Warnings of financial risks may be sounding on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but global banks are still seeing a promising opportunity.
In an interview with CNBC, Marc Merlino, Citi’s global head for its global subsidiaries group, said there are opportunities for not just banks, but institutional and corporate investors.
The initiative aims to connect Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Africa with a vast logistics and transport network, using roads, ports, railway tracks, pipelines, airports, transnational electric grids and even fiber optic lines. It’s widely seen as an attempt by China to construct a massive, multi-national zone of economic and political influence that has Beijing at its core.
For investors, there are “multiple levels” of potential opportunities, Merlino said, highlighting infrastructure and activities surrounding major projects under the plan.
“It’s the opportunities for micro infrastructure beyond the core projects. All the knock-on effects … if building a railroad, there’s going to be a lot of goods and services moving. You need warehouses, you need distribution capabilities. That’s where private investors are getting more involved.”
“I think the risk associated with construction of large projects is well understood in the banking sector.”
-Marc Merlino, Citi’s global head for its global subsidiaries group
According to a recent report published by Nomura, new projects will create demand for goods and infrastructure. That economic boost will benefit both lenders and brokers, it said.
In fact, Citi is seeing increased corporate and institutional investment in the Belt and Road (BRI) , which Merlino said will be bigger than the numbers published by the Chinese government.
The Nomura report, quoting numbers from China’s Ministry of Commerce, said Chinese enterprises invested $14.4 billion in Belt and Road (BRI) -related projects in 2017 — accounting for 12 percent of China’s total outbound foreign direct investment. More than 7,200 new contracts on initiative-related projects were signed for a total value of $144.3 billion.
Banks have a role in the initial construction phase and long-term debt financing, but Citi has also been putting in “a lot of resources” into supporting multinational companies involved in the initiative, he said.
That’s despite the risks that have been associated with the mammoth initiative. A study in March found that debt risks in eight countries have been elevated because of their participation. In fact, 23 of the 68 countries identified as potential borrowers were found to be at a “quite high” risk of debt distress, the study found.
The Nomura report, too, flagged the risks.
“Infrastructure projects may face long payback periods, uncertain returns and potential default risk due to regulatory or political risk in the recipient economy, increasing financial risks for the investing (Chinese or other) entity,” it said.
But Merlino said that, despite such warnings, the banking industry is “well positioned” for that higher risk.
“I think the risk associated with construction of large projects is well understood in the banking sector. Generally, that tends to be a slightly higher risk than corporate kind of risks because you have completion risks, geopolitical risks. But I think the banking industry understands that and is well positioned to deal with that,” he said.
Plus, there will be investors who can fill in any gaps, he indicated.
“The good news is that there are quite a bit of institutional investors with appetite, whether it’s insurance companies, sovereign wealth funds, for long-term debt. The best solution would be risk distribution into the appropriate hands … to ensuring there’s a match between investor risk appetite and actual underlying risk of the projects,” he said.
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