Venezuela—finally and officially—defaulted on its bonds

Tareck El Aissami, a negotiator who isn’t allowed to negotiate.
Tareck El Aissami, a negotiator who isn’t allowed to negotiate.
Image: Reuters/Marco Bello
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For a country whose people are running short on food and medicine, Venezuela has kept a surprisingly good record of paying its debts on time. But this week, one of the country’s last vestiges of normalcy was erased when credit rating firm Standard & Poor’s said the country was in default.

Though it has teetered on the brink for years, Venezuela recently failed to make $200 million in coupon payments on bonds worth $5 billion owed to foreign creditors, according to S&P. The government held a meeting with bondholders in Caracas on Nov. 13 about a debt restructuring (generally considered akin to default), which is typically used to determine how much less investors will be paid than officially owed.

Venezuelans wait for hours to buy food, but creditors at the restructuring meeting were given gift bags filled with state-produced chocolate and coffee, according to Bloomberg. It lasted about 30 minutes, and vice president Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela’s debt negotiator, mainly used the meeting as a chance to complain about Donald Trump.

American investors can’t participate in a restructuring anyway, as sanctions prohibit them from receiving new bonds that Venezuela would issue. And many creditors also can’t negotiate with El Aissami: He, too, is sanctioned by the US Treasury, which accuses him of drug trafficking. His appointment as negotiator by president Nicolas Maduro was perhaps an attempt to blame the US for the default and boost local popularity, according to Ray Zucaro of RVX Asset Management, which invests in Venezuelan debt, on Bloomberg Television.

In the past, despite the hardships its people suffer, Venezuela has used its foreign reserves to make bond payments. But those funds are running low—the country has less than $5 billion in usable reserves, compared with $16 billion in 2015, according to S&P.

One reason Venezuela has been surprisingly steadfast in making bond payments is because the government needs to protect the credibility of state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), its last lifeline for income. Venzuela, which has the world’s largest oil reserves, needs that oil money to service its debt as well as to pay for subsidies that support some of its poorest citizens.

PDVSA, in turn, relies on credit lines from international banks to finance oil production. Its continued functioning is one of the few things helping the government—which has decimated its economy through mismanagement—cling to power.

Now, as US sanctions cut deeper into what’s left of the economy, it’s increasingly unclear how Venezuela will support itself. The country agreed on terms with Russia for restructuring about $3 billion debt, but it still owes more than $50 billion on bonds held by other creditors. In the meantime, S&P thinks there’s at least a 50% chance of another default in the next three months.