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Creditors to Argentina’s provinces fight to avoid painful restructurings

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Holders of Argentina’s $15bn in provincial debt are growing nervous that pressure from the national government is behind “arbitrary” demands for debt restructurings, threatening investors with big losses.

After the successful restructuring of $65bn in sovereign debt with foreign creditors in August, Argentina’s leftist government is now locked in talks with the IMF to renegotiate the repayment of $44bn lent since a currency crisis in 2018.

Foreign creditors to Argentina’s provinces are next in line. They say the national government is strong-arming provincial authorities into demanding punitive debt restructurings affecting most of the market, forcing losses, or “haircuts”, on them.

“The idea that every province, no matter its circumstances, should default and follow the same approach as the sovereign is deeply cynical. As creditors, we are not going to entertain such a framework, and the provinces recognise that,” said Daniel Freifeld, founder of Callaway Capital Management, which owns Argentine provincial bonds.

Mr Freifeld added that “many provinces are trapped” between creditors and the national government, pointing out that in the meantime, provinces are putting off potential investment and accumulating unpaid interest bills.

Callaway and other creditors have set up the first committee for Argentina’s provincial bondholders, mirroring efforts at the national level. The committee, which includes bondholders owning a total of about $3bn of provincial debt, argues that the negotiations should be based on what provinces are able to pay — and not on what the national government would like them to pay.

Investors think the government’s intransigence comes from a desire to protect the country’s dwindling foreign exchange reserves, seen as a bulwark against currency weakness. The official peso rate has already lost a quarter of its dollar value this year, after the coronavirus crisis exacerbated a three-year recession.

“It would be penny-wise but pound-foolish of them to insist on arbitrary and artificial haircuts when they have much bigger fish to fry,” said a senior executive at a hedge fund holding provincial debt, insisting that Argentina would struggle to attract capital to support its recovery if some provinces continue to demand what creditors regard as unreasonable terms of repayment.

Line chart of Price (cents on the dollar) showing Argentine and Buenos Aires debts remain deep in distress

Litigation “can’t be ruled out,” warned the investor. “Our preference is to avoid it, as it’s harmful to everybody, and wasteful — but creditors don’t have indefinite patience.”

“There is no real argument for the provinces to seek out the same type of debt relief as the sovereign,” agreed Walter Stoeppelwerth, chief investment officer at Portfolio Personal Inversiones, an investment firm in Buenos Aires. 

While pre-restructuring debt servicing costs for the national government were more than 20 per cent of economic output, for most provinces that ratio is in single digits, Mr Stoeppelwerth added. Leverage is also lower at the provincial level.

Some provinces run by politicians independent of the national government have reached deals with their creditors, notably Mendoza and Neuquén, but others have preferred to play hardball. 

The biggest battle is with the largest, the impoverished province of Buenos Aires that surrounds the capital city. With bonds in default since May worth more than $7bn, it not only accounts for about half of the provincial debt burden, but its governor, the former national economy minister Axel Kicillof, is a powerful figure in the ruling coalition. The province has proposed a debt restructuring that would leave investors with an estimated recovery value of 46 cents on the dollar, while bondholders are pushing for 85 cents.

The stand-off has knocked the province’s 2024 bond deeper into distressed territory. It is hovering below 40 cents on the dollar, having traded at 50 cents in August.

Marcelo Etchebarne, country manager in Argentina for law firm DLA Piper, which represents several provinces in the debt negotiations, argues that given the “catastrophic” economic situation in Argentina — which he said is as bad as the country’s 2001 financial crash — many investors are currently being offered “a very sweet deal in light of the circumstances”.

He warned that in a worst-case scenario, provinces could declare bankruptcy, as Detroit did in 2013. “Ask Detroit’s creditors how it went for them,” he said, pointing out that unsecured creditors received less than 20 cents on the dollar.

“At the end of the day it’s about the ability to pay, but not to pay debt only,” added Mr Etchebarne. “Before paying debt, provinces have to pay judges, teachers, the police.”

Despite the rising tension, some analysts think that many provinces will end up reaching a negotiated deal with their creditors by the end of the first quarter of next year. Such prospects could be improved if Argentina secures a relatively quick deal with the IMF — especially if that leads to a rally in Argentina’s sovereign bonds. 

One sovereign bond due to mature in 2030 has fallen below 40 cents on the dollar, despite the debt restructuring. It traded as high as 52 cents in September.

The provincial debt reckoning is seen as crucial to the country moving forward. “Argentina is not going to emerge from its current economic morass until this issue with the provinces is resolved,” Mr Freifeld said.

Additional reporting by Colby Smith



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Hong Kong dropped from economic freedom index after crackdown

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Hong Kong has been dropped from a prominent index of the world’s freest economies, underlining growing concerns over Beijing’s tightening grip on the Asian financial centre after it introduced a national security law last year.

The announcement from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative US think-tank, came as the majority of a group of 47 pro-democracy politicians were refused bail in a case that critics say shows the rapid decline of civic freedoms in the city.

The Heritage Foundation also dropped the Chinese special autonomous region of Macau, a casino hub and former Portuguese colony, from the rankings.

The foundation in recent years has been aligned with the administration of former US president Donald Trump.

“No doubt both Hong Kong and Macau . . . enjoy economic policies that in many respects offer their citizens more economic freedom than is available to the average citizen of China,” the Heritage Foundation said. “But developments in recent years have demonstrated unambiguously that those policies are ultimately controlled from Beijing.”

Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong last year in response to anti-government protests that engulfed the city in 2019.

The measures are part of a clampdown on civil and political freedoms guaranteed to the city for 50 years following its handover from the UK to China in 1997. Authorities are targeting anyone viewed as disloyal to the Chinese government in politics, education and the media.

The Hong Kong government has long taken pride in studies showing its economy to be one of the most liberal in the world, with the city marketing itself as an international business haven given its low tax rates and open port.

The Heritage Foundation last year replaced Hong Kong at the top of its “Index of Economic Freedom” with Singapore, toppling it from a position it had held for 25 years, but still included the territory in the rankings in second place.

The Hong Kong government said it was ‘dismayed’ by the Heritage Foundation’s decision and said it was “politically biased”.

The case against the 47 pro-democracy lawmakers and activists has been seen as a test of whether the city’s legal system can withstand pressure from Beijing.

Authorities charged the group with subversion, alleging they aimed to topple the government by staging an unofficial primary vote to select candidates to run for election to the city’s legislature. Subversion is punishable with up to life imprisonment under the national security law.

The bail hearings, presided over by a judge appointed to oversee national security cases, entered their fourth day on Thursday.

Victor So, the judge overseeing the case, only granted bail to 15 out of 47 defendants under harsh conditions, but the prosecution immediately appealed the ruling, returning them to custody until the appeal hearing takes place. 

On top of the usual bail conditions, the court ordered the defendants to not participate in elections or make any public political statements.

Sessions have often stretched late into the evening, including one that continued until 3am before the defendants were hauled back before the court the next day. At least one defendant collapsed inside the courtroom and six others were sent to hospital for treatment.

As they exited the court, some defendants shouted: “Political criminals are not guilty, Hong Kongers will not die!”

Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said the treatment of the defendants was “most unsatisfactory”. Jerome Cohen, a Chinese law expert at New York University, said the way the hearing was conducted “makes a farce of procedural fairness”.

Some of the defendants have faced multiple trials simultaneously and were forced to shuffle between courtrooms.

The defendants’ lawyers said on Tuesday their clients had not bathed in three days, forcing the judge to delay the hearing to allow them to wash.

Hong Kong has tight restrictions on reporting the substance of bail hearings.

Hundreds of supporters have queued each day in an attempt to watch the proceedings in person. Many held placards and chanted banned political slogans, risking prosecution under the security law.



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Pakistan’s finance minister ousted in surprise defeat for Imran Khan

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Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan suffered a major political setback on Wednesday, when his finance minister was defeated in a contest for a seat in the country’s senate.

Khan must now appoint a successor to the cabinet post by June 11 under Pakistani law. The surprise defeat of finance minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, a respected economist and former world bank official who led the country’s negotiations with the IMF for a $6bn loan, comes amid an escalating campaign by main opposition parties to have the prime minister removed from office.

Elected officials vote to fill vacated seats in the senate every three years. Following the result, the government announced it would “take a vote of confidence in parliament” to prove that the prime minister retained a majority of support.

Business leaders have warned that Shaikh’s departure creates uncertainty over the future of Pakistan’s fiscal policies as the country battles the pandemic’s fallout on the economy.

“Right now, it was essential to give a message of confidence to a range of stake holders within and outside Pakistan on the state of our economy. Now, people will be left asking questions,” the president of a private Pakistani bank told the Financial Times.

An 11-party opposition alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), has accused Khan of using the powerful military to tip the 2018 election result in his favour — which leaders from the prime minister’s party have denied — and for failing to revive the moribund economy.

The PDM has announced a March 26 deadline for Khan to step down or face widespread opposition protests.

Though some opposition leaders have said they plan to follow up Wednesday’s defeat with a vote of no confidence against Khan, analysts said it was too early to predict his downfall ahead of the end of his five-year term in 2023.

“It’s a major upset for Imran Khan and his PTI (Pakistan Justice Party),” said Huma Baqai, a political commentator at the University of Karachi. “The government from hereon will face further pressure as the opposition continues to step up its campaign.”

The vote count suggested a break in Khan’s PTI party, with as many as 16 party members either voting for the finance minister’s opponent, former prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, or spoiling their ballots.

Shaikh’s defeat “will not automatically lead to the prime minister’s downfall. Some PTI members clearly changed sides [for this vote]. But it will be much harder for them to agree to removing the prime minister,” an opposition leader told the FT.

Faisal Javed, a PTI leader, claimed some representatives had been bribed by the opposition. “There has been a major corruption. There has been horse-trading. People have been sold,” he told the local ARY news channel on Wednesday. Opposition leaders have denied this.

The electoral college for the senate consists of members from legislatures of Pakistan’s four provinces as well as the lower house of parliament in Islamabad known as the national assembly.



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Australia’s treasurer warns global stimulus threatens financial stability

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Australia has warned that unprecedented global stimulus efforts during the coronavirus pandemic are creating financial stability risks that will only intensify when interest rates inevitably rise.

Canberra has also defended tough new foreign investment rules that have led to a collapse in Chinese investment, arguing the number of proposed deals motivated by strategic, rather than purely commercial gain, was increasing.

Josh Frydenberg, Australia’s treasurer, said the Pacific nation was in a strong economic position as its net debt to gross domestic product was about half that of other advanced economies, even as it begins unwinding fiscal stimulus.

“There is no doubt elevated debt levels will create challenges for many countries. While global interest rates are low those debt levels can be serviceable — but there will be a time when the monetary policy settings change,” he told the Financial Times.

Frydenberg’s comments on the risks posed by global stimulus followed a similar warning delivered last week by Peter Costello, a close political ally and former Australia treasurer.

Australia will be among the first advanced economies to taper off Covid-19 fiscal stimulus with the closure of its A$90bn (US$70bn) JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme this month.

Canberra has argued that the recovery is already under way, citing a fall in unemployment to 6.4 per cent in January and a 3.3 per cent economic expansion in the three months to September last year.

Frydenberg, who counts Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan among his role models, said the government’s A$250bn stimulus was required to stabilise the economy during the pandemic. But he said JobKeeper, which supported 3.6m workers at its peak, was no longer needed as the recovery could be supported by tax cuts, which were announced last year.

Asked if he thought the economic policies of Thatcher and Reagan were still relevant, he said: “[Reagan and Thatcher] achieved a lot when they were in office and they were committed to lower taxes. They were committed to cutting regulation and that’s certainly what I’ve been committed to as well.”

But trade unions and businesses that are still suffering as a result of border closures and restrictions, particularly in the tourism and entertainment sectors, have warned that the scheme’s closure will dent the economy.

“JobKeeper should be extended for those businesses that are still affected by coronavirus. [Through] no fault of their own, they are suffering that downturn,” said Sally McManus, secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, last week. “And we say that because that will save jobs.”

Josh Frydenberg, Australia’s treasurer, is a rising star in the country’s conservative government and is tipped as a future prime minister © AP

Frydenberg, who was the architect of foreign investment rules aimed at countering rising Chinese influence, said he made no apologies for putting “national interest” at the heart of Australia’s investment policies.

Chinese investment fell 61 per cent last year to A$1bn, down from A$2.6bn in 2019 and a peak in 2016 of A$16.5bn, data showed. Frydenberg was instrumental in blocking two potential deals: China Mengniu’s A$600m bid for Japan-owned Lion Dairy and China State Construction Engineering Corp’s A$300m bid for Probuild, a South Africa-owned construction company.

“We absolutely reserve the right to make decisions around foreign investment based on national interest and having put in place an explicit national security test allows us to do that,” he said.

“Increasingly we’ve seen foreign investment proposals that have been motivated not by purely commercial gains but more strategic ones. When those foreign investment proposals potentially compromise the national interest, then we reserve the right to say no.”

Frydenberg said Australia was not alone in tightening its rules, noting that other countries shared Canberra’s views on national sovereignty and foreign investment.

“Obviously we have had some challenges with China,” he said when asked about Beijing’s imposition of trade sanctions on a range of Australia’s exports following Canberra’s call last year for an inquiry into the origins of Covid-19 in Wuhan.

Frydenberg insisted that Australian ministers were prepared to sit down with their Chinese counterparts to discuss the bilateral relationship but only on a “no conditions attached” basis.

“It is a mutually beneficial trading relationship — we supply the bulk of their iron ore and that iron ore has helped underpin their economic growth,” he said.

Frydenberg is a rising star in Australia’s conservative government and is tipped as a future prime minister.

Last week, he shot to global attention following several days of negotiation with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg over the social media company’s decision to block news on its platforms in Australia in response to a law forcing it to pay news publishers.

On Friday, Facebook “refriended Australia” and returned news to its Australian platform following amendments that may make it easier for the company to avoid the toughest elements of the law.

“Trying to negotiate with these guys is a bit like playing chess against a chess master,” said Frydenberg, who joked that he spoke to Zuckerberg more than his own wife last week.

“The reality is they are massive companies with huge balance sheets and global reach. If this was easy other countries would have done it [made Big Tech pay for news] long ago.” 



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