Topical issues in the field of economy, (responsible) investment, pension and income: every week, one of APG's experts provides a clear answer to this week's question.
In this edition: Sjacco Schouten, Head of Emerging Market Debt, about the consequences when a country such as Russia is no longer able to fulfil its payment obligations. “Also in an economic sense, it is a scenario with only losers.”
In the beginning of March, a number of credit rating agencies expressed the expectation that Russia would possibly no longer be able in the short term to fulfil its payment obligations (interest and redemption of the national debt) due to the Western sanctions. Russian government bonds were given a so-called ‘junk’ status, which more or less means that creditors deem it very likely that a large part of their money will not be repaid. This raises the question what happens to a country in case of such ‘bankruptcy’. In what case is this applicable? And what are the consequences?
The first question appears to be relatively easy to answer. Schouten: “The interest payment and redemption of government bonds usually takes place on pre-established dates. If a country misses such date, a grace period takes effect first during which the country is given the opportunity to still make the payment. When that doesn't happen, the country officially goes in default.”
The answer to the second question – about the consequences of such default – is much more complicated as it entails quite some ifs and buts.
“When a country is officially in default, all kinds of processes are activated. A government will usually propose a restructuring to the bondholders and make agreements on ‘how to continue’. These agreements depend on the conditions of the bond and the legislation of the country where the bonds are issued. In the most extreme case, when a country is truly unwilling or unable to pay, the bondholders are possibly forced to fully write off their bonds, to virtually zero. The price will not be entirely zero, because you can never rule out for a hundred percent that some money will still be repaid at a certain time.”
Russia has not yet achieved that point. The country has not missed any payments until now. Should that be the case in the future, it will rather be due to the sanctions making payment transactions impossible or Russia's willingness to pay than its ability to fulfil the financial obligations. “Given Russia's oil revenues, the country should be more than capable to fulfil its obligations. Whether the country is also willing to do so in the long term, is a different issue. In that respect, a distinction in conditions could arise between investors who are willing to participate in restructuring and bondholders who are unwilling or unable to do as a result of the sanctions. This provides Russia with the opportunity to give ‘friendly’ countries more favorable conditions than ‘unfriendly’ countries.”
However, the pari passu principle applies to bondholders, meaning they should be treated equally. Schouten: “In principle, bondholders from a certain country cannot be given a preferential treatment. But the conditions of bonds issued under local legislation may differ from the conditions of government bonds issued under international legislation. In addition to the legislative aspect, many other factors play a role in a possible restructuring of the Russian national debt. For example, the currency in which a bond is issued - dollars or rubles. Moreover, for certain investors it is simply forbidden to still receive payments from Russia or to make payments to Russian entities. All of those factors combined make restructuring very complicated when it comes to Russia.”
What are the consequences should Russia decide to no longer pay its bondholders?
“In that case, the country would become even more isolated and restricted in gaining access to the capital markets. In the short-term Russia is able to absorb a lot through its oil reserves and proceeds from oil and gas supplies. In broad lines, the country is still able to keep its economy running reasonably well. But in the months to come, the Russian economy is expected to shrink and the financial situation of the country will become more problematic. To what extent the country will then be able to hold back the economic contraction depends on the willingness of other countries to help Russia. That willingness cannot be excluded. Even if all Western countries - such as the US - ban Russian oil, Russia can still sell oil to other countries.”
‘Adding insult to injury’
Nevertheless, it looks like Russia will be facing a doomsday scenario in an economic sense. “In terms of food, Russia should for a large part be able to continue to be self-sufficient. But once the supply of everything the country imports stops - technology, computers, chips, and so on – large parts of the economy will come to a standstill. The average Russian will go back in time. He or she may possibly overcome the fact that a visit to McDonald’s is no longer possible, but access to technological knowledge and certain parts for instance, is of great importance to keep an economy running and developing.”
Adding insult to injury, that's what it comes down to should Russia become a defaulter. Schouten: “The sanctions are already causing damage to the economy. The population already prefers having dollars instead of rubles. In the event of a default, a major cycle is triggered after which the Russian economy is expected to end up in a deep recession with high inflation. Also in an economic sense, it is a scenario with only losers.”