By Brian Ellsworth
CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has announced that the country and state oil company PDVSA will restructure its burgeoning foreign debt, even as he vowed to make a payment of more than $1 billion that came due on Thursday.
The announcement did not put Venezuela or PDVSA into default, but suggests that Maduro’s cash-strapped government may be preparing to do so as heavy debt payments aggravate the country’s crippling economic crisis.
Q. Why is Venezuela so heavily indebted?
A. Even though the OPEC nation was flush with cash during a decade-long oil boom, Venezuela’s ruling Socialist Party borrowed heavily during the era of late president Hugo Chavez to finance generous social programs that made him popular.
The country also dismantled mechanisms meant to ensure Venezuela saved money when oil prices were high, leaving it without sufficient hard currency reserves to import basic goods such as food and medicine after prices crashed in 2014.
Hunger and preventable diseases are as a result taking a growing toll on the population of 30 million.
Q. Why can’t Venezuela refinance its debt?
A. The most common refinancing mechanisms are effectively blocked by U.S. sanctions levied this year, in response to accusations that Maduro was undermining democracy, which prevent U.S. banks from acquiring newly issued Venezuelan debt.
Venezuela and PDVSA cannot carry out “swap” transactions in which they exchange maturing bonds for ones that come due further down the road because financial institutions with U.S. headquarters would not be able to acquire the new debt.
Investors also say bondholders would have no interest in renegotiating payment timelines without a cohesive plan to reform the country’s dysfunctional socialist economic model. Maduro has repeatedly balked at carrying out such reforms.
Q. Who are the major holders of Venezuela and PDVSA bonds?
A. These securities are popular among funds that invest in emerging market bonds. Their high yields – which are close to 10 times higher than those of neighboring Colombia – help increase the overall profitability of the portfolios.
Goldman Sachs Group Inc (N:GS) came under heavy fire this year for purchasing $2.8 billion in PDVSA bonds at a steep discount, which opposition critics dubbed “hunger bonds.”
Q. What would be the consequences for Venezuela of default?
A. Creditors could seek to seize assets Venezuela owns in other countries, including refineries such as those operated by PDVSA’s U.S. refining and marketing subsidiary Citgo.
A default could also make it more complicated for Venezuela to import products from foreign companies.
Providers of goods such as food and medicine may reduce sales to Venezuela on concern that they will not get paid, or that they could find themselves ensnared in creditor lawsuits.
Q. What is the role of Russia and China in financing Venezuela?
A. Venezuela has borrowed heavily from both nations via oil-for-loan agreements in which it pays back in deliveries of crude and fuel.
Investors believe support from Moscow and Beijing has been instrumental in allowing Venezuela to keep up with bond payments so far. Russia recently said it was willing to restructure a $3 billion loan.
But both China and Russia have shown impatience with Venezuela’s continued refusal to reform its Byzantine socialist economic regulations that are widely cited as the principal obstacle to growth.
Q. Could multi-lateral institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank get involved in the country’s debt restructuring?
Maybe, but substantial obstacles loom. There has been no formal contact between Venezuela and the IMF and World Bank although it does have a representative on each of their boards.
Before the fund could get involved again, Maduro’s government would have to agree to an economic and financial assessment – something it has for years refused to do on the grounds that it violates sovereignty.
Its current willingness to submit to such a review is unclear.
Q. How would a default affect daily life in Venezuela?
A. Default would likely further pummel the country’s already bruised bolivar currency, which has depreciated 99 percent on the black market since Maduro took office. Reluctance to do business with Venezuela could make it harder to import goods.