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Venezuelan Debt: Call a Spade a Spade

posted by Mitu Gulati

Adam Lerrick, of the American Enterprise Institute, has offered an intriguing approach to the Republic of Venezuela/PDVSA debt problem. Call a spade a spade. The distinction in the market between Republic of Venezuela and PDVSA bonds has always been artificial and the market has normally perceived it as such. Only recently have market participants begun trying to figure out which bonds -- PDVSA or Republic of Venezuela -- will be more likely candidates for a debt restructuring and therefore which should trade higher in the market.

PDVSA accounts for 95 percent for the foreign currency earnings of the entire country. Without PDVSA, there is no credit standing behind Republic bonds.  At base, there is only one public sector credit risk in the country and Lerrick invites us to acknowledge this fact.

He proposes that the Republic assume the indebtedness of PDVSA and proceed to restructure that debt as part of a generalized Republic debt workout. As part of this process -- and to discourage potential holdouts from the Republic's offer to exchange PDVSA bonds and promissory notes -- he suggests that the Government take back PDVSA's concession to lift and sell Venezuelan oil. This risk has always been prominently disclosed in the PDVSA offering documents and should not come as a surprise to anyone.

Lerrick's proposal adds to the growing list of suggestions for how a future Venezuelan debt restructuring (and there almost certainly will be such a debt restructuring) may be accomplished without holdout creditors devouring the process. No one wants to repeat the experience of Argentina.

Recently, in the context of trying to work out the knotty problem of how to restructure Venezuela’s promissory notes, Lee Buchheit and I made a similar suggestion along these lines. (our friends, Bob Lawless and Bob Scott, two gurus of this world of secured financing and contracts, were invaluable in helping us figure this structure out -- all blame for errors is ours, of course).

The structure we suggest differs from the Lerrick proposal mainly on the question of what should happen to the PDVSA oil assets, including receivables for the sale of oil.  We suggest that PDVSA pledge those assets to the Republic in consideration for the Republic's assumption of PDVSA bond/promissory note liabilities (as opposed to transferring title to the assets back to the Republic).  Such a pledge is expressly permitted by the terms of the PDVSA bonds and promissory notes and should operate to shield the assets from attachment by holdout creditors.

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