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.

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.

Financial repression revisited

At a monetary policy event hosted by Fathom Consulting at the Reuters London office today, former Bank of England policymakers were discussing the pros and cons of “financial repression”.

Financial repression is a concept first introduced in the 1970s in the United States and is becoming a talking point again after the financial crisis, especially with a NBER paper last year written by economists Reinhart and Sbrancia reviving the debate.

In the paper, authors define financial repression as follows:

Historically, periods of high indebtedness have been associated with a rising incidence of default or restructuring of public and private debts. A subtle type of debt restructuring takes the form of “financial repression”.

Contemplating Italian debt restructuring

This week’s evaporation of confidence in the euro zone’s biggest government debt market — Italy’s 1.6 trillion euros of bonds and bills and the world’s third biggest — has opened a Pandora’s Box that may now force  investors to consider the possibility of a mega sovereign debt default or writedown and, or maybe as a result of,  a euro zone collapse.

Given the dynamics and politics of the euro zone, this is a chicken-or-egg situation where it’s not clear which would necessarily come first. Greece has already shown it’s possible for a “voluntary” creditor writedown of  the country’s debts to the tune of 50 percent without — immediately at least — a euro exit. On the other hand, leaving the euro and absorbing a maxi devaluation of a newly-minted domestic currency would instantly render most country’s euro-denominated debts unpayable in full.

But if a mega government default is now a realistic risk, the numbers on the “ifs” and “buts” are being being crunched.