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Ukraine creditors form bloc to negotiate bond restructuring

Robin Wigglesworth

Ukraine's biggest creditor has formed a bloc and hired advisers to prepare for tough negotiations with Kiev, after the stricken country last week set out proposals for a drastic restructuring of its $17bn international debt.

According to a person familiar with the matter, Blackstone's advisory arm has been hired to advise the group, which controls about 50 per cent of the country's international bonds and therefore has the power to make or break the restructuring.

People carrying Ukrainian flags participate in the 'March of Dignity' in Kiev, Ukraine.
Getty Images

The bondholder bloc is led by Franklin Templeton, which is by some distance Ukraine's single biggest creditor having snapped up about $7bn of Kiev's debts, according to another person familiar with the matter, most of it ahead of the country's revolution and subsequent crisis.

Blackstone represented Greece's creditors in 2012, and will once again square up to Lazard, the investment bank that advised Athens and is now acting for Ukraine's government.

The restructuring is part of a new $40bn International Monetary Fund-led rescue of Kiev. The previous $17bn bailout programme unravelled after Russia annexed the Crimea and fomented a separatist civil war in eastern Ukraine, ravaging the economy.

Finance minister Natalie Jaresko last week held a conference call with creditors setting out the government's position. She said Kiev was looking for about $15bn of debt relief and warned that this could include principal reductions on the face value of its bonds, in addition to lower interest payments and extended repayment schedules.

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Negotiations are likely to be combative. A person close to the talks said the bondholder group was unwilling to accept outright haircuts, and believed the targeted debt relief was too high.

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Russia will be another big hurdle. The country is owed $3bn by Ukraine through a bond issued as part of a bailout for the pro-Moscow government that was ousted last year. Russia has indicated that it is unwilling to restructure the debt.

In last week's conference call Ms Jaresko stressed there would be no special treatment for any creditors, including Russia. "We invite the holders of the Russian bonds as well as all of our other eurobonds to participate in this process on the basis of transparency, good faith and inter-creditor equity," she said.

Russia could choose to hold out and refuse to restructure its bond. That would force Ukraine either to seek a deeper haircut on the other creditors to repay Moscow in full or risk protracted litigation at the same time as it attempts to restore and reform its recession and war-battered economy.

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The bondholder bloc has already started to explore options in case the Russian government proves unwilling to restructure its debts. The IMF highlighted this as a big risk to the success of its new programme.

"Creditors may balk at the terms being offered in the debt operation and holdouts may try to free ride," the IMF report said. "The negotiations may be protracted, particularly as some creditors have large positions in specific bond issues."

The restructuring mandate is a fillip to Blackstone Advisory Partners, which is being spun out of the US investment firm alongside several other advisory arms and merged into PJT Partners. It will be listed in New York soon. Weil Gotshal is the bondholders' law firm, while White & Case represents Ukraine.