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Re-modeling the BRICS New Development Bank

Occasional Paper 9/2023




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OCTOBER 2023


by Prof William Gumede

Former Programme Director, Africa Asia Centre, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London; former Senior Associate Member and Oppenheimer Fellow, St Antony’s College, Oxford University; and author of South Africa in BRICS (Tafelberg).


Introduction


The BRICS New Development Bank (NDB), a new anchor institution of the trade alliance, will have to re-examine its role, model, and activities, after struggling to expand as rapidly as envisioned, battling to secure more diversified funding and failing to effectively challenge Western-dominated multilateral development financial institutions as intended at its launch.


The BRICS New Development Bank, formerly called the BRICS Development Bank, appointed former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff as president of the bank in March this year, to provide fresh leadership to the organisation. Strengthening the capacity of the NDB, refining its role and structure, was at the top of the agenda of the recent BRICS summit in August.


The Shanghai-based NDB was established in 2015 with US$10 billion in paid-in share capital from each member of the BRICS trade alliance – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – which was founded in 2009. The idea behind forming the NDB was to challenge the existing Western-dominated global financial institutions, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), in providing lending to developing countries (Woods, 2006).


Simultaneously, the BRICS countries also established a Contingent Reserve Arrangement (CRA), with a commitment of US$100 billion, to provide “a framework for the provision of support through liquidity and precautionary instruments in response to actual or potential short-term balance of payments pressures” among BRICS members. This was a direct challenge to the IMF. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was also set up by China to counter the Western-dominated global financial institutions.


BRICS and other developing countries have criticised global financial institutions, such as the World Bank, IMF, and World Trade Organization (WTO) for excluding them in shareholding, decision-making, representation voting, and ideas. BRICS have called “for the reform of international financial institutions to make them more representative and to reflect the growing weight of BRICS and other developing countries”.


The BRICS members aim to reshape global power, to counterbalance the dominance of the US and Western countries and to give the Global South more power in relation to the West in multilateral institutions such as the United Nations (UN), World Trade Organization and World Bank, and the IMF – which are dominated by Western countries. BRICS also plan to create, and have tried to set up, their own alternative development organisations to rival Western-dominated international financial, trade and political institutions.


Trying to forge a development bank for developing countries, rather than just for BRICS countries


The New Development Bank is a key part of the BRICS development strategy to challenge Western-dominated global hegemony. Headquartered in Shanghai, the bank has US$50 billion in subscribed capital. However, the bank has been hoping to raise capital from new members.


Currently, the bank has eight member countries and only loans to members, despite envisaging at its launch that it would lend to members and non-members. The only new members, outside BRICS, since 2021 are Egypt, United Arab Emirates, and Bangladesh. Uruguay is in the process of being admitted, and the bank is considering applications from 15 other countries that have applied for membership.


Rousseff has stated the bank’s ambition to forge a development bank for developing countries – what she calls “a bank made by developing countries for themselves”. A previous developing country effort to create a successful alternative to the World Bank, the Banco del Sur (Bank of the South), failed to do so (Chandrasekhar, 2014).


Leslie Maasdorp, the CFO of the bank, said: “The intention has always been to create a global bank anchored in emerging markets.” The bank’s aim is to lend to, without attaching political conditions such as good governance, structural adjustment, or using the staff or businesses of the lender as part of its loans, to distinguish itself from the World Bank, IMF, and Western lenders.


Many developing countries have criticised Western lenders for placing onerous conditions on lending requirements to developing countries, such as insisting countries must introduce neoliberal economic policies – including often extreme austerity measures – use Western advisors and companies, and vote in global multilateral institutions in tandem with Western countries (Bond, 2001; Woods, 2006; Green & Kalomeris, 2015).


While the bank may say it will not demand political conditions for its loans, the challenge is going to be for the bank to apply financially responsible conditions, to ensure its grants are prudently used, for the purposes intended, and to extract remedies when lending is abused. Development banks provide funding to large development projects deemed too risky for the private sector. Because of this, they need to put stringent performance measures, financial oversight, project feasibility measures, market analysis, and funds audits in place to ensure the funds provided are prudently used, given that the funded project is already high risk (Gumede et al, 2011).


Another challenge for the bank is commercial sustainability, particularly since it sources large amounts of its funding from the markets. The one condition the NDB requires for its loans, is that governments must guarantee the loans they give to domestic state development projects – such guarantees help bring down borrowing costs and lends credibility and authority to the bank.


Nevertheless, as eminent Indian economist Chandrasekhar (2014: 10) has warned: “Any form of socially concerned lending that does not yield a return adequate to cover costs and deliver at least a nominal profit will be ruled out (by the NDB). There is only so much an institution whose activities are constrained by market realities can do.”


Robust social, economic, and environmental impact assessments are fundamental. Green and Kalomeris (2015) perfectly sum up the challenge for the NDB: “On one hand, the bank can be seen as an alternative to the Western-based conditionality of existing institutions. MDB loan conditions are often called excessive or even hypocritical when requirements exceed the actions of the lender at a similar point of development. On the other hand, if it supports projects with controversial environmental, social, or corruption concerns, the NDB is left open to criticism.” Green and Kalomeris (2015) argue the NDB will have to make sure “that conditionality is prudential, rather than political, is a prerequisite”.


Finally, it is moot whether the NDB will be more robust in its respect for the environment, dignity of communities, good governance, and human rights in its development projects than traditional Western lenders. Civil society organisations, the media, and human rights activists in BRICS will have to hold the bank accountable.


However, with only three of the founding members – Brazil, India, and South Africa – being democracies, and the rest not, and with a number of new members also likely not to be democratic, it is going to be an uphill battle. Nevertheless, it is crucial that civil society organisations, the media, and human rights activists in the developing world hold the bank accountable to uphold sustainability, good governance, and human rights.


New members joining the bank


The NDB has struggled to expand to large numbers of emerging markets – from its core five founding members. The bank has expressed as a priority its intention to expand its geographic representation, which compares poorly to other development banks. For example, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which was launched in 2016, has 106 members, including 45 members outside Asia and 23 European countries.


Dilma Rousseff, the president of the NDB, said the bank was reviewing applications for membership – which is open for members of the United Nations – from about 15 countries. Bringing in new members is critical for the bank to diversify its project portfolio, mobilise capital and to de-dollarise. The bank is keen to get new members to increase its capital base, and it wants to increase fundraising in member currencies, to reduce its reliance on the US dollar.


The entry in January 2024 of six new BRICS members – Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates – in particular the petrodollar countries, who will also become members of the bank, will not only boost the geographic representation of the bank, but may bring in much-needed fresh capital and projects. Saudi Arabia, for example, is the largest economy in the Middle East and is one of 18 countries in the world with a gross domestic product larger than US$1 trillion. The US is the largest, with US$23 trillion, China second, with US$17.5 trillion, and Japan third, with US$4.9 trillion.


Currently, Russia is the only large oil producer in BRICS. The fact that large oil producers such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Egypt will be joining BRICS, means the group will dominate the world’s energy supply. The strength of the US dollar is partially based on the currency underpinning oil trade – the so-called petrodollar – and members of OPEC (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) settle their accounts in US dollars. Therefore, if the petrodollar BRICS members trade with their own currencies within BRICS, it could substantially accelerate the de-dollarisation of the world.


The bank’s shareholder governance structures provides that the five founding members will retain the majority voting power and the senior board and executive positions. The BRICS jointly hold the majority share of 55% of the bank, with each founding member having an equal voting share. The founding agreement stipulates that the NDB leadership will be rotated among the shareholders.


The bank tries to make decisions based on consensus. However, there are fears that China, which has provided the most capital so far, will necessarily dominate decision-making in similar ways to how, for example, the US or Europe dominates the World Bank or IMF.


Furthermore, a big challenge for the NDB will be whether it can maintain institutional independence from its shareholders – in order to make decisions based on developmental sustainability, rather than on political motivations. Many developing countries’ domestic development banks have failed because decisions to lend are often based on political patronage considerations, rather than on purely developmental, sustainability and growth reasons, leading to unsustainable, poor quality and low development impact projects.


Nevertheless, new members may not be happy to take backseats in decision-making and management – and the bank may have to relook its governance statutes to give new members equitable say. The bank, therefore, will have to find a way to include new members in decision-making, voting and representation – if it does not want to run the risk of being accused of also being dominated by the founders in the same way Western countries dominate global financial institutions such as the World Bank and IMF.


Western sanctions against Russia have undermined the NDB’s operations


Western sanctions against member Russia because of its war on Ukraine have also undermined the NDB’s operations, its ability to expand more rapidly and to secure more diversified funding. In fact, the bank suspended all its activities in Russia, fearing Western sanctions – Russia holds 19.4% of the bank’s capital.


Fitch, the rating agency, downgraded the bank’s debt from AA+ to AA last year, because of Russia’s holdings in the bank, saying that the bank “could face challenges to issue a long-term bond on US capital markets”. In May this year, Fitch changed the bank’s outlook to stable following the bank’s successful issuing of a US$1.2 billion green bond.


The impact of the Russia-Ukraine war on the BRICS development bank is forcing a rethink of the role of the bank. BRICS countries now want the bank to play a central role in de-dollarising the global markets. However, the bank is heavily dependent on US capital markets, with the majority of the bank’s capital, around 70%, in US dollars. The bank could not issue a US$1.06 billion Russian bond after it set up a rouble programme in 2019, because of Western sanctions against the country.


Sanctions against Russia have also increased the bank’s borrowing costs – particularly US dollar-based transactions. As a case in point, a five-year US$1.5 billion bond issued by the bank in 2021 had a 1.125% coupon; but two years later a similar five-year bond had a 5.125% coupon, making the bank more expensive than other development banks. Because of the increase in the costs of the bank’s lending, it reduced its new lending.


The bank only lent US$1 billion loans in 2022 – partially as a result of the impact of the Russia-Ukraine war. The bank’s CFO, Leslie Maasdorp, told Reuters that, because “of the capital market challenges of 2022, and in an endeavour to preserve the bank’s core financial ratios, there was indeed a slowdown”.


The bank’s role in de-dollarisation of the global economy


BRICS economies are seeking to reduce the use of the US dollar in trade. Russia is proposing that the New Development Bank (BRICS Bank) should become a clearing centre for a BRICS common currency.


“We are ready to discuss them within the New Development Bank framework that may become a kind of clearing centre. This is not the core business for the bank now but this is [also] not the main obstacle to solve the task,” according to Russia’s Finance Minister, Anton Siluanov.


Brazil’s President, Lula da Silva, has also put forward that the BRICS bank become a clearing house for a proposed BRICS common currency. “Why can’t an institution like the BRICS bank have a currency to finance trade relations between Brazil and China, between Brazil and all the other BRICS countries?” Lula asked early in the year during a visit to the BRICS bank’s head office in Shanghai (Bloomberg, 2023a).


The bank is planning to increase its lending in local currencies, to reduce its reliance on using the US dollar as the dominant currency of transactions. Using local currencies not only strengthens local markets, but it also shields local borrowers from currency fluctuations. The currencies of many developing countries are not convertible, which causes their economies to suffer disproportionally from currency fluctuations.


Two-thirds of the NDB’s loan book was in US dollars; currently only 22% of the bank’s transactions are in local currency. The bank wants to increase it to 30% by 2026, and therefore, will push for local currencies to be used more in trade between BRICS countries. The idea is that BRICS members should be able to use their own currencies to finance projects or do trade in other member countries.


Leslie Maasdorp, the CFO of the bank, said the reality was that the US dollar was where the largest pool of liquidity is (Sguazzin, 2023). The bank is aiming to increase the use of local currencies to not only reduce the risks of foreign exchange fluctuations, but also as part of the BRICS trade alliance’s strategy to de-dollarise. Most developing countries use the US dollar to trade, borrow and price the commodities they produce. Their economies are therefore sensitive to changes in US monetary policy, which affects the value of the dollar, as it directly impacts on them.


Many BRICS members have dollar-denominated debt, which has increasingly become expensive to service, because the US central bank often raises interest rates to counter downturns in its domestic economy. This then destabilises the economies of developing countries, who predominantly trade in US dollars.


In the 18 months up to 26 July 2023, the US Federal Reserve, its central bank, had raised its interest rates up 5.25 percentage points – an aggressive strategy, which has destabilised the economies of many developing countries (Bodea, 2023). It has forced foreign capital flows from developing countries to the US where it would be more attractive for them. This depressed the currencies of many developing countries, who are then forced to copy US interest hikes, also destabilising their domestic economies, causing, for example, recessions of their interest rates, which are already high.


In addition, many developing countries export or import commodities that are priced in US dollars. Exchange rate fluctuations therefore impact on their imports and exports. And since many developing countries have their debts in US dollars, this means that servicing debts becomes more expensive if their domestic currencies depreciate against the US dollar. Many developing countries also borrow in US dollars – meaning their borrowing costs will also be more expensive. David Malpass, former President of the World Bank, in April 2023, said that around 60% of lower-income countries are at high risk of debt distress – and thus, are severely impacted by US interest rate hikes.


Lending in local currency would reduce foreign exchange fluctuations and risks for BRICS members; and will decrease the negative impacts of US domestic interest rate variations, which cause fluctuations in the US dollar, undermining US dollar-based transactions around the globe.


The value of the US dollar has increased in relation to most emerging market currencies since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war, after the US central bank increased interest rates to tackle domestic inflation in 2022. This has increased the servicing of US dollar debt for developing countries.


Vladimir Kazbekov, the chief operating officer of the NDB, explained how localisation of currencies would work. “A project in South Africa can be financed in the [Chinese currency] renminbi, not with US dollars. This would be done especially with projects that require the importing of parts, which would be cheaper to use local BRICS currencies than using US dollars,” Kazbekov said (Mahlaka, 2023).


As part of this new strategy to de-dollarise, the bank will, in 2023, lend in the South African, Brazilian, and Indian currencies – either through currency swaps or debt issuing (Bloomberg, 2023b). Two years ago, the bank made a commitment to provide US$3 billion to finance South Africa’s “Just Transition” from coal to renewable energy. However, South Africa has been unable to provide the projects to finance. In 2019, the bank registered an initiative to sell R10 billion in debt on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.


The bank issued its first South African debt sale in 2023 when it sold R1.5 billion in bonds. The NDB closed the auction of the rand-denominated bonds on 15 August. The South African bond auction raised R1.5 billion, which will be used to fund development, infrastructure, and industrialisation initiatives in the country. The NDB also plans to fund South Africa’s ailing state-owned entities, but will provide funding to private companies too, it says.


The bank is already lending in Chinese currency, the yuan. In fact, more than half of the bank’s lending has been in yuan. Most of the bank’s funding has been from the Chinese market, using the proceeds from issuing yuan-dominated bonds in the Chinese market to fund projects.


In May 2023, the bank raised 8.5 billion Chinese yuan (US$1.20 billion) through a so-called Panda bond transaction, with the proceeds being invested as part of the bank’s liquid assets. The Bank of China was the lead underwriter of the bond. Up to 100 percent of the net proceeds from a Panda bond, or yuan-denominated bond – which were first issued in 2005 – may be remitted offshore in yuan and converted into other currencies. The bank is now planning to register to issue bonds in Indian rupees to the tune of US$2.5 billion over five years.


Typical new projects funded


The NDB’s mandate allows it to “support public or private projects through loans, guarantees, equity participation and other financial instruments”.


The bank has an authorised capital of US$100 billion. Since its launch, it has approved 80 projects in all of its member countries, translating into a portfolio of US$30 billion. The projects cover transport, water and sanitation, clean energy, digital infrastructure, social infrastructure, and urban development. The bank aims to channel 40% of its lending to climate-related projects.


Since the Russia-Ukraine war, the bank has stopped lending to Russia, for fear of Western sanctions. The largest proportion of the bank’s lending is to South Africa, which makes up more than 18% of the bank’s total loans of US$33 billion. The NDB has announced it would provide Transnet, the South African state-owned logistics company, with a loan facility of US$1 billion by the end of 2023 for the modernisation of the Transnet fleet and locomotives. The NDB has given the loan to Transnet on condition that the South African government stands as guarantee for the full loan.


Transnet posted an annual loss of R5.7 billion (US$304 million) for the 2022/2023 financial year. The SOE’s debt has ballooned to R130 billion – it is paying R1 billion a month to service this debt pile (Jacobs, 2023). At this rate, the chances are high that Transnet will default on its debt repayments in the future. If this is the case, the government will have to repay the Transnet NDB loan. The NDB in August 2023 also provided a US$75 million loan to Telkom for the expansion of its telecommunications infrastructure and network.


In addition, the NDB has given South Africa’s state-owned Trans-Caledon Tunnel Authority (TCTA) a R3.2 billion loan to implement Phase Two of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project. The project involves the building of the Polihali Dam and Reservoir, which is a 38km water transfer tunnel that combines roads, bridges, and telecommunications networks. The project on completion will provide South Africa with 71 million litres of water per year; it currently produces 24 million litres of water per year. The South African government is providing full guarantees for the project – as per the NDB’s lending conditions.


In July 2023, the bank approved a US$57.6 million loan to the Serra municipality in the southeastern state of Espírito Santo in Brazil, to develop its public transport infrastructure. In the same month, the bank approved a US$60.95 million water sanitation infrastructure project for the Water and Sanitation Company of Paraiba, in the Brazilian state of Paraiba. The bank also approved a US$120 million loan to the municipality of Aparecida de Goiânia in the state of Goiás in Brazil, to improve urban mobility and social infrastructure.


In March 2023, the bank approved a US$638.12 million loan to the government of the state of Bihar in India to improve rural roads. In December 2022, the bank approved a US$346.72 million loan to the state of Tamil Nadu in India for the Chennai Metro Rail Limited state entity to upgrade rail infrastructure. In July 2022, the bank provided US$79.05 million in funding to the state of Meghalaya in India for its Meghalaya Ecotourism Development project.


In July 2023, the bank approved 2.415 million yuan to China’s Hubei Province for the establishment of the Wuhan Smart Logistics Hub in the Wuhan Municipality. In June 2023, the bank approved US$50 million to the Bank of Huzhou Co. to finance a municipal project in the Zhejiang Province, to develop low-carbon, clean energy, and energy efficiency. Within the project, the NDB facilitates the private sector in China to bridge the funding gap for clean energy projects. The bank in October 2022 approved US$200 million funding for the Liaoning Environmentally Sustainable Urban Development Project in the Liaoning Province of China to finance sustainable urban infrastructure in the Anshan and Lingyuan Municipalities.


Conclusion


The Russia-Ukraine war – and the threat of sanctions against the bank – is one of the reasons for the bank’s increase in lending costs, slowdown in lending, and failure to secure more funding from capital markets.


The entry of six new BRICS members, especially the oil producers, offers an incredible opportunity for the bank to extend its geographical reach, secure new capital and increase its operations. For BRICS members, the bank is likely to be a key institution, to push its strategy of de-dollarisation. In 2023, as part of this new strategy to de-dollarise, the bank will lend in the South African, Brazilian, and Indian currencies – either through currency swaps or debt issuing.


Lending in each other’s currencies will not only be a tool to de-risk transactions against exchange fluctuations, but it is also likely to increase the de-dollarisation of the global economy – over the long term. Under the new leadership of former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, the bank enters a new era, with a focus on becoming a development bank for developing countries.


However, to reach this goalpost, and to challenge Western-dominated global development banks, the NDB will have to expand its geographical footprint, dramatically scale up its lending capacity and transform its governance structure to allow for new members to have a say in decisions. Finally, it is critical that the bank respects the environment, sustainability, the dignity of communities, good governance, and human rights in its development projects, footprint, and partnering.


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This report has been published by the Inclusive Society Institute

The Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) is an autonomous and independent institution that functions independently from any other entity. It is founded for the purpose of supporting and further deepening multi-party democracy. The ISI’s work is motivated by its desire to achieve non-racialism, non-sexism, social justice and cohesion, economic development and equality in South Africa, through a value system that embodies the social and national democratic principles associated with a developmental state. It recognises that a well-functioning democracy requires well-functioning political formations that are suitably equipped and capacitated. It further acknowledges that South Africa is inextricably linked to the ever transforming and interdependent global world, which necessitates international and multilateral cooperation. As such, the ISI also seeks to achieve its ideals at a global level through cooperation with like-minded parties and organs of civil society who share its basic values. In South Africa, ISI’s ideological positioning is aligned with that of the current ruling party and others in broader society with similar ideals.


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