- The Washington Times - Monday, March 3, 2003

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil, March 3 (UPI) — The Brazilian state development bank is likely to take control of a U.S.-owned utility that failed to meet its debt payments, local media reported.

The BNDES development bank has refused to roll over a $329 million debt payment owed it by a subsidiary of AES Corp., the U.S. electricity company, according to local reports.

The bank has the right to collect its collateral — shares in Eletropaulo, Latin America's largest electricity company, which would give it control of the outfit.

Foreign investors have been keeping a close eye on this situation, as many fear it could signal the re-nationalization of privatized companies under the new leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

BNDES declined to comment, citing a confidentiality agreement. The bank said it was up to AES to inform its stockholders and the public of the decision, made at the start of Brazil's carnival season, when offices are closed.

AES has yet to comment on the matter.

AES has asked BNDES to renegotiate its debt, and BNDES had already rolled over an $85 million payment owed it by AES in January.

The Virginia-based AES owes BNDES some $1.2 billion in debt, money borrowed to invest in three Brazilian utilities during the aggressive privatization of the late 1990s.

In the past seven years, private investors have injected more than $30 billion into the power sector, which has seen turbulence since a 1999 devaluation and strict energy rationing in 2001 after a drought. Much of Brazil's power is hydroelectric.

Local and foreign analysts were confident that BNDES would not decide to take back control of Eletropaulo, though all were clear that it wasn't out of the realm of possibility.

"This is a very technical situation. It's not a political thing that the government is taking over the company," Oswaldo Telles, a Brazilian analyst with BBV Corretora in Sao Paulo, told UPI before the reports that BNDES was calling in the loan.

"You have to face it as a bank executing or not a past due debt."

Brazil's power companies were hit hard last year as the local currency lost 35 percent of its value.

Most companies have debts in dollars but revenues in reals — the local currency — contributing to tough times and an inability to meet debt payments.

It was in 2001 that Brazil was forced to ration energy, as a drought provoked a shortage of hydroelectric power, on which the country is largely dependent.

An aggressive energy conservation campaign has also had its effect, with demand for energy falling by nearly one-fourth since 2001.

Additionally, unknown changes look to be in store for the energy sector's regulating agency, which sets prices.

Lula and his economic team have harshly criticized Brazil's regulating agencies, saying they appear to be placing the betterment of corporations ahead of the needs of Brazil's citizens.

Analysts, however, say that a regulating agency that isn't independent of the government will never create an environment where the foreign investor feels confident, with worries that pricing policies will change radically with every new government.




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