Global Investing

“Dog-Eared” debt and the IMF’s sovereign restructuring ideas

Since April of last year, a small but growing cadre of lawyers, investors, regulators, and yes, even journalists, have been carrying around dog-eared copies of an International Monetary Fund paper (read: trial balloon) that revisits how the fund, the lender of last resort for many nations, might revamp its approach to sovereign debt restructurings.

 

The IMF prefaces its latest foray into sovereign restructurings by saying history shows official sector sovereign debt restructurings have been “too little too late” and when it gets involved, the public money used in a settlement too often just flows to private sector investors who take the cash out of the afflicted country.

 

The Fund tried this once before in 2002 under former First Deputy Managing Director Anne Krueger with the idea of establishing a Sovereign Debt Restructuring Mechanism (SDRM). This was two years after hedge fund Elliott Associates won a judgment against Peru in a case where it held out for better restructuring terms. It was a year after Argentina’s last and biggest sovereign debt default had occurred and progress in negotiating a deal with creditors was going nowhere. (That default was a sovereign record, only to be eclipsed by Greece in 2012.) The SDRM plan some 14 years ago died after the United States, the largest donor to the fund, decided against to withhold its support.

 

There are some similar circumstances today. Greece still has sizeable debt and a wrenching economic retrenchment. Argentina still has a fight on its hands.

 

Creditors such as Elliott and Aurelius Capital Management, the holdouts that Buenos Aires calls vultures for picking over the economy’s carcass, are  now armed with a U.S. 2nd Circuit Appeal Court ruling that effectively backs them into a corner. They have a choice: pay the holdouts their roughly $1.33 billion award (plus accrued interest) at the same time it pays the investors who accepted 25-29 cents on the dollar for their bonds or risk defaulting again because the payments system is under injunction. The case is based upon a pari passu, equal treatment, clause in the original bond offering, is up for possible review by the U.S. Supreme Court, prolonging the debt saga further, possibly into 2015. Meanwhile Argentina faces a balance of payments crisis that is helping to exacerbate investor concerns, globally, about the health of emerging markets. That said, fund managers are loathe to see Argentina being used as an excuse for the blowout losses in emerging markets.

A Plan B for Argentina

What’s Argentina’s Plan B?

President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has said she will sell the presidential palace in Buenos Aires, if need be, to keep paying creditors who agreed to restructure the country’s debts.  But it may not come to that. Warning: this is a complicated saga with very interesting twists.

A pair of hedge fund litigants demanding $1.3 billion in payments and a New York court are making it hard for Kirchner to keep paying international bondholders. But she might contemplate asking those existing creditors to swap into Argentine law bonds, to which the writ of the New York court will not extend.

First some background. Argentina is due to pay bond coupons this week and in June. Looks like the hedge funds will decline the payment proposal Argentina made last week; this could lead to a default.

Argentina back in court

Argentina squares off today in a U.S. Appeals court with the so-called holdout creditors who are demanding $1.3 billion in payments on defaulted bonds. A decision will probably take a few days but supporters of both sides have been mustering.

Emails have been pouring into journalists’ inboxes thick and fast from the Argentine Task Force, a lobby group that wants Argentina to settle with bondholders and identifies its goal as “pursuing a fair reconciliation of of the Argentine debt default”.  And yesterday, a noisy pots-and-pans protest was held outside the London offices of Elliot Associates (the parent company of one of the two hedge fund litigants)  by groups supporting Argentina in its battle against those it terms “vulture funds”.  Nick Dearden, director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign, a group that calls for cancelling poor countries’ debts, says:

If the vulture funds are allowed to extract their pound of flesh from Argentina today, we will see a proliferation of vulture funds in Europe tomorrow.

Weekly Radar: Leadership change in DC and Beijing?

Any hope of figuring out a new market trend before next week’s U.S. election were well and truly parked by the onset of Hurricane Sandy. Friday’s payrolls may add some impetus, but Tuesday’s Presidential poll is now front and centre of everyone’s minds. With the protracted process of Chinese leadership change starting next Thursday as well, then there are some significant long-term political issues at stake in the world’s two biggest economies.  Not only is the political horizon as clear as mud then, but Sandy will only add to the macro data fog for next few months as U.S. east coast demand will take an inevitable if temporary hit — something oil prices are already building in.

Across the Atlantic, the EU Commission’s autumn forecasts next week for 2012-14 GDP and deficits will likely make for uncomfortable reading, as will a fractious EU debate on fixing the blocs overall budget next year. But the euro zone crisis at least seems to have been smothered for now. Spain seems in no rush seek a formal bailout, will only likely seek a precautionary credit line rather than new monies anyway and needs neither right now in any case given a still robust level of market access at historically reasonable rates and with 95% of its 2012 funding done. According to our latest poll, more than 60% of global fund managers think Spanish yields have peaked for the crisis. Greece’s deep and painful debt problems, shaky political consensus and EU negotiations are all as nervy as usual. But tyhe assumption is all will avoid another major make-and-break standoff for now. More than three quarters of funds now expect Greece to remain in the euro right through next year at least.

The extent to which the relative calm is related to today’s introduction of a wave of EU regulation on short-selling of bonds and equities and, in particular, rules against ‘naked’ credit default swap positions on sovereign debt is a moot point. This may well have reined in the most extreme speculative activity for now and it has certainly hit liquidity and volumes.

Chaco signals warning for Argentina debt

A raft of Argentine provinces and municipalities suffered credit rating downgrades this week after one of their number, Chaco, in the north of the country, ran out of hard currency on the eve of a bond payment. Instead it paid creditors $260,000 in pesos. Now Chaco wants creditors to swap $30 million in dollar debt for peso bonds because it still cannot get its hands on any hard currency.

The episode is a frightening reminder of Argentina’s $100 billion debt default 10 years ago and unsurprisingly has triggered a surge in bond yields and credit default swaps (CDS). But broader questions also arise from it.

First, will debt “pesification” by some Argentine municipalities snowball to affect international bonds as well? And second, is municipal debt likely to become a problem for other emerging markets in coming months?

Argentine CDS spiral on “peso-fication” fear

Investors with exposure to Argentina will have been dismayed in recent weeks by the surging cost of insuring that investment — Argentine 5-year credit default swaps have risen more than 300 basis points since mid-May to the highest levels since 2009. That means one must stump up close to $1.5 million to insure $10 million worth of Argentine debt against default for a five year period, data from Markit shows.

The rise coincides with growing fears that President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner is getting ready to crack down on people’s dollar holdings. Fears of forcible de-dollarisation have sent Argentine savers scurrying to the banks to withdraw their hard currency and stash it under mattresses. That has widened the gap between the official and the “black market” exchange rate. (see the graphic below from Capital Economics)

While government officials have denied there is such a move afoot, Fernandez has not helped matters by exhorting people to “think in pesos”.  That will be hard for Argentines, most of whom have vivid memories of hyperinflation, default and devaluation. Unsurprisingly, most prefer to save in dollars. 

Three snapshots for Tuesday

Argentina’s debt insurance costs rose after the country moved to seize control of leading energy company YPF on Monday,  Madrid called the move on YPF, controlled by Spanish company Repsol, a hostile decision and vowed “clear and strong” measures, while the EU’s executive European Commission warned that an expropriation would send a very negative signal to investors. Of the countries in the MSCI Frontier equities universe Argentinian equities are the worst performer this year.

German analyst and investor sentiment rose unexpectedly in April. The Mannheim-based ZEW economic think tank’s monthly poll of economic sentiment rose to 23.4 from 22.3 in March, beating a consensus forecast in a Reuters poll of analysts for a fall to 20.0.

India’s first interest rate cut in three years may be its last for a while. The central bank cut rates on Tuesday by an unexpectedly sharp 50 basis points to boost the sagging economy, but warned there was limited scope for more cuts, with inflation likely to remain elevated and growth on track to pick up, albeit modestly.

A Hungarian default?

More on Hungary. It’s not hard to find a Hungary bear but few are more bearish than William Jackson at Capital Economics.

Jackson argues in a note today that Hungary will ultimately opt to default on its  debt mountain as it has effectively exhausted all other mechanisms. Its economy has little prospect of  strong growth and most of its debt is in foreign currencies so cannot be inflated away. Austerity is the other way out but Hungary’s population has been reeling from spending cuts since 2007, he says, and is unlikely to put up with more.

How did other highly indebted countries cope? (lets leave out Greece for now). Jackson takes the example of  Indonesia and Thailand. Both countries opted for strict austerity after the 1997 Asian crisis and resolved the debt problem by running large current account surpluses. This worked because the Asian crisis was followed by a period of buoyant world growth, allowing these countries to boost exports. But Hungary’s key export markets are in the euro zone and are unlikely to recover anytime soon.

from MacroScope:

Vultures swoop on Argentina

Holdouts against a settlement of Argentina’s defaulted debt are opening a new front in their campaign for a juicy payout more than a decade after the biggest sovereign default on record.

Lobbyists for some of the investors who hold about $6 billion in Argentine debt are in London to persuade Britain to follow the lead of the United States, which last September decided to vote against new Inter American Development Bank and World Bank loans for Buenos Aires.

Washington believes Argentina, a member of the Group of 20, is not meeting its international obligations on a number of fronts. Apart from the dispute with private bond holders, Argentina has yet to agree with the Paris Club of official creditors on a rescheduling of about $9 billion of debt. It has refused to let the International Monetary Fund conduct a routine health check of the economy. And it has failed to comply with the judgments of a World Bank arbitration panel.

from Scott Barber:

Breaking point? Greece vs. Argentina

As the crisis in Greece continues, the comparisons with Argentina’s chaotic bankruptcy a decade ago start to look more justified. In Argentina, a bank deposit freeze was the tipping point, triggering mass violent protests. People took to the streets banging pots and pans to protest against an economic collapse that plunged millions into poverty. The government declared a stage of siege and presidents resigned one after another. Greek unemployment and industrial production numbers out yesterday were dreadful but how to they compare to Argentina in late 2001?

The table and charts below show some key economic series in Argentina in the run up to 2002 and after. Argentinean real GDP fell nearly 20% from its peak in 1998 to 2002 -that compares with around a 12% fall so far in Greece. The unemployment rate in Argentina reached a peak of 24% not far above the 21% Greece reported yesterday. On other metrics Greece looks much worse; the IMF puts public debt at 50.8% of GDP in Argentina compared to an expected 166% in Greece this year.

The IMF published its Lessons of the crisis in Argentina in 2003 (approved by Tim Geithner no less). Looking at the conclusions, the IMF faced many problems now becoming familiar in Greece as this passage shows: