Angola’s oil exploration evaporates as COVID-19 overshadows historic reforms

Angola’s oil exploration evaporates as COVID-19 overshadows historic reforms
Angola is Africa’s second-largest oil producer, and was expected to have the continent’s largest number of offshore rigs drilling before the coronavirus affected demand, especially in China. (AFP)
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Updated 21 May 2020

Angola’s oil exploration evaporates as COVID-19 overshadows historic reforms

Angola’s oil exploration evaporates as COVID-19 overshadows historic reforms
  • Oil price crash prompts majors to idle all drilling rigs

LONDON: The coronavirus pandemic has done in a handful of months what a 27-year civil war did not: Brought oil drilling to a halt in Angola, Africa’s second-largest oil producer.

The consequences could be grave for a poor country that relies heavily on oil revenues and is saddled with debts that exceed its economic output.

The halt in oil exploration, which has not been previously reported, could represent a setback for one of the most ambitious economic reform drives on the continent, aimed at cleaning up corruption and attracting foreign money. It comes as Angola seeks buyers in its push to privatise state energy assets, which is central to the reform process.

An oil price crash last month to two-decade lows has prompted all international energy majors operating in Angola — Total, Chevron, ExxonMobil, BP and Eni — to idle or ditch their drilling rigs, according to company sources, Refinitiv ship-tracking data and industry experts.

France’s Total, responsible for almost half of Angola’s oil output, told Reuters it would not drill for more oil for now due to the coronavirus crisis, instead focusing on current production.

“We have suspended all our drilling activities like all other operators in Angola,” it said.

Sarah McLean, senior analyst at IHS Markit, said it was the first time since its records began in 1984 that Angola had not had a single rig drilling. The London–based information provider had expected at least 10 rigs to be operating there by the end of 2020, the highest number for any African nation this year. The Angolan finance ministry and president’s office did not respond to Reuters requests for comment, nor did state oil giant Sonangol, which works in partnership with the foreign oil majors.

Angola’s prospects looked bright going into 2020.

Energy majors increased their exposure to Angola in the wake of reforms to investment laws by President João Lourenço, who took power after almost four decades of rule by Jose Eduardo dos Santos, and greater transparency at Sonangol.

They planned to operate more drilling ships in Angola than anywhere on the continent to tap tantalizing new offshore discoveries this year. Then COVID-19 struck.

As global demand fell off a cliff amid lockdowns, oil companies lopped billions from planned spending. Angola, with its relatively high-cost offshore fields, was among the first on the chopping block. Reduced demand from the virus’s first victim, China — the top destination for Angolan oil — also hit the country hard.

Total, in a bad portent, had already canceled one drill ship after a March 7 technical problem. The vessel is now parked off the Canary Islands, according to Refinitiv tracking data.

The French producer has since idled three other drill ships; Transocean Skyros and Maersk Voyager were sent to docks at the capital Luanda while Seadrill West Gemini lies dormant at Walvis Bay in Namibia, the tracking data shows.

Total did not comment on specific ships, but said it hoped to restart gradually “as soon as the situation allows.”

US major Chevron canceled its contract with rig supplier Valaris, in late March, and parked the drill ship, Valaris 109, in the capital. A Chevron spokesman said it would continue “cost-managed production” at existing fields.

Meanwhile, two offshore discoveries which Italy’s Eni described as “significant” last year are now on ice, the company told Reuters.

US firm ExxonMobil and the UK’s BP, the other oil majors in Angola, have also canceled planned drilling until at least 2021. Both declined to comment.

Any time would be bad for Angola’s drilling to dry up. Yet the crisis comes at a key juncture for its reform drive, which it is counting on to help improve living standards for the population of over 32 million. According to the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative’s global poverty index, about a third of Angolans live in “severe poverty.”

The country is seeking to attract investors for a sweeping privatization program of state assets including energy assets like parts of Sonangol, but also ports, banks and telecoms firms. The program, launched last August, had already got off to a rocky start.

Angola has yet to sell any major assets of Sonangol, which its petroleum minister described as a sprawling “octopus.” Several assets scheduled for sale last year have yet to be tendered, while the only announced purchases have been of a slaughterhouse firm and farm complex which netted $35 million from local buyers in April.

Angola was aiming to shed smaller assets before privatising 30 percent of the whole Sonangol group via an IPO in 2022. That timeline, always ambitious, now seems unlikely, according to Nick Branson, senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft.

“The idea of a Sonangol IPO just seems hopelessly optimistic,” he said.

“There are so many moving parts and such a lack of appetite for these sort of transactions anyway. Look at how long it took Saudi Aramco,” he added, citing the long struggle by Saudi Arabia to privatise their state oil firm amid flagging prices.

Despite its problems, Angola has announced the tendering of state-owned bank BCI and parts of Sonangol’s ports and logistics businesses in recent weeks.

Gonçalo Falcão, a Brazil-based partner in UK-based law firm Mayer Brown, which advises potential buyers on aspects of the privatization drive, said the government would not settle for a fire sale.

“It’s still to be seen how many competitive bidders emerge,” he said, noting the state could postpone tenders if it deems offers too low.

“They’re trying to send a message that, okay, we’re struggling, but we will continue going forward with our plans because we’re a reliable country and we’ve made a huge effort to make our companies transparent and reduce corruption.”

President Lourenço has been seeking to tackle a troubled legacy after Angola clawed its way out of a 1975-2002 civil war, one of the world’s longest. The country is ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt, in 146th place on a list of 183 countries, according to Transparency International.

After he took power in 2017, he moved to remove dos Santos’s children from key roles. Dos Santos’s daughter, Isabel, had been running Sonangol, while his son, Jose Filomeno — now on trial — had run the sovereign wealth fund.

Despite Angola earning praise for its anti-corruption drive, the economy — which draws a third of state revenues from oil — was in a precarious position before the pandemic.

The country received a record $3.7 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund last year. It also owes billions to China and holds the largest single bilateral debt burden in sub-Saharan Africa, where it is the number 3 economy.

Its debt-to-GDP ratio has climbed to the highest in around two decades, above 100 percent, and servicing its borrowings eat up $9 billion a year.

“The Angolan state owns a major universe of companies — telecom companies, water companies, electricity,” said Falcão of Mayer Brown. “I wouldn’t say they are desperate, but keen to make revenue, and they think a good investment opportunity six months ago would still be a good investment today.”


US stocks rebound following inflation scare

US stocks rebound following inflation scare
Updated 14 May 2021

US stocks rebound following inflation scare

US stocks rebound following inflation scare
  • Rebound comes despite worries that soaring inflation could trigger interest rate rises

LONDON: US stocks rebounded on Thursday, a day after slumping on worries that soaring US inflation could trigger interest rate rises sooner than expected, and in turn harm global economic recovery.

Focus was also on bitcoin, which resumed sharp falls after Tesla’s Elon Musk stopped allowing people to pay for his electric cars with the cryptocurrency.

While US stocks opened higher, with the Dow adding 0.3 percent, their sharp losses on Wednesday pulled Asian and European stocks along with them on Thursday.

Tokyo’s main stocks index closed down 2.5 percent and European stocks also suffered sharp losses but recovered as the opening bell in New York approached.

With little in the way of news to spur the reversal, this invites “the notion that the scope of recent losses has gone far enough to whet the appetite of buy-the-dippers who have successfully feasted over the last year or so on down moves like the one that has recently unfolded,” said analyst Patrick J. O’Hare at Briefing.com.

Stock markets were already awash with red this week owing to growing fears that the blockbuster global economic recovery and vast stimulus measures will see cashed-up consumers go on a pent-up spending spree that will strain supplies and push up costs.

And those concerns were given oxygen Wednesday by figures showing US consumer inflation spiked at 4.2 percent in April, far higher than estimates and the highest since 2008 just before the global financial crisis kicked in.

That was followed on Thursday by data showing that producer prices jumped by 6.2 percent in April, the highest pace since 2010.

The advances were driven by a rally in commodity prices such as widely used copper, iron and lumber, which are sitting at record or multi-year highs.

“For stocks this might be an even tougher moment, given that companies may find themselves struggling to pass on price increases to customers, hitting profitability and putting the year-long earnings recovery in jeopardy,” noted Chris Beauchamp, chief market analyst at IG trading group.

Tech firms, which blossomed during lockdowns as people were forced to stay home, have led the share-price losses as they are more susceptible to higher interest rates.

The Fed has repeatedly insisted it expects such sharp price spikes but they will be transitory owing to last year’s low base and policymakers will not make any adjustments until they are happy unemployment is under control and inflation is running hot for some time.

However, investors are not convinced and there is growing unease that the central bank could lose control of the situation if it does not act in time, with analysts warning it could risk people’s confidence in the institution.

Tai Hui, at JP Morgan Asset Management, remained broadly upbeat about the outlook for equities, saying that while the sell-off was heavy, the gain in US Treasury yields — a gauge of future interest rates — was less severe.

“The market’s reaction ... (was) mild, reflecting the belief that this jump in inflation will eventually calm and revert closer to the Fed’s long-term target,” he said.

Regarding Bitcoin meanwhile, after Musk cited the environmental impact caused by the computing-intense mining process of creating new units, the cryptocurrency slumped around 16 percent.

It later recovered before trading down around 10 percent at $50,400 on Thursday.


How big is Bitcoin’s carbon footprint?

How big is Bitcoin’s carbon footprint?
Updated 14 May 2021

How big is Bitcoin’s carbon footprint?

How big is Bitcoin’s carbon footprint?
  • Concerns mount about the way bitcoin is ‘mined’ using fossil fuels

LONDON: Tesla boss Elon Musk’s sudden u-turn over accepting bitcoin to buy his electric vehicles has thrust the cryptocurrency’s energy usage into the headlights.

Some Tesla investors, along with environmentalists, have been increasingly critical about the way bitcoin is “mined” using vast amounts of electricity generated with fossil fuels.

Musk said on Wednesday he backed that concern, especially the use of “coal, which has the worst emissions of any fuel.”

So how dirty is the virtual currency?

Power hungry

Unlike mainstream traditional currencies, bitcoin is virtual and not made from paper or plastic, or even metal. Bitcoin is virtual but power-hungry as it is created using high-powered computers around the globe.

At current rates, such bitcoin “mining” devours about the same amount of energy annually as the Netherlands did in 2019, data from the University of Cambridge and the International Energy Agency shows. Some bitcoin proponents note that the existing financial system with its millions of employees and computers in air-conditioned offices uses large amounts of energy too.

Coal connection

The world’s biggest cryptocurrency, which was once a fringe asset class, has become increasingly mainstream as it is accepted by more major US companies and financial firms. Greater demand, and higher prices, lead to more miners competing to solve puzzles in the fastest time to win coin, using increasingly powerful computers that need more energy.

Bitcoin is created when high-powered computers compete against other machines to solve complex mathematical puzzles, an energy-intensive process that often relies on fossil fuels, particularly coal, the dirtiest of them all.

Green Bitcoin?

Bitcoin production is estimated to generate between 22 and 22.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year, or between the levels produced by Jordan and Sri Lanka, a 2019 study in scientific journal Joule found.

There are growing attempts in the cryptocurrency industry to mitigate the environmental harm of mining and the entrance of big corporations into the crypto market could boost incentives to produce “green bitcoin” using renewable energy. Some sustainability experts say that companies could buy carbon credits to compensate for the impact. And blockchain analysis firms say that it is possible in theory to track the source of bitcoin, raising the possibility that a premium could be charged for green bitcoin. Climate change policies by governments around the world might also help.

Alternative energy

Projects from Canada to Siberia are striving for ways to wean bitcoin mining away from fossil fuels, such as using hydropower, or at least to reduce its carbon footprint, and make the currency more palatable to mainstream investors.

Some are attempting to repurpose the heat generated by the mining to serve agriculture, heating and other needs, while others are using power generated by flare gas — a by-product from oil extraction usually burned off — for crypto mining.

China crisis

The dominance of Chinese miners and lack of motivation to swap cheap fossil fuels for more expensive renewables means there are few quick fixes to bitcoin’s emissions problem, some industry players and academics warn. Chinese miners account for about 70 percent of production, data from the University of Cambridge’s Center for Alternative Finance shows. They tend to use renewable energy — mostly hydropower — during the rainy summer months, but fossil fuels — primarily coal — for the rest of the year.


Samsung boosts non-memory chip investment to $151bn

Samsung boosts non-memory chip investment  to $151bn
Updated 14 May 2021

Samsung boosts non-memory chip investment to $151bn

Samsung boosts non-memory chip investment  to $151bn
  • The government will offer about 1 trillion won in long-term loans for increasing 8-inch wafer chip contract manufacturing capacity

SEOUL: Samsung Electronics on Thursday raised its planned investment in non-memory chips to 171 trillion won ($151 billion) through 2030, joining a rush of firms ramping up investments amid a global semiconductor shortage.

Countries have also been working to bolster chip supply chains as the chip shortage affects production in industries such as autos. South Korea on Thursday said it would offer bigger tax breaks plus 1 trillion won ($883 million) in loans for its local chip industry.

Some 153 chip companies including global No. 1 and 2 memory chip makers Samsung and SK Hynix already have plans to invest a combined 510 trillion won or more between this year and 2030, according to the Korea Semiconductor Industry Association.

Samsung’s increased investment target, up from 133 trillion won announced in 2019, is expected to be used for its goal to become the world’s No. 1 logic chipmaker by 2030. It wants to challenge bigger rivals TSMC in contract chip manufacturing and Qualcomm in mobile processing chips.

Samsung also said in a statement that its third chip production line at Pyeongtaek, south of Seoul — the size of 25 football fields — will be completed in the second half of 2022. “Countries around the world have entered fierce competition by reorganizing supply chains around their own country,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in said Thursday at Samsung’s chip site at Pyeongtaek.

“We need pre-emptive investments ... to strengthen the domestic industrial ecosystem and lead the global supply chain to make this opportunity ours.”

South Korea will increase tax breaks to 6 percent from the current 3 percent or lower for capital expenditures between second half of 2021 to 2024 for large corporations conducting “key strategic technology” including semiconductors, the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy said in a statement.

The government will offer about 1 trillion won in long-term loans for increasing 8-inch wafer chip contract manufacturing capacity and investment for materials and packaging. It also raised number of chip industry workers to be educated to 36,000 by 2030, more than double its previous target in 2019. “Setting up an environment where smaller fabless firms can thrive, with plenty of workforce and foundries, would naturally bolster system chip industry,” said Jinwook Burm, head of the Institute of Semiconductor Engineers.

In March, US President Joe Biden flagged plans to invest $50 billion in semiconductor manufacturing and research.

Chips are the No. 1 export item for South Korea, accounting for about 20 percent of exports.

Samsung, Hyundai Motor, the ministry and industry associations also agreed to join efforts to respond to auto chips’ shortage on Thursday, the presidential office said in its statement without providing details.


Sudan PM hopes to settle $60bn foreign debt this year

Sudan PM hopes to settle $60bn foreign debt this year
Updated 13 May 2021

Sudan PM hopes to settle $60bn foreign debt this year

Sudan PM hopes to settle $60bn foreign debt this year
  • ADB arrears paid with $425 million loan from U.K., Sweden and Ireland
  • The Paris Club of major creditors make up around 38 percent of foreign debt

Khartoum: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok hopes Sudan can wipe out its staggering $60 billion foreign debt bill this year by securing relief and deals at an upcoming Paris conference that could bring much-needed investment.
The seasoned UN economist-turned-premier took office at the head of a transitional government shortly after the 2019 ouster of president Omar Al-Bashir whose three-decade iron-fisted rule was marked by economic hardship, deep internal conflicts, and biting international sanctions.
In the past two years, Hamdok and his government have pushed to rebuild the crippled economy and end Sudan’s international isolation.
“We have already settled the World Bank arrears, those of the African Development Bank, and in Paris, we will be settling the International Monetary Fund arrears,” Hamdok told AFP at his office in Khartoum.
Arrears due to the African Development Bank were cleared through a bridging loan worth $425 million from Sweden, Britain and Ireland, while debts to the World Bank were paid off with a $1.1 billion bridging loan from the US.
“Paris also is home to the Paris Club, our biggest creditors... and we will be discussing debt relief with them,” Hamdok said.
Sudan’s debts to the Paris Club, which includes major creditor countries, is estimated to make up around 38 percent of its total $60 billion foreign debt.
Hamdok and top Sudanese officials will be attending Monday’s Paris conference along with by French President Emmanuel Macron, and World Bank and IMF representatives.
The aim is to draw investments to Sudan including in the energy, infrastructure, agriculture and telecommunications sectors.
“We are going to the Paris conference to let foreign investors explore the opportunities for investing in Sudan,” Hamdok said.
“We are not looking for grants or donations.”
Sudan was taken off Washington’s blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism in December, removing a major hurdle to foreign investment.
The government has also embarked on tough measures including subsidy cuts and introducing a managed currency float to qualify for an IMF debt relief program.
Though widely unpopular, the premier says the measures were necessary to move toward debt relief “by the end of the year.”
But many challenges still lie ahead.
His government has been pushing to forge peace with rebel groups to end conflicts in far-flung regions.
In October, it signed a landmark peace deal with rebels from the western region of Darfur as well the southern states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile.
Only two groups including one which wields substantial power in Darfur refused to sign the deal.
To Hamdok, the peace deal represents “50 percent on the road to peace.”
Efforts are underway to sign deals with the remaining groups, and talks with a faction of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North (SPLM-N) are slated for later this month.
Hamdok acknowledged the slow pace of implementing the peace deal, but said Sudan is “steadily moving forward.”
In February, Sudan appointed three ex-rebels to the ruling sovereign council and announced a new transitional cabinet including seven ex-rebels.
“We have come a long way... and in my view the second stage of talks will go much faster.”
Simmering tensions with neighboring Ethiopia over a fertile border region and a gigantic dam on the Blue Nile pose another challenge.


UK medical tech firm reveals Saudi expansion plans

UK medical tech firm reveals Saudi expansion plans
Updated 13 May 2021

UK medical tech firm reveals Saudi expansion plans

UK medical tech firm reveals Saudi expansion plans
  • Nemaura Medical has developed a diabetes-tracking wearable device
  • Product launches are planned for Germany, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia

RIYADH: A British medical technology company behind an innovative diabetes monitoring system has identified Saudi Arabia as one of its key target markets.

Nemaura Medical has developed a wearables device which can help diabetics track their blood glucose levels, and the Kingdom is high on the firm’s international expansion plans list.

Its sugarBEAT continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) product was recently launched in the UK and is targeted at people suffering from conditions such as diabetes who want a needle-free alternative.

Initially the company recorded orders of 200,000 sugarBEAT sensors in the UK and has forecast total sales of 2.1 million this year.

Following positive feedback in the UK, it has announced plans to expand internationally and is lining up product launches in Germany, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia.

Dr. Faz Chowdhury, the chief executive officer of Nemaura Medical, said: “We believe our technology is ground-breaking and represents a paradigm shift in the way people with diabetes can manage their condition.

“We believe we have a critical first-mover advantage with a product that is easier to use, more flexible, and more cost-effective than existing technologies. We are not aware of any product of a similar nature in clinical studies or that has been submitted for regulatory approval.”

Nemaura Medical was founded in 2011 and recently expanded into the wearables market to develop and commercialize devices which can help to monitor chronic diseases and health conditions without the need for needles.

The CGM market is a growing sector and according to the Allied Market Research company will be worth around $9 billion by 2027.

The potential market for devices such as sugerBEAT in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is considered strong with data from the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) showing more than 39 million 20 to 79-year-olds in the region having the condition in 2019. The figure is expected to increase to 108 million by 2045.

The IDF has estimated that in Saudi Arabia 15 percent of the adult population has diabetes.