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World’s poorest countries’ debt interest payments rise 35%, report says

Source image: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/dec/06/worlds-poorest-countries-debt-interest-payments-rise-35-report-says

The world’s poorest countries are expected to pay 35% more in debt interest bills this year to cover the extra cost of the Covid-19 pandemic and a dramatic rise in the price of food imports, according to a World Bank report.

More than £63bn will be spent by the 75 countries, many of them in sub-Saharan Africa, that make up the poorest nations, to cover loans taken out mostly over the past decade and higher interest rates.

The World Bank said it was concerned that debt payments were consuming more of government spending in poor countries when they were already struggling to provide education and health services.

In a plea to rich countries the boss of the Washington-based international development group said social unrest was the likely consequence if poor nations were forced to divert cash from welfare programmes to debt interest payments.

“The debt crisis facing developing countries has intensified,” said the president, David Malpass.

“A comprehensive approach is needed to reduce debt, increase transparency, and facilitate swifter restructuring – so countries can focus on spending that supports growth and reduces poverty.

“Without it, many countries and their governments face a fiscal crisis and political instability, with millions of people falling into poverty.”

Zambia is among a number of countries negotiating to reschedule its debts to prevent a default. Government officials are seeking $8.4bn (£6.9bn) from major lenders, including private funds run by the world’s largest investment manager, BlackRock, to help put its public finances back in order.

A strong rise in the value of the dollar since 2019 was also cited by the report for making the situation worse. Most loans are made in dollars and the strengthening US currency means poor countries suffer a fall in the value of their own currency and are less able to finance their debts.

An offshoot of the World Bank – the International Development Association (IDA) – counts 75 of the poorest countries among its membership. It has agreed billions of dollars worth of grants and interest-free loans, but these have not proved sufficient to prevent IDA debt rising to $1tn.

A shift in borrowing by developing nations away from richer governments – known as the Paris Club of lenders – to private banks and non-governmental sources has resulted in the payback time for loans to more than halve and interest rates to rocket.

The World Bank said the average length of a Paris Club loan was 25 years compared with the average 12 years offered by private lenders, and the average annual interest rate increased from 2% to 5%.

Most countries have seen their debts rise the last two years to pay for welfare and health support during the pandemic and to offset the rising costs of gas and food since the beginning of the Ukraine war.

However, poor countries have limited scope to increase tax to cover higher costs, forcing them to seek expensive loans from private lenders.

China is on course to be the biggest single creditor to poor countries after a lending spree over the last decade to fund major infrastructure projects.

China is expected to account for 66% of the debt-service payments made this year by IDA countries on their official bilateral debt.

India, Russia and Turkey have also become major creditors to poor countries in a series of deals that are mostly hidden by commercially confidential contracts.

The report shows rising debt-related risks for all developing economies, including middle-income economies.

At the end of 2021, the external debt of low and middle-income economies totalled $9tn, more than double the amount a decade ago.

Indermit Gill, the World Bank’s chief economist, said about 60% of the poorest countries are already at high risk of debt distress or already in distress.

He said it was more difficult for poor countries to renegotiate and reschedule their debts when they were locked into agreements with private banks where the details of the deal were opaque.

“Poor debt transparency is the reason so many countries sleepwalk into a debt crisis,” said Gill. “Complete, transparent debt data improves debt management. It makes debt sustainability analyses more reliable. And it makes debt restructurings easier to implement, so that countries can return quickly to economic stability and growth. It is not in any creditor’s long-term interest to keep public debt hidden from the public.”

By the end of 2021, 61% of long-term public and publicly guaranteed debt worth $3.6tn was owed to private creditors rather than Paris Club or other official creditors, compared with 46% in 2010.

Malpass, a Donald Trump appointee, has faced calls to overhaul the organisation’s focus towards climate change, primarily to help indebted sub-Saharan countries worst affected by extreme weather conditions and rising debt levels.

The United Nations conference on trade and development (Unctad) said in a separate report ahead of its 13th Debt Management Conference later this week that government debt levels as a share of GDP increased in more than 100 developing countries between 2019 and 2021.

It said that excluding China, this increase is estimated at about $2tn.

“Almost all developing countries have been left to face an impossible trade-off in a context marred by a pandemic, geopolitical instability and climate distress,” said Unctad secretary-general, Rebeca Grynspan.

“Debt cannot and must not become an obstacle for achieving the 2030 agenda and the climate transition the world desperately needs,” she added.

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/dec/06/worlds-poorest-countries-debt-interest-payments-rise-35-report-says

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Calls for bigger windfall tax after Shell makes ‘obscene’ $40bn profit

The government is under pressure to rethink its windfall tax on energy companies after Shell reported one of the largest profits in UK corporate history, with the surge in energy prices sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushing the oil company’s annual takings to $40bn (£32bn).

Opposition parties and trade unions described Shell’s bonanza, the biggest in its 115 year history, as “outrageous” and accused Rishi Sunak of letting fossil fuel companies “off the hook”.

On Thursday, the UK headquartered company confirmed it had paid just $134m in British windfall taxes during 2022. It paid $520m under the EU “solidarity contribution” – Europe’s equivalent of the windfall tax.

The company was criticised in October when it said it had paid no UK windfall tax up to that point, but on Wednesday said it was likely to contribute $500m in 2023.

Boosted by record oil and gas prices, Shell posted profits of almost $10bn in the final quarter of last year, taking its annual adjusted profits to $40bn in 2022, far outstripping the $19bn notched up in 2021.

Shell profits

The performance puts Shell on a par with the £38bn British American Tobacco made in 2017, but still behind the £60bn Vodaphone achieved in 2014, when the telecoms group sold its US business.

The shadow climate change secretary, Ed Miliband, said: “As the British people face an energy price hike of 40% in April, the government is letting the fossil fuel companies making bumper profits off the hook with their refusal to implement a proper windfall tax.”

Miliband added: “Labour would stop the energy price cap going up in April, because it is only right that the companies making unexpected windfall profits from the proceeds of war pay their fair share.”

The Liberal Democrat leader, Ed Davey, said: “No company should be making these kind of outrageous profits out of [Vladimir] Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.

“Rishi Sunak was warned as chancellor and now as prime minister that we need a proper windfall tax on companies like Shell and he has failed to take action.”

Paul Nowak, the general secretary of the TUC, said the profits were “obscene” and “an insult to working families”.

The step up in Shell and its competitors’ profits during 2022 prompted the government to introduce a windfall tax on North Sea operators, which was later toughened by the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt.

Nowak said windfall taxes should be increased. “As households up and down Britain struggle to pay their bills and make ends meet, Shell are enjoying a cash bonanza. The time for excuses is over. The government must impose a larger windfall tax on energy companies. Billions are being left on the table,” he said.

“Instead of holding down the pay of paramedics, teachers, firefighters and millions of other hard-pressed public servants, ministers should be making big 0il and gas pay their fair share.”

Shell has benefited from a surge in oil prices caused by embargoes on Russian oil imposed since the invasion of Ukraine, and Russia’s decision to cut off gas supplies to continental Europe.

Analysts had expected Shell’s new chief executive, Wael Sawan, to report adjusted earnings of $7.97bn for the fourth quarter and $38.17bn for the year, in his City debut. It represented an increase on the $9.45bn registered in the third quarter, aided by a bounceback in earnings from its liquefied natural gas trading arm.

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Sunak’s official spokesperson said No 10 was aware the public would view Shell’s profits as extraordinarily high, which was why the government had introduced its windfall tax comparable to those seen in other countries, he added.

“We think it [the profits levy] strikes a balance between funding cost of living support while encouraging investment in order to bolster the UK’s energy security,” they said. “We have made it clear that we want to encourage reinvestment of the sector’s profits to support the economy, jobs and energy security, and that’s why the more investment a firm makes into the UK the less tax they will pay.”

Sawan announced a boost in payouts to shareholders, with a 15% increase in the final quarter dividend to $6.3bn.

He also announced $4bn of share buybacks over the next three months. In total, Shell distributed $26bn to shareholders in 2022.

Asked how it felt to make huge profits while people struggle with their bills, Sawan said: “These are incredibly difficult times, we’re seeing inflation rampant around the world … When I go back home to Lebanon some of the challenges I see people going through, sometimes without electricity for a full day, are the the challenges that we see in many, many parts of the world. The answer to that is to make sure we provide energy to the world.”

Shell has also been accused of overstating how much it is spending on renewable energy, and faced calls this week to be investigated and potentially fined by the US financial regulator.

Shell invested $25bn overall during 2022, up from $20bn in 2021. The firm spent $12bn on oil and gas projects, compared with $3.5bn on its renewable energy division.

The Greenpeace UK senior climate justice campaigner Elena Polisano said: “World leaders have just set up a new fund to pay for the loss and damage caused by the climate crisis. Now they should force historical mega-polluters like Shell to pay into it.”

Jonathan Noronha-Gant, a senior campaigner at Global Witness, said: “People have every right to be outraged at the enormous profits that Shell has made in the midst of an energy affordability crisis that has pushed millions of families into poverty.”

The company, which has a stock market valuation of $165bn, last week embarked on a review of its division supplying energy and broadband to homes in Europe, putting 2,000 UK jobs at risk.

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Tech giants Apple, Amazon and Alphabet post disappointing results

The A-Team of big tech – Apple, Amazon and Alphabet – all delivered disappointing results on Thursday a day after Facebook owner Meta bucked the gloomy trend in technology, delivering better-than-expected results.

Apple shares slid more than 4% on Thursday after the company posted a disappointing first-quarter earnings report, including rare misses on revenue, profit and sales.

The iPhone maker missed analyst expectations on profit for the first time in seven years, after strict Covid-19 lockdowns and related protests in China upended iPhone production at its biggest supplier.

The company also marked its largest quarterly revenue drop in nearly seven years, posting $117.2bn – down 5.49% from last year when it reported record holiday sales. The number was lower than analysts’ average estimate of $121.10bn.

Apple alluded to ongoing headwinds in a press release accompanying the report, which observers are calling shocking. Strict lockdowns in China, which produces 90% of its devices sold globally, cost it approximately $4bn in lost sales in 2022. In a call with investors on Thursday, Cook said iPhone revenue would have grown in the quarter if not for these supply issues, but said production is back to pre-shutdown goals.

For years, Apple has been seen as a safe haven for investment in the increasingly volatile tech space, but analysts say this report shows the tide may be changing. The company had warned in its October earnings call that it was anticipating a slowdown, with chief financial officer Luca Maestri citing “continued uncertainty around the world”.

“Apple’s poor quarter proves that even the most valuable US-traded company isn’t immune to the challenges facing the tech industry at large,” said Jesse Cohen, senior analyst at Investing.com, adding that the report was “shockingly weak”.

Amazon reported worse than anticipated earnings on Thursday while at Google parent Alphabet, a pull-back by advertisers hit the search giant’s revenue.

Amazon is facing a difficult reset after its pandemic boom and recently announced 18,000 job cuts. The tech and retailing giant reported a net loss of $2.7bn for 2022, compared to net income of $33.4bn a year before. The loss included a pre-tax loss of $12.7bn on its investment in electric vehicle maker Rivian. Net sales increased 9% to $514bn, compared to $469.8bn in 2021.

The company’s most reliable division, Amazon Web Services, reported sales of $21.4bn, an increase of 20% from a year earlier but below analysts’ estimates.

Alphabet narrowly missed analysts’ expectations, signaling lower demand for its search advertising during a slowing economy. Sales at the company reached $63.1bn for the quarter, marginally below $63.2bn projected.

Last month, Alphabet cut 12,000 jobs, or 6% of its global workforce, and vowed to create a leaner, more efficient company.

It was then hit with a US Department of Justice lawsuit accusing the company of abusing its dominance of the digital advertising business.

Both earnings results will be set against a turnaround at Meta, Facebook’s parent company. Shares in Meta’s stock surged as much as 26% on Thursday – its biggest one-day jump in nearly a decade.

Meta’s share price surge came after CEO Mark Zuckerberg vowed to make the social media company leaner. Analysts welcomed the move, with many upgrading their recommendations on the stock.

Apple has thus far avoided the mass layoffs seen by its peers in the tech space. In Thursday’s call with investors, Cook did not mention layoffs but said the company would be closely monitoring its labor expenses.

“We’re cutting costs,” he said. “We’re cutting hiring, we’re being very prudent and deliberate on people that we hire.”

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Adani crisis: Indian group has value cut in half after stock market rout

The beleaguered empire of the Indian billionaire Gautam Adani is spiralling into crisis, as an escalating stock rout triggered by fraud claims cuts the value of his conglomerate in half.

Traders sent shares in the listed flagship Adani Enterprises down more than 25% shortly after markets opened in Mumbai on Friday, despite attempts by the company to restore investor confidence. Other listed entities, such as Adani Green Energy and Adani Ports, were also down sharply.

The relentless selling has now wiped more than US$115bn from the value of Adani companies in the two weeks since US-based Hindenburg Research accused the conglomerate of stock manipulation and accounting fraud.

Adani companies were worth a combined US$220bn before the report was published.

The companies, spanning ports, power, coal and renewables, accused Hindenburg in a 413-page rebuttal of engaging in a calculated attack on India, while noting that the US investor, an activist short seller that profits from falling share prices, is making money from the chaos.

The plunging share prices raise questions about how Adani, which runs Australia’s contentious Carmichael coalmine and rail project in Queensland, can raise capital when the market has turned so aggressively against it. There is also the prospect of forced asset sales.

Reuters reported that Adani entities made scheduled payments on outstanding bonds on Thursday, adding that the conglomerate plans to issue a credit report by the end of the week to address liquidity concerns.

Pressure on Adani’s finances intensified this week after it abandoned a much-vaunted US$2.5bn share sale, which would have been used, in part, to pay down debt. The fundraising was pulled because participating investors would have suffered large losses should the sale have gone ahead given falling share price movements.

“We have an impeccable track record of servicing our debt,” Adani said in a video address after abandoning the fundraising. “This decision will not have any impact on our existing operations and future plans.”

The billionaire chairman has support from a prominent Abu Dhabi investor with ties to the royal family, along with investor and political support from within India.

On Friday, Adani responded to critics of his apparent close ties to India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, dismissing claims his companies had avoided oversight.

“The fact of the matter is that my professional success is not because of any individual leader,” he told India Today television, according to an AFP report.

Political opposition groups in India are pressuring parliament to debate the impact of the Adani fraud claims on investors and the country’s banking sector. There are also calls for an independent probe into the allegations.

The most dramatic claims refer to what Hindenburg calls a “brazen stock manipulation and accounting fraud scheme” that has driven up the price of the listed Adani companies, and inflated the net worth of its billionaire chairman.

Hindenburg alleges that this is done by using shell companies to manipulate the price of the listed ones by holding large positions.

Adani has denied the allegations and said any dealings with related parties were properly accounted for.

The chairman’s personal net worth has taken a significant hit, according to the Bloomberg billionaires index. After sitting alongside Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates among the world’s richest just a couple of weeks ago, Adani has dropped out of the top 20 once Friday’s share price falls are taken into account.

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