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Public debt puts the squeeze on government guarantees, stifling project finance projects in Vietnam

Vietnam’s economic success story is evident in the rapid development of its big cities. However, while the country’s growth has outpaced its neighbours, so has its debt; a factor that threatens to de-rail growth.  Not least of all because of the impact on the government’s ability to give guarantees to underpin privately-financed infrastructure.

 

Over recent decades, the government has spent significantly. Priority has been given to roads, export zones and other critical infrastructure. This is evident across the country, where highways, tunnels, factories, airports and metro systems are being expanded, or built from scratch, at an incredible pace.

 

The biggest macroeconomic challenge facing Vietnam today is sustaining that growth. The government needs to be more rigorous about how it spends money, leveraging it better to attract and benefit from private funds rather than prop up State-owned entities.  The looming spectre of public debt will need to be tackled before the country finds itself in a precarious position.

 

Vietnam’s total public debt as of mid-July 2017 reportedly stood at US$94.6 billion, or about US$1,038 per capita. In fuelling the country’s celebrated growth, public debt has increased consistently, from 36% of GDP in 2001 to about 62.4% in 2016. According to an IMF forecast, it will hit 63.3% and 64.3% in 2017 and 2018, respectively, while the self-imposed public debt ceiling is set by the government at 65% of GDP for 2020.

 

Vietnam’s public debt compares unfavourably with the rest of the region, with Thailand coming in at 41 percent of GDP and Malaysia at 56 percent, according to the World Bank.

 

The annual growth of public debt during 2011-15 was 18.4 per cent, triple the annual GDP growth rate, which averaged about 5.9 per cent over the period.

 

A squeeze on guarantees

 

In an effort to tackle the ballooning public debt, the Ministry of Finance (MoF) announced changes to regulations on Government guarantees earlier this year. The adjustment is one of the regulations stated in the Government’s Decree 04/2017/ND-CP (Decree 04), superseding Decree 15/2011/ND-CP (Decree 15), issued on February 16, 2011.

 

Taking effect from March 1, the maximum level of Government guarantees for a programme or project was reduced from the previous level of 80 percent. Decree 04 replaces this with a three-tiered cap on the amount of guaranteed debt as a percentage of the investment capital depending on the size or importance of the project, each lower than the cap established in Decree 15.  In all cases this is far lower than the golden days of Vietnam’s early privately financed infrastructure projects like the Phu My 3 and Phu My 2.2 power projects which both enjoyed near total guarantees.

 

The current highest level of guarantee, set at 70 percent, applies to projects that must be implemented on an urgent basis, and have been approved by the National Assembly or the Prime Minister. Secondly, for projects whose total investment is at least VND2.3 trillion (US$102 million) and have been approved by the Prime Minister, the maximum proportion guaranteed by the Government is 60 percent. A cap of 50 percent will be applied to other projects.

 

In continuing to restructure of the country’s public debt with more stringent monitoring of projects, the decree aims at tightening the provision of Government guarantees and enhancing the management of public debt.

 

However, at a time when Vietnam needs to develop much infrastructure, notably in the energy sector, and requires substantial foreign investment to do so, Decree 04 makes it more difficult for private investors to obtain MoF Guarantees for projects.

 

Ticking debt time bomb

 

Taking the energy sector as an example, questions remain over EVN’s economic health. Tariffs on electricity have long been maintained at below cost levels. The policy of low subsidised tariffs to maintain the competitiveness of domestic industry and keep consumers happy is putting pressure on the government and EVN’s balance sheet.

 

The average retail electricity tariff stood at just above US$0.08/KWh as of 2016, the lowest in Southeast Asia, and only just above EVN’s average generation cost of US$0.075/KWh (excluding transmission and distribution costs). This has depressed sector cash flow and contributed to EVN’s rising debt.

 

This has raised concerns among private sector investors over EVN’s ability to pay for electricity generated as the single buyer, while the current low retail tariffs mean that investors are not confident of negotiating adequate prices for generation projects.

 

With the situation likely to continue, EVN’s financial position will surely deteriorate, leaving it with unsustainable debt and unable to finance capital expenditure. This would force private sector investors to seek increased government guarantees. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, the government is looking to rein in such largesse. As Vietnam’s economy grows, the previously abundant soft loans and ODA are beginning to dry up, meaning that the sources of support for private finance are becoming harder to find.

 

In order to reduce risk, the developers of major infrastructure projects may need to seek out private insurance groups or institutions like the World Bank’s Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency (MIGA). However, these options obviously don’t come without their own costs. Investors, and ultimately end consumers, will have to take the hit.

 

Much of Vietnam’s current fiscal position can be blamed on poor management. The state-owned giants that have lost their repayment ability on Government-guaranteed loans are passing on the burden to the Government.

 

The sluggish privatisation of State-owned enterprises means that inefficiency will continue. The sooner this process is completed, the better for the economy as a whole. Measures like reducing government guarantees may be prudent, but if Vietnam wants to maintain its economic momentum serious action is needed to first untangle the mess of intra-State bad debt.

 

For more information about project finance matters please contact Giles at GTCooper@duanemorris.com or any of the lawyers in our office listing. Giles is co-General Director of Duane Morris Vietnam LLC and branch director of Duane Morris’ HCMC office.

Lawyer in Vietnam Oliver Massmann Solutions for Management of State Owned Enterprises

 

Comments to Vietnam Investment Review on a recent MPI draft decree supporting the establishment of a state-level management Committee to steer SOEs

Vietnam’s Ministry of Planning and Investment has announced a draft decree highlighting the need to establish a committee exclusively in charge of managing state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Currently SOEs are managed by different localities, ministries, and sectors.

It is expected that this Committee will manage up to 30 economic and corporations. It will also separate the state’s role of state management from the role as a trader and a producer.

  • Do you think that the establishment of this Committee is good for Vietnam’s economic now? Why?

I believe the establishment of a Committee exclusively in charge of managing SOEs, separating SOEs from their managing Ministries is a positive move of the Government.

The Ministries will not be put in a position when they have to adopt policies to regulate all enterprises within their managing authority and at the same time having to care about their interests in their SOEs. With the establishment of the Committee, the Ministries will have no chance or no incentive to be biased towards SOEs. In other words, all enterprises will be treated equally, regardless of whether they are SOEs or private.

The proposal to establish the Committee is extremely important, especially when SOEs are proved to continue operating at loss, investment activities are inefficient, state ownership capital is poorly managed,all leading to loss of state assets. I note that SCIC was established with the expectation to perform the same duties of representing state ownership in SOEs. However, SCIC is only an agency under the Ministry of Finance, which makes it not of equal leverage with and independent of other ministries and unable to regulate big SOEs. Thus, it is necessary to have another independent Committee to take over SCIC’s responsibilities.

  • In many nations, is this model applied?

This model is very similar to that in Germany when there was reunification between East and West Germany. The current model in China is considered as closely similar to the proposed one in Vietnam. However, instead of only establishing a Committee at a central level, meaning the Committee will not take over SOEs under provincial management, Ministry of Public Security, Ministry of National Defence, public enterprises and state-owned commercial joint stock banks, such Committee in China is established at all levels, from central to provincial one.

It could be a good start to have the Committee at central level. I recommend that after a trial period to supervise the efficiency of the model, it should be implemented at all provincial level under central management as well.

  • Do you have any recommendations?

According to the Draft Decree, chairman and vice-chairmen of the Committee will be appointed by the Prime Minister. I am concerned that ministers or vice-ministers of other ministries may have to take the chairman or vice- chairmen position of the Committee concurrently with their minister role. This will not be efficient. Instead, the management of the Committee must include both Vietnamese and foreigners. I recommend at least one foreign expert who has worked as manager for private companies and has a success track record should be member of this Committee. I can recommend some people if the Government could approve the budget for this position. I myself am very willing to be a member of the Committee to assist. The foreign expert must not necessarily be the decision-making person, but at least (s)he is there to give advice to the Committee.

Members of the Committee must be independent. They should not comprise of representatives from selected ministries who have certain interest in some SOEs, or else neutrality cannot be ensured. The Committee must act as an investor responsible for all investment activities of state capital before the Government. Only by doing so can SOEs play the same game with same rules as in the private sector.

In addition, it is important to create an operation regime for this Committee towards transparency for public supervision. Transparency is a critical issue, especially for a Committee which holds huge state assets worth around VND5.4 quadrillion.
Please do contact the author Oliver Massmann under omassmann@duanemorris.com if you have any questions. Oliver Massmann is the General Director of Duane Morris Vietnam and the Chairman of the Legal Sector Committee of the European Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam (”Eurocham” Vietnam)