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Venezuela faces heavy bill as grace period lapses on China loans

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A grace period on Chinese loans to Venezuela has lapsed, according to two Venezuelan sources with knowledge of the matter, potentially depriving the cash-strapped OPEC nation of billions of dollars in desperately needed oil revenue this year.

China eased the payment terms two years ago on some $19 billion in oil-for-loan deals, under which Venezuela sends shipments of crude oil and fuel to pay off debt, allowing Venezuela to make interest-only payments.

The favorable conditions from Beijing helped President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government weather a collapse in Venezuela’s economy, which slid into hyperinflation and a painful recession following a downturn in oil prices.

But the grace period has lapsed without a renewal in recent weeks, according to the sources, who have been briefed by Chinese and Venezuelan officials.

That could deprive Venezuela of some $7 billion in annual revenue, according to a Reuters’ estimate based on current oil prices, a crippling blow to a country already struggling to import basic goods like food and medicine.

The sources, who asked not to be identified, said that Venezuela continues to press for an extension but is responsible for making the full payments while the talks continue.

The sharply increased payments would absorb roughly an additional 305,000 barrels per day (bpd) of Venezuela’s oil production, which has fallen to a 33-year low this year.

State oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA’s (PDVSA) deteriorating infrastructure and cash flow have caused oil production to plunge 33 percent in a year, to 1.51 million bpd in March, according to official data reported to OPEC.

“China maintains its position of not increasing its exposure to Venezuela and is adjusting conditions, given that the price of oil is now $20 per barrel above its level when the (grace period) was created,” said one of the sources.

Neither Venezuela’s Information Ministry nor state oil company PDVSA responded to requests for comment.

China Development Bank, which has underwritten most of the loans to Venezuela, did not respond to a request for comment.

China’s Foreign Ministry, asked about the negotiations, said that cooperation was proceeding smoothly and the loan contracts were in accord with international standards.

Caracas could seek to preserve cash flow by sending those barrels to other clients who pay cash, defaulting on its obligations to China in the process and straining ties with a crucial political ally and its largest financier.

Beijing would have little incentive to pursue an embarrassing commercial dispute with a government it supported for years, and may simply turn a blind eye to a default.

Maduro, who is up for re-election on May 20, says his country is victim of an “economic war” led by his political adversaries with the help of Washington.

His critics say the country’s plight is the result of a dysfunctional state-led economic model.

CHINA MORE PRAGMATIC

China for a decade courted the government of then-President Hugo Chavez with generous financing arrangements as it sought to secure oil supplies for its resource-hungry economy and cultivate an anti-Washington ally in Latin America.

It extended more than $50 billion in credit to Venezuela over 10 years.

However, Beijing stopped renewing loans three years ago as Venezuela’s economy began spiraling downward as a result of the crash of oil prices.

Last year, Venezuela shipped some 700,000 bpd of crude and fuel to China through bilateral agreements, according to a Reuters review of PDVSA trade documents.

But only around 70,000 bpd were applied to debt service under the grace period arrangement, according to one of the sources, with China paying the remainder in cash.

Without the grace period, the amount applied to debt service rises to 375,000 bpd, the sources said.

Venezuela and PDVSA are in default on nearly $50 billion in international bonds because they have failed to make more than $2 billion in interest payments.

Bondholders have yet to take legal action, in part because most believe Maduro is unwilling to make changes to revive the economy, and because U.S. sanctions effectively block them from buying any newly issued Venezuelan bonds, making a restructuring practically impossible.

PDVSA also has hundreds of millions of dollars in outstanding bills to suppliers and partners.

Italian energy company Eni said on Friday that PDVSA’s debt had risen to 650 million euros ($787 million) from 600 million euros in February and that payments were “near zero.”

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Stellantis rallies on first day of trade after $52 billion merger

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Flag with the Stellantis logo on the front entrance to FCA’s Mirafiori plant on January 18, 2021 in Turin, Italy.

Stefano Guidi | Getty Images

LONDON — Stellantis, the product of the $52 billion merger between Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Peugeot, was well received by European investors on its first day of trading Monday. 

Shares of the world’s fourth-largest carmaker by volume, created after the merger was finalized on Saturday, climbed 7.5% by afternoon trade following its launch on stock exchanges in Milan and Paris.  

The Milan-listed shares started trading at 12.758 euros per share with a market cap of 39.2 billion euros ($47.3 billion), and by afternoon deals in Europe were up at 13.55 euros per share. 

In a virtual launch on the Borsa Italiana website, Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares, former CEO of PSA Group, said the merger would add 25 billion euros in value to shareholders over the coming years due to projected cost cuts. 

“All of our employees and our management teams are totally focused on the value creation that is embedded on the merger of FCA-PSA and the creation of Stellantis,” he added.

Chairman John Elkann said the coming decade would likely “redefine mobility as we know it.” 

“We have the scale, the resource, the diversity and the knowledge to successfully capture the opportunity of this new era in transportation,” he said. 

“Our ambition is to build something unique, something great, by providing our customers with distinctive, safe, convenient, innovative and sustainable vehicles and mobility services.” 

The stock will launch in New York when Wall Street opens on Tuesday, with U.S. markets closed Monday for a public holiday, after which Tavares will hold his first press conference as Stellantis CEO. 

The launch marked the culmination of tie-up talks that began in late 2018, and comes as the auto industry seeks to navigate a seismic shift in consumer demand toward electric vehicles. 

Ahead of the deal, S&P Global Ratings upgraded FCA’s credit rating, predicting that Stellantis would benefit from increased scale and geographical diversity and a strong capital structure. 

“The combined entity will have a solid balance sheet, good free cash flow prospects and large liquidity buffer,” S&P analysts Vittoria Ferraris and Margaux Pery said in a note. 

“In our base case, Stellantis’ net cash position will hover at about €14 billion on an unadjusted basis. This will provide the group with a considerable buffer to market conditions, which remain exposed to COVID-19-linked mobility restriction risks during the first half of 2021, and could suffer from the gradual reduction of government support.”

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Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit blasts satellites into space from 747

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Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit, with a rocket under the wing of a modified Boeing 747 jetliner, takes off for a key drop test of its high-altitude launch system for satellites from Mojave, California, July 10, 2019.

Mike Blake | Reuters

Virgin Orbit, the rocket company founded by billionaire Richard Branson, successfully put its first satellites into space using its novel air launch system.

The California-headquartered company said that 10 mini-satellites had been carried into space by the same rocket, which was launched from the wing of an old Boeing 747 jumbo jet as it flew over the Pacific Ocean.

The jet, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, took off from Mojave Air and Space Port at approximately 10:50 a.m. PST on Sunday. Almost 60 minutes later, it dropped the “LauncherOne” rocket about 50 miles south of the California Channel Islands at a height of 35,000 feet.

After release, the rocket engine ignited, accelerating LauncherOne into space. Around two hours later, at an altitude of 500 km, it deployed 10 shoebox-sized satellites, which were developed by universities and selected by NASA. The satellites will be used for space research purposes.

“A new gateway to space has just sprung open,” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart in a statement. “That LauncherOne was able to successfully reach orbit today is a testament to this team’s talent, precision, drive, and ingenuity.”

The successful launch comes after Virgin Orbit tried and failed to launch a rocket in May last year. The company diagnosed the failure to a high-pressure fuel line in the engine, which caused the rocket to shut down shortly after launching.

“Virgin Orbit has achieved something many thought impossible. It was so inspiring to see our specially adapted Virgin Atlantic 747, Cosmic Girl, send the LauncherOne rocket soaring into orbit,” said Branson in a statement.

“This magnificent flight is the culmination of many years of hard work and will also unleash a whole new generation of innovators on the path to orbit.”

Virgin Orbit’s launch technique means that the company can theoretically launch rockets on short notice from almost anywhere on Earth. It has plans to launch rocket-carrying 747s from Cornwall, England, for example.

Branson is hoping to cash in on the growing demand for small, relatively cheap satellites. He isn’t the only billionaire involved in the space race. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Tesla’s Elon Musk are also building spacecraft in a bid to capitalize on the fast-growing industry.

Virgin Orbit describes itself as a “dedicated launch service for commercial and government-built small satellites.”

The company said that it plans to officially transition into commercial service for its next mission, adding that it already has subsequent launches booked by customers including the U.S. Space Force and the U.K.’s Royal Air Force, as well as businesses like Swarm Technologies, Italy’s SITAEL, and Denmark’s GomSpace.

Virgin Orbit is a spin-off of Branson’s space tourism company Virgin Galactic. A wholly separate company, Virgin Orbit is privately held by Branson’s multinational conglomerate Virgin Group.

Speculation has varied widely on how much Virgin Orbit has invested to date, with estimates ranging from $400 million to $500 million and even over $700 million.

In an interview with CNBC in October, Hart declined to comment on how much Virgin Orbit has spent so far but he said it was “having discussions” about further investment, with the company seeking about $150 million in new capital.

Investors include Branson’s Virgin Group and Mubadala Investment Company — the United Arab Emirates sovereign wealth fund that also has a significant stake in Virgin Galactic.

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Parler’s website shows signs of life after AWS fallout

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The Parler website home screen on a laptop computer arranged in the Brooklyn borough of New York, U.S., on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020.

Gabby Jones | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The website of Parler — a social media platform popular with conservatives and supporters of President Donald Trump — is back online, albeit in a very limited form.

Unlike for much of last week, the website now loads and displays a brief message from Parler CEO John Matze that reads: “Hello world, is this thing on?”

The Parler website dropped offline on Jan. 11 after Amazon withdrew its support in the wake of the deadly U.S. Capitol riot. The website was reliant on cloud computing power provided by Amazon Web Services.

AWS withdrew its support for Parler on Jan. 10 after concluding that posts on the company’s website and apps encourage and promote violence.

“It is clear that there is significant content on Parler that encourages and incites violence against others, and that Parler is unable or unwilling to promptly identify and remove this content, which is a violation of our terms of service,” said an AWS spokesperson.

They added: “We made our concerns known to Parler over a number of weeks and during that time we saw a significant increase in this type of dangerous content, not a decrease, which led to our suspension of their services.”

Matze said in a statement that Parler removed violent content and added that its community guidelines don’t allow Parler to be knowingly used for criminal activity.

The Parler mobile apps are still nowhere to be seen. Google and Apple removed the Parler app from their app stores on Jan. 8 and Jan. 9 respectively.

Technical difficulties

Amazon-Parler Lawsuit

Parler has sued Amazon for withdrawing its support for the company. In a lawsuit filed Jan 11. in U.S. District Court in Seattle, Parler accused Amazon Web Services of breaking antitrust laws.

“AWS’s decision to effectively terminate Parler’s account is apparently motivated by political animus,” the lawsuit said. “It is also apparently designed to reduce competition in the microblogging services market to the benefit of Twitter.”

It continues: “This emergency suit seeks a Temporary Restraining Order against defendant Amazon Web Services to prevent it from shutting down Parler’s account. Doing so is the equivalent of pulling the plug on a hospital patient on life support. It will kill Parler’s business — at the very time it is set to skyrocket.”

An AWS spokesperson told CNBC there’s no merit to the claims and Twitter declined to comment.

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