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?
In Argentina, where the central bank is zealously guarding its sparse hard currency reserves, it does look likely that more provinces will follow Chaco’s example and pay creditors in pesos. But many of these municipal bonds, including Chaco’s, are governed by local law and are mostly held by Argentines. Analysts at Barclays say it is unlikely Buenos Aires will “pesify” debt issued under international law, i.e. force creditors to take payment in pesos. That’s because changing payment terms of international law paper could constitute full-fledged rather than technical default (as in Chaco’s case) and can also trigger cross default clauses. Barclays tells clients:
We believe that local law dollar debt of provincial governments and corporations will be mostly paid in pesos, as per July regulatory changes that ban exchange rate purchases without a “predetermined purpose”. But we do not expect changes in external provincial or corporate debt. Federal government local and external debt will remain honored in dollars, in our view.