Eskom Bailout Emerging as Equity Swap by Biggest Bondholder

South Africa’s biggest pot of available cash — 1.91 trillion rand ($128 billion) of civil-servant pensions and unemployment funds managed by the Public Investment Corp. — is emerging as the key to rescuing the debt-stricken national power monopoly.

The money manager has approached its parent agency, the National Treasury, with a proposal to ease the 464 billion-rand load of obligations crushing Eskom Holdings SOC Ltd., signaling officials are gearing up for the complex financial and political operation to convert about 95 billion rand of Eskom debt held by the PIC into equity.

“There’s still a need to undertake a due diligence to confirm the viability of this proposal,” the Treasury said in a Dec. 11 response to questions from Bloomberg, its first statement connecting the PIC to an Eskom bailout. “It is important that the PIC be allowed space to follow its internal governance processes in line with its standard investment evaluation process to mitigate against any possible breach of governance or what could be perceived as political interference.”

While international investors are cheering efforts to contrive a durable fix for Eskom, the idea of tapping the fund is already drawing warnings over the potential fallout. The swap, which could put Eskom into technical default, would pit the government against its own employees, set a precedent that could see other flailing state-owned companies knocking on the PIC’s door and rattle a private sector concerned that its money could be next.

Speculation of a PIC role has intensified in recent weeks since President Cyril Ramaphosa told Bloomberg that “innovative ideas” were being discussed, and Finance Minister Tito Mboweni said the fund was willing to contribute to a solution for Eskom. Labor, business and the government last week agreed to work jointly to reduce the utility’s debt in the so-called Eskom Social Compact.

“The sustainability of Eskom’s debt and the risks it poses to state finances are now arousing political interests who are increasingly interested in grasping a solution,” said Peter Attard Montalto, head of capital markets research at Intellidex. “Eskom’s debt needs to be solved.”

The scope of the task has increased since Goldman Sachs Group Inc. described the utility in 2017 as the biggest threat to South Africa’s economy, which is just exiting its longest recession in 28 years. Eskom’s inability to provide reliable power since 2008, when outages began, has crimped output and disrupted everything from aluminum smelters to household kitchens.

The deterioration was worsened by years of looting under Ramaphosa’s predecessor, Jacob Zuma, leading to the 2019 bailout that totaled 128 billion rand over three years. But that’s merely keeping the wolf from the door and the search for a long-term solution is under way for the too-big-to-fail operation.

‘Materially Cheap’

Plans to rescue Eskom, which has said it can’t afford to service more than 200 billion rand of debt, have also included dipping into the surpluses of state-run unemployment and compensation funds and converting some of its mostly government-guaranteed debt into sovereign bonds.

Credit analysts have been talking up Eskom as a 2021 top pick, citing the government’s efforts, says Lutz Roehmeyer, the chief investment officer at Capitulum Asset Management GmbH in Berlin, who holds Eskom dollar bonds and isn’t adding any more. “Investors are very bullish on the name and expect the sovereign to solve the problem,” he said.

JPMorgan Chase & Co. this week called Eskom bonds “materially cheap” compared with sovereign debt.

Multiple Bailouts

South Africa’s Eskom is surviving on government support.

“As long as debt declines and becomes more sustainable, that’s really the number one priority,” said Guido Chamorro, co-head of emerging-market hard-currency debt at Pictet Asset Management in London, which manages $10 billion in developing-nation assets, including Eskom 2028 notes. “There are 101 different ways to do it. I mean, the government as the sole shareholder could even assume the debt. Or use its lower funding costs to borrow and then transfer the funds to Eskom.”

The PIC is recovering from a government inquiry last year into how political meddling influenced decision-making. The probe led to the departure of several senior executives following disclosures that included bailing out one of the country’s biggest retailers ahead of a national election against the advice of its investment professionals.

While the Congress of South African Trade Unions, a key ally of the ruling African National Congress, has backed using PIC funds to help Eskom, other labor groups, including the 235,000-member Public Servants Association, and business leaders have opposed it.

Eskom’s own employee pension fund has signaled resistance to the idea. It doesn’t want to change the “risk-return characteristics” of its 2 billion rand investment in the company’s debt or add to the holding, said Chief Investment Officer Ndabezinhle Mkhize.

Pitfalls

All of the options being considered have their pitfalls. A debt-to-equity swap may have to be offered to all creditors and could be classified by ratings firms as a default. Converting Eskom debt into sovereign bonds could flood the market and unnerve holders of South Africa’s 2.62 trillion rand of junk-rated government bonds.

“We could lower the rating by one or more notches if the utility undertakes a debt restructuring, which, in our view, could be tantamount to a default,” Standard & Poors’ said in a Nov. 25 statement.

Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter has been credited with improving operations since taking over January but has said the debt question is in the hands of the government. He has spoken of using green finance to help reduce coal use and cut its debt. He didn’t give specifics.

Ultimately, unpalatable as it might be, the government may find it just has to meet the utility’s obligations by paying off its debt at it falls due.

“Everybody knows Eskom needs to do something about its debt, no one knows what that looks like,” said Olga Constantatos, head of credit at Futuregrowth Asset Management, which has 194 billion rand under management, including Eskom debt. “It’s in a utility death spiral as well as a debt spiral.”




New Book Shows Way to Peaceful Resolution of Maritime Border Disputes

Road Map Can Help Coastal Countries Tap Offshore Resources

WASHINGTON, D.C.: A new book by energy expert Roudi Baroudi highlights often overlooked mechanisms that could defuse tensions and help unlock billions of dollars’ worth of oil and gas.

“Maritime Disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean: the Way Forward” – distributed by Brookings Institution Press – outlines the extensive legal and diplomatic framework available to countries looking to resolve contested borders at sea. In it, Baroudi reviews the emergence and (growing) influence of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), whose rules and standards have become the basis for virtually all maritime negotiations and agreements. He also explains how recent advances in science and technology, in particular precision mapping, have expanded the impact of UNCLOS guidelines by taking the guesswork out of any dispute-resolution process based on them.

As the title suggests, much of the study centers on the Eastern Mediterranean, where recent oil and gas discoveries have underlined the fact that most of the region’s maritime boundaries remain unresolved. The resulting uncertainty not only slows development of the resources in question (and reinvestment of the proceeds to address poverty and other societal challenges), but also increases the risk of one or more shooting wars. Baroudi notes, however, that just as such problems and their consequences exist around the globe, so might their fair and equitable resolution in one region work to restore faith in multilateralism for peoples and their leaders in all regions.

Were the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean to agree under UNCLOS rules to settle their differences fairly and equitably, he writes, “it would give a chance to demonstrate that the post-World War II architecture of collective security remains not merely a viable approach but also a vital one … It would show the entire world that no obstacles are so great, no enmity so ingrained, and no memories so bitter that they cannot be overcome by following the basic rules to which all UN member states have subscribed by joining it: the responsibility to settle disputes without violence or the threat thereof.”

Baroudi’s work offers both general and specific reminders that levers exist which can level the diplomatic playing field, a useful contribution at a time when the entire concept of multilateralism is under assault from some of the very capitals that once championed its creation. In addition, it is written in an engaging style that makes several disciplines – from history and geography to law and cartography – accessible and interesting to everyone from academics and policymakers to engineers and the general public.

Baroudi’s background consists of more than four decades in the energy sector, during which time he has helped design policy for companies, governments, and multilateral institutions, including the United Nations, the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. His areas of expertise range from oil and gas, petrochemicals, power, energy security, and energy-sector reform to environmental impacts and protections, carbon trading, privatization, and infrastructure. He currently serves as CEO of Energy and Environment Holding, an independent consultancy based in Doha, Qatar.

The book has been distilled from years of Baroudi’s personal research, analysis, and advocacy, with editing by Debra L. Cagan (Distinguished Energy Fellow, Transatlantic Leadership Network) and Sasha Toperich (Senior Executive Vice President, Transatlantic Leadership Network).

“Maritime Disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean: the Way Forward” is published by the Transatlantic Leadership Network (TLN), an international association of practitioners, private sector leaders, and policy analysts working to ensure that US-EU relations keep pace with a rapidly globalizing world. Distribution has been entrusted to Brookings Institution Press, founded in 1916 as an outlet for research by scholars associated with the Brookings Institution, widely regarded as the most respected think-tank in the United States.

The TLN hosted a webinar on Thursday to launch the e-book version, with guests and participants joining via Zoom from cities around the world. Following introductory remarks by Cagan and former US Ambassador John B. Craig, a lively discussion took place with a panel featuring Baroudi and two very relevant representatives from the US State Department – Jonathan Moore (Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs), Kurt Donnelly (Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Diplomacy, Bureau of Energy Resources) and Dr. Charles Ellinas (Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center)

Prior to the launch event, the book had garnered advance praise from key observers, including:

Douglas Hengel, Professional Lecturer in Energy, Resources and Environment Program, Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, Senior Fellow at German Marshall Fund of the United States, and former State Department official: “In this thoughtful and well-argued book, Roudi Baroudi provides a framework … guiding us down a path to an equitable and peaceful resolution … The countries of the region, as well as the United States and the European Union, should embrace Baroudi’s approach …”

Andrew Novo, Associate Professor of Strategic Studies, National Defense University: “… A balanced, innovative and positive message that can provide progress for a series of apparently insoluble problems. Using international law, highly detailed geo-data, and compelling economic logic, Baroudi makes a powerful case for compromise … if only the opposing sides will listen.”




US Must Lead Response To Perils Of COVID-19 And Oil Crisis

G20 should hold an emergency meeting to prepare a realistic agenda to tackle the economic crisis created by COVID-19

Roudi Baroudi – Doha

It took a global pandemic that has grounded airlines, idled factories, and kept billions of people indoors, but prices for some oil futures contracts have gone into negative territory for the first time ever.

Not since Colonel Drake struck oil – with commercially viable methods – in Pennsylvania in 1859 has a producer had to pay customers to take crude off their hands. Together, oil & gas still supply approximately 60 percent of the world’s energy, and that is not to mention its myriad other uses in modern industry. So, what to do when a demand slump of unprecedented size & speed has brought so low the world’s most ubiquitous commodity, one still required by so many people?

First, it is crucial to recall how we got here, specifically the fact that the COVID- 19 crisis was not the only factor. Keep in mind that for weeks, the gathering collapse of demand coincided with a massive flow of oversupply as Russia and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia refused to agree on production cuts, choosing instead to battle for market share going forward. Eventually, they will reach a new entente, but the effect of the virus had so destabilised the markets that even zero was no longer a floor in the minds of the investors.

Until COVID-19 shut down whole sectors the global economy, the world had been consuming approximately 100 million barrels of oil a day. By mid-April, that figure had dropped to something in the order of 80 million. The imbalance quickly filled up tank farms, and some analysts believe that as much as 160 million barrels of oil are currently being stored in tankers at sea but with nowhere to go. Airlines have slashed their schedules by 90 percent or more. Inevitably, oil-producing companies have had to shut down their wells, and dozens of refineries have had to suspend operations since they could no longer dispose of oil and related products.

There is no question that the heaviest damage has been sustained in the United States. The shale oil business had been so successful that the country had become the world’s largest crude producer, managing not only to satisfy 90 percent of its own demand from domestic sources but also to compete with Russia and Saudi Arabia for customers overseas. The industry was always vulnerable, however, because of higher production costs, its producers were the first to fail.

Oil is unlike any other commodity in that a safe, affordable, and continuous supply of it is perhaps the single-most far-reaching factor of modern life for businesses, organisations, and almost 200 countries around the globe. Of course, renewables and other alternative sources have made great strides in recent years, and one or more of these technologies will be the future, but for now, and hydrocarbons and oil are still the prime determinants of success or failure.

At the same time, the fact that this is having such a concentrated effect in the United States is a crisis because that country is a reliable bellwether for global economic health. Even as China’s meteoric rise over the past decades has made it the world’s second largest economy, with nominal GDP about $14 trillion for 2019, the US economy remains far away the world’s heftiest at about $21 trillion. For this reason, when Americans stop buying, everywhere loses sales. And in just a few short weeks, more than 26 million of them have filed for unemployment benefits. Jobs are being shed in record numbers, meaning less capacity for anyone else to compensate for the evaporation of US demand for everything.

So how do we keep the of global epidemic and global oil glut from producing long-term damage that yields to even more human and economic losses? How do we get the world’s most important economic engines – to get global commerce moving again? In a word, unity – of the sort that brings all humankind together for collective action. Even assuming that a vaccine is developed, the damage done to some of the world’s most important economies will not be repaired overnight.

In short, recovery depends on sincere dialogue, full cooperation, and genuine transparency. We are all in this together now, so the best way out is to collaborate on an exit strategy that saves time, money, and human lives. The biggest responsibility falls on the biggest players, the US, China, and Russia, along with the European Union, Japan, and multilateral institutions. Going forward, each of these countries and entities will need to make commitments about what it will and will not do. Only then can the necessary confidence and stability be rebuilt around the world.

Exceptional challenges call for exceptional remedies. Already we have seen several global leaders pledge to work together on a vaccine, but the United States was notable by its absence. For the broader purpose of steering a way out of the global economic morass, it is essential that Washington be present and accounted for. My suggestion is an emergency meeting of the G20 at the earliest, which probably means the first part of May. Not a moment should be wasted in preparing a realistic agenda that measures up to the enormity of the tasks at hand. To quote the quintessential American, Benjamin Franklin, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Roudi Baroudi is CEO of Energy
and Environment Holding,
an independent consultancy
based in Qatar




Column: Even before price plunge, hedge funds were abandoning oil

LONDON (Reuters) – Even before the OPEC+ output agreement broke down on Friday, sending oil prices into a tailspin, hedge funds had launched a second wave of oil-related selling and established one of the most bearish positions since the price crisis of 2014-2016.

Hedge funds and other money managers sold the equivalent of 133 million barrels in the six most important petroleum futures and options contracts in the week ending on Tuesday.

Funds were sellers of Brent (60 million barrels), NYMEX and ICE WTI (31 million), U.S. gasoline (25 million), U.S. diesel (4 million) and European gasoil (12 million).

Over the last eight weeks, portfolio managers have sold a total of 579 million barrels, more than reversing purchases of 533 million in the final quarter of 2019.

The hedge fund community’s overall long position had been slashed to just 392 million barrels by March 3, down by 60% from 970 million at the start of the year, and the lowest since the start of 2019.

Fund managers have a in-built bullish long bias: they have never held a net short bearish position at any point in the last seven years, according to an analysis of data from regulators and exchanges.

But the data can be adjusted to remove “structural” elements from long and short positions (the minimum number of long and short positions which never change) to show the underling “dynamic” position more clearly.

On March 3, portfolio managers had a dynamic position that was net short by 99 million barrels, the most bearish since the start of 2019 (tmsnrt.rs/38xhDyp).

Overall, funds now hold just two bullish long positions for every bearish short, down from a ratio of almost 7:1 at the start of the year, and among the most bearish ratios at any point in the last seven years.

Portfolio managers have become especially negative about the outlook for distillate fuel oils such as diesel and gasoil, the refined products most closely connected with the business cycle.

Unusually mild winter weather throughout the northern hemisphere has cut heating oil consumption; now the coronavirus epidemic threatens an extended slowdown in global manufacturing and trade.

As a result, funds’ long-short ratio in middle distillates has fallen to just 0.7:1, compared with 2.4:1 in crude and 5.3:1 in gasoline.

Funds are more bearish on distillates than at any time since the global economy was still struggling to emerge from the commodity slump and mid-cycle manufacturing slowdown of 2015/16.

These bearish positions in crude and fuels had all been established before Saudi Arabia and Russia failed to agree on extending and/or deepening their output cuts at the OPEC+ meeting on Friday.

The combination of unrestrained production and weakening consumption has sent Brent prices down by a further $16 per barrel (31%) since Tuesday as investor sentiment has soured on the economy and oil even further.

Since Friday, Brent prices have experienced their sharpest one-day fall since U.S. forces moved to end Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait in January 1991, as traders respond to the unexpected collapse of the OPEC+ supply accord.

With Russia and Saudi Arabia now likely to lift output cuts and produce at their maximum capacity, prices will adjust down to the level set by the marginal producer, which in the last five years has been U.S. shale.

Related columns:

– Hedge funds paused oil sales, before coronavirus prompted second wave of selling (Reuters, March 2)

– Oil traders price in coronavirus-driven recession (Reuters, Feb. 28)




What the ECB’s Strategy Review Must Do

he European Central Bank’s new strategy review must recognize that economists are still a long way from understanding the dynamics of low inflation. Given this uncertainty, the ECB should aim to adopt robust policies that cause the least damage under a broad range of scenarios.

LONDON – With her recent announcement of the European Central Bank’s long-overdue strategy review, new ECB President Christine Lagarde has generated high expectations. The review’s outcome will be the first important signal of how Lagarde intends to lead the institution – and of how the ECB is likely to address persistently low inflation in the eurozone.

The world is very different than it was in 2003, when the ECB’s strategy was last revised, and the institution has itself undergone deep changes since the 2008 financial crisis. Faced with a global recession and then the 2011-2012 eurozone debt crisis, the ECB abandoned the traditional approach of passively meeting banks’ demand for liquidity – its initial response to the financial crisis. Instead, the ECB started actively managing its balance sheet in order both to ease monetary policy and stabilize the financial system.

Furthermore, the ECB has radically expanded its operational tools. In 2014, it introduced negative interest rates on banks’ deposits with national central banks, and began providing the market with “forward guidance” concerning its future policies. And, since 2015, the ECB has engaged in asset purchases (known as quantitative easing, or QE), causing its balance sheet to double compared to 2008. Finally, the ECB has assumed larger prudential supervisory responsibilities vis-à-vis European banks under the Single Supervisory Mechanism.

The first phase of the ECB review will be narrow, focusing on defining the bank’s inflation target, the role of monetary aggregates as signals of medium- to long-term inflation, and communication. This is expected to be concluded in the first half of 2020, to be followed by a second phase of reflection.

Any meaningful review of these issues must objectively and critically analyze the decade since the financial crisis, during which average eurozone inflation has been well below the ECB’s objective of “below, but close to, 2%,” and also lower than in the United States and the United Kingdom. In particular, the review should quantify the costs of tolerating a systematically below-target level of inflation, relative to pursuing other policy options.

There are at least three hypotheses to explain the ECB’s inability to achieve its inflation objective. The “policy mistakes” hypothesis maintains that the ECB should have implemented more aggressive policies – in particular, QE – between 2012 and 2014. If these “mistakes” stemmed from an ill-defined ECB strategy, then its strategy will have to be adjusted; if they were the result of political constraints, then its decision-making process should be changed.

The second explanation highlights the inadequate coordination of fiscal, financial, and monetary policy in the eurozone. In 2009, for example, monetary easing was accompanied by a delayed cleanup of the banking sector and fiscal austerity, leading to a second recession that the ECB was late to identify. And in 2012-2014, a neutral fiscal stance was coupled with both insufficient monetary stimulus and banking-sector deleveraging.

Both hypotheses suggest that the ECB would have fared better had it clearly committed to a symmetric quantitative target for inflation or nominal GDP. That would have implied, for example, not increasing interest rates in 2011 (as the ECB did) in response to the temporary inflationary effect of higher oil prices. It also would have implied starting asset purchases in 2012 instead of 2015, and not stopping them in 2018.

The third hypothesis, favored by some central bankers, is that persistently low eurozone inflation reflects structural factors such as adverse demographics, low growth expectations, and the associated increase in demand for safe assets. This explanation thus draws parallels between the eurozone and Japan, where aggressive monetary and fiscal policies since 2013 have failed to lift the economy out of its two-decade-long slough of low inflation.

Advocates of the structural view argue that it would be better for the ECB’s policymakers to adopt a lower inflation target rather than try to engineer a monetary stimulus that ends up inflating asset prices and jeopardizing financial stability. After all, their argument implies, there is little evidence that stable low inflation is bad for welfare.

But this third hypothesis can lead to two alternative policy recommendations. The first is a “do-nothing” approach, coupled with a downward adjustment of the ECB’s inflation target in line with actual inflation. Such a course of action is justified if policymakers assume that potential output growth in the eurozone has declined independently of past fiscal and monetary stabilization policies. The second option, as under the first two hypotheses, is to maintain an accommodative monetary policy, possibly in coordination with fiscal policy. This would be the right thing to do if policymakers believed that persistent slack in the real economy would end up affecting potential output.

Most analyses imply that ECB policy has in general been too cautious during the last decade. Moreover, even if one accepts the structural explanation for trend inflation and takes the view that inflation expectations have fallen independently of past policies, the “do-nothing” option is likely to cause expectations to spiral further downward, possibly leading to a deflationary trap. One then has to consider the costs linked both to the associated relative price adjustments and to the effect that the resulting upward pressure on the real interest rate would have on the burden of private and public debt. These costs are likely to be greater than those associated with the financial-stability risk of doing “too much,” which in any case can be addressed using prudential tools.

The ECB’s new strategy will have to be based on the kind of quantitative analysis needed to answer these questions. But it also must recognize that economists are still a long way from understanding the dynamics of low inflation. Given this uncertainty, the ECB should aim to adopt robust policies that cause the least damage under a broad range of scenarios.




EU Overcomes Nuclear Divide to Reach Key Green-Finance Deal

The European Union agreed on a landmark green-finance regulation, advancing the bloc’s push to embed environmental goals in standards for banks, money managers and insurers.

EU lawmakers approved an accord on the list of sustainable activities late Monday, following an agreement by the bloc’s member states earlier in the day. Policymakers had to overcome last-minute divisions over the kinds of technologies that should be eligible to be classified as green, with nuclear-energy proponents, including France, seeking revisions to an earlier version of the proposed rules.

“With this deal, we now have a common language and new rules for financial markets,” Pascal Canfin, a French member of the EU parliament, said in an email. The final compromise means both nuclear and gas “are neither included nor excluded in principle” from parts of the list, and — like all other activities — would feature only if they comply with the so-called “do no significant harm” principle, he said.

The EU’s definitions of sustainable activities for investment purposes, dubbed “taxonomy,” are the centerpiece of its plan to regulate the fast-growing market of green finance, in the hope of directing trillions of euros to fund a radical overhaul of the region’s economy. It’s meant to define what’s green and what’s not, an effort that could find a range of uses and serve as an example for governments around the world.

The back-and-forth over the rules shows what kind of obstacles the EU has to overcome to meet its ambitious climate targets. Leaders last week agreed that the bloc should achieve zero net emissions by 2050, paving the way for a flurry of legislation that’s needed for the unprecedented clean-up of the economy.

Green Investment

The agreement on the taxonomy is a vital step is it’s meant to help countries shoulder the cost of fighting global warming. “This is the much-needed enabler to get green investments to flow and help Europe reach climate neutrality by 2050,” Valdis Dombrovskis, the European Commissioner in charge of financial-services policy, said on Twitter.

Monday’s agreement on the green investment catalog is just the first step of the process, setting out the overall framework. The concrete list of activities will be drawn up based on recommendations by a panel of experts and adopted by the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm.

All financial products will need to make clear to which extent they comply with the new framework, though issuers can opt-out if they don’t pursue any environmental goals. The first set of definitions will be applied from the end of 2021, with the rest following a year later.

“We are delighted that there is progress in the approval of the EU taxonomy,” Nathan Fabian, chief responsible investment officer at Principles for Responsible Investment, said in an email. “Investors in Europe and around the world see the taxonomy as a major reform in investment practices and are keen to understand their obligations under the framework.”




Spain smooths way for LNG to boost biggest storage hub in Europe

Spain is undergoing the biggest overhaul of its liquefied natural gas system in an eff ort to boost its role as a key storage and trading hub for the fuel. With more LNG terminals than any other country in Europe, Spain is turning its domestic-focused network into one more accessible to global traders. Starting next year, the country plans to reform its storage limits and fees that have in the past deterred shippers from stockpiling and reloading LNG there. The timing couldn’t be better as new plants from the US to Russia add ever more LNG to a market in a market that’s already testing storage limits. That supply glut resulted in a record number of LNG cargoes sailing to Europe last month, a trend poised to continue through the rest of the year.

“The high costs of using Spanish infrastructure meant that Spain largely lost out to other European countries in the reload arbitrage to Asian markets in 2017-18,” said Leyra Fernández Díaz, a global gas analyst at Energy Aspects Ltd. “This will likely no longer be the case after the reforms.” Spain’s terminals have about the same combined storage capacity as its two closest rivals, Britain and France, put together, according to Gas Infrastructure Europe. Spain also boasts the oldest working terminal in Europe, with its Barcelona facility in operation since 1968. From October next year, LNG traders using Spain’s terminals won’t need so- called bundled deals that oblige them to deliver gas into the nation’s grid. They’ll also be able to tender for space over set periods, a common practice at other European hubs. “LNG storage capacity will be off ered as an unbundled service through regular auctions as standard products: yearly, quarterly, monthly, daily and intra- daily,” said Agustin Alonso of Spain’s National Commission of Markets and Competition.

“Users will have to pay the price resulting from the auction for the whole amount of the capacity booked, regardless of whether they use it or not.” It’s a departure from the present system, which is geared toward supplying Spain, the European Union’s sixth-biggest gas user. Daily fees are charged for storage and stiff penalties are imposed for those who exceed set thresholds including how long they hold supplies. Abolishing those penalties will cut about $0.56/mmbtu from the cost of storing a cargo for a month, according to Energy Aspects. That’s about 10% of the current benchmark rate for LNG in Asia, the biggest user of the fuel. That would be welcome news to LNG traders who this summer and autumn had little choice but to dump cargoes in Spain as a wave of incoming supplies filled Europe’s storage sites. While Spain did import LNG as utilities burned more gas, what traders often need is a place to keep fuel for re-exporting or for use in the future. A reduction in tariff s still needs to be approved by the CNMC. Capacity products will be available from October 1, and the first auction of the yearly products will take place in September. Spain may still have a way to go to rival the trading hubs of Britain’s National Balancing Point and the Title Transfer Facility in the Netherlands.

Both have extensive cross-border pipeline links and liquid trading markets that Spain lacks. “This initiative might increase trading in Spain a little bit but will it make any diff erence to European gas trading? I doubt it,” said Patrick Heather, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies. Even so, the reforms complement plans unveiled earlier this year to treat all of Spain’s LNG terminals as a single virtual hub. The aim is to boost trading between the ports and reduce congestion at a particular location. Current rules make traders trade within a specific terminal. “Storing at onshore LNG terminals in Spain is to become more competitive than floating storage,” Energy Aspects’ Fernandez Diaz said. “The creation of the virtual LNG hub will abolish costly penalties for storing LNG.”




The ECB needs a new mandate

BERLIN — The European Central Bank’s (ECB) decision in September to pursue more monetary-policy easing was controversial, with one board representative, from Germany, resigning over the move. But one of the most remarkable features of the ECB’s position has not gotten enough attention: the admission that inflation expectations have become de-anchored, and that without fiscal-policy support, the central bank will probably fail to fulfill its price-stability mandate for the foreseeable future.

In fact, many observers, and even several members of the ECB’s governing council, now argue that the bank needs to adapt its mandate with a new definition of price stability in mind. They are right, but there is one crucial caveat.

Since central-bank independence was strengthened in the 1990s, it has become clear that, in normal times, the specific mandate does not matter much. The United States Federal Reserve managed to guide expectations and achieve price stability with its dual mandate, price stability and maximum employment, just as well as the Bank of England or the ECB, with their narrower price-stability mandates.

After the global financial crisis, however, the traditional mandate proved inadequate to cope with large-scale financial instability, fickle market confidence and political paralysis. Developed-country central banks had to devise policies on the fly, without a guiding framework. Each in its own way pursued unprecedented monetary easing, massively expanding its balance sheet, in order to provide much-needed support to the economy.

In many ways, these measures succeeded: Monetary expansion played a major role in pulling the economy back from the brink. But, over time, central banks’ capacity to affect the real economy declined. Today, and for the foreseeable future, domestic inflation is increasingly affected by global, rather than local, developments, and financial (in)stability and fiscal policy are far more influential than monetary policy.

For the ECB, this generates a particularly serious challenge. After all, unlike other central banks, it must account for the preferences of 19 sovereign national governments, with little to no structural or fiscal-policy coordination. The eurozone is also highly fragmented financially, lacking a common capital market, a unifying safe asset or macroeconomic stabilisation tools.

The ECB needs a more realistic and flexible mandate. Given the eurozone’s fragmented nature, that mandate should probably still be centered on price stability. But it should also recognise that the current definition of price stability, “below, but close to, 2 per cent inflation over the medium term”, is too narrow.

A broader definition is needed, according to which the ECB pursues a symmetric inflation target of 2 per cent, within a 1.5-2.5 per cent band, over a longer time horizon. Some advocate an even higher target: For example, Olivier Blanchard, a former International Monetary Fund chief economist, has proposed re-anchoring expectations at 4 per cent. A different proposal, from New York Federal Reserve President John Williams, is to target a price level, rather than an inflation rate.

A commitment to more broadly defined price stability in the long term would give the ECB more space during times of crisis, thereby enabling it to account better for risks to financial stability and the real economy. This would help it to stabilise prices more quickly, bolstering its credibility.

By contrast, when the ECB consistently fails to meet its price-stability objective, as it has for the last five years, it loses credibility. And, indeed, the ECB has faced harsh criticism, sometimes warranted, often not, over its implementation of untested expansionary monetary policies since 2008, partly because the measures were often poorly understood by the public. The loss of credibility has undermined the ECB’s capacity to fulfill its objectives, creating a vicious circle that threatens its de facto independence.

This is why the timing of any mandate change must be chosen very carefully. If the ECB tries to move the goalpost while it is missing the shot, the short-term blow to its already diminished credibility could be serious. Given this, the ECB must work to strengthen its standing before it adjusts its mandate, including by attempting to reach the existing price-stability objective after years of failure.

At the same time, the ECB must communicate better what its capabilities are. Some have urged the ECB to try addressing the solvency problems of banks or governments during the crisis. Others would like the ECB to discipline governments to do the “right” thing and consolidate spending. A central bank must do neither and would utterly fail if it tried. But these attempts have hurt the ECB’s standing, particularly in Germany, and have diminished its credibility.

Clarifying the contents of the ECB’s policy toolbox, including sovereign-bond purchases and other non-standard measures, would go a long way toward protecting the ECB from such attacks in the future. And when the time comes to shift its objectives, the ECB must communicate the change, which, to be sure, may not need to be as big as many believe, clearly and thoroughly.

US President John F. Kennedy was right: the time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining. The ECB cannot revise its mandate until the current storm has passed. But, with water pouring in, it cannot afford to wait very long. The sooner the ECB does what is needed to restore its credibility, the sooner it can do what is needed to protect itself from future storms.

Marcel Fratzscher, a former senior manager at the European Central Bank, is president of the think tank DIW Berlin and professor of macroeconomics and finance at Humboldt University of Berlin. ©Project Syndicate, 2019 . www.project-syndicate.org




Essar Steel case: SC clears way for ArcelorMittal to complete $5.8 bn deal

ArcelorMittal won approval from India’s top court to complete its $5.8 billion purchase of a bankrupt steel mill, clearing the way for tycoon Lakshmi Mittal to enter the world’s second-biggest market.
The Supreme Court allowed Arcelor to make the payment for Essar Steel India Ltd. and set aside a bankruptcy appellate tribunal’s order that had given secured and unsecured creditors equal right over the sale proceeds. The lenders’ panel of a bankrupt company has discretion in the distribution of funds in insolvencies, a three-judge bench headed by Justice Rohinton F Nariman said Friday.
The acquisition of Essar Steel India Ltd will make Arcelor the fourth-biggest producer in a nation where the government is investing trillions of rupees in infrastructure. The verdict is likely to be the final approval in a more than yearlong battle by Arcelor to take over Essar. While companies can seek a review of decision by the same bench of judges, the success of review petitions is rare.
The world’s largest steelmaker, ArcelorMittal and its partner Nippon Steel Corp had offered to pay Rs 420 billion ($5.8 billion) in cash to creditors and pump another Rs 80 billion in the mill last year. While that offer was approved by a bankruptcy tribunal in March under the insolvency process, the payment was kept on hold by the Supreme Court after a dispute arose between lenders on the distribution of funds.
The ruling will set a precedent for other insolvencies that are awaiting resolution over the distribution of funds between different class of creditors.
India’s rupee, and creditors to Essar extended gains after the ruling. The rupee rose 0.3% at 11:06 am, while State Bank of India added 4.2% and Canara Bank surged as much as 7%.
The Supreme Court on Friday also said the timeline for insolvencies can be extended in exceptional cases.



US, China ‘close to finalising’ parts of trade pact Phase 1

US and Chinese trade officials are “close to finalising” some parts of an agreement after high-level telephone discussions yesterday, the US Trade Representative’s office said, adding that deputy-level talks would proceed “continuously.”
In a statement issued after the call, the USTR provided no details on the areas of progress.
“They made headway on specific issues and the two sides are close to finalising some sections of the agreement.
Discussions will go on continuously at the deputy level, and the principals will have another call in the near future,” it said.
The call came as Washington and Beijing are working to agree on the text for a “Phase 1” trade agreement announced by US President Donald Trump on October 11.
Trump has said he hopes to sign the deal with China’s President Xi Jinping next month at a summit in Chile.
Beijing was expected to request cancellation of some planned and existing US tariffs on Chinese imports during the phone call, people briefed on the negotiations told Reuters.
In return, China was expected to pledge to step up its purchases of US agricultural products.
The world’s two largest economies are trying to calm a nearly 16-month trade war that is roiling financial markets, disrupting supply chains and slowing global economic growth.
“They want to make a deal very badly,” Trump told reporters at the White House.”They’re going to be buying much more farm products than anybody thought possible.”
So far, Trump has agreed only to cancel an October 15 increase in tariffs on $250bn in Chinese goods as part of understandings reached on agricultural purchases, increased access to China’s financial services markets, improved protections for intellectual property rights and a currency pact.
But to seal the deal, Beijing is expected to ask Washington to drop its plan to impose tariffs on $156bn worth of Chinese goods, including cell phones, laptop computers and toys, on December 15, two US-based sources told Reuters.
Beijing also is likely to seek removal of 15% tariffs imposed on September 1 on about $125bn of Chinese goods, one of the sources said.
Trump imposed the tariffs in August after a failed round of talks, effectively setting up punitive duties on nearly all of the $550bn in US imports from China.
“The Chinese want to get back to tariffs on just the original $250bn in goods,” the source said.
Derek Scissors, a resident scholar and China expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said the original goal of the early October talks was to finalise a text on intellectual property, agriculture and market access to pave the way for a postponement of the December 15 tariffs.
“It’s odd that (the president) was so upbeat with (Chinese Vice-Premier) Liu He and yet we still don’t have the December 15 tariffs taken off the table,” Scissors said.
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin last week said no decisions were made about the December 15 tariffs, but added: “We’ll address that as we continue to have conversations.”
If a text can be sealed, Beijing in return would exempt some US agricultural products from tariffs, including soybeans, wheat and corn, a China-based source told Reuters.
Buyers would be exempt from extra tariffs for future buying and get returns for tariffs they already paid in previous purchases of the products on the list.
But the ultimate amounts of China’s purchases are uncertain.
Trump has touted purchases of $40bn to $50bn annually — far above China’s 2017 purchases of $19.5bn as measured by the American Farm Bureau.
One of the sources briefed on the talks said China’s offer would start at around $20bn in annual purchases, largely restoring the pre-trade-war status quo, but this could rise over time.
Purchases also would depend on market conditions and pricing.
US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer has emphasised China’s agreement to remove some restrictions on US genetically modified crops and other food safety barriers, which the sources said is significant because it could pave the way for much higher US farm exports to China.
The high-level call came a day after US Vice President Mike Pence railed against China’s trade practices and what he termed construction of a “surveillance state” in a major policy speech.
But Pence left the door open to a trade deal with China, saying Trump wanted a “constructive” relationship with Beijing.
While the US tariffs on Chinese goods has brought China to the negotiating table to address US grievances over its trade practices and intellectual property practices, they have so far failed to lead to significant change in China’s state-led economic model.
The “Phase 1” deal will ease tensions and provide some market stability, but is expected to do little to deal with core US complaints about Chinese theft and forced transfer of American intellectual property and technology.
The intellectual property rights chapter in the agreement largely deals with copyright and trademark issues and pledges to curb technology transfers that Beijing has already put into a new investment law, people familiar with the discussions said.
More difficult issues, including data restrictions, China’s cybersecurity regulations and industrial subsidies will be left for later phases of talks.
But some China trade experts said that a completion of a Phase 1 deal could leave little incentive for China to negotiate further, especially with a US election in 2020.
“US-China talks change very quickly from hot to cold but, the longer it takes to nail down the easy phase 1, the harder it is to imagine a phase 2 breakthrough,” said Scissors. Pages 2, 3 & 12