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Reprieve for lithium producer shines light on Beijing’s priorities

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In China, if you owe your creditors a few hundred million dollars, you had better pay them back or face the wrath of vice-premier Liu He.

But if you owe them $1.9bn and control strategic natural resource assets, well, that is a rather more complicated situation.

When a Chinese coal company and automotive group recently defaulted on four bonds totalling Rmb4bn ($612m), sending tremors through the country’s $15tn bond market, a powerful regulatory body headed by Mr Liu threatened “zero tolerance” for any companies caught trying to evade debt repayments.

By contrast, Tianqi Lithium, one of the world’s biggest producers of the element used in electric batteries, faced an end of November deadline to pay back creditors led by China Citic Bank almost $1.9bn. It borrowed the money two years ago to fund its $4bn purchase of a 23 per cent stake in Chilean rival Sociedad Química y Minera.

China Citic Bank gave Tianqi Lithium, based in southwestern Sichuan province, a month-long reprieve as they try to sort out a new repayment schedule by December 28.

Tianqi Lithium is a private sector company, listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange. The fact that it was able to borrow so much money from state banks for the SQM stake purchase, completed in May 2018, says a lot about the unique role it has carved out for itself as a national champion operating in a strategic industrial sector.

At the time, Mr Liu was overseeing a clampdown on an overseas buying binge by large private groups including Anbang, Fosun, HNA and Wanda. Many of their acquisitions in the entertainment, insurance and tourism sectors, such as Anbang’s purchase of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, were viewed by Chinese regulators as overpriced trophy assets.

Tianqi Lithium’s desire to purchase a stake in SQM, however, dovetailed with a core interest of the Chinese state — the establishment of leading, if not monopoly positions, over the production of commodities such as lithium. What oil and copper were to the transportation and communication revolutions of the mid-20th century, lithium is to their early 21st-century equivalents, as it is used in the batteries that power everything from Apple’s iPhones to Tesla’s electric cars.

Line chart of Lithium carbonate, global weighted average, $ per metric tonne showing Lithium prices have slumped in recent years

In addition to billions of dollars of credit from China Citic and other state-owned banks, Tianqi Lithium could also count on Beijing’s open and vocal support as it pursued the SQM stake. When the deal was criticised by Chilean opponents who felt it would give China too much sway over the global lithium industry, Beijing’s man in Santiago waded into the fray. Any move to block the deal, ambassador Xu Bin told local media at the time, would “negatively” affect Sino-Chilean relations.

The sale went through, although Tianqi Lithium now wishes it hadn’t. It was closed as lithium carbonate prices were peaking at $17,000 per tonne. They have since plunged about 70 per cent thanks to a global supply glut, putting the Chinese company in a precarious financial position.

Tianqi Lithium and its creditors face a difficult challenge as they try to avoid triggering a formal default at the end of the month: how to balance the Chinese state’s interest in getting its money back with its interest in securing lithium supplies around the world.

Tianqi Lithium could, for example, raise money by selling down its 51 per cent stake in its Greenbushes mine — a huge, open-pit lithium mine in southwestern Australia. Greenbushes is 49 per cent held by Albemarle Corp of the US.

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But, given Washington’s determination to challenge Beijing’s grip over strategic commodities such as lithium, President Xi Jinping would probably not be happy about yielding control of Greenbushes to an American rival.

Selling a stake in Greenbushes to an Australian miner would be more palatable, although also a bit humbling for China considering the 14-point memo its Canberra embassy released last month blaming Australia for this year’s rapid deterioration in bilateral relations.

For Beijing, the ideal outcome would be figuring out a way to keep Tianqi Lithium afloat with its assets intact until global lithium prices recover. On Monday, Reuters reported a deal that might accomplish exactly that was nearing completion, with Australian miner IGO poised to take a minority position in a vehicle holding Tianqi Lithium’s Greenbushes stake for $1.5bn.

That should allow Tianqi Lithium to retain control of Greenbushes while helping China Citic Bank get its money back. If so, China might consider thanking Australia for the favour.

tom.mitchell@ft.com



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Emerging Markets

South Korea looks to fintech as household debt balloons to $1.6tn

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South Korea Economy updates

After her family business of ferrying drunk people home was hit by closures of bars due to Covid-19 curfews and social distancing, Lee Young-mi* found herself juggling personal debts of about Won30m ($26,000).

The 56-year-old resident of Suncheon in South Korea was already struggling to pay off or refinance four credit cards, but now faces the prospect of those debts rapidly multiplying after her husband was diagnosed with cancer.

“We’ve had little income for more than a year as not many people are out drinking until late into the night,” said Lee. “Now my husband won’t be able to work at all for the next three months after his surgery.”

Lee’s story is playing out across Asia’s fourth-largest economy as self-employed workers, who make up nearly a third of the labour force, have seen their incomes reduced sharply due to coronavirus restrictions. Now, after struggling for years to keep a lid on household debts that hit a record Won1,765tn ($1.6tn) in March, Seoul is looking to fintech companies and peer-to-peer lenders for answers. 

Chart showing increase in South Korea's household debt

Among them is PeopleFund, which touts tech-based investment products backed by machine learning that allow borrowers to refinance their higher-interest loans from banks and credit card companies.

The company has loaned at least $1bn to more than 7,500 customers since it was established in 2015. Its products allow borrowers to switch their debts to fixed-rate, amortised loans at annual interest rates of about 11 per cent, a change from the riskier floating rate, interest-only loans common in South Korea. 

PeopleFund has received about Won96.7bn in financing from brokerage CLSA, and along with Lendit and 8Percent is one of the first among the country’s 250 shadow banks to win a peer-to-peer lending licence. 

“The country’s most serious household debt problem is with unsecured non-bank loans, whose pricing has been too high. We can offer more affordable loans to ordinary people unable to receive bank loans,” Joey Kim, chief executive of PeopleFund, told the Financial Times.

The proliferation of digital lenders and fintechs in South Korea, where higher-risk borrowers are often cut off from bank financing, has been encouraged by the country’s government.

“We hope that P2P lenders will help resolve the dichotomy in the credit market by increasing the access of low-income people to mid-interest loans,” said an official at the Financial Supervisory Service.

South Korea’s household debt situation has become more pressing since the onset of the pandemic, with increases in borrowing for mortgages, to cover stagnating wages and to invest in the booming stock market. South Korean households are among the world’s most heavily indebted, with the average debt equal to 171.5 per cent of annual income.

South Korea’s household debt-to-GDP ratio stood at 103.8 per cent at the end of last year, compared with an average 62.1 per cent of 43 countries surveyed by the Bank for International Settlements.

Much of the new debt has been risky. Unsecured household loans from non-bank financial institutions were Won116.9tn as of March, up 33 per cent from four years ago, according to the Bank of Korea, much of it high interest loans taken out by poorer borrowers.

Getting on top of the problem has taken on national importance. In a rare warning in June, the central bank said the combination of high asset prices and excessive borrowing risked triggering a sell-off in markets and a rapid debt deleveraging.

“If financial imbalances increase further, this could dent our mid-to-long-term economic growth prospects,” BoK governor Lee Ju-yeol said in July.

The country’s economic planners, however, are struggling to contain debt-fuelled asset bubbles without undermining South Korea’s fragile economic recovery.

The government has attempted to address the danger by tightening lending rules. Regulators in July lowered the country’s maximum legal interest rate that private lenders can charge their customers from 24 to 20 per cent.

Economists caution that rising debt levels increase South Korea’s vulnerability to an economic shock. 

They also warn that the asset quality of financial institutions could be hit by a jump in distressed loans when the BoK rolls back monetary easing, expected in the fourth quarter.

“Monetary tightening is needed to curb asset bubbles but this will increase the household debt burden, holding back consumption further,” said Park Chong-hoon, head of research at Standard Chartered in Seoul. “The government is facing a dilemma.”

For Lee Young-mi, however, the 11 per cent rate offered by the PeopleFund is still too high. “I am not sure how to pay back the debt.”

*The name has been changed



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European and Chinese stocks rise after calming words from Beijing

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Chinese equities updates

European shares chased gains in China after calls from Beijing for greater co-operation with Washington helped sooth jitters over a regulatory crackdown in the world’s biggest emerging market.

Europe’s Stoxx 600 index rose 0.7 per cent on Monday to hit new all-time highs, while the UK’s FTSE 100 rose 1 per cent led by economically sensitive stocks including banks and energy groups. London-listed lender HSBC gained 1 per cent after it reported second-quarter figures that easily beat analysts’ expectations.

The gains came after the China Securities Regulatory Commission, Beijing’s market regulator, called on Sunday for closer co-operation with Washington, stressing the country’s efforts to improve transparency and predictability after a crackdown on tutoring groups obliterated the market value of the $100bn sector’s biggest companies.

Chinese listings in the US have become a geopolitical flashpoint as Beijing has sought to exert greater control over the country’s powerful tech sector. The US Securities and Exchange Commission said on Friday that Chinese groups that sought to sell shares in America would be subject to stricter disclosures.

Shares in China rebounded after their worst month in almost three years, with China’s CSI 300 benchmark of Shanghai- and Shenzhen-listed blue-chips rose 2.6 per cent on Monday, while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index added 1.1 per cent. The city’s Hang Seng Tech index, which tracks big internet groups including Tencent and Alibaba, reversed early losses to rise 1 per cent. Futures tracking Wall Street’s benchmark S&P 500 index climbed 0.6 per cent.

Last month, China’s cyber-security regulator announced plans to review all foreign listings by companies with data on more than 1m users after top leaders in Beijing called for an overhaul of how the country regulates initial public offerings in the US. The crackdown came just days after the $4.4bn listing of ride-hailing group Didi Chuxing.

The intensifying scrutiny of how Chinese groups access capital markets has pummelled stocks, delivering the worst month for China tech groups listed in the US since the global financial crisis. The Hang Seng Tech index fell 17 per cent last month.

“While we do not consider it prudent to completely avoid investments in China, further volatility can be expected until the first quarter of 2022, by which time we believe most regulatory changes may already be in place,” analysts at Credit Suisse wrote in a note on Monday.

Meanwhile, data released by China at the weekend showed that factory activity grew at the slowest pace in 15 months in July as demand contracted for the first time in more than a year.

Government bonds were steady with the yield on the benchmark German 10-year Bund, which moves inversely to its price, gaining 0.01 percentage points to minus 0.45. The equivalent US 10-year yield was steady at 1.234 per cent.

Bond yields have been falling in recent weeks, despite higher than expected inflation readings in the US and indications from the US federal Reserve last week that it was moving a step closer to the day when it would start tapering its $120bn in monthly asset purchases.

The euro rose 0.1 per cent against the dollar to $1.1885, while the pound gained 0.1 per cent to purchase $1.3924. Prices for global oil benchmark Brent crude fell 1 per cent to $74.66.

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Turkey battles to quell wildfires as residents and tourists flee

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Turkey updates

Turkey has contained more than 100 wildfires after a series of blazes near its Mediterranean coastline killed six people and forced thousands of residents and foreign tourists to flee holiday resorts, the government said on Sunday.

Winds gusting at 50km per hour, low humidity and temperatures hovering near 40C have made controlling the fires difficult, Bekir Pakdemirli, the forestry minister, said on Twitter and in comments reported in state-run media.

The fires began on July 28, and the simultaneous start of so many conflagrations raised suspicions they may have been deliberately set, Pakdemirli said, although he did not offer evidence of arson.

About 100 Russian nationals were evacuated from the Bodrum peninsula in western Turkey on Saturday and moved to hotels elsewhere, the Russian consulate in the city of Antalya said in a statement, according Sputnik, a Russian state media outlet. Local tourists were also among the evacuees, with some forced to leave by sea as the blaze cut off other escape routes.

Flights from Russia, Turkey’s biggest source of tourists, only resumed in late June after Moscow suspended charter trips amid a record outbreak of Covid-19 cases in Turkey in the spring. Coronavirus-related travel restrictions to Turkey have hammered its tourism sector, which directly and indirectly accounts for about 13 per cent of gross domestic product.

Villagers water trees to stop the wildfires that continue to rage in the forests in Manavgat, Antalya, Turkey © AP

The forestry ministry website showed at least 15 active fires on Sunday. Villagers and forestry workers were among the six people who died, according to Turkish media. Mehmet Oktay, mayor of the resort town of Marmaris, said one volunteer firefighter had died and another 100 people had been injured in a spate of fires that have scorched more than 10,000 hectares near the town.

A half-dozen fires continued to sear areas mostly inaccessible by road, and the number of blazes across Turkey meant not enough firefighting planes were available, he said. “It’s heartbreaking, and I am fighting back tears to concentrate on the emergency at hand. It will take more than a decade to restore this land,” he said.

Thousands of farm animals and untold numbers of wild animals also perished in the fires, which one meteorologist estimated reached 200C.

Wildfires are an annual occurrence in south-west Turkey’s pine forests, and one expert told CNN Turk television that 95 per cent are deliberately or accidentally sparked by people.

Yet the scale of the current conflagration is remarkable, and some are blaming climate change for the disaster. Turkey recorded its highest ever temperature in a south-eastern town last month, and much of the country has been gripped by drought this year, while deadly floods struck north-east Turkey last month.

Several other Mediterranean countries are battling blazes this summer, including Cyprus, Greece, Lebanon and Italy, and scientists have said the extreme weather events across the globe this summer may be the result of global warming.



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