Whenever people mention the possibility of default for Venezuela, they talk about the dire consequences of such a possibility. Among other concerns, people always mention that trade finance shuts down, access to new borrowing in the international credit markets simply ceases to exist, assets abroad can be attached, there are long lasting effects on economic growth and default usually is followed by a period of political instability, including coups, if the population believes that defaulting will be a negative for them.
But how much of this is true and how much of it would apply to Venezuela if it defaulted? I have been looking at this question for a while and I will give you my conclusion right off the bat and later tell you why: Default does not appear to have in most cases the dire effects predicted, it does not appear to be the four letter word that most think it is. Not only are the effects of defaults varied, but in the case of Venezuela, after so many years of exchange controls the impact on trade may be much more limited. Unfortunately, the positive effects on exports that defaults have should largely be absent in the Venezuelan case.
Let’s look at each of these:
Let’s start with the most important factor that Venezuela would face if it defaulted: assets abroad. With PDVSA owning Citgo, refineries and tankers , it would be too risky for PDVSA (or even Venezuela) to default and not have investors go after Citgo’s assets in the US. Judges would be very sympathetic to the attachment of these assets which likely represent near half the recovery value of PDVSA bonds. This is perhaps the biggest obstacle to Venezuelan authorities even considering even the possibility of a default. It is also the reason why investors have been concerned over the possible sale of Citgo or parts of Citgo, as it likely eliminates the most significant factor why Venezuela would not consider a default. Thus, it is my view that PDVSA will not even think of a default until, when and if, these assets are sold, a process which could take at least a year to be completed. And it is likely that Venezuela would not consider it either, as Venezuela, being the sole owner of PDVSA, would also risk the attachment of PDVSA’s assets, or at least, extended legal action abroad over them. It would not be difficult to show that there is little difference these days between PDVSA and Venezuela.
No access to international markets
The second most important reason why Venezuela or PDVSA would not want to default, is because it would lose access to international markets. It could go the way of Argentina, and issue “local” law bonds, but this has proven to be very expensive. Venezuela already has to pay high interest rates, imagine what it would be like if it defaulted. So far, Venezuela has avoided paying huge coupons, using the perverse mechanism of issuing bonds in exchange for Bolivars at the official rate of exchange with a low coupon, which would trade at a low price in US$. Perverse, because in the end future generations have to pay the capital, while the bonds are issued to support an absurd foreign exchange system. Venezuela issues dollar denominated bonds to be sold at an artificial rate of exchange, but the country or PDVSA get no dollars for the issuance, but rather create a liability down the line in foreign currency.
But while everyone thinks of Argentina in 2001, when gauging the impact on access to international markets, people seem to forget that most countries have become serial “defaulters” and returned to markets. Russia defaulted in August 1998, but between Aug. 1999 and Feb 2000 it had restructured all its debt and has been back borrowing in international markets since then. The Ukraine defaulted in 1998, then again in 2000, with most bondholders accepting terms. The Dominican Republic defaulted in 2005, but restructured bonds with the same terms, but a five year extension, which bondholders welcomed.
The problem is that not all defaults are created equal. Some countries have liquidity problems, others know they can’t keep paying long term and finally, some countries simply decide they “can’t” pay. The last one, is political decision and it is a matter of whether they can or not survive with it. Some argue, that there is such a thing as an excusable default, whereby both the creditors and debtors need to renegotiate because it is the optimum solution for both. In Argentina’s case, that country managed to restructure its debts almost forcefully, appearing to gain a victory, but years later, it is still fighting that result.
But in the case of Venezuela, the biggest reason for not defaulting may be that its biggest creditor is China. And that country, or its banks, have expressed in no uncertain terms, that Venezuela should not default, can not default. China is willing to be flexible, but it repudiates default. In some sense, the decree on Oct. 10 th. changing the terms of the agreements with China, whereby Venezuela sends oil to China to pay for loans, represents the acceptance by that country that Venezuela is having problems paying the loans with oils. It wants to help, but it prefers to change the terms that even give the impression that Venezuela has defaulted with China in the sense of Hausmann and Santos. Politically, this may be the strongest reason for Venezuela not to default, but faced with a liquidity crisis, what would the Maduro Government do? Or any other one, for that matter?
Default creates immense barriers for trade
This is one of the dire consequences that is most noted when talking about the possibility of default, be it Venezuela or any other country. Except that things in Venezuela are unlike any other country in the world. In the “old” days, to import, you needed letters of credit issued or backed by local banks. But when you have spent ten years under a fairly strict currency control regime system, when banks are limited to 15% of their equity in foreign currency, the same banks stop issuing letters of credit that could one day ruin them. Thus, with Cadivi, the letter of credit system was replaced by cash at the bank, to pay Cadivi (today Cencoex) approvals, while your suppliers assigned you a credit line: They are willing to ship to you an x amount of money in goods, but if the Central Bank does not pay any “Autorización de Liquidación de Divisas” (ALD) corresponding to that amount, shipment will be suspended temporarily, until some ALD is paid to reduce the amount owed. Lest you think that this is not a cumbersome process, here is a diagram of the whole thing from a well known local bank (remember step VI can take place and VII may never happen, but the goods have been sold):
This process could be slowed down in an event of default, but it is already so long and complicated, that it will be business as usual. In fact, some of the more sympathetic countries in the region will jump with joy, if they can intermediate or supply products that used to come from Europe or the US to Venezuela if the money can not flow through regular channels when the BCV pays imports. Recall additionally that the Government has become one of the main importers in the county too.
Venezuelan oil shipments should be considered separately. Absent the assets abroad, which will take time to get rid of, the only risk will become the shipping of oil in Venezuelan tankers, a fleet worth some US$ 1 billion. PDVSA could always export FOB to countries where there was a legal risk of being attached or impounded. The oil would then belong to the other party and thus immune to being impounded.
Logistics would, of course, become very difficult and many suggest the Government or PDVSA do not have the people to do this. But I have heard that argument before and the revolution is still going on 16 years afterwards. At each step, whether it was exchange controls, firing 20,000 PDVSA workers, not paying imports, or dividends or taking charge of businesses, people predicted the end of the Chavista revolutionary world. And here we are. There may be interruptions in oil exports, but a way will be found and maybe, another revolutionary enterprise or magnate would have been born. Chavistas are experts at that.
Economic Growth and trade after default
This is the area where economists seem to disagree the most. While it is true that the years following a default are bad for trade and GDP growth, it is also true that in many cases, the years prior to the default were just as bad. Argentina had unemployment grow sharply before default and exports never wavered. GDP did contract, but never by the 8% predicted by economists and there was a boom from 2003 on, whereby GDP grew by almost 9% for at least four years.
But Venezuela is no Argentina. There would be little advantage to exporting given that Venezuela only exports oil. But at the same time, GDP is not precisely booming in Venezuela right now. The only true advantage to a default would be that the Government would be able to spend more, without control and for electoral purposes, the same movie that got the country to where it is today. Thus, Venezuela’s exports and the economy are unlikely to benefit much from a default, the opposite from what would occur in most countries.
In the end, if a restructuring or default were handled properly, it would not have the dire consequences most people think it would have. The country would function, exports would flow, imports would also continue flowing. But there would be little economic gain, given that Venezuela has little to export other than human resources and those are being exported en mass as we speak. But maybe it is too much to assume to believe that this Government can handle a default gracefully or intelligently. In the end, a default favors Chavismo in terms of politics, but as long as Citgo is owned by PDVSA and the Chinese have any influence, it sounds unlikely that the Government will dare to take such a difficult step. Watch out for both!