Now that the New York Times has breathlessly put Chinese imperialism in Ecuador on the front page of its Sunday edition, I feel like I must point out that China is securing neither physical supplies of Ecuadorean oil nor favorable prices. And it is certainly not earning rents on the money it lends the Ecuadorean government. China may be buying goodwill and it may be buying the rights to develop some of the last untapped conventional oilfields on Earth ... but it is getting neither cheap.
We covered physical shipments back in 2012. Nothing has changed. Most of the molecules pulled out of the ground in Ecuador wind up in Californian refineries.
What about price? The oil might physically end up in California, but most of it passes through Chinese ownership. In theory, that would give the Chinese middlemen monopsony power. In practice, it does not. In fact, the Chinese overpay for the oil.
Up until 2012, the loans-for-oil deals required the Chinese lenders to take Ecuadorean oil in repayment valued at a premium over the WTI price. In December 2012, Ecuador stopped charging a premium for its oil. That sounds like maybe perhaps now the Chinese were finally taking advantage of their position ... but such a conclusion would be wrong. Traditionally, Ecuadorean oil traded at a discount under WTI because it was of low quality and could only be sold to California refineries unless it was shipped through the Panama Canal. In 2012, however, for the first time ever, Ecuadorean crude sold at a premium over WTI around US$4 per barrel. (Californian refineries needed that heavy oil.) The Chinese buyers did not wish to pay a premium over the premium, and so the Ecuadoreans agreed to deliver the oil at the market price.
Maybe the contracts were just folderole? Perhaps canny Chinese traders managed to squeeze out monopsony profits regardless? Well, we can check that. PetroEcuador sells its oil mostly to Chinese buyers. The private companies operating in Ecuador do not. (They technically turn their oil over to the Ecuadorean government for a per-barrel fee, which then sells it back to them, at which point they sell it again at a further markup upon which they pay taxes.) The prices at which PetroEcuador and the private companies sell their oil is publicly available. And what do those prices tell us?
The blue line shows the difference between the price charged by PetroEcuador (which sells to the Chinese) and the price charged by the private producers. PetroEcuador generally receives more money per barrel. In fact, PetroEcuador managed to take advantage of a spike in Californian prices in early 2011 that passed the other producers right by.
The red line shows the difference between the price received by PetroEcuador and the landed price of oil in California, which is the relevant market. It shows no trend: the increase in oil sales to Chinese middlemen does not drive up the spread between the price paid by Californian refineries and the price received by PetroEcuador. (The spread does increase at the end of 2014; that is an effect of the general oil price crash, as all Ecuadorean producers tried to keep up their market share.)
OK, then. The oil is still going to California and the Ecuadoreans are receiving a good price. So maybe the Chinese are charging extortionate interest on their loans? It certainly could be. But again, that is easy to check.
How do the terms on the Chinese loans stack up against those offered by private creditors? The red bars show the lending rate on the Chinese loans. The blue bars show the yield on Ecuador’s 2015 bond at the time the loans were made. In every case, the red line is below the blue line. The last loan, from the Chinese Ex-Im Bank, uses Ecuador’s new issue due in 2024 as a benchmark ... which brings home just how incredibly cheap that last loan happens to be.
The New York Times article mentions “steep interest payments” on the Chinese loans. I have no idea what they are talking about.
The Times article also states, “Along with taking the bulk of oil exports, the Chinese companies also collect $25 to $50 in fees from Ecuador for each barrel they pump.”
What it does not tell you is that said fee is in fact a triumph of Ecuadorean resource nationalism. Remember how private oil producers (Chinese and Western) in Ecuador turn over their production to the government and then buy it back? Well, that fee is what the government pays them for their oil. The difference between that and the market price is pure rent for the Ecuadorean state. It is the exact opposite of imperial exploitation. (The contracts are quite clever; the newest ones give the companies a higher price if they reduce costs.) The government also takes 70% of the profit on oil sales. (Page 178.)
The article’s phrasing, however, makes it seem as though Chinese companies take the oil for free and then charge a fee on top of that. Very misleading.
The article also says, “China’s terms are putting countries in precarious positions.” But that doesn’t make any sense! The terms of the loans are great for the borrowers. Falling oil prices are what is putting Ecuador in a precarious position. As for China’s ability to threaten trade or other sanctions should Ecuador default ... well, tell that to the Argentines or the Greeks. Western creditors, public and private, are also pretty good at that sort of thing. (I wrote a book about it!)
Ditto the way that China forces the recipients of its finances to buy its products and contract with its companies. My co-blogger knows more about development aid than I ever will, but from what I saw on the ground in Afghanistan and Africa that sort of thing seems to be the rule ... even if it is technically disallowed. (Doug?) And I must also admit that while the anecdotes about Chinese labor and environmental practices are quite telling, I also doubt that they are much worse than the Western record. (Setty?)
Finally, love it or hate it, the Refinería del Pacífico is a purely Ecuadorean idea. If it turns out to be a bad one (I suspect it is) then perhaps one could blame the Chinese for going along Ecuadorean desires. But the refinery is not a boneheadedly stupid idea. There are real reasons to support it; opponents (like myself) are making a judgment based on the risk of failure; reasonable people can disagree about whether the potential reward is worth the risk. Moreover, most of the debt for the refinery will be effectively collateralized. Many of the losses will fall on Chinese banks.
The above, I think, is the opposite of imperialism. Ecuador sold the refinery idea to China and looks as though it might get the Chinese to put up most of the money and take on most of the risks.
If this is a Chinese empire, it makes the American empire look well-run and logical. Which is saying a lot.