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.

And the winner is — frontier market bonds

Global Investing has commented before on how strongly the world’s riskiest bonds — from the so-called frontier markets such as Mongolia, Nigeria and Guatemala — have performed.  NEXGEM, the frontier component of the bond index family run by JP Morgan, is on track to outperform all other fixed income classes this year with returns of over 20 percent., the bank tells clients in a note today. Just to compare, broader emerging dollar bonds on the EMBI Global index have returned some 16 percent year-to-date while local currency emerging debt is up 13 percent.

That appetite for the sector is strong was proven by a September Eurobond from Zambia that was 15 times subscribed. Demand shows no sign of flagging despite a default in frontier peer Belize and shenanigans over the payment of Ivory Coast’s missed coupons from last year. Reasons are easy to find. First, the yield. The average yield on the NEXGEM is roughly 6.5 percent compared with  just under 5 percent on the EMBIG.

Second, this is where a lot of issuance is happening as big emerging markets such as Brazil and Mexico, once prolific dollar bond issuers, sell less and less on external markets in favour of domestic debt.  Frontier markets are filling the gap. JPM says Angola, Guatemala, Mongolia and Zambia joined the NEXGEM in 2012 as they made their debut on global capital markets. Bolivia is also set for inclusion soon, taking the number of NEXGEM members to 23 by end-2012.

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?

Emerging corporate debt tips the scales

Time was when investing in emerging markets meant buying dollar bonds issued by developing countries’ governments.

How old fashioned. These days it’s more about emerging corporate bonds, if the emerging market gurus at JP Morgan are to be believed. According to them, the stock of debt from emerging market companies now exceeds that of dollar bonds issued by emerging governments for the first time ever.

JP Morgan, which runs the most widely used emerging debt indices, says its main EM corporate bond benchmark, the CEMBI Broad, now lists $469 billion in corporate bonds.  That compares to $463 billion benchmarked to its main sovereign dollar bond index, the EMBI Global. In fact, the entire corporate debt market (if one also considers debt that is not eligible for the CEMBI) is now worth $974 billion, very close to the magic $1 trillion mark. Back in 2006, the figure was at$340 billion.  JPM says:

Emerging debt default rates on the rise

Times are tough and unsurprisingly, default rates among emerging market companies are rising.

David Spegel, ING Bank’s head of emerging debt, has a note out, calculating that there have been $8.271 billion worth of defaults by 19 emerging market issuers so far this year — nearly double the total $4.28 billion witnessed during the whole of 2011.

And there is more to come — 208 bonds worth $75.7 billion are currently trading at yield levels classed as distressed (above 1000 basis points), Spegel says, while another 120 bonds worth $45 billion are at “stressed” levels (yields between 700 and 999 bps).   Over half of the “distressed” bonds are in Latin America (see graphic below).  His list suggests there could be $2.4 billion worth of additional defaults in 2012 which would bring the 2012 total to $10.7 billion. Spegel adds however that defaults would drop next year to $6.8 billion.

Yield-hungry funds lend $2bln to Ukraine

Investors just cannot get enough of emerging market bonds. Ukraine, possibly one of the weakest of the big economies in the developing world, this week returned to global capital markets for the first time in a year , selling $2 billion in 5-year dollar bonds.  Investors placed orders for seven times that amount, lured doubtless by the 9.25 percent yield on offer.

Ukraine’s problems are well known, with fears even that the country could default on debt this year.  The $2 billion will therefore come as a relief. But the dangers are not over yet, which might make its success on bond markets look all the more surprising.

Perhaps not. Emerging dollar debt is this year’s hot-ticket item, generating returns of over 10 percent so far in 2012. Yields in the so-called safe markets such as Germany and United States are negligible; short-term yields are even negative.  So a 9.25 percent yield may look too good to resist.

The (CDS) cost of being in the euro

What’s the damage from being a member of the euro? German credit default swaps, used to insure risk, have spiralled to record highs over 130 basis points, three times the level of a year ago amid the escalating brouhaha over Spain’s banks and Greek elections. U.S. CDS meanwhile remain around 45 bps. That means it costs 45,000 to insure $10 million worth of U.S. investments for five years, compared to $135,000 for Germany. (click the graphics to enlarge)

A smaller but similarly interesting anomaly can be found in central Europe. Take close neighbours, the Czech and Slovak Republics who are so similar they were once the same country. Both have small open  economies, reliant on producing goods for export to Germany.

The difference is that Slovakia joined the euro in 2009.

Back then, with the world grappling with the fallout from the Lehman crisis, Slovakia appeared at a distinct advantage versus the Czech Republic. At the height of the crisis in February 2009, Czech 5-year CDS exploded to 300 bps, well above Slovakia’s levels. But slowly that premium has eroded. A year ago CDS for both countries were quoted at similar levels of around 70 bps.  Now the Czech CDS are quoted at 125 bps, having risen along with everything else, but Slovak CDS have jumped to 250 bps, data from Markit shows. (bonds have not reacted in the same manner — Slovak 1-year debt still yields around 0.8 percent versus 1.4 percent for the Czech Republic; similarly German yields have fallen to zero; for an explanation see here).

Emerging bond defaults on the rise, no surprise

As may be expected, the crisis has increased the risk of default by emerging market borrowers. According to estimates by ING Bank’s emerging bond guru David Spegel, the default rate on EM bonds is running at over $6 billion in the first four months of 2012, already surpassing the 2011 total of $4.3 billion. He  predicts another $1.3 billion of emerging defaults to come this year.

Spegel expects the default rate for speculative grade emerging corporates to rise to 3.25 percent by September, up from 3 percent at present.  That doesn’t look too bad, given defaults ran at 13 percent after the 2008 crisis and hit a record of over 30 percent in the 2001-2003 period. But ING data shows some $120 billion worth of corporate bonds trading at “distressed” or “stressed” levels, i.e. at spreads upwards of 700 basis points. The longer such wide spreads persist, the higher the probability of default. A worst case scenario  would see a 12.9 percent default rate by end-2012, Spegel says.

Many companies are having trouble rolling over maturing bonds (selling debt to pay off existing creditors). One reason might be the explosion in bond issuance this year. Data from Bank of America/Merrill Lynch shows bond sales by emerging borrowers, sovereign and corporate, totalled 14 billion in the first three months of the year, a quarter more than the same 2011 period.  Clearly everyone is rushing to raise cash before U.S. Treasury yields rise further. (see what we wrote on this a few months ago)