Saudi money market faces challenges ahead
The Saudi government sold SR20 billion ($5.3 billion) of riyal bonds to banks last Tuesday to help to cover a huge deficit caused by low oil prices.
Jitters in Saudi Arabian money markets suggest that financing the government's budget deficit in an era of cheap oil may not be smooth as banks worry about the risk of a liquidity squeeze.
The government sold SR20 billion ($5.3 billion) of riyal bonds to banks last Tuesday to help to cover a huge deficit caused by low oil prices.
It was only the second sovereign bond issue since 2007; the first, placed with quasisovereign institutions, occurred in July.
Cash-rich Saudi banks easily absorbed last week's issue, but money market moves show concern about their ability to absorb the multi-year series of issues that may become necessary if oil prices remain low. Adding to the jitters is officials' secrecy about their bond plans. Authorities have privately told banks no more than 40 per cent of the deficit will be financed with bonds; the rest will be covered by running down fiscal reserves.
But authorities have not released a bond issuance calendar or detailed figures for the government's borrowing requirement.
This has left banks in the dark about how many more bonds they might be asked to buy in coming months and years.
Bankers, therefore, are scrambling to hedge against the risk of a liquidity crunch a year or two from now, causing the Saudi money curve to steepen even as the US curve flattens in anticipation of an interest rate rise this year - an unusual divergence.
The cost of two-year riyal deposits in the interbank market shot up to 1.53 per cent last week from as low as 1.05 per cent six weeks earlier.
The cost of swapping fixed for floating payments with a one-year interest rate swap jumped 30 basis points from July. One-year US dollar/Saudi riyal forwards hit 290 points, their highest since March 2003. For most of 2015 they were between zero and 100 points.
The prospect of a US rate rise has added to upward pressure on Saudi market rates, said Anita Yadav, head of fixed income research at Dubai's Emirates NBD.
"I expect riyal spreads to go higher from here as liquidity in the system becomes tight due to lower oil revenue-related deposits, large local currency bond issuance by the Saudi government and increased demand for hedging from the corporates as US rates begin to rise." With Brent oil priced at about $50 a barrel, Riyadh is running an annual state budget deficit estimated by analysts at between $130 billion and $150 billion.