« Figuring Out the Terms in the Lebanese Bonds (and Why Do the Agents in Sovereign Bonds Suck?) | Main | Making (Non)Sense of The Lebanese Fiscal Agency Agreement »

Paper Dragons

posted by Mitu Gulati

Last Saturday evening the Prime Minister of Lebanon announced that the country would not be paying a $1.2 billion Eurobond scheduled to mature today, March 9. As recently as six weeks ago the March 9 bond was trading at 90 cents on the dollar. Today, Lebanon's foreign bonds are deep in the toilet at 18-19 cents.

The London-based hedge fund Ashmore is reported to have bet heavily that the Lebanese authorities would in the end capitulate and pay the bond in full rather than risk a default that could quickly ripple through the country's stock of external debt. Ashmore is said to have admonished the authorities about the deeply unpleasant consequences of such a default, a position that reportedly incurred the wrath of some of the country's other creditors.

This is the second time inside the past few months that a large international investor has played a game of chicken with a sovereign or sub-sovereign bond issuer. In February, the Province of Buenos Aires sought the consent of holders of bond maturing in 2021 bond to delay a $277 million payment due on January 26 for just four months. The justification? Insufficient funds.

When the holders balked, the Province sweetened the offer by proposing to pay 30 percent of the principal of the instrument in addition to the coupon due on January 26. Most holders seemed to disposed to accept that offer but one large institution, Fidelity, held out (here and here). And because Fidelity held a blocking position in the bond, the Province's consent solicitation failed.

The worst outcome in a sovereign debt restructuring is for the issuer to plead poverty, announce the urgent and inescapable need for a debt rearrangement, and then pay the debt in full if the creditors balk at agreeing to the deal. That, however, is exactly what the Province of BA wound up doing. The lasting impression in the market is that the Province's bluff was decisively called. Fidelity, at risk of being perceived as a maverick breaking faith with its fellow lenders, ended up in the position of an equestrian Saint George with its lance deeply embedded in the scales of a paper dragon.

Fidelity won its game of chicken in Argentina; Ashmore apparently did not fare as well in Lebanon. Damage control in Argentina must now take the form of convincing the external creditors of the Republic of Argentina -- who are owed around $100 billion -- that while the Province of BA may have been caught bluffing, the Republic won't be when it announces the terms of its debt restructuring sometime in the next 10 days.

What, I wonder, will damage control look like at Ashmore? If, as widely reported, Ashmore controls more than 25 percent of the outstanding principal of one or more series of Republic of Lebanon bonds, the firm is presumably in a position single-handedly to call for an acceleration of those series. Here is where pride and credibility may play a part. If Lebanon's default on March 9 is NOT followed by the terrible swift sword of creditor enforcement actions, Ashmore's dire warnings to the Lebanese authorities may also take on the character of a paper dragon. I'm betting that Ashmore can't, or won't, let that happen.

At the end of the day, as Lebanese debt guru Anna Szymanski put it in her report on Reuters Breaking Views a few hours ago (here), it will all boil down to what Lebanon’s contracts say and how strong the legal rights of holdouts are.  And, if anyone could actually manage to understand the contractual terms (these are some of the most opaque contracts I’ve ever come across), I think that they will discover that Ashmore has the ability to draw a considerable amount of blood.  

More on the contracts over the next few days, if I can manage to read more than a paragraph of that gibberish without getting a headache. On the other hand, the ACC tournament is starting tomorrow.

Comments

I think I am not totally clear on how the language in these agreements is negotiated. It sounds like the opaque language makes it difficult to know what rights the lenders will have in the event of a default. Why don't sovereigns seeking to borrow simply include terms more favorable to themselves in the event of a default in the original contracts? Is this language bargained over, or does the market set the price of the debt based on how forgiving the terms in the indenture are?

Maybe I am just missing something, but it seems these terms are underexamined considering they significantly impact the investors' return time and time again.

Since it sounds like Lebanon's largest sector is actually a Ponzi scheme, and with a heinous debt-to-GDP ratio, Lebanon probably wouldn’t be bluffing at all. But, what does bluffing really mean? How dire of straits must a sovereign be to credibly threaten default? Hedge funds would probably be happy for a government to pay their debt even if it crippled future economic growth and leeched taxpayers dry. Even with CACs, if a particularly heartless hedge fund (yes, I know) holds a blocking position, can a country ever successfully plead poverty? Does the paper dragon ever turn out to actually breathe fire?

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Working...
Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.

Working...

Post a comment

Contributors

Current Guests

Follow Us On Twitter

Like Us on Facebook

  • Like Us on Facebook

    By "Liking" us on Facebook, you will receive excerpts of our posts in your Facebook news feed. (If you change your mind, you can undo it later.) Note that this is different than "Liking" our Facebook page, although a "Like" in either place will get you Credit Slips post on your Facebook news feed.

News Feed

Categories

Bankr-L

  • As a public service, the University of Illinois College of Law operates Bankr-L, an e-mail list on which bankruptcy professionals can exchange information. Bankr-L is administered by one of the Credit Slips bloggers, Professor Robert M. Lawless of the University of Illinois. Although Bankr-L is a free service, membership is limited only to persons with a professional connection to the bankruptcy field (e.g., lawyer, accountant, academic, judge). To request a subscription on Bankr-L, click here to visit the page for the list and then click on the link for "Subscribe." After completing the information there, please also send an e-mail to Professor Lawless (rlawless@illinois.edu) with a short description of your professional connection to bankruptcy. A link to a URL with a professional bio or other identifying information would be great.

OTHER STUFF

Powered by TypePad