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Angola: Oil and Debt. Renewed opportunities

Abstract:

Although Angola is suffering several economic shocks due to Covid-19 and the drop in oil prices, in addition to the nominal increase in public external debt, the truth is that the situation does not present the seriousness indicated in some studies.

Oil: The country is well prepared to benefit from the recovery that is already taking place in the oil price, and which is likely to accelerate with the global unlockdown.

Debt: The debt problem results essentially from the depreciation of the currency and its solution lies in a political negotiation with China, which holds about half of the external public debt.

Diversification: The present difficulties are a real incentive, and not merely rhetorical, for the beginning of the diversification of the economy, made possible by the liberalization measures of the economy.


In recent times, a lot has been written about the Angolan oil crisis, presenting catastrophic forecasts for the country’s economy and the evolution of oil exploration. To the pressure of oil, it has been added strain on public debt, all in the Covid-19 packaging.

The situation being serious, it is not desperate, and several data must be considered analytically with sufficient distance.

The public debt

The issue of public debt, which we have already addressed in a previous report with regard to China (https://www.cedesa.pt/2020/05/05/porque-a-china-deve-reduza-a-divida-de -angola /), does not have the danger that is attributed considering only a formal analysis of the numbers.

If we look at the most recent data from the BNA[1], Angola’s big creditors are China, Great Britain and International Organizations.

The sum of these creditors equals approximately US $ 39.4 million and is equivalent to almost 80% of the external public debt.

Figure No. 1-Stock of Angola’s public external debt by countries. Source: BNA (bna.ao)

Obviously, the debt to China is eminently political and cannot be seen as an ordinary debt. It should be noted that the Angolan Foreign Minister is already in talks with his Chinese counterpart on the subject[2]. Therefore, there is an effective development in this area.

In some ways, the same is true for International Organizations. It is public that International Organizations, led by the International Monetary Fund, are proposing several relief measures regarding the debt burden of the most fragile economies and emerging markets[3].

However, there is still Britain’s debt. Part of this debt comes from companies based in London, but with privileged relations with Angola and which have a long-term perspective, as is the case with Gemcorp[4], so here too we will have to handle with some caution the overly general statements about the severity of the weight of the Angolan debt.

Furthermore, the International Monetary Fund itself recognized in December 2019 that about four-fifths of the nominal increase in Angolan debt was due to the depreciation of the kwanza and not to new liabilities[5]. Hence, any analysis of the Angolan public external debt that does not disaggregate its elements is wrong.

Clearly the external public debt is concentrated in a few creditors that have several considerations to take apart from those strictly financial, and depends a lot on the attitude of China.

In short, unless an additional extraordinary event occurs, the issue of Angolan foreign public debt is not as serious as it might appear to be a mere nominal observation, and should not become an obstacle to development. The key is in talks with China on the topic. And obviously, China will not want to appear as a negative agent in Angola.

Oil

The same analytical exaggeration has occurred with regard to oil and Angola. Obviously, Angola has an excessive dependence on oil, and that, at this moment, the price of crude is subject to two negative pressures: the fall in demand due to Covid-19 and an apparent secular tendency to decrease oil consumption, replacing it by alternative sources.

Two of the most renowned analysts of these issues in relation to Angola, Agostinho Pereira de Miranda and Jaime Nogueira Pinto[6], have, however, devalued the excess of anguish in relation to this issue in what concerns Angola. We tend to subscribe to this position.

The shock of oil in the Angolan economy has persisted since 2014 (see fig. No. 2) and is a problem for which the government since 2018, has taken several measures that focus on two strategies: i) modernization and opening of the oil sector and ii) promoting the diversification of the economy.

Regarding the first element, it is worth mentioning, among others, the creation of a regulatory agency different from Sonangol, allowing this company to focus on its core business, the privatization of Sonangol’s secondary subsidiaries and the signing of agreements with several foreign companies to increase investment. In fact, the big companies, including Total, Exxon, Chevron, BP, ENI, planned to operate more drilling vessels in Angola than anywhere in the continent to explore new discoveries. In relation to diversification, there has been more rhetoric than practice, but the need, as we will see below, will force it to be put into practice, provided that the government effectively liberalizes the economy.

Meanwhile, Covid-19 made oil prices dip and foreign companies stopped their activity in Angola[7]. However, despite the immediate bad news, the situation will tend to stabilize at a higher level. Moody´s at the end of May announced that it foresaw a future generic level between USD 45-65. It is not a question of relying on the accuracy of these figures, but only of noting that there will be an upward trend.

Consider the price of Brent. At the moment, it stands at USD 36.6 (May 22nd, 2020[8]). Therefore, it has already risen from the minimum number reached on April 21, 2020, USD 19.33. The value of USD 36, 6 is already above several levels reached after the abrupt fall in 2014. For instance, in the beginning of 2016, the value ranged between USD 29 to 32. This means that the price of oil seems to enter, at the present moment, again in some normality, besides that since 2014, the country is already used to dealing with a great oscillation in the markets.

Figure No. 2- Brent USD Peak / Barrel Price Peaks and Lows (Nasdaq and Oilprice.com source)

Figure no. 3 – Price evolution of Brent 2020 (Sources in fig. No. 2)

It also should be pointed out that a good part of Angolan contracting is reversed in long-term contracts, so price fluctuations do not necessarily affect public treasury immediately.

In addition, very soon, there will be a time when economies close when the demand for oil has decreased substantially, to a relaunch of economies. Whether this recovery in V, U, W or another letter, the truth is that it will imply an increase in the demand for oil, which will probably increase the price of oil as long as the “wars” between Russia or Saudi Arabia do not restart. or other similar events.

In addition, the low value of oil will be an incentive for its use in an economic recovery phase in which concerns about clean but more expensive energies will, in the short term, be replaced by the need to put companies to work and people with a job.

Even if concerns about the climate emergency persists in Europe, it is difficult to see that the major engines of the world economy, such as the United States, China and India, do not prefer a cheap source of energy that quickly gets plants up and running.

Angola has already started to anticipate and still in the week of 25-29 May, the National Agency of Petroleum, Gas and Biofuels (NAPGB) made available, a data package for oil exploration of the terrestrial basins of the lower Congo and Kwanza, for nationals and internationals companies. These are the blocks CON1, CON5, CON6, KON5, KON6, KON8, KON9, KON17 and KON20, whose official announcement, for the start of new bids, will be made in the coming days.

In a nutshell, the organizational reforms, of rationalization and increase of the oil market underway in Angola, combined with the gradual recovery of oil prices, in the context of the relaunch of the world economy in the post-Covid-19 period, allow us to believe that the oil sector in Angola has good conditions for recovery, and remove the most pessimistic scenarios.

Opportunity for diversification

A final note on the diversification policy that has been proclaimed constantly by Angolan leaders, but without success.

There are now two clear incentives to make it a reality. On the one hand, oil is no longer the reliable source of revenue that the state can rely on, on the other, there are measures to liberalize the economy and break the previous oligopolies. Still shy, but there are.

These two facts should make entrepreneurs feel more free and obliged to look for new areas of investment. These areas should not be civil construction, but others linked to natural resources, such as natural gas; agribusiness (Angola’s soils are some of the most fertile in Africa and its climate is manifestly conducive to agriculture. In the past, Angola was almost self-sufficient in agricultural terms, with wheat being the only exception); the forest economy (forests cover almost 18.4% of the country’s total area and form one of the country’s most critical natural resources), high-quality minerals (iron ore, manganese and tin) and solar energy, among others.

In this crisis, Angola’s great challenge is to seize the opportunity to transform itself, benefiting from its diversified wealth.


[1] BNA, External Debt by countries (stock): 2012-2019. Available online at: https://www.bna.ao/Conteudos/Artigos/lista_artigos_medias.aspx?idc=15419&idsc=16458&idl=1

[2] http://www.novojornal.co.ao/politica/interior/mirex-telefona-a-homologo-chines-com-foco-na-divida-e-em-investimentos-em-angola-87980.html

[3] https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2020/05/28/sp052820-opening-remarks-at-un-event-on-financing-for-development-in-the-era-of-covid-19 

[4] Deeply involved in the construction of the new refinery in Cabinda, for example: https://www.africaoilandpower.com/2020/01/21/sonangol-gemcorp-sign-cabinda-partnership-deal/

[5] https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/CR/Issues/2019/12/18/Angola-Second-Review-of-the-Extended-Arrangement-Under-the-Extended-Fund-Facility-Requests-48887

[6] Cfr. Agostinho Pereira de Miranda, Setor petrolífero angolano está bem preparado para sair da crise – advogado. Available online:https://www.angonoticias.com/Artigos/item/64817/setor-petrolifero-angolano-esta-bem-preparado-para-sair-da-crise-advogado and Jaime Nogueira Pinto, Considerações sobre a crise petrolífera. Available online:  https://observador.pt/opiniao/consideracoes-sobre-a-crise-petrolifera/

[7] Noah Browning et al. Angola’s oil exploration evaporates as COVID-19 overshadows historic reforms. Available online:  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-global-oil-angola-insight-idUSKBN22W0OZ

[8] NASDAQ-Brent Crude (BZ: NMX). Available online at https://www.nasdaq.com/market-activity/commodities/bz%3anmx. See also https://oilprice.com/oil-price-charts/46. Note that these elements are merely informative of trends and do not necessarily reflect the exact price of Angolan oil transactions. However, they give an approximation to possible developments and perspectives.

Why China should reduce Angola’s debt

Angola’s public debt at the present

In its December 2019 report on Angola, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stated that: “Angola’s public debt is sustainable, but the risks have increased and the vulnerabilities remain. [1]”While forecasting a peak of 111% public debt/ GDP by the end of 2019, the IMF’s view was optimistic for several reasons, namely the mobilization of new non-oil revenues in the 2020-2021 budgets, the rapid implementation of structural reforms and the continuation of the privatization program.[2]

The percentage increase in public debt/ GDP forecasting was due to three factors: the depreciation of the kwanza in the fourth quarter of 2019 (about four fifths of the increase), the fall in prices and oil production, and the slow economic recovery. Therefore, the first point to be emphasized is the fact that 80% of the increase in the percentage of public debt/GDP derives from the depreciation of the kwanza.

Consequently, a policy favoured by the IMF (currency depreciation) would negatively influence another aspect considered important by the same organization (public debt / GDP ratio). This means that it was not too important to look at this relationship to calculate the possible fragility of the Angolan public debt, as it essentially reflected nominal and not real fluctuations. In December 2019, Angolan public debt was sustainable.

However, after four months, the state of affairs has become more difficult. Now, the real aspects of the economy may hinder debt service. However, Angola is not in that situation yet, and proper action can avoid any problem. The Covid-19 economic shock has consequences for Angola, adding  pressure on the two material elements that are important for the sustainability of debt payments: the price of oil and the economic recovery. As we already know, oil has seen its price drop sharply, and the prospects for the recovery of the Angolan economy are weak.

Consequently, in April 2020, the same IMF predicted a 1.4% recession for the Angolan economy and a debt value equal to 132% /GDP. The IMF’s forecast is just that, and it does not yet correspond, in terms of public debt, to any new reality. In fact, 2019 closed with a public debt of 109.8%/ GDP and not 111%, slightly better than expected.[3]

It should also be noted that the share corresponding to the external public debt will be 85.4% of GDP, which is what we are interested in analyzing.

The several elements considered so far, leads us to two conclusions: the first: the Angolan public debt was evolving in a sustainable manner, and the nominal degradation of the country’s public debt as a percentage of GDP reflected, above all, the nominal depreciation of the currency and not some absurd lack of control that would have occurred in recent times ath the  public finances. Between 2017 and 2019, in an epoch  of recession, the stock of external debt increased only 14%, whereas it was previously, between 2012 and 2016, that it increased 100%. This means, politically, that the government of José Eduardo dos Santos doubled the external public debt in four years, while João Lourenço has tried to stop this exponential increase. [4]A detailed analysis of the figure below shows the great boost in the Angolan external debt ocurred between 2012 and 2016. There was an attempt to stabilize in 2017 and only a modest increase in 2018 and 2019.

Figure 1 – Angolan external public debt stock (2012-2019) [amounts in millions of dollars; BNA source]

However, and this is the second conclusion, if in the past there was confidence in Angola’s capacity to pay the debt, and its control by the current government, the truth is that the Covid-19 global crisis has launched a cloud of uncertainty over the public debts in global terms, obviously affecting perception in relation to Angola. Naturally, this post-Covid-19 perception requires governments to anticipate and take steps to avoid future problems.

 It is in this context that the possible adjustment of the Angolan external debt to the current reality brought by Covid-19 deserves attention, as well as the need to lighten its weight to guarantee the sustainability of the economic recovery.

The importance of debt to China

The current global situation brought about by Covid-19 implied the need that Angola has to ensure that its public debt is sustainable and do not to disturb the economic kick-start that is urgently necessary to mobilize.

Regarding the essential features of the Angolan public debt, the Cartesian method must be followed. This means that one should not look at the debt as a whole, but divide it into sections, addressing each one independently. It is wrong from a methodological point of view to perceive the Angolan external public debt as a whole due to the huge weight that China has in it.

Total Angolan public external debt (stock) was worth US $ 49,461 million at the end of 2019, according to data from the National Bank of Angola. [5]It turns out that $ 22.424 million is owed to China. [6]This means that China accounted for almost half of Angola’s external responsibilities, more precisely, 45.3%.

Figure 2-Weight of the Angolan external debt to China (in percentage; source: BNA)

It seems clear that the Angolan debt to China represents an enormous magnitude and obviously has the most important weight in Luanda’s public finances.

Given the historical features of Angola’s relationship with China, as well as its global positioning, especially with regard to the relationship with Africa, this is the time to propose a thorough negotiation of the Angolan debt to China, promoting its reduction and time-based rescheduling.

In simple terms, the negotiation of the Angolan public debt to China should lower the debt amount and increase the payment times.

It is easy to see that debt to China may become the main obstacle to Angola’s development.

Nevertheless, China in Angola  must be a factor of development and not of economic recession. At the outset, it should be noted that since 2017, the year when João Lourenço took office, the date on which the debt peaked, Angola has been lowering the stock value (see Fig. No. 3 below) thus demonstrating its capacity and good faith towards China.

There are three very strong reasons for carrying out China to renegotiate its debt with a view to reducing and prolonging it over time.

1-China’s global positioning, especially in Africa.

China is currently one of the great world powers, intending to engage with the United States in terms of projected influence in the world.

In that sense, with a new power comes new responsibilities, as happened  in relation to the United States at the end of the Second World War (1939-1945), in which it took on is shoulders  the European economic reconstruction through the Marshall Plan and actively promoted the creation of which became the EEC (European Economic Community), today the European Union. It was the American commitment that made this reality possible and brought prosperity and peace to Europe.

China has been taking a similar position in relation to Africa, using a rhetoric of friendship and solidarity. President Xi Jinping’s words at the opening ceremony of the China-Africa Cooperation Forum (FOCAC) in 2018: “China seeks common interests and puts friendship first in the search for cooperation. China believes that the right way to boost China-Africa cooperation is for both sides to leverage their respective strength; it is up to China to complement Africa’s development through its own growth, and it is up to China and Africa to seek cooperation for mutual benefit and common development. In doing so, China follows the principle of giving more and receiving less, giving before receiving and giving without asking for a return ” [7](emphasis added).

What is certain is that the current situation caused by the Covid-19 disease presents itself as the ideal one for President Xi Jinping to turn his speech into reality and move on to concrete acts of friendship, giving more and receiving less, as well as giving without ask for return.

In this way, it will build positive China’s image in Africa as a great world power that bets on the effective development of a continent and will show, from the geostrategic point of view , that it is a real competitor  of the United States in the creation of a more prosperous and secure world.

It is at this moment that China’s place in the post-Covid-19 world will be seen.

2-Pragmatism

Deng Xiaoping is attributed with the slogan “It doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white, as long as it hunts mice”. It is precisely this pragmatism that has brought so much success to China that it will justify the remission of the Angolan debt.

Angola has always been presented as the model for investment in Africa. The scientific literature even refers to the “Angolan model” that served as a basis for China’s contemporary performance in Africa.

Thus, it will be worrying for China to see that its model fails and becomes a burden on the economy.

If we look at the numbers, during 2019 Angola spent almost 43% of public revenues to pay debt, where, as already mentioned, China occupies the largest share. Consequently, the continuation of this situation may prove to be justified by the allegations that the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, made during his recent tour of Africa, that the Chinese debt is  becaming an unbearable burden for the development of the continent. In fact, to conclude that this is ocurring in Angola, will turn the whole of China’s African policy into a disaster, since its initial model failed badly.

In addition to this political pragmatism, there is an obvious economic factor. The most recent evaluations show that Chinese companies in Angola recorded a loss of 350 to 500 million dollars due to the COVID-19 pandemic[8]. And these losses can be widened if Angola’s economic situation does not improve. Therefore, it is of Chinese interest to create the conditions for a relaunch for the Angolan economy, as such a relaunch will  benefit in a massive scale Chinese companies. It is called the win-win situation.

Consequently, it is therefore of Chinese practical interest to reduce Angolan debt to show the world that its model of intervention in Africa works and is not predatory, and also help the countless Chinese companies established in Angola.

3-Combat corruption and odious debt

There is a fundamental and ultimate reason to reduce the Angolan debt to China. There is no doubt that part of this debt is what is doctrinally called “odious debt”, ie, debt whose purposes were not the public interest and the common good, but the private appropriation of sovereignty by members of the highest organs of the State . [9]More bluntly, it is a debt that was used in acts of corruption or served to finance the private interests of Angolan leaders and possibly of Chinese officials.

One can never forget the role that Chinese citizen Sam Pa, today, apparently imprisoned in China, played in several businesses in Angola. Names like the CIF-China International Fund, the Queensway Group, or China Sonangol, are paradigms of activities considered illegal that are or have been under close investigation. It is a fact that Chinese money was involved in diverse acts of corruption.

In addition to this, there is another one with undefined contours and that deserves a more careful investigation by researching journalists. The analysis of the disaggregated statistical series provided by the National Bank of Angola on the evolution of Chinese debt shows that in the second quadrimester of 2016 (May to August) this debt went from US $ 10,531 million to US $ 21,228 million. Debt to China doubled in 2016.[10]

Figure 3- Evolution of Angola’s external public debt (stock) to China-2012/2019 (Millions of dollars. Source: BNA)

This movement was relatively recent and it is, still,  badly explained. In terms of timing, this event coincides with an announced trip by José Eduardo dos Santos to China to negotiate a loan in July 2015, which was subsequently followed by several events such as the fall from grace of the Vice President of the Republic, Manuel Vicente, and the Sam Pa’s arrest in October 2015. After this, Isabel dos Santos assumed the presidency of Sonangol in June 2016, coinciding with the launch of the Chinese debt in the BNA’s accounts. Apparently, it was from this new Chinese debt that the Government attributed to Sonangol 10 billion USD. At the time the company was starting to be chaired  by Isabel dos Santos. Apparently from those 10 billion USD, Sonangol paid loans in the total amount of five billion dollars. This allowed the Sonangol`s debt to be reduced from 9.8 billion to 4.8 billion USD. The remaining five billion USD will have been channeled to investments in and from Sonangol.

In view of the judicial controversy that currently involves Isabel dos Santos’s appointment as President of Sonangol and the apparent simultaneity of her appointment with the doubling of the Angolan debt to China that may have served to finance Sonangol, perhaps there should be a suspension of payment of this debt until it becomes clear whether there was any illegality or not, namely in what refers to the 5 billion that were apparently allocated to investments in and from Sonangol.

It should be noted that this is what Chinese law, enforced by Xi Jinping, imposes. The Chinese President and his administration are taking a long and hard fight against corruption in their country. Current Chinese law on corruption is found in the Penal Code of the People’s Republic of China approved in 1981, revised in 1997 and enhanced  in 2015. According to this rule, all activities involving corruption related to foreign rulers are a crime for which Chinese courts have jurisdiction. In effect, since May 1, 2011, it is a crime to pay illegally to foreign officials. The truth is that, currently, the Chinese Penal Code acts beyond its borders, so corrupt payments, the “odious debt”, already has to be considered by the Chinese authorities when making their assessments of situations.

This means that for political reasons as well as for reasons of domestic law, China is obliged and must analyze the debt that may have been incurred for corrupt purposes or for illegitimate benefit. Angola’s debt must be thoroughly reviewed in this perspective.

Figure  4- Reasons for China to reduce Angolan debt

Conclusions

The reasons explained strongly advise China to proceed with a substantial unilateral reduction of the Angolan debt. It is an imperative of its current position in the world, its pragmatism and sinic law.


[1] IMF- Angola, IMF Country Report No. 19/371, p. 54. Available in: https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/CR/Issues/2019/12/18/Angola-Second-Review-of-the-Extended-Arrangement-Under-the-Extended-Fund-Facility-Requests-48887

[2] Idem, p. 54.

[3] IMF- World Economic Outlook, April 2020: The Great Lockdown, p. 24. Available in  https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/WEO/Issues/2020/04/14/weo-april-2020 and also IMF-SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA.COVID-19: An Unprecedented Threat to Development, April 2020, p. 19. Available in https://www.imf.org/en/Publications/REO/SSA/Issues/2020/04/01/sreo0420

[4] BNA-National Bank of Angola, DÍVIDA EXTERNA PÚBLICA POR PAÍSES (STOCK): 2012 – 2019. Available in https://www.bna.ao/Conteudos/Artigos/lista_artigos_medias.aspx?idc=15419&idsc=16458&idl=1

[5] BNA-National Bank of Angola, idem.

[6] BNA-National Bank of Angola, idem.

[7] President Xi Jinping “Full text of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at opening ceremony of 2018 FOCAC Beijing Summit”, XinhuaNet, 3rd September 2018. Available in http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-09/03/c_137441987.htm

[8] Francisco Shen (interviewed by Natacha Roberto), “Empresas chinesas em Angola com perdas de 500 milhões de dólares”, Jornal de Angola, 28 th April 2020. Available in http://jornaldeangola.sapo.ao/economia/empresas-chinesas-em-angola-com-perdas-de-500-milhoes-de-dolares

[9] Robert Howse, The Concept of Odious Debt in Public International Law, UNCTAD, 2007.

[10] BNA-National Bank of Angola, External data by Country, Quarterly Data. Available in https://www.bna.ao/Conteudos/Artigos/lista_artigos_medias.aspx?idc=15420&idsc=16460&idl=1