Venezuela is really really careening sideways into chaotic default. We know this not just because it has been missing payments and the ISDA Determinations Committee said so, but also because the government seems to be in a hurry to hand out what assets it might have to what claimants might show up on its doorstep with a credible threat to do ... something. ... or just to make them go away and buy another five minutes of delusional gambling for resurrection.
Bond pricing has always been a puzzle to me, so I leave it to Mitu. But one thing has bugged me for more than a year. Ever since Venezuela has joined the ranks of the walking dead, market participants have differentiated among its bond contracts in a way that might seem sensible--even sophisticated--to those who think that investors do (or should) occasionally read the small print. In particular, Venezuelan bonds that require 100% of the holders to consent to an amendment of financial terms have fetched a higher price than comparable bonds with so-called collective action clauses, or CACs, which can be amended by either 85% or 75% of the holders, depending on the bond issue. The 100% bonds also have relatively more enforcement-friendly pari passu clauses, which could make it easier to replicate the fabulously successful holdout strategy in Argentina. The price premium must reflect rational investors on the eve of default paying for the power to veto a restructuring or drop out and get paid in full, right? Not quite. As you read the bond documents, the 100>85 reasoning unravels, and the 100% bond starts looking like a pretty fishy holdout vehicle.
We are about to hit an anniversary of sorts, a year since Venezuela was surely going to default on its debt ... except that it still hasn't, so the U.S. government has decided to nudge it along. Retroactive debt sanctions imposed on August 25 prohibit, among other things, extending new credit to the government of Venezuela and its state oil company PDVSA beyond 30 days and 90 days, respectively, as well as any transactions in previously issued government debt, and, separately, any direct or indirect, old or new bond-buying from the Venezuelan government. The sanctions are a big headache for U.S. bank compliance departments, but they also got some glorious creative juices running. Mark & Mitu offer a contrarian reading of the sanctions order and one of the general licenses issued by the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) as part of its implementation. As M&M read it, Venezuela cannot restructure all its debt in a debt swap (that would require issuing new bonds), but it could amend some of its old bonds using collective action clauses (CACs), and gain breathing room until oil prices recover, things change, or pigs fly.
Last time on Super-Sad Updates, I speculated (i) that the Venezuelan people could be in for more suffering and bondholders for more coupon payments (see Romania), (ii) that Venezuela’s complex debt stock was prone to shell games and inter-creditor conflicts, which could delay a workout (see Puerto Rico), and (iii) that a bet on PDVSA bonds over sovereign bonds today required too many assumptions to hold my shrinking attention span (but see Turkmenistan … or not). Now I try to imagine what might happen if the government did decide to restructure. It brings back memories of …
Market and civil society observers have taken Venezuelan debt restructuring as a certainty for more than two years, putting it in contention for the world’s slowest train wreck and quite possibly the messiest. Designs abound, but even after last weekend’s vote followed by new U.S. sanctions, too many variables remain too far up in the air to start laying the yellow brick pavers quite yet.
Depending on where you sit and how long you stare, Venezuela can present as some, none, or all of many past sovereign debt crises. The tour that starts below with broad-brush analogies is not exhaustive, but still plenty depressing.
Midnight came and went with no news of a debt deal in Puerto Rico, and no extension of a stay on creditor enforcement under PROMESA. It sure looks like we are careening into an actual sovereign-ish bankruptcy-ish filing under Title III of the law.
Mark posted a lucid analysis of Ukraine's loss to Russia in London yesterday (full 107-pp opinion here). The case will surely be appealed, and will drag on for a while, alongside the many other legal, political and military disputes between Russia and Ukraine. It will settle, if ever, as part of a grand-ish bargain between the two countries. For now, neither has any reason to fold, so I am not holding my breath for quick resolution.
While we wait, I wanted to think about what this ruling might mean for sovereign debt workouts, and for Ukraine's recently-restructured bonds.
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