriots now calling for joint exploration and exploitation of offshore hydrocarbons.

For the finance committee, Neophytou said, there is no linkage with that issue. The investment fund for hydrocarbons was significant, whether there is a solution of the Cyprus problem or not.

The Disy MP added that, at any rate, proceeds from hydrocarbons should not be expected for a while yet, given that a commercial agreement for developing the Aphrodite field – holding an estimated 4.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas – is still pending.

For his part, Diko deputy Angelos Votsis said the hydrocarbons fund has been designed on the basis of the Norwegian model.

Main opposition Akel reiterated that absent from the bill is any clause relating to the state channelling revenues to hydrocarbons-related infrastructures.

Under certain circumstances, the government will be able to use part of the revenues to reduce government debt and for other purposes.

The bill stipulates that as long as public debt is above 80 per cent of GDP, half the hydrocarbons revenue would go towards reducing this debt. When it is below 80 per cent but above the limit of 60 per cent – set by the Maastricht criteria – only 25 per cent of revenue would go towards the public debt and the rest would be used for the creation of reserves.

Last month Turkish warships, on the pretext of conducting military exercises in international waters, prevented a drillship from reaching its target in offshore block 3.

The rig, contracted by Italian oil major ENI, eventually withdrew and the planned drilling was cancelled.

Source: CyprusMail

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