Venezuela oil giant's 'radio silence' before a $1 billion debt payment is freaking out the market

Key Points
  • Venezuela's state-owned oil company has not issued a statement on a major debt payment one day before it comes due.
  • Bonds issued by the firm, PDVSA, and the Venezuelan government fell as the "radio silence" rattled the market.
  • PDVSA bondholders reported receiving only one of two interest payments they were expecting, sowing confusion about the firm's ability to pay.
A worker walks past a mural with a PDVSA logo at its gas station in Caracas, Venezuela.
Carlos Garcia Rawlins | Reuters

Concern spread through the market on Thursday as Venezuela's state oil company offered no sign that it will make a critical debt payment due Friday.

Bonds issued by Petroleos de Venezuela SA and the Venezuelan government rallied just two days earlier on a report that the oil giant, also known as PDVSA, had made good on two overdue bond payments and had approved Friday's nearly $985 million debt payment.

But by Thursday, PDVSA had not issued a press release or tweeted to confirm the news, as it typically does. Multiple sources also said only one of the two overdue debt payments had been paid.

"PDVSA and the government have been quiet, very quiet on it," said Raymond Zucaro, chief investment officer at emerging markets investment firm RVX Asset Management.

"The radio silence is deafening," he told CNBC.

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The Friday payment is backed by a 50.1 percent stake in PDVSA's Houston-based refiner Citgo and has no grace period. That means Venezuela could lose control of a crown jewel of its lifeblood energy industry if it defaults. President Nicolas Maduro has clung to power despite a full-blown economic crisis, but a default is seen as hastening the demise of his regime.

Investors are doubly concerned about the Friday payment because PDVSA owes another $1.2 billion in principal and interest on another bond on Nov. 2.

"If they default, that means they're defaulting on everything," said Russ Dallen, managing partner at Caracas Capital Markets, which runs the Venezuela Opportunity Fund.

On Thursday, PDVSA's 2017N bond fell 5.1 points, to 89 cents on the dollar, while Venezuela's 2019 bond dropped 3.1 points, to 43 cents on the dollar, according to Reuters.

PDVSA has missed seven interest payments totaling $586 million this month, though they have 30-day grace periods. On Tuesday, macroeconomic research firm Ecoanalitica reported that PDVSA would make two interest payments for bonds maturing in 2027 and 2037.

@ecoanalitica: #BreakingNews Venezuela's government recently paid the interests corresponding to PDVSA 27 and 37 bonds due to oct 12

@ecoanalitica: #BreakingNews The funds regarding the PDVSA 20 (capital + interests) is already approved, so it should become efective by friday

Dallen said several of his firm's clients had been paid interest on the 2037 bonds but had not received the interest payments on the 2027 bonds. Several traders told Reuters the same.

That raised concerns that U.S. sanctions imposed earlier this year on Venezuela are creating technical problems getting money to bondholders.

However, PDVSA likely wouldn't have been able to make either payment if sanctions-related problems were the issue, according to Dallen. He said he was concerned because the interest payment PDVSA made was a relatively small $41 million.

"Of all seven bonds they had to pay, that was the cheapest," he said. "It's starting to look like there may be something else wrong."

WATCH: PDVSA's oil revenue tumbles

Venezuela's PDVSA oil revenue tumbles
Venezuela's PDVSA oil revenue tumbles