LONDON/JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Talks to salvage a tentative $1.7 billion debt restructuring between Congo Republic and energy traders Glencore and Trafigura [TRAFGF.UL] are stuck, sources said, jeopardising an International Monetary Fund bailout for the debt-hobbled nation.
The IMF signed off in July on a $449 million, three-year lending programme to help the central African nation’s ailing economy - but only $45 million has been disbursed with other funds subject to semi-annual reviews.
Those hinge on restructuring the oil-backed loans to the Swiss traders as money the state saves on reduced debt servicing would fill a gap in an overall $2 billion national rescue plan.
More IMF disbursements could help unlock another nearly $900 million in financing from the World Bank, African Development Bank and France who are all backing the rescue programme.
But the IMF said it has held off on submitting a 2019 year-end review to its executive board as it waits for Congo to finalise a deal with the traders.
An IMF spokesman said Congolese authorities had indicated to the institution that they expect restructuring negotiations with the oil traders to be done this quarter.
However, two banking and commodities industry sources familiar with the talks told Reuters an agreement in principle reached over the summer had fallen apart with both sides entrenched in their positions despite ongoing sporadic contact.
Congo wants a partial capital writedown and is meanwhile refusing to allocate cargoes to repay debt, the sources said, while the companies are considering legal action.
A Congo government spokesman did not respond to requests for comment, while spokespeople for Trafigura and Glencore declined to comment.
An IMF spokesman said: “We have not received any formal communication from the authorities regarding the specifics of an agreement in principle, either in the past or more recently.”
Financial advisor Lazard, which is working on behalf of Congo, would not comment on the negotiations.
Another advisor, Parnasse, was not immediately reachable.
Congo’s cash-strapped energy industry has been boosted by major recent finds from Italy’s ENI and France’s Total, raising output to about 350,000 barrels per day.
The former French colony, ruled by President Denis Sassou Nguesso for all but five years since 1979, is expected to be the third largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa by next year.
Court action was being discussed among the traders, the sources said, as Glencore has not been allocated an oil cargo since 2018 while Trafigura has only been receiving sporadic ones.
Congo restructured nearly $1.6 billion in loans from China without taking a haircut, according to a deal inked last year, prior to the IMF agreement. That deal plus an increase in oil prices had strengthened the Swiss companies’ resolve, according to one source familiar with their position.
“They need a restructuring and apparently the Chinese deal was done without haircut so why would we accept a haircut at $65 a barrel?” the source said.
Led by banks, Glencore initially lent about $850 million to Congo in 2015 to be repaid with crude over five years.
Meanwhile, Congo is in default on Trafigura’s loan as the original timeline has already lapsed. The trader lent around $1 billion in 2014 with a maturity in 2019.
Unlike Glencore, Trafigura is fully responsible for the debt, although it has insured it with re-insurers.
The total remaining debt to both traders and banks is nearly $1.7 billion, according to sources with knowledge of the negotiations. Congo has not confirmed the figure.
“One possibility is that Congo has re-assessed the necessity of the (rescue) programme, given higher oil prices and production, as well as the need to spend more freely ahead of elections next year,” another banking source familiar with the matter said.
Congo is still a way off top African producers like Nigeria, where output is around 2 million bpd. But a sustained rebound could help re-launch hospitals and water and power lines in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Reporting By Julia Payne and Dmitry Zhdannikov in London, Joe Bavier in Johannesburg; Additional reporting by Karin Strohecker in London; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Carmel Crimmins