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Can Russia Pay its 2022 Dollar Bond Obligation in Rubles? (More dodgy Russian bond clauses?)

posted by Mitu Gulati

I didn't think so. But one of my students has me questioning myself.

As of this writing, in April 2022, the press is reporting that Russia is on the brink of default because its foreign currency funds are frozen (here). Russia says that it is not in default because it is unable to make the dollar or euro payments as a result of the sanctions and is entitled to make its payments in rubles.  Investors have dismissed this idea – saying that it is “crystal clear” that payments on the bonds with payments due April 2022 have to be paid in foreign currency (here).

Yes, there are some bonds, containing an “Alternate Payments Currency” clause issued in the post-2014 period, where Russia is arguably entitled to make payments in rubles if, for reasons out of its control, it is unable to pay in the primary currency specified in the bond (here).  But the bonds that have come due in April 2022 do not contain that Alternate Payment Currency clause. And hence the assumption seems to be that the ruble payment constitutes a default.  And I confess that that was my assumption until a student, Doug Mulliken, pointed out a clause that I had previously missed.

It is clause number 15, titled “Currency Indemnity.”  The first sentence of the clause says:

The U.S. dollar is the sole currency of account and payment for all sums payable by the Russian Federation . . . in connection with the Bonds, including damages.

That’s well and good.  The US dollar is the currency of payment.  But then the clause goes on to say:

Any amount received . . . in a currency other than the U.S. dollar . . . by any Bondholder in respect of any sum . . . due to it from the Russian Federation shall only constitute a discharge to the Russian Federation to the extent of the U.S. dollar amount which the recipient is able to purchase with the amount so received or recovered in that other currency on the date of that receipt or recovery . . . If that U.S. dollar amount is less than the U.S. dollar amount expressed to be due to the recipient under any Bond, the Russian Federation shall indemnify such recipient against any loss sustained by it as a result. In any event, the Russian Federation shall indemnify the recipient against the cost of making any such purchase.

To my reading, Doug is right. Boiled down, the clause seems to say that payment in a different currency (e.g., rubles) can constitute a “discharge”, so long as the recipient can use those rubles to buy a sufficient number of dollars.  That seems to mean that Russia, can discharge its obligations by paying in rubles.

Now, maybe I have missed some other clause in the document that negates this.  It would not be the first time that that’s happened.  But I do remember reading a chapter in Lee Buchheit’s, How to Negotiate Eurocurrency Loan Agreements, (Chapter 20, if memory serves) that not only describes clauses like this, but also explains how they are a potential source of mischief if the clause was not written tightly enough to protect against the debtor using capital controls in a sneaky fashion.

The sneaky thing for Mr. Putin to do would be to make the payments in rubles into an account in Russia, immediately convert the rubles to dollars and then say that the dollars are frozen in place under capital controls.  Pay enough rubles and, according to the strict terms of the contract, that would be a discharge.  And Mr. Putin could say that those dollars would be frozen until his foreign assets in the west were unfrozen.

One might ask here: Doesn't the bond require payments to be made in NY?  Yes, but Section 15, the Currency Indemnity clause, describes what happens if the holder “recovers OR RECEIVES” a payment in another currency, presumably in another place.

And it says that the USD payment is “discharged” if the holder receives a sufficient amount of that other currency to buy $$$ in the amount originally due on the date the other currency is received or recovered.

All of that will have happened.

Would a court buy any of this? Probably depends on where the court is located.  London, NY or Moscow.

The problem probably could have been obviated had the Currency Indemnity clause specified that the dollars acquired with the other currency (rubles, in our hypothetical) be "freely transferrable dollars". But it doesn't say that.

Aiyiyiyi

Credit to Doug Mulliken. Errors are mine.

Comments

Why is it "sneaky" if Russian Federation contract drafters have been smart enough to embed this clause and use it now as intended ? Why is it "dodgy"?

I have to disagree with you here. Neither individual bondholders, nor the Global Note holder, nor the clearing systems have RUB accounts in Moscow. They have "received" nothing, unless you believe Russia could put a suitcase full of money in a railway station locker, tell bondholders where it is, and have that count as "receipt" or "recovery".

It should have been flagged that clause 15's first sentence (USD is sole currency payment account) could not be true, given it was followed by descriptions of holder possibly receiving payment in another currency. Unless all parties were already amenable to this from the start.

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