U.K. touts satellite finance advantages over French, U.S. export banks
LONDON – Britain’s export-credit agency may be the most attractive source of satellite project financing that almost none one has heard of or uses.
While its more active counterparts in the United States and France are most comfortable guaranteeing loans only when a large majority of the work done in these nations, U.K. Export Finance is willing to support projects with as little as 20 percent U.K. content, said Peter Maplestone, senior underwriter at the agency and responsible for satellite export programs.
“That is significantly lower than some of our competitors,” Maplestone said at an April 4 meeting here of the Satellite Finance Network, organized by the law firm Bird & Bird. “Because not many [satellite] projects are 100 percent U.K., if you are doing work at 20 percent in the U.K., we are there to support you.”
But while the agency may be there, it has not been front and center in Britain’s well-publicized effort in recent years to promote the satellite sector, both in hardware production and, especially, in the provision of satellite-related services.
Maplestone said his agency has remained pretty much a non-entity in the satellite sector because of the preeminence in Britain of Airbus Defence and Space UK and the fact that most commercial Airbus satellites are built as much in France as in Britain.
One rare exception was the Measat-3B telecommunications satellite built for satellite operator Measat of Malaysia, whose construction and launch were backed by both the French and British export-credit agencies.
France’s Coface export-credit agency has taken the lead on the financing side for most other Airbus commercial satellites. But Britain is home to small satellite builders led by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. and more recently Clyde Space, and Maplestone sought to portray UK Export Finance as ready to finance small satellites when the need arises.
Export-credit agency financing has played a large role in the satellite sector in the past decade. While the U.S. Export-Import Bank and Coface has have been the most active, their counterparts in Canada, China and elsewhere have also entered the field.
One British industry official said that in the past, U.K. Export Finance has shown little appetite for satellite project risks that have been viewed as acceptable by the U.S., French and other agencies. Whether that will change given the effervescence of Britain’s satellite sector remains to be seen.
Maplestone said his agency recently has agreed to provide direct financing to a project if commercial bank support cannot be found.
Export-credit agencies typically guarantee up to 85 percent of a contract’s value at rates that are lower than those available from commercial banks. Satellite owners then can use the export-credit support as a reference when seeking equity.
Maplestone said U.K. Export Finance has been involved in only around five satellite project financings in the past 10 years but that the government’s pro-satellite-business policy could cause the agency to become more active.
The U.S. Export-Import Bank is still struggling to regain its footing after closing its doors for several months in 2015 following the failure by the U.S. Congress to re-authorize its activities.
Re-authorization eventually was secured, but since then the bank has been waiting for the U.S. Senate to confirm an Export-Import Bank director. The post needs to be filled before the bank can act on large funding proposals.
Gabriel Buck, chairman of the British Bankers’ Association’s export and trade finance committee, said one problem is that too few people in Britain have been aware of what U.K. Export Finance can do.
Maplestone said the 2015 bankruptcy of Australian satellite operator NewSat, which had been backed by the U.S. and French export-credit agencies, has had no effect on the British agency.
Buck said he expected a tightening of export-credit agency terms in part as a reaction to NewSat. “There’s going to be more scrutiny,” he said. “All these agencies want to be seen as a net contributor [to their national treasuries]. When a loss does happen, alarm bells ring.”