How Venezuela Bondholders Finally Ran Out of Time

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November 3, 2017 11:28 am Published by

Predicting when Venezuela will finally default has been a decade-long parlor game for bond buyers, but that day is nearing. President Nicolas Maduro has signaled that his country will seek to restructure its global debt following one final payment by the state oil company PDVSA this week. He blames U.S. sanctions for making it impossible to find new financing. His increasingly anti-democratic turn, including moves to rewrite the constitution and strip power from congress, triggered the U.S. measures. For all the turmoil, Venezuela has a track record of paying its debts, and investors who’ve held on through the worst of times have been rewarded with some of the world’s best bond returns. That’s about to change.

1. Why has Venezuela resisted defaulting for so long?

That choice has confounded socialists and capitalists alike, but it boils down to the risk that Venezuela’s international oil assets could get seized by creditors or tied up in court. Through PDVSA, Venezuela — home to the world’s largest petroleum reserves — has offshore refineries and oil receivables that investors will almost certainly try to make a play for if their bonds go unpaid. PDVSA’s Houston-based refining arm, Citgo Holding Inc., has also been used as collateral to back some bonds. And if creditors start going after Venezuela’s oil assets, buyers of its crude are apt to turn to other sources, depressing not only demand but the price of Venezuela’s main treasure.

2. Why now?

PDVSA had two huge payments due on its bonds in recent days; it fulfilled the first a couple of days late and Maduro says it will pay the second, which was due Nov. 2. From then on, the nation will negotiate with banks and investors. More than half a billion dollars in debt from the state oil firm and the government is currently in a 30-day grace period. It’s “going to be ugly for holders,” said Ray Zucaro, the chief investment officer at Miami-based RVX Asset Management. “There’s no real way to sugar coat.”

Wall Street Exhales as PDVSA Delivers: Venezuela Default Watch

3. How did the U.S. sanctions play into this?

The U.S. has been escalating measures, going as far as banning the purchase of new equity and debt issued by Venezuela and PDVSA, and restricting business with private individuals and companies. That means the Maduro regime can’t raise money from many international investors — and can’t even restructure debt. The regime’s sweeping victories in October’s gubernatorial elections have been marred by fraud accusations, renewing criticism by the U.S. and speculation that Trump’s government could impose steeper economic penalties, such as a ban on oil imports. About 40 percent of Venezuela’s petroleum exports go to the U.S., bringing in about $10 billion. While the country could find other buyers, it’d probably have to sell at a discount.

4. What would a debt restructuring look like?

It would be enormously complicated, particularly now that the U.S. effectively banned investors from participating in a debt restructuring with the current regime (since that would likely entail swapping old bonds for new ones). Some have speculated if Venezuela were to default, they could try a work-around by getting the Chinese to buy back investors’ bonds. But in all likelihood, U.S. investors would be too skittish to try to engage in something like that, and the debt would trade in default until the sanctions are lifted. At that point, creditors would have to figure out a sustainable repayment plan for the government and PDVSA, since it would likely default around the same time. Fights between creditors would be inevitable as they sorted out who’s entitled to what. In addition to all the bonds, Venezuela owes billions of dollars in awards resulting from international arbitration disputes and to private companies with cash trapped in the country, while PDVSA and its subsidiaries have a slew of outstanding loans.

5. How bad are Venezuela’s finances?

First, the economics look poor. Foreign reserves have dwindled to a 15-year low of about $10 billion, a grim figure considering Venezuela and PDVSA are due to pay about $13 billion in debt before the end of 2018. Combine that with oil prices at half of what they were just three years ago, slumping crude output in a country that gets 95 percent of its export revenue from that one resource, triple-digit inflation and a rapidly shrinking economy, and it’s a tough road ahead. Second, the level of political turmoil is unprecedented, with deadly street protests against Maduro’s government, open calls for the military to stage a coup and shortages of affordable food and medicines as the government prioritizes debt payments over imports of basic goods. 

6. How creditworthy is the country?

Venezuela isn’t current with most of its key economic statistics, so the most basic data an investor would use to gauge the country’s creditworthiness aren’t available. One key number is the current account balance, a broad measure of trade that looks at money moving in and out of the country, including bond interest payments. Normally, a government would borrow money to plug any gap, but sanctions, and steep borrowing costs, preclude such a tactic for Venezuela. Estimates of the country’s current account deficit vary depending on which economist you ask and assumptions about how much the country has slashed imports to keep paying its debts. Still, the situation looks unsustainable.

7. When will the money run out?

To make ends meet, the government has blown through central bank reserves. That hoard now consists of just $1 billion in cash, with much of the balance made up of gold bars, according to investment bank Torino Capital. Venezuela bought itself some time by taking advance payments for its oil from China and Russia. And it has reduced imports. However, the economy depends on foreign manufacturers for everything from antibiotics to baby formula, and shortages have already become severe, so the humanitarian costs are significant.

8. What if there was a change of government?