Never mind the bumpy start, BRICS bank eyes big future

Sino-Indian border dispute and economic downturn just short-term factors that won’t affect the big picture, NDB finance chief says

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 September, 2017, 9:04pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 September, 2017, 11:23pm

The so-called BRICS bank is looking beyond short-term economic and political turbulence to boost staff numbers and expand lending, a bank executive said on Monday, playing down concerns about a stalled project in South Africa.

Since opening for business two years ago, the Shanghai-based New Development Bank (NDB) has approved a combined US$2.9 billion in financing but last year the South African government put the bank’s first and only project in the country on hold – a US$180 million renewable energy project with power supplier Eskom.

On the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Xiamen on Sunday, NDB vice-president and chief financial officer Leslie Maasdorp said the Eskom project was suspended because demand for electricity had fallen amid an economic slowdown and South Africa did not need new power supplies.

But Maasdorp said the bank was “developing a strong pipeline in South Africa” and its exposure in Africa would grow.

The NDB has said it plans to lend US$1.5 billion to the country by end of the next year.

The multilateral lender was set up in 2015 with each of the five BRICS countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – contributing US$10 billion. It is the bloc’s biggest institutional achievement and plans to grant US$2.5 billion in loans this year after issuing US$1.5 billion in 2016.

BRICS New Development Bank hopes to expand by drawing other nations as members

But its loan book is still small compared to the World Bank’s US$59 billion-plus in credit commitments for the 2017 financial year.

And on Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping also said China would top up the bank’s lending pot by just US$4 million.

General economic instability, India’s wariness of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” and a Himalayan border stand-off between India and China have also raised doubts about the NDB’s future.

Maasdorp said the bank was not affected by short-term dynamics, or disputes or disagreements. “Those are short-term factors and cyclical in character, while the bank is focusing on long-term projects,” he said.

Maarsdorp said the bank had about 100 employees and that number would grow to about 150 by the end of the year.

The biggest challenge now for the NDB was to attract professionals from the five countries to move to Shanghai, he said, adding that the last two years had been “difficult but also very rewarding” for him.

Looking ahead, ground was broken on construction of a new headquarters for the bank on Saturday, with a completion date set for September 2021.

The NDB was launched in July 2015 as BRICS’ answer to the World Bank.

Will China-led development banks get the coveted boost to shape a new financial world order?

It was up and running around the same time as the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which has so far attracted about 80 members.

Maasdorp said the bank would also open up membership to other countries, but BRICS would retain the controlling stake.

He said the NDB was in talks with global ratings agencies and was “encouraged” by the solid investment-grade rating Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch had given the AIIB this summer.

“The most important [part] of the NDB’s credit rating is our business and financial profile, that is the main determination of what our rating will be,” he said.

And while the AIIB relies on joint financing with its peers such as the World Bank and regional development banks, the NDB has so far funded projects on its own.

“We want to develop our own capacity as an institution,” he said.

Cui Fan, a professor with the University of International Business and Economics, said the NDB could succeed once it attracted global investors including from developed countries.