LONDONLONDON Feb 12 (Reuters) - Uzbekistan plans to follow up an upcoming $1 billion international bond market debut with regular debt sales while the country's banks are also expected to seek funds overseas, fund managers said on Tuesday.
Members of a delegation from the former Soviet republic told fund managers during a roadshow in London the government was planning to sell two tranches with a 5- and 10-year maturity with each tranche at least benchmark sized, or $500 million.
"They talked about potentially coming back to the market again," said Kevin Daly, investment director at Aberdeen Standard Investments, who met the delegation. "Debt-to-GDP is at around 20 percent, and they said they were comfortable if it was as high as 30 percent."
Finance Minister Jamshid Kuchkarov told some fund managers the country planned another eurobond sale as soon as 2020.
Emerging markets had suffered a tough 2018 with crisis in Turkey and Argentina, a strong dollar and rising borrowing costs ripping through developing assets around the globe. This left little room for first time issuers - often riskier and smaller countries - to tap international bond markets.
Fund managers were positive about Uzbekistan's junk-rated credit, citing the diversified commodity set-up: the country is rich in natural resources such as gas, gold and other metals but is also one of the world's leading exporters of cotton.
Under President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan has recently taken some steps to open up the economy, such as liberalising the foreign exchange market. Mirziyoyev took over in 2016 after the death of Islam Karimov, who in his 27 years in power rejected market reforms, leaving the country of 32 million largely isolated, its economy stagnant and mired with mass unemployment.
"It is a good, consistent story, they have the demographics, they are very reform-minded," said another fund manager attending the meetings. "They actually don't need the financing - but they need to set a benchmark for corporate issuance."
Two Uzbek banks were planning to tap international markets in the first and second half of 2019, fund managers were told. Possible lenders named were Uzbek Industrial and Construction Bank Joint-Stock Commercial Bank (UPSB), Joint Stock Commercial Bank Asaka, SCM Ipoteka Bank and National Bank of Uzbekistan. The sovereign debt sale was also expected to provide an opportunity for Uzbek state energy firm Uzbekneftegaz.
Change is hard to measure in landlocked Uzbekistan because it is secretive and has provided very limited data in the past years, especially on its key mineral sector.
"We do have concerns over the lack of transparency when it comes to data, and they will have to pay a premium for that," another fund manager said.
Uzbekistan holds a BB- rating by Fitch and S&P while Moody's rates it at B1 - one notch below its peers. Fund managers said they expected a 5-year bond to come with a yield of close to 5 percent and the 10-year closer to 6 percent.
"We compare it to Azerbaijan, but they need to pay a premium due to their lack of transparency," the fund manager added. Azerbaijan's dollar-bond maturing in 2024 currently yields 4.3 percent.
JP Morgan and Citi as well state-owned Russian bank Gazprombank are on the Uzbek deal. (Reporting by Karin Strohecker Editing by Frances Kerry)