Please Note: Blog posts are not selected, edited or screened by Seeking Alpha editors.

Angola, China, and the future of sovereign debt

The economic and political ties between Iran and China are often brought up in the context of geopolitical negotiations, with China’s oil purchases leading the headlines. That’s understandable, given Iran’s importance in the Middle East. Overlooked, however, is another country that is even more important to China’s oil supplies – Angola.

Angola sent 235 million barrels of oil to China last year, or about 640,000 barrels per day. That’s 66 million barrels more than Iran, and only a bit less than the largest supplier, Saudi Arabia. In fact, Angola eclipsed Saudi Arabia as China’s top supplier last month, although that may change as the year goes on. According to Royal Dutch Shell, Angola will produce double the amount that Nigeria does within 10 years – though that prediction hinges as much on Nigerian instability as it does on Angolan development.

Angola emerged from a bloody war of liberation against Portugal and a prolonged struggle between Marxist and anti-Communist factions. Its diamond mines and oil reserves promised both future prosperity and foreign interest or even meddling in its affairs. Though it’s been the fastest-growing economy in Africa with double digit growth from 2006-2008, it’s also plagued by rampant corruption, separatist guerrillas, and millions of landmines. Formerly an agrarian economy and exporter of agricultural products, the countryside was so thoroughly devastated by war that it now imports 90% of its food.

As it exports more oil and discovers more fields, Angola will grow in importance on the global stage. It’s also an important front in the Chinese effort to secure African assets and allies, as China’s largest trade partner on the continent. Estimates of Chinese loans to Angola vary wildly, from $2 billion (the official figure) to as much as $9 billion with confidential, behind-the-scenes loans.

Angola illustrates the complex interplay of sovereign debt, resource extraction, and competing national and extra-national interests in the new global marketplace. Angola has about $19bn in public debt, and recently made amends with the IMF after walking away from the fund in 2007. Its rising oil revenues and strong Chinese financing gave it flexibility in negotiating the terms of its obligations that other African nations do not have.

However, Angola isn’t placing all its chips on China. It is seeking to raise as much as $4bn by issuing debt, its first international debt sale. In order to do so, it must get a credit rating from the big agencies like Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch. Obviously, either Chinese lending is insufficient to cover Angola’s needs, or it wants to keep its options and obligations diversified throughout the globe.

Investor sentiment is ambiguous, with analysts predicting that nervousness over sovereign debt will mean that Angola only gets about a quarter of the funding it’s looking for. Nevertheless, there does appear to be demand for sovereign bonds from Africa, according to PIMCO, the world’s largest bond fund.

This might make Angola’s auction an opportunity for emerging market debt investors, though – Angola may be forced to offer more attractive yields to buyers made shy by default scares in Dubai and Greece.  Yields will certainly have to be high given Angola’s history of default, as well as the intractable issue of corruption.

In Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index for 2009, Angola ranked 162 out of 180, tied with Venezuela and the Congo, among others. In this climate, Chinese firms – which aren’t saddled with inconvenient Western laws about bribery and graft in foreign nations – have a distinct advantage.

On the political front, President Jose Eduardo dos Santos has ruled the country since 1979, and appears to basically be President-for-life. Presidency-for-life hasn’t worked particularly well in oil-rich Venezuela. Furthermore, separatists continue to struggle for the independence of the exclave of Cabinda, a small region separated by a sliver of Congolese territory which produces more than half of Angola’s oil. The rebels hit headlines this January in a recent attack that left several members of the visiting Togolese soccer team dead. A violent flare-up in the region could cripple Angolan exports, with most of the offshore reserves located in this volatile region.

The violence in Cabinda is eclipsed by the chaos in Nigeria’s Delta State, where government troops, oil companies, and their workers are in a state of constant tension and sometimes all-out warfare with rebel groups and separatists. Compared to this conflict, Angola’s is relatively subdued.

Many questions still remain regarding Angola’s ability to service its debt, given its past and corruption. It was in default for years, a fact that bond buyers with short memories are likely to ignore. Having invested in Angolan debt before, I know how important willingness to pay is; different countries have different national characters, and they do not just change overnight.

Some of  the incentives to invest in Angola are there,– a reasonable debt-to-GDP ratio of 16.8%, large oil fields with a high rate of new discoveries, and economic ties to the world’s two biggest economies. The question is whether these facts will be enough to sway investors nervous about the future of sovereign bonds in general and Angolan creditworthiness in particular. In the end, the appeal of an Angolan bond offering will depend on a number of key factors – the credit rating they receive from the major agencies, the state of the global sovereign bond market when the government goes to auction, and the geopolitical stability of the nation and its neighbors.



Disclosure: no positions