Global Investing

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.

Moreover Ukraine paid a substantial premium to compensate investors for the risk. Last June it sold a $1.25 billion 5-year bond, paying just 6.25 percent or 300 basis points less. Michael Ganske, head of emerging markets research at Commerzbank says:

At the moment investors are pouring money into emerging fixed income, they just want to get a better yield for their portfolios. People understand Ukraine is not a fantastic credit but it is a matter of value for money — just look at the yield. I think this deal was positive for both sides: Ukraine were able to issue and get money in the bank and investors received an attractive yield.

Ukraine’s $58 billion problem

Ukrainian officials were at pains to reassure investors last week that no debt default was in the offing. But people familiar with the numbers will find it hard to believe them.

The government must find over $5.3 billion this year to repay maturing external debt, including $3 billion to the IMF and $2 billion to Russian state bank VTB. Bad enough but there is worse:  Ukrainian companies and banks too have hefty debt maturities this year. Total external financing needs– corporate and sovereign – amount to $58 billion, analysts at Capital Economics calculate. That’s a third of Ukraine’s GDP and makes a default of some kind very likely. The following graphic is from Capital Economics.

In normal circumstances Ukraine — and Ukrainian companies — could have gone to market and borrowed the money. Quite a few developing countries such as Lithuania recently tapped markets, others including Jamaica plan to do so. Ukraine’s problem is its refusal to toe the IMF line.  Agreeing to the IMF’s main demand to lift crippling gas subsidies would unlock a $15 billion loan programme, giving  access to the loan cash as well as to global bond markets. But removing subsidies would be political suicide ahead of elections in October.  And with the sovereign frozen out of bond markets, Ukrainian companies too will find it hard to raise cash.

Iceland: slipping again?

Just when you thought it was all over, Iceland looks like it’s in trouble again.  The cost of insuring Iceland’s debt against restructuring or default has risen this week to 720 basis points in the five-year credit default swap market, its highest since mid-2009.  That means it costs 720,000 euros a year for five years to insure 10 million euros of Icelandic debt against default.

Icelanders are to vote by March 6 on a deal to repay $5 billion lost in online Icesave bank accounts in Britain and the Netherlands. Those governments compensated savers when the bank collapsed and now want their money back from Reykjavik, but opinion polls show voters are likely to reject what are seen as the harsh terms of the agreement.

ICELAND/The uncertainty has driven debt insurance costs back up towards the levels seen just before the country’s banking system and government collapsed in Oct 2008.

EBRD to puzzle over E.Europe crisis

Ministers and bankers meeting at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development‘s annual gathering in London tomorrow and Saturday have a sorry mess to scrutinise.

By the bank’s own (revised) forecasts, its region of central and eastern Europe will contract by over 5 percent this year. Many countries in eastern Europe took too much advantage of western banks’ lending spree, and businesses and households are struggling to pay back foreign currency loans.

Falling commodity prices have hit countries like Russia and Kazakhstan, and a burst consumer credit bubble is risking double-digit contraction in the Baltic states and Ukraine.