What to do with Belize’s superbond
This year’s renewed euphoria over emerging markets has bypassed some places. One such corner is Belize, a country sandwiched between Mexico and Guatemala, which many fear is gearing up for a debt default. There is a chance this will happen as early as next week
Belize is a small country with just 330,000 people but back in 2007, it issued a $550 million bond on international markets. Known locally as a superbond for its large size (relative to the country’s economy), the issue earned Belize a spot on JP Morgan’s EMBI Global index of emerging market bonds.
As this index is used by 80 percent of fund managers who invest in emerging debt, many of them will have allocated some cash to hold the Belize bond in their portfolios. These folk will be waiting anxiously to see if Belize pays a $23 million coupon due on Feb. 20.
Never very liquid, the bond has taken a sharp lurch downwards since Feb.7 when Prime Minister Dean Barrow said in a pre-election speech that he would seek “instructions” from the electorate to “do something about the bond”. That unsurprisingly triggered panic selling and the bond now trades around 40 cents on the dollar, down some 20 cents since the start of February. The yield has risen sharply to 23 percent from 16 percent and and the Belize spread over U.S. Treasuries — the premium that investors demand to hold the bond — has blown out to almost 2000 basis points, higher than any other country in the EMBI Global index. That’s a rise of 400 bps since the day of Barrow’s speech.
Exotix, a frontier market-focused brokerage says:
What happens next? We think the government will pay the forthcoming 20 February coupon but clearly there is a risk that it won’t. But even if it does, that does not remove the uncertainty now hanging over the bond… The government has the money and it might be counterproductive politically to default just before a general election. However we do acknowledge that the bond’s domestic unpopularity and the low price make non-payment an easier option.
Regionally, there are some parallels with Ecuador which in 2008 defaulted on debt the government said had been contracted unlawfully by a previous administration. Investors pointed out at the time that Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa had the cash to pay but did not want to. If Belize misses the Monday coupon, it will not be for want of cash — the central bank has $240 million in its coffers.
Longer-term however, it looks unlikely that Belize can keep up with payments. The country has a clearly unsustainable debt-GDP ratio of over 80 percent. The bond’s structure means that coupons “step up” gradually and this year the annual coupon jumps to 8.5 percent from 6 percent. So debt service costs rise by over a third to $46.2 billion from this year, Exotix calculates. That will go up even further from 2019 when Belize must start paying back the principal of the debt rather than just the interest. So even if Barrow pays next week’s coupon, bondholders may do well to prepare for more such noise in future.