Venezuela: Sliding into a Generalized Default

By Arturo C. Porzecanski*

Two bank bills in green and yellow

Venezuelan bonds from 1896. / icollector / Creative Commons

The Venezuelan government is now officially in default – per the leading credit-rating agencies (Fitch, Moody’s, and S&P) and the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) – and seems to have no viable way out.  It has been three months since interest payments on various dollar-denominated bonds issued by the government and the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, have been late or not paid, with the total of coupons currently in arrears exceeding $1 billion.

  • In early November, President Nicolás Maduro announced that he would seek to restructure debt obligations, while suggesting the country would keep making payments during negotiations. As proof of his good intentions, he soon after paid a hefty $1.1 billion redemption payment on a PDVSA bond.  However, since a perfunctory meeting with some bondholders in mid-November, investors have not heard anything.
  • The government has blamed its precarious financial position on technical difficulties arising from financial sanctions imposed by the U.S. government – “the ongoing aggression, permanent sabotage, blockade, and financial persecution to which our people have been subjected” which “are in fact hurting the bondholders in international financial institutions.”

Once attempted, Venezuela’s debt restructuring – some $37 billion in government debt and $28 billion in PDVSA debt – could potentially become the world’s fourth largest, according to Moody’s.  A future restructuring could encompass $65 billion (plus interest arrears), compared to Greece in 2012 ($262 billion), Argentina in 2001 ($83 billion), and Russia in 1998 ($73 billion).

  • Restructuring negotiations with Venezuela will be difficult because the country owes at least another $65 billion to domestic bondholders, lenders from China and Russia, foreign airlines, banks and foreign suppliers, as well as foreign investors waiting to be compensated for nationalized properties. Another complication is that the validity of some debts could be challenged, especially by an eventual successor government, because not all received proper authorization (e.g., from the National Assembly).  Also, investors will be reluctant to grant meaningful debt relief unless the country’s capacity to honor the new obligations is substantially augmented, such as by taking drastic actions to revive the crumbling oil industry.  Finally, current U.S. sanctions would need to be relaxed to enable American investors to take possession of new government bonds from Venezuela incorporating the agreed-upon concessions (e.g., on maturity and coupons), in exchange for retiring the existing bonds – as per standard practice in debt restructurings.
  • An outbreak of disruptive litigation against Venezuela is a significant risk because the indentures of outstanding bonds specify that any disputes that arise are to be settled by U.S. rather than Venezuelan or international courts. Impatient creditors with favorable court judgments could make it difficult for Venezuela to keep repatriating oil export earnings home.  As the Argentina-related litigation and arbitration saga demonstrated, it is possible, though not easy or quick, for private investors to collect from a deadbeat government.

Maduro’s widening default is but the latest casualty of his and Hugo Chavez’s maladministration of the economy and public finances.  Government revenues relative to GDP are now less than half their level in 2013-14, while government spending is still running well above the levels of four or five years ago.  As a result, the fiscal deficit is now a whopping 25 percent of GDP and is financed mainly by the Central Bank, feeding hyperinflation.  A drop in oil production to its lowest level in three decades – a mere 1.8 million barrels per day as of late 2017 – and lower world prices have caused oil export earnings to shrivel up from almost $95 billion in 2012 to less than $30 billion in 2017 – a $65 billion drop.  Not even a drastic cut in government dollar sales for import purposes, which has provoked an unprecedented $50 billion compression of imports (from $65 billion in 2012 to about $15 billion in 2017) has been able to offset the calamitous fall in exports.  The default is also rooted in Venezuela’s gradual loss of its ability to sell new bonds abroad to replace maturing obligations and to help cover the interest bill.  Without the benefit of raising any fresh bondholder financing during 2017, last year the government would have had to come up with $10 billion out of pocket in order to cover all debt-service obligations to bondholders.  The equivalent debt-service figures for this year and next are on the order of $9 billion each – realistically, a “Mission Impossible” absent much higher oil production and prices.  The Trump Administration’s sanctions, forbidding U.S.-based investors to purchase new Venezuelan government bonds from August 25 on, were just the last nail in the external financing coffin.

January 9, 2018

*Dr. Arturo C. Porzecanski is Distinguished Economist in Residence at American University and Director of the International Economic Relations Program at its School of International Service.

Spain: Too Distracted to Play in Latin America?

By An Observer*

Rajoy Latin America

Photo Credit: La Moncloa Gobierno de España and Heraldry (Modified) / Flickr & Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Spain’s political crisis and problems facing the European Union have undermined Madrid’s ability to pursue interests in Latin America at a time of new opportunities.  Amidst countless months of lameduck government and the failure of either the Partido Popular (PP) or the Partido Socialista (PSOE) to form a government, the country is also tied in knots over corruption scandals, including some touching a Cabinet member and the royal family, and Cataluña’s persistent challenges to central authority.  Even before the current mess, Prime Minister Rajoy had shown only modest interest in Latin America, and King Felipe hadn’t yet demonstrated the mettle of his father, who once famously told Venezuelan President Chávez to shut up at an Ibero-American Summit.  Adding to Spain’s distractions are a series of EU challenges, ranging from refugee crises to terrorism and the Mediterranean countries’ debt overhang.  Spanish elites, who remain committed to the EU vision, are seized with concerns about Brexit, the UK’s flirtation with withdrawal, and perplexed by the absence of a renewed integration project.

Madrid’s declining role coincides with changes in Latin America that would normally grab its attention.  President Obama and Raúl Castro’s historic normalization of diplomatic relations has opened the door to at least one major U.S. hotel firm signing contracts to refurbish and manage several Cuban hotels – an industry in which Spain previously had extraordinary advantages.  Having played “good cop” with Cuba for many years, compared to Washington’s “bad cop,” Madrid’s future role on the island is at most uncertain.  The election of market-friendly President Macri in Argentina, where the previous government nationalized a Spanish energy company and adopted other policies causing bilateral estrangement, also represents an opportunity for Spain.  The near-completion of peace talks between the Colombian government and guerrillas should be the crowning jewel of a foreign policy in which Spain made a strong political investment early on, but Madrid has receded to the role of bit player.  At a time that Latin Americans continue to espouse support for CELAC and other regional organizations that exclude Spain (and the United States), Spain-sponsored Cumbres Iberoamericanas since 1991 have – even more than the U.S.-sponsored Summit of the Americas – lacked dynamism and produced little as the beacon of the Spanish transition was dying down

By turning inward, Spain risks losing what remains of its special cachet as Latin America’s link to Europe and as a country that made a successful transition to democracy with inclusion, human rights, vibrant media, and increasing transparency.  Its political capital in the region is running low, and budgetary constraints have diminished its aid budgets (from 0.5 percent of GDP to 0.13 percent).  But opportunities remain.  Big Spanish companies – Telefónica, Banco Santander, BBVA, Repsol, and others – and numerous mid-sized firms have shown interest in Latin America.  Cuba’s reluctance to embrace U.S. ties too tightly and too fast gives Spain important space to play a role if it wants.  Moreover, Spain’s diplomatic skills, critical for Central America’s peace processes and elsewhere, could still be a positive force in that subregion.   If it weren’t for former Spanish Prime Ministers’ contradictory roles in Venezuela, where U.S. baggage undermines Washington’s approach to political, economic, and security problems, Spain could be active there too.  But the Prime Minister and his cabinet have not given the Foreign Ministry the green light to get more deeply involved.  It’s not too late for Spain to turn things around and get back into the game in Latin America.  For that to happen Spain needs more consistent governance.

April 18, 2016

* The writer is long-time non-academic observer of Spanish foreign policy in Latin America.

Argentina: Burying the hatchet?

By Arturo C. Porzecanski*

Photo credits: Finizio and Global Panorama / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Photo credits: Finizio and Global Panorama / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The administration of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has shown a willingness to bury the proverbial hatchet and bring to a definitive end what was once the largest sovereign default in recorded history – nearly $100 billion in obligations to domestic and foreign bondholders and official foreign-aid and export-credit agencies, including the United States Export-Import Bank.  In late May, Argentina reached an agreement with its official creditors (gathered as the so-called Paris Club), committing to repay everything that had come due in full and in cash – nearly $10 billion in principal, past-due interest, and interest-on-interest – over the next five years, starting with a down-payment in July.  In recent days, President Kirchner has also signaled that she is ready to negotiate a payment plan with bondholders who are potentially owed even more than the Paris Club creditors.  The trigger for this conciliatory attitude is two U.S. Supreme Court decisions announced on June 16 which granted jilted creditors wide latitude in seeking redress from Argentina.  The first ordered the government in Buenos Aires to stop discriminating among its bondholders by paying most but not all of them; and the second mandated banks operating in the United States to disclose any and all assets owned by Argentina anywhere in the world, facilitating efforts to seize them by unpaid creditors.

Argentine governments since the closing and troubled days of 2001 have taken a notoriously hard line toward creditors ever since Acting President Adolfo Rodríguez Saá announced that he would be suspending payments on the public debt and dedicating all sums budgeted for that purpose to fund an emergency jobs program and increased social spending.  Cristina and her predecessor (and late husband), Néstor Kirchner, embraced a populist-cum-nationalist view of the world according to which the state must favor the interests of the majority of its population, particularly in terms of redistributing income from the “haves” to the “have nots.”  Pervasive state interventionism, confiscatory taxation, disrespect for private property rights, widespread controls (on prices, interest rates, foreign trade, and capital flows), and confrontational attitudes toward investors became the hallmark of economic policy in Argentina.  Despite a vigorous economic recovery starting in mid-2002, creditors never got a single payment from Argentina – and the government made only an arrogant take-it-or-leave-it proposition to private creditors by which they would turn in their bonds and receive new ones worth one third as much.  By late 2010, over 92 percent of the private creditors capitulated and went into the debt exchange.  According to a reputable comparative study of sovereign defaults in the Journal of International Money and Finance published in 2012, Argentina’s behavior towards its creditors displayed an exceptional degree of coerciveness.  While Argentine and European creditors had no luck pursuing their claims in their respective courts, most bondholders who had legal rights under New York State law succeeded in obtaining favorable judgments – and lately, in gaining enforcement rights as well.

Argentina has set such a bad example in terms of how to restructure the public debt that no other nation has dared to follow it since.  Given the recent advance in creditor rights courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court, chances are that no other government will ever be motivated to copy Argentina’s rogue-debtor behavior – a very good outcome for the world at large.  Concerns that the decade-long judicial fight in the United States will slow down or impede future sovereign debt restructurings are greatly exaggerated.  Before reaching their decisions, the U.S. courts heard from many academic and non-academic experts, and from several governments (Brazil, France, Mexico and the United States), and the New York District Court of Appeals dismissed warnings of impending doom as “speculative, hyperbolic, and almost entirely of [Argentina’s] own making.”  Argentina engaged in uniquely egregious misconduct, violating the well-established norms of sovereign debt restructuring, refusing to negotiate with its creditors, ignoring court orders, and failing to honor its obligations subject to U.S. law despite the country’s unquestioned ability to pay.  The legal rights conferred to minority bondholders in the 1990s, which were actionable in this instance, have been superseded during the 2000s by the widespread inclusion of new “collective action” clauses, inspired by English law, preventing a small minority from blocking a debt restructuring supported by a large majority (at least 75 percent) of creditors.  These clauses have worked very well in recent years, including in the cases of Greece and Belize in 2012 and 2013, respectively.  Therefore, while the advancement of creditor rights brought about by the Argentina litigation will encourage governments to be more conciliatory towards their creditors, the evolution of market practices means that fewer than 8 percent of total creditors will never again be able to demand payment in full the next time that a government obtains the consent of everyone else.

*Dr. Porzecanski is Distinguished Economist in Residence at American University.