Faith in Vietnam Falls With Shipmaker

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By JAMES HOOKWAY.  May 16th, 2011 from The Wall Street Journal.  Frustration over Vietnamese state-run shipbuilder Vinashin’s failure to repay loans it defaulted on last year is intensifying among creditors, potentially jeopardizing Vietnam’s plans to draw more investment to improve its infrastructure and reduce the bottlenecks that threaten its growth.

The problems at Vinashin point to the risks of investing in what, on the face of it, is one of the world’s most attractive emerging markets. Vietnam’s Communist-run government built up the firm, formally known as Vietnam Shipbuilding Industry Group, to be a major player in the global shipbuilding market to compete with heavyweight manufacturers in China, South Korea and Japan. The entire $750 million proceeds of the country’s first-ever sovereign bond were channeled to Vinashin in 2005.

In 2007, the government provided a letter of support for the company to enable it to secure an additional $600 million syndicated loan to make the most of a rapid economic boom in the country.

But when Vinashin defaulted on that debt last December in the aftermath of the global economic crash, the government refused to step in to help pay off the debt, which, in an indication of the boom in emerging markets, had been bought by investors around the world. Dozens of financial institutions invested in the loan, including, among others, Standard Chartered PLC, Credit Suisse AG, Depfa Bank PLC and hedge fund Elliott Advisers Ltd.

Some of Vinashin’s lenders now complain that they have been deceived. For many, the government’s letter of support was the only reason they felt sufficiently secure to lend to the company. This month, a group comprising just over half the lenders’ group sent a letter to Vietnam’s government demanding payment on the first $60 million, which was due in December.

“This was always a government-supported loan as far as the lenders are concerned,” one person familiar with the situation told The Wall Street Journal. “Going forward, capital won’t go to places where it isn’t treated fairly.”

Officials with Vinashin and the Vietnamese government didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The problems with Vinashin highlight the risks investors take when they invest in these small markets. U.S. investors seeking higher yields have poured $5.6 billion into funds that invest in emerging-market bonds so far this year, though that is about half of last year’s pace.

The standoff could pose a significant threat to Vietnam’s prospects. The government already is struggling to come to grips with worsening inflation. The increase in Vietnam’s consumer price index hit 17.51% in April and could reach further peaks in the months to come, complicating the immediate economic outlook for the country.

At the same time, analysts say Vietnam needs to attract more foreign investments to build up overburdened road and rail networks and to build power plants to provide the energy Vietnam needs to keep its economy briskly expanding. Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai said earlier this month at the annual Asian Development Bank meeting in Hanoi that the country hopes to attract as much as $300 billion in investment and aid to fund an infrastructure effort that he said is needed to push the country onto a more robust growth path.

Some economists say the government is trying to get its macroeconomic policy in order to help revive confidence, setting to one side its customary pro-growth policies to better combat the loss of confidence which inflation can bring. Vietnam last week scaled back its growth target for the year to 6.5% from 7% to 7.5% in an effort to focus more tightly on restraining credit growth to better contain inflation.

The authorities also are trying to restore faith in their beleaguered currency, the dong, after a series of devaluations wiped off a fifth of the Vietnamese unit’s value since mid-2008. To encourage people to cooperate, black-market trade in U.S. dollars and gold, once tolerated and widespread, has been severely curtailed in recent months to force people to save and invest in dong instead.

Citigroup economist Johanna Chua notes that the dong has risen by around 2% against the dollar over the past month and that the central bank appears “on track” to meet its target of keeping credit growth below 16% this year, compared with nearly 30% in 2010. UBS, meanwhile, still includes Vietnam among its most favored frontier markets.

The Vinashin crisis, though, is an ongoing drag on Vietnam’s prospects, damaging both its reputation among international lenders and potentially slowing the inflow of foreign investments that have helped drive the country’s economy in recent years.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung’s goal was to turn Vinashin into a manufacturing powerhouse that would keep the shipbuilding industry in state hands, but the project fell apart when the global economic crisis hit in 2008, leaving Vinashin with around $4.4 billion in debts. The company’s order book was slashed, crippling its cash flow. Last summer, police investigators arrested several top officials, including former chief executive Pham Thanh Binh, and accused them of falsifying financial statements to mask the true extent of the company’s problems.

Moody’s Investors Service, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings have all downgraded Vietnam’s credit ratings in recent months, in large part because of the problems at Vinashin. The prime minister apologized for his role in Vinashin’s mismanagement in a nationally televised session of the country’s legislature.

Investors involved in the $600 million syndicated loan say they have been surprised by the unresponsiveness of the Vietnamese government to their concerns. Lenders have tried numerous times over the past several months to get an idea of what is happening at Vinashin. Among other things, the government has transferred some Vinashin units to other state-run enterprises without seeking the approval of the company’s creditors.

The government, though, has repeatedly said that Vinashin’s debts aren’t the state’s responsibility, leaving Vinashin’s lenders unclear on how to get their money back.

In the meantime, the financial situation at Vinashin itself appears to be growing more precarious. “They’re not making any money on the ships and the government is asking local banks to extend more loans and asking suppliers to lend more support,” says the person familiar with the situation at Vinashin. “But you just can’t tell what’s going on. It’s so opaque.”

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