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China Weighs Risks to $50 Billion Investment After Chavez

China Weighs Risks to $50 Billion Investment After Chavez Death
Chinese construction workers weld doors and windows at the government housing project, Ciudad Tavacare near Barinas, Venezuela. The nation became the Americas’ largest recipient of Chinese credit under Chavez, as private lenders were driven away by the nationalization of more than 1,000 companies as well as currency and price controls. Photographer: Meridith Kohut/Bloomberg

Chinese firms are assessing the risk that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s death poses to investments worth at least $50 billion, after 14 years of closer ties between the two countries.

China Development Bank Corp., which has lent Venezuela more than $40 billion since 2008, has contingency plans in place, Yao Zhongmin, head of the bank’s supervisory board, said in an interview today. State-owned conglomerate Citic Group Corp. is also weighing the risks, Chairman Chang Zhenming said.

State-owned Chinese firms have won contracts to build railroads, housing and power stations since Chavez took power in 1999 and nationalized more than 1,000 companies or their assets. The terms of some of the deals may face new scrutiny should Venezuela’s opposition wins elections required to be held within 30 days.

“If you do get an opposition candidate that wins there could be more information out there about previous deals that will be very uncomfortable,” said Matt Ferchen, a scholar at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing. “That could be politically unnerving but also reason for leverage to rework some of the deals.”

Chavez died yesterday at age 58 of cancer. Since he announced his illness in June 2011, investors have speculated that his departure could pave the way for the opposition to win power and introduce more market-friendly policies.

Dollar Bonds

Chavez was a “great friend of China,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a briefing today in Beijing, adding that China’s top leaders sent their condolences over his death. “China cherishes the two countries’ friendship and would like to work with Venezuela to constantly develop their strategic partnership,” she said.

Moody’s Investors Service rates Venezuelan long-term foreign-currency debt B2, or five levels below investment grade, the same as Honduras and Cambodia.

Led by China Development Bank, the world’s largest policy lender, China has made Venezuela the main focus of its global oil-for-loans program, in which loans were repaid with oil shipments. Some of the biggest state-owned companies, including Citic Group, China Railway Group and Sinohydro Corp. won more than $11 billion in contracts to build and supply equipment for infrastructure, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“As long as Venezuela maintains stable oil exports to China, then the risks to China’s loans are small,” said Sun Hongbo, an associate professor at the Institute of Latin American Studies, part of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “No matter who wins the presidential election, China will continue to be a strategic partner for Venezuela.”

Gold Mines

Venezuela became the Americas’ largest recipient of Chinese credit under Chavez, as private lenders were driven away by the nationalization of more than 1,000 companies as well as currency and price controls.

While the Venezuelan government’s average bond yields have fallen to 9.06 percent from 10.91 percent a year ago, they still paid 4.39 percentage points above the average for emerging-market sovereign dollar-denominated debt globally yesterday.

CDB has a contingency plan in place to account for risks associated with Chavez’s death, Yao said, without elaborating.

Citic, a state-owned conglomerate that runs banks, brokerages and develops real estate, is building as much as $3 billion in housing in Venezuela.

Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez in January said the country was in talks with Citic to develop gold mines. Chang said Citic was undertaking a feasibility study for the mine in Venezuela and had not yet invested.

“I think no matter who is the president, they will still need to construct houses,” he said.

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