Competition between export credit agencies is heating up, leading to the development of new processes and products. What does this mean for the future of their business? GTR talked to a group of European agencies to gather their views.
- Marie Aglert, director of business area for large corporates, EKN
- Thomas Baum, head of division, underwriting and risk management, Euler Hermes
- Alessandro Decio, chief executive officer, Sace
- Nikita Gusakov, Russian export centre manager director for business development, Russian Agency for Export Credit and Investment Insurance (Exiar)
- Louis Taylor, chief executive, UK Export Finance (UKEF)
- Christophe Viprey, director general, assurance export, Bpifrance
GTR: It has been noted that export credit agencies (ECAs) are doing more in developed/OECD markets – is that true for your ECA, and if so, how are you equipping yourself for this type of business?
Aglert: Every year EKN guarantees a moderate number of very large transactions, usually buyer credits, and a large number of small supplier credits. This year we have issued the largest guarantee ever for a private, corporate risk, a US telecom company. It is clear that over the last years, the attractive export financing solution that EKN offers together with the Swedish funding company SEK has been interesting to large investment-grade corporates in OECD countries. When they do a deal with us, they see the benefits, and often return to do repeat business.
Taylor: The vast majority of our business is certainly in non-OECD markets – resource-rich, commodity-dependent countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East where the commercial finance market has less risk appetite, and therefore liquidity, to support projects. That said, we are seeing quite a bit of business in more developed markets in sectors like aerospace, where export credit agency support is more of an integral part of the commercial model. In the last 12 months for example, we’ve supported the delivery of Bombardier C Series aircraft to Korean Airlines, Rolls-Royce-powered Boeing 787s to Norwegian and engine refurbishment contracts between GE Aviation and US cargo carrier Atlas Air.
However, one big area in which we’re doing more and more business to support exports to OECD markets is in the trade finance space. We designed these products to support smaller businesses, which are more likely to be newer to exporting and therefore selling to OECD markets as an easier and safer bet.
But as with any others in the export credit agency business, the trend is very much cyclical. We see ourselves as a ‘through-the-cycle’ ECA, and so aim to have the right products and services on offer to support UK exporters wherever they are doing business.
Viprey: Our market share within the EU is quite limited. However, our exposure is important in some other developed countries, mainly thanks to the production of cruise ships by STX France and the production of planes by Airbus or ATR. We have important commitments on private companies in the US and in Switzerland thanks to the delivery of cruise ships for the past few years.
Gusakov: Russian exports go to a vast number of different geographies and it is the main driving factor behind our business and exposure distribution. Currently we see a lot of demand for risks in Asia, Latin America, Africa and, naturally, CIS. As to the requirements which this might impose on the toolset, we believe that they are mostly uniform across the board and you can’t have a sustainable business model without having solid and elaborate underwriting practices. At Exiar, we produce a very detailed assessment of country risks irrespective of the geography. Moreover we try to make use of our growing foreign network and partners on the ground to enhance our underwriting rationale.
Decio: While being ready to support strategic projects for Italian companies even in the most advanced markets – as shown by our results in the US – our attention remains focused on emerging markets with high potential, where Sace Simest’s intervention is decisive to ensure that ‘Made in Italy’ is positioned to its full potential.
It is no coincidence that the areas where we grew the most in 2017 were Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East and North Africa: complex and dynamic regions where our new operations have more than doubled. In these and other expanding emerging markets, we will continue to work with new and more incisive forms of intervention, such as Push Strategy, the programme supporting economic diplomacy, thanks to which we have offered €650mn of credit lines in the last year to large foreign buyers to facilitate the purchase of Italian goods and services.
GTR: Now, more than ever, we are seeing increased competition between ECAs, with new processes and products – including direct loans – being developed. How do you see this evolving? Where does that leave the banks?
Taylor: As an export credit agency, our role is of course not to look to grow our own market share, but that of the UK exporters we support. And the OECD is there to ensure that there’s a level playing field between countries’ ECAs.
But it’s true that we want to give our exporters a competitive advantage when they’re looking to win business overseas, so we do have to ensure that we’re able to keep up with the demands of overseas buyers. This means that we’re always looking at new structures – using the capital markets, sharia-compliant structures, and our new local currency financing offer, with more than 60 currencies pre-approved for support.
In terms of where the banks fit in – again, our mandate is to complement, not compete with, the private sector, so we provide support in lock step with – in most cases through – commercial partners. We involve our partner banks and representative organisations like UK Finance in developing our products and services, and really value the insight they provide.
Decio: Offering competitive solutions to the companies we serve is a must for us. Being part of the Italian Promotion Agency, we pursue this objective by maximising all possible synergies and enhancing our collaboration with all relevant stakeholders. With the creation of the Export and Internationalisation Hub, the acquisition of the financial company Simest has added new strategic activities to our range of initiatives, allowing us to acquire a stake in foreign subsidiaries of Italian companies and fund international investments, thus becoming a much stronger partner for Italian companies worldwide. Nevertheless, we have never seen banks as our competitors. We look at them as a partner to collaborate with, believing that a strong co-operation with the banking system and the financial institutions is a key to maximise our effort in support of Italian companies.
This approach is well reflected in our activities to support a balanced mix of stand-alone initiatives and collaboration with banks: 48% of our business is guarantees on bank loans to Italian companies for international development and protection of investments abroad, 20% goes to bonds in international tenders and contracts, 19% for the new Push Strategy project, and the remaining 13% in low-interest loans and equity investments managed by Simest.
Aglert: The commercial banks are very important in the Swedish export credit system. A bank, or group of banks, arranges the loan to the buyer, EKN guarantees repayment, and SEK offers optional funding. We see the banks as our partners in the transaction. EKN is represented in Sweden only, whereas many banks have a worldwide representation, often locally in the borrower’s country. This is of advantage both in the risk assessment and if a problem occurs in the transaction.
Gusakov: At its inception in 2015, the Russian Export Centre (REC) group made Exiar responsible for insurance and the Eximbank of Russia the lending arm of the group. The latter has an objective to complete rather than disrupt the commercial banking landscape.
Baum: In my view, the quality and quantity of co-operation between ECAs has increased over the last decade with more topical exchange on one hand and with more co-operation on a transaction basis on the other hand. Having said this, there are of course differences in the approach to export promotion from country to country, often explainable by a country’s foreign economic interest and industrial capabilities. And yes, these differences sometimes produce relative advantages to some exporters in transactions but without creating a systematic effect.
Traditionally, the German ECA has to align its products and processes to the needs of small and medium enterprises which dominate the German exporter base. Thus, our current product development activities focus around smaller transactions and the whole turnover business. Without a doubt we will use the momentum of digitalisation in the financial industry to generate major advantages for users of the German ECA. As for financing, we maintain our position that the commercial banking market provides sufficient capacity to finance German exports under ECA cover. Based on this principle, we plan to further streamline products and processes when it comes to small tickets in export finance.
Viprey: Indeed, we have noted that the competitiveness of other ECAs has increased a lot during the past few years and we have also noticed that a lot of developing countries are now creating their own ECAs. Bpifrance Assurance Export has developed a new strategy to face the competition.
First, we have developed benchmarking with other ECAs to be more aware of their new organisation, their new products and the evolution of the market. We are active and we adapt our products or create new ones to better fit our clients’ needs. We have recently launched the Pass Export, an agreement signed between the exporter and Bpifrance that manages different aspects of our relationship, including the national content minimum requirement for a dedicated period, the conditions of which better fit with the evolution of corporates’ international structure. The new simplified bond cover product we aim to launch soon should increase the use of this range of products by SMEs.
Still, we are complementary to banks. We played an important back-up role during the financial subprime crisis, and we now play a no less important role for small and risky deals when banks and/or the private sector cannot step in on its own.
GTR: What has been the demand for ECA cover over the past 12 months. Has your business grown, and in which markets and sectors?
Gusakov: In 2017 the total amount of Exiar support was over US$13bn. The number of granted limits has increased by 15%, and insurance capacity has increased by 22%. Also, there are indicators of priority sectors support, which are really impressive – the REC group supported 90% of all exports of Russian agricultural machinery, compared to 73% in 2016, and 90% of all railway trucks and locomotives. In 2016 this figure was 25%.
Taylor: Without a doubt the long-term trend in demand for ECA support continues to be strong – albeit counter-cyclical – at both the larger and the smaller end of the market. For example, we continue to support historically high numbers of exporters, and 77% of the companies we supported were SMEs. At the same time, in the last 12 months, we underwrote our largest ever direct loan for an African government, and are currently finalising our largest ever line of credit of US$2bn for Saudi Aramco.
In our business plan for 2017-20 we identified as our priorities those markets and sectors where UKEF’s support can make the biggest difference; where the potential to access attractive, long-term finance can really help to set UK goods and services above the competition. So, for example, markets in the Middle East – where, despite the recent recovery, the long-term dip in oil prices highlighted a real need to diversify the local economies and inspired ambitious infrastructure and economic development programmes – are increasingly turning to ECA-backed finance to support major projects.
Decio: The past year has been a positive one both for Italian exports and Sace. Italy’s sales abroad reached €450bn, growing by 7.4% and offering a 30% contribution to the GDP. Our support increased accordingly. The Italian Export and Internationalisation Hub mobilised €25.3bn to sustain Italian trade and investment worldwide: the highest value reached in 40 years of activity, 41% higher than in 2016.
Export credit represented 61% of all resources mobilised by the hub, equal to €15.4bn, 57% higher than in 2016. This positive result was driven by business opportunities arising from a diversified range of markets: traditional destinations like the US, emerging markets like Russia, Turkey and the GCC, and new frontiers in Sub-Saharan Africa, like Kenya, Angola and Cameroon. The sectors most involved include the cruise industry with its large corps of SME subcontractors, infrastructure and construction; electric and machinery.
Aglert: We are seeing a substantial increase, both in volume and in number of transactions. Last year we guaranteed a record number of transactions, over 2,000 in 133 countries, both large and small deals.
The first four months of 2018 saw an increase in guarantee volume by 51% compared with the same period last year, to close to Skr20bn (almost €2bn). Half of the amount is for the aforementioned telecom transaction. The number of transactions guaranteed amounted to 814, an increase of 7%. We have seen an increase in number of transactions every year over the last three years, and the numbers show that EKN is also needed in good times.
There are several reasons for the increase. We have increased our marketing which has given us more SME and midcorp customers. We also work closer with our large customers, and have a better understanding of their business and needs. Many of them now use EKN in a more strategic way, not only for bigger projects but also for ongoing smaller contracts. We have become a part of their business model. Also, Swedish exports in general are currently doing very well. The increase in sales has naturally an effect on demand for EKN guarantees.
As for regions, we have seen demand for guarantees especially for countries in the Middle East and Africa. Telecom is always a large sector for EKN, but we have seen a lot of demand from trading companies in pulp and paper, in the construction industry, and in transport.
Viprey: 2017 was a great year for Bpifrance Assurance Export. The demand has increased, especially for credit insurance, with a rise of 33% of the activity, driven by the increase of the demand from SMEs. The demand to cover exporter risk has increased by 15% for bonds and 10% for working capital, as well as the requests to cover exchange risk. Indeed, exchange risk insurance has attracted a lot of new clients, mainly to cover dollar exchange.
The level of activity has been particularly important in the defense sector which in 2017 represented almost two thirds of our credit insurance commitments. Transportation goods and public works also represent an important part of our new commitments.
Concerning the geographical breakdown, our activity has decreased in the Middle East countries, even though the region still represents 20% of our business. The gravity point goes to the east: Asia represents more than half of our activity. Demands for covering projects in Africa have also increased, especially in Senegal.
The integration of export insurance activities to Bpifrance Group is a success: it has created opportunities for us and for our clients. Both banks and companies are attracted by the fact that we have a direct guarantee from the state.
Baum: ECA finance in general is going through quite an interesting period: despite peaking geopolitical risks we are experiencing a decreasing demand for our cover. Why do we see this surprising trend? A number of key ECA finance markets are still in or coming out of prolonged economic depression. Investors there are naturally reluctant to invest in new projects. Other markets have recovered from the economic downturn but the importers and their banks are very liquid and fund their procurement out of cash or local credit. Under these market conditions, ECA finance is increasingly in demand for riskier markets or very large transactions. This phenomenon can be seen clearly from our 2017 results.
Sector-wise we benefit still from the broad base of German export with limited concentration. Shipping and energy were the sectors with most activity, with Russia and Turkey leading the country list for new underwritten business.
In 2017, we opened our first foreign desk in Dubai to reach out to the importers. Overall this has been hugely successful, shown by increasing activities in the Middle East. We are looking forward confidently to 2018 as we notice increased exporter activity and a well-filled pipeline.
GTR: ECAs are under continuous scrutiny from NGOs, regulators and the like in terms of environmental and social issues: have these pressures increased of late? If so, in which sectors?
Aglert: We have over the years had many dialogues with exporters and NGOs to develop our policy for responsibility in the guarantee business. Some industries are of course more challenging than others, like for example mining, but we have also come further in the freedom of the internet area. It has been very good for EKN to have an open discussion with the NGOs.
Baum: In my opinion, the environmental and social due diligence procedures in ECAs have reached a level of professionality with the result that commonly we do not perceive any increased pressure from stakeholders. Furthermore, the OECD Common Approaches continue to serve an important purpose: they led to a convergence of standards and processes used in ECAs. This does, of course, not mean that there are no challenges in certain transactions. But the base from which ECAs deal with these is very profound and stable.
In terms of interaction with the civil society in Germany, we are faced in almost every field of society with an increasing demand for transparency. We are set to accommodate this legitimate demand within the framework of freedom of information rights and business confidentiality that the German law sets.
From a process perspective we have recently accomplished the specification of human rights aspects in our due diligence of transactions where applicable. Under the German government’s national action plan for business and human rights we had to clarify a number of requirements and processes which was accomplished in close co-operation with our guardian authorities and stakeholders.