One of the major issues facing the country as this recession unfolds is the pressing need to review the State Enterprise sector. A Cabinet-appointed committee, chaired by Dr Terrence Farrell, was established to examine the SOE sector, but we have no idea yet as to their recommendations.
One of the hugest State Enterprises is Petrotrin, a major player in the national economy, with the immense influence of the OWTU on the side of its workers. A great deal of discussion is now emerging on whether or how Petrotrin could be restructured or privatised.
On 9th October 2015, the newly-installed Petrotrin Board issued a Press Release under the rubric “Facing and Overcoming Our Current reality” – the primary challenge was said to be ‘high and increasing debt’.
The Parliament’s first Report of its Joint Select Committee into State Enterprises examined Petrotrin and was published in June 2016 – the first recommendation of which was –
…the Committee heard that the major and immediate challenge facing Petrotrin was liquidity…as a result of the following factors:
- continued downward trend in…Oil prices;
- bond commitments (US$850 Mn and $750 Mn); and
- high operating costs in the context of declining revenue….” (pgs 8 & 9)
These extracts are from the JSC testimony of Petrotrin’s Chief Financial Officer, Ronald Huff, on 21st March 2016 –
“Mr. Huff : Yes…the US $850 million bond…is due in August of 2019, that was originally placed in August of 2009…those proceeds were primarily directed towards capital expenditures, specifically the gas optimization project in all the plants that were involved in that project…If we desire to extinguish that bond early…The make whole provision would mean that…it would cost us over a billion dollars US, about a billion, seventy to make whole the 9.75 per cent interest that that bond has attached to it over the next three, three and a half years. So, the early extinguishment of that bond has really not been a serious alternative for Petrotrin. As we look forward to 2019 the intent would be to refinance the bond at that point in time. Now, that gives us about three years to put forward a trajectory, if you will, on Petrotrin’s financial results. That would best prepare Petrotrin to re-approach the bond markets in a three-year time period. So, it is very critical for the company to be always thinking about how our financial statements are going to look over the next three years. Very critical…those are the things were (sic) look at, constantly monitor, and it is never far from the back of our minds….” pgs 52 & 53
(emphases are mine)
Clearly, Petrotrin’s debt cost is a tremendous burden, so three points emerge from all this –
- Interest Cost – the 9.75% interest on $850M USD is an annual cost to Petrotrin of $82.875M USD. On 7th January 2017, Petrotrin issued ‘Financial Realities at Petrotrin‘ which specified “…the interest payments on its US$850M bond at approximately TT$687M per year…”. That cost is staggering – an intriguing footnote is that this equates to an exchange rate of about $8.30 per USD, which is not far from reality;
- Early settlement – In March 2016 that was estimated to cost just over $1.0Bn USD, but Petrotrin could not afford that kind of cost;
- Financial Strategy – According to its Chief Financial Officer, Petrotrin’s team is engaged in serious strategising as to its financial trajectory.
But that was in March 2016, the Petrotrin testimony to the JSC, which published its Report in June 2016.
Then, on 29th July 2016, the Ministry of Finance issued a Media Release –
These extracts are instructive –
“…Trinidad & Tobago successfully launched a US$1Bn 10-year bond in New York on Thursday 28th July 2016, marking its first international bond issue in three years. The bond issue was…more than three times oversubscribed, with US$3.5 billion in orders received from over 250 international investors, thus allowing the country to comfortably raise the targeted US$1Bn, with prospects for raising additional amounts in excess of the required US$1Bn…The 4.5% interest cost of the Bond compares very favorably with recent Government bond issues…”
“…The Roadshow…successfully promoted Trinidad and Tobago as a viable investment destination; with a cohesive plan for fiscal consolidation and economic management in the face of plummeting oil and commodity prices…”
“…Proceeds of the Bond are to be utilized to finance the country’s Development Programme over the rest of this Fiscal Year as well as over the 2017 Fiscal Year…” (emphases are mine)
All in all a success-story, but there are questions –
If US-based investors were willing to buy $3.5 Billion of Trinidad & Tobago’s debt at 4.5% in July 2016, how come Petrotrin is still saddled with that ruinous 9.75% bond? If Petrotrin was able to retire that 9.75% bond with fresh funding at say 5%, that would produce annual savings exceeding $40M USD – which equates to $335M TTD, using the ‘Petrotrin’ exchange rate. Was that option explored?
At the very least, this represents a big missed opportunity to reduce our country’s foreign exchange outflow. The alternative, to paraphrase a late jurist, is ‘an appalling vista, simply too ghastly to contemplate‘.