I have been tinkering with my mickey-mouse financial model for the Nicaragua Canal.
There is one way to make the Nicaragua Canal look like a decent investment: assume that it comes in on-time and on-budget (which we did) hits all its transit targets (which we did) and that the ships are all sized at the maximum possible (which we did) but also that the Nicaragua Canal will be able to raise average tolls at the same 6.8% rate that the Panama Canal has managed since the 1999 handover. If you believe that is possible, then you can manage a positive 6.1% return through 2030 and a respectable 12.2% return through 2040; breakeven happens in 2027.
Do I believe that is possible? No. Do I believe that equity investors would accept that return? No. Do I believe that with enough debt equity investors might be persuaded to that they could get an acceptable return? Uh ... maybe.
We come back to that whole government-involvement thing. The Nicaragua Canal will need a lot o low-cost debt to be viable even under the most heroic assumption. The project only flies if Beijing decides that it wants it to and is willing to back that up with government money. A whole lot of government money.
Stephen Kaplan is just down the metaphorical hall. I should ask him if he thinks the Chinese government would want to back this ... and if so, why. One colleague of mine suggested “colonization” as a goal of its own. Me, I don’t think the Chinese government thinks that way, at least not in this hemisphere. So I am back to thinking that this project isn’t going to happen.
I have no special insight into Chinese strategic thought. I have heard that it might be about secure access to Venezuelan oil or Trinidadian natural gas, but if I were in the Chinese leadership I would not think building the Canal Rojo a sensible way to attain that goal. Is there any Chinese strategic question to which the Nicaragua Canal is the answer?