Beware of Cheap Lending from China


By Samir N. Kapadia

Everyone is taking Beijing’s money, but at what cost?

With over $3.2tn in foreign currency reserves, China has a lot to invest. In addition to spending across asset classes, offering attractive loans has been a growing part of China’s economic strategy. China’s fellow BRICS partners; Russia, Brazil, India, and South Africa, have benefitted from this largesse. As emerging market economies, all four countries desperately require cash to break ground on massive infrastructure projects. BRICS nations are reviewing a plan to receive RMB loans from the China Development Bank, before they meet
 in New Delhi on March 29. 
In that light, it is important
 to remember that China’s 
loans come with strings 
attached.

India has much to consider. Recently, China made
 news by lending money 
to Anil Ambani’s Reliance Communications, for the 
second time. Last month, the Reserve 
Bank of India approved a refinancing of 
foreign currency convertible bonds worth $1.18bn by a consortium of Chinese banks for the prominent Indian industrialist. It was the largest refinancing of its kind for an Indian company. The seven-year loan was offered at a 5% interest rate. In 2011, Ambani also needed cash - $1.9bn - to help finance his 3G telecommunications infrastructure for Reliance Communications. Recorded as the largest financing in the history of India’s telecom sector, the loan was underwritten by the China Development Bank. Reliance said the average projected interest cost savings on the loan are valued at $100mn a year.

As part of the $1.9bn loan agreement, Reliance would import a part of
 its telecommunications equipment from Chinese vendors, namely Huawei Technologies. Huawei, a quasi-government company partially owned by the People’s Liberation Army, has since invested $200mn in another Indian telecommunications company, Unitech Wireless, a major competitor of Ambani’s Reliance. The loan opened the door for China to enter one India’s largest markets, which is key, since the Indian government had been working to keep Chinese companies out.

While India’s mega-companies are only experiencing the beginning of Beijing’s accommodating bank policy, Brazil and Russia seem to have grown accustomed to taking Chinese money with conditions.

In 2009, Russian oil and pipeline giants, Rosneft and Transneft, took a combined loan of $25bn from the China Development Bank. The loan was needed to finance a massive project that would supply China 15mn tons of oil a year, or 300,000 barrels a day, over 20 years. With $10bn, Transneft was able to finish constructing Russia’s first pipeline to Asia, linking the Federation to China and the Pacific. With the remaining $15bn, Rosneft launched its Vankor field in eastern Siberia, the largest find brought into production in Russia in the last 25 years. Today, Rosneft is paying about 4% in interest, based on a margin of 3.25% over a six month averaged LIBOR rate. With LIBOR at historic lows, the terms of the loan agreement remain attractive for Russian companies.

The pipeline was completed on January 1, 2011, but the cost per barrel has been under dispute between the two countries. Last month, Rosneft approved changes in the existing agreement that permitted a $1.50/barrel discount on crude shipments offered to China National Petroleum Corp, the beneficiary of the supply contract. The Russians will absorb a discount of $3bn in aggregate revenue over the course of 20 years, or $450,000 a day. The initial capital investment thus served as a bargaining chip for the Chinese in the boardroom.

Brazil is headed down the same path. In 2009, Brazilian oil giant Petrobras accepted a ten-year $10bn dollar loan from the China Development Bank. The financing also tacked on an export agreement calling for 150,000 barrels of oil supply a day for the first year, followed by 200,000 barrels of oil supply a day for the remaining nine. The terms of the loan were also attractive for the Brazilians. Petrobras’ then CEO, Jose Segrio Gabrielli, stated that the loan’s interest rate, at less than 6.5%, offered better terms than anything the company had seen before. By offering the oil as collateral as opposed to being a part of a securitization structure, Petrobras makes the loan payments primarily from its oil sales. One question is whether Petrobras will be asked to discount the oil price as Russia did for China. By priming the pump with financing, China has demonstrated how it can lock up supply in a straight procurement contact, avoiding the commitment of an equity stake that it used in other Brazilian energy deals.

In 2010, the Brazilian iron ore giant Vale signed a $1.23bn loan agreement to construct 12 ‘Chinamax’ shipping vessels, each with a 400,000-ton carrying capacity for iron ore. Vale had the ships manufactured in China to create some goodwill, thinking the Chinese would then allow the Brazilian company to ship large quantities of iron ore to Chinese ports in its own vessels. But the plan backfired. On her maiden voyage in June last year, Vale’s first Chinamax vessel was barred from anchoring at the Dalian port. Facing a backlash from domestic shipping companies, the Chinese government banned Vale’s ships from any port of entry in China. After months of dispute, particularly from China’s state-owned shipping company COSCO, Beijing allowed the ships to unload ore.

If there’s a lesson here, it may be to not expect the Chinese to make concessions on the deals that they make with BRICS partners. When China finances a pipeline, it may demand a lower price on the oil delivered. If you use Chinese yards to build your ships, it may ban your ships.

China’s use of power through state-owned companies like COSCO is exactly what India has to watch out for. India has to be especially careful with loan repayment plans that rely on assumed business with China. That interdependency can put companies and their shareholders at risk. India has to also beware of seeking loans at the last minute. Reliance tied up refinancing on its bonds just six weeks before the redemption date. With distressed Kingfisher Air looking for money, will China become the bailout bank for strapped Indian corporates?

All countries practice sharp bargaining. As the banker to the emerging world, China has the ability to use cheap loans as leverage. But what China concedes on financing, it can recover on the supply agreement. This quid pro quo then becomes more of an implicit guarantee for favorable supply terms and access to markets. Because of these tacit obligations, India needs to look behind the veil. Brazil, burned by its experience, is now stacking up the bricks against China with policies to forestall further influence.

Brazil’s rude awakening has made it more protectionist. To curb damage to domestic manufacturers, the government raised taxes by 30% on all cars with a high proportion of foreign-made parts. Brazil has also put restrictions on foreign land ownership and in the case of Petrobras, made it the sole operator of oil fields where licenses haven’t yet been auctioned. Petrobras’ Refining Director Paulo Roberto Costa said the regulation “represents a strong position of the state to keep this wealth,” ensuring Brazil remains the prime custodian of its energy resources. Brazilian steps are all seen as ways for the nation to protect itself from Chinese influence in industries such as manufacturing, agriculture, and oil.

In a two-year window of 2009-2010, China has expended some $50bn in Brazil through loans and investments, up from $83mn the year earlier. While the rate of Chinese investment has been significantly higher in Brazil, the Brazilian government’s new ‘BRICS-laying’ policy may be what Russia and India should be considering as they tap China’s ever-flowing river of money.

Samir N. Kapadia is a researcher on Economic and Defense Policy Studies at Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations, Mumbai, India.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

*[This report was originally published by Gateway House.]

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