Between the lines: new reports offer a peek into Chinese policy banks

Research teams at Chinese and international institutions collectively shed light on the practices and thinking of CDB and Exim Bank.

In the past few weeks, reports released by teams at UNDP, China Development Bank, the Boao Forum for Asia and NRDC-Tsinghua University open windows into the operation of China’s policy banks when it comes to overseas financing.

None of the reports, even those compiled by China Development Bank itself, are particularly revealing in their description of practices and policies of the state controlled banks, underscoring the general opaqueness of those financial institutions. Most of the information presented in the reports is based on already published materials (policy papers, case studies, news reports etc), and only the Tsinghua University team’s report involved interviews with policy bank executives, providing fresh, first hand information on the banks’ sustainability policies.

Nonetheless, in this desert of accessible information on Chinese state actors, the reports’ compilation of information on the banks’ operations provides some interesting additional insights into how the two policy banks attempt to align their investments with Belt and Road goals and the global sustainability agenda, if you read carefully between the lines. In particular, we get a sneak peek into their differing approaches to environmental and social standards, and how loans for risky but much needed development projects are made secure, at least from the banks’ perspective.

Policy Banks on the Belt and Road

There is already an existing literature on the roles played by China’s main policy banks, China Exim Bank and China Development Bank(CDB), in China’s overseas industrial build-up. It is still worth highlighting, however, the distinctive roles of the two banks, as described in the UNDP-CDB “Harmonizing Investment and Financing Standards towards Sustainable Development along the Belt and Road” report (hereafter as “UNDP-CDB report”). CDB, being the world’s largest national policy bank, offers mainly mid-to-long term non-concessional, commercial loans on the Belt and Road, while China Exim Bank provides mostly concessional loans and export seller’s/buyer’s credit based on market interest rates. According to the UNDP-CDB report, by the end of 2018, CDB had provided financing for over 600 Belt and Road projects with accumulated value of USD 190 billion (USD 105.9 billion still outstanding). The Exim Bank’s Belt and Road portfolio is larger in size, with outstanding loans over 1 trillion RMB (about USD 143 billion) spread across 1800 projects.

A key observation made by the UNDP-CDB report is that loans still occupy a dominant share of Belt and Road financing, as opposed to equity investment. This may be due to the fact that most Chinese financial participants of the Belt and Road Initiative are banks, whose mandate is to provide lending (especially for commercial banks). Nevertheless, the UNDP-CDB report notes that Chinese financing may have also tilted toward loans for their relatively low risk and ability to pool resources for supporting large projects, while equity investment involves longer term exposure to risks over the entire lifecycle of projects and higher transaction costs. But, as a previous blog post on this site has shown, this preference might be changing for some Chinese Belt and Road players as they become more attracted to the higher and sustained return of projects funded through equity investments.

Policy Banks on the Belt and Road
Source of information: UNDP-CDB report

BRI’s heavy infrastructure focus means that the banks’ Belt and Road portfolios tilt heavily towards energy, transportation and construction, with the energy sector the largest recipient of bank financing. The go-to data source for BRI researchers – even for established and connected Chinese research teams, such as at Tsinghua University – Boston University’s Global Economic Governance Initiative shows that coal makes up the majority of the two bank’s BRI financing between 2000 and 2017, followed by oil and gas financing.

Sustainability, Sustainability, Sustainability

One question that observers of the BRI often have is how come Chinese policy banks, despite a domestic emphasis on sustainable development, continues their funding of overseas projects with questionable sustainability, both environmentally and financially. Many analyses approach this question by looking at the banks’ “safeguard policies”, i.e. to what extent can mechanisms at the banks rule out financing “bad” projects. But an interesting insight from the NRDC-Tsinghua report “Research on Green Investment and Financing Standards for Policy Banks in the Belt and Road Initiative” (hereafter as “NRDC-Tsinghua report”) is that domestically, Chinese policy banks, particularly CDB, approach sustainability not so much from a safeguard point of view, but rather from an industrial policy point of view. China’s “green banking” policies are essentially an extension of the central government’s industrial policy. Its central components are sector-specific or client-specific credit guidelines. Through those sector-specific policies, CDB systematically channeled more than RMB 1.6 trillion (about USD 229 billion) into supporting China’s domestic green transformation agenda, which involves the set-up of low-carbon cities and smart cities, pollution control and environmental rehabilitation, renewable energy development and circular economy. In the process, CDB sets up a regular communication channel with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), a key maker of Chinese industrial policies, to screen and create a pool of bankable industrial energy saving projects.

Without the same level of industrial policy coordination and strategic guidance, Chinese policy banks have a much less clear green mandate when financing overseas, and have to resort to basic safeguards based on host country policies. According to the NRDC-Tsinghua report, this approach has clear limitations. The idea of deferring sustainability standards to host country regulations seems to have been deeply rooted in the thinking of bank executives. The NRDC-Tsinghua team’s interview indicates that those executives are fully aware of the “strictness of environmental and social safeguards developed by the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank”. But they also believe that strict standards “limit where banks can go in terms of their businesses”, as they require too much on the side of the recipients. These executives nevertheless conceded that when local standards “prove inadequate”, they are willing to bring in Chinese standards (if more robust) as a stopgap. The rationale for applying Chinese standards is to elevate their global acceptance for future technological exports.

The deference approach also applies to grievance mechanisms, where Chinese policy banks demonstrate a clear preference for complaints to be directed to recipient country authorities rather than themselves. Addressing the issue of deference, the UNDP-CDB report recommends governments and financial institutions to assess host country standards and identify countries lacking the ability to implement standards or those lacking standards altogether. Based on such assessment, capability enhancing efforts can be made in the form of technical support or modest grant financing. “Defer to the host country on standards that are already aligned with best-practice standards,” the report prescribes, “but work with the host country to boost implementation, compliance and monitoring capabilities.” This approach can “substitute practices received with limited enthusiasm”, a subtle criticism by report authors of the Bretton Wood institutions’ “conditionality” methods.

Both the NRDC-Tsinghua report and the UNDP-CDB report outline how environmental and social review is embedded in the policy banks’ internal procedurals, with slight differences, as shown in the table below. Before delving into the table, one should note that neither bank currently has dedicated offices or teams to handle environmental and social standards. The safeguard is therefore scattered ( or “embedded)” in bits and pieces across the banks’ due diligence and approval processes without any overarching overseers of how green their lending is. Interviews by the NRDC-Tsinghua team also shows that Chinese bank interviewees have little comprehension of the “Environmental and Social Covenant” approach commonly practiced by international development financial institutions, which would put clients’ environmental and social commitments into loan agreement to become legally binding.

Policy Bank ESS
Source of information: UNDP-CDB report and NRDC-Tsinghua report

The above table might give the impression that safeguards are available and working at the Chinese policy banks, as the banks themselves often argue. But as report writers pointed out, the reliance on recipient country standards mean that in regions with weak governance, such as Southeast Asia, poorly-designed projects might get greenlights. And the lack of a central policy, a dedicated staff and clear project-level standards for environmental and social issues means they are at the risk of being treated as secondary concerns at each of those steps wherein their consideration is supposedly “embedded”.

Green Loan

If the bank’s safeguards seem a bit underwhelming, the Boao Forum for Asia’s “Belt and Road Green Development Case Study” report (hereafter as “Boao report”) brings to the fore interesting details of a solar mill project that CDB financed in Zambia. At Panda Paw Dragon Claw we love graphs and flowcharts that illuminate the workings of Belt and Road actors. The Boao report did a nice job of drawing the below diagram of the parties involved in the CBD solar mill loan:

Zambia Model
Source of diagram: Boao Forum report

Based on the report authors’ description, Zambia’s hydro-powered mills for cornmeal, a staple food for the country, faced curtailed power supply due to a lack of rainfall in 2014, leading to rising food prices. President Edgar Lungu launched the Presidential Solar Milling Initiative to construct 2000 solar mills around the country to ease the pressure on cornmeal supply. The initiative, with a total estimated cost of USD 200 million, was financed through a CDB loan worth USD 170 million. The rest would be paid by Zambia itself.

Despite its green merits – the mills are solar powered and have a public livelihood objectives at its core – the loan also has clear CDB features. Based on the description of the report and news reports from Zambia, the loan appears to be non-concessional (interest rate is unknown), although CDB waived all other fees associated with the loan. It is sovereign guaranteed from Zambia’s Ministry of Finance. A Chinese EPC contractor gets the contract to build the solar mills. And Sinosure, China’s policy insurer, provides mid to long-term insurance for the loan.

Touted as green finance, the loan nonetheless shows both the advantages and limitations of CDB debt financing. Zambia is considered “high risk” in World Bank/IMF’s debt sustainability assessment, and would be advised to avoid or limit non-concessional borrowing. This may restrict the country’s ability to raise funds from international lenders, making CDB’s offering highly attractive. (In cases like this, multilateral development banks would only offer concessional loans with very low or zero interest. And market rate lending will be made to private companies without sovereign guarantee.) While the solar mills may be fulfilling a genuine development need and have a viable future revenue stream (local cooperatives would pay to use the mills), a non-concessional loan inevitably adds to the overall financial stress of a country whose 2018 debt stock stood at USD 10 billion. On the China side, CDB has thoroughly risk-proofed its loan (sovereign guaranteed and Sinosure insured) and the Chinese EPC contractor will reap the benefit of a major construction deal. But Zambia has to figure out how to make the project work in the next 15 years so that the loan can be serviced.

In Zambia, there are already signs of trouble: the President has openly expressed dismay that some of the solar mills have become “white elephants” and is urging provincial officials to take action. Vandalism and theft (of solar panels) also plague the project. “Government borrowed money which has to be paid back with interest,” says Zambia Daily Mail, “Zambia cannot afford to waste resources in that manner (referring to the non-working solar mills).”

If providing financing and construction help get projects like the solar mill initiative off the ground, there is still a distance from a true “win-win” if one side bears a disproportionate risk of project failure while the other side enjoys the safety of near-term benefits.  If the latest reports collectively highlight one thing, it is the disproportional burden Chinese financing is putting on the weak shoulders of its Belt and Road partners, be it environmental governance or debt sustainability. If BRI is to be genuinely “mutually beneficial”, fine tuning that risk-benefit equation would be a first step.

Author: TJMa

A blogger at large. My areas of interest include China's overseas footprint, environmental governance and online public opinion. Twitter: @TJMa_beijing

Leave a Reply