World Economy

Venezuela faces an uphill battle if it wants to restructure $120 billion in debt

Key Points
  • President Nicolas Maduro announced plans to restructure Venezuela's massive foreign debt on Thursday.
  • The restructuring effort will be led by Vice President Tareck El Aissami, who is barred from doing business with Americans.
  • Venezuela has more than $120 billion in debt.

Venezuela faces a tough road ahead if it wants to restructure its $120 billion in debt.

The country's president, Nicolas Maduro, announced plans to restructure its massive foreign debt on Thursday, sending Venezuelan government bond prices sharply lower. Bonds set to mature October 2019 fell from 48 cents on the dollar to 37 cents Friday.

The restructuring effort will be led by Vice President Tareck El Aissami, who will also start "the fight against the financial persecution of our country," according to Maduro.

But Venezuela is staring down a series of U.S. sanctions that limit its path to restructuring.

On Aug. 25, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order imposing sanctions on Venezuela that prohibit the country from trading on new debt issued by the government or Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the state-run oil company.

That makes it harder for Venezuela to restructure to ease future payments.

Venezuela has largely gone out of its way to make its debt payments, even if it meant forgoing the purchase of food and basic goods. Venezuelans have experienced widespread food shortages and rampant inflation. But Maduro's latest declaration raises the likelihood of a default, according to Diego Moya-Ocampos, principal political risk analyst for Latin America at IHS Markit.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks in Caracas, Venezuela November 2, 2017.
Miraflores Palace | Handout | Reuters

"This is a game-changer. Before the announcement, the will of Venezuela to pay was strong," Moya-Ocampos said. "The fact that this restructuring is not accompanied by an economic reform plan tells us we can't say that anymore."

PDVSA also delayed an $81 million bond payment that was due Oct. 12 under a 30-day grace period.

Making things harder for Venezuela's restructuring effort is Maduro's pick to lead it: El Aissami. Earlier this year, El Aissami also was sanctioned by the U.S. government amid allegations of being a drug kingpin. He is also barred from doing business with Americans.

"It is unclear that the Venezuelan government will be able to carry out a successful restructuring of its bonds," strategists at New York-based Torino Capital said in a note. "The key question then
becomes whether authorities are willing to continue making debt payments in the absence of an agreement with bondholders."

"This puts them before a tough choice: if they continue making payments, bondholders will have little incentive to participate in a deal," the note said. "If they stop making payments, then they would leave themselves open to the possibility of attachment of their external assets, including the accounts receivables for oil shipments to the US and other jurisdictions."

For years, Venezuela has been also dealing with a troubled economy that shows no signs of improving.

The International Monetary Fund said last month it expects inflation in Venezuela to reach 2,350 percent in 2018. This has aided the devaluation of Venezuela's currency, the bolivar. In the black market, $1 fetches about 44,347 bolivars.

Maduro's administration has been raising the minimum wage to mitigate the sky-high inflation as well as issuing notes worth tens of thousands of bolivars. Earlier this week, Maduro unveiled a 100,000 bolivar note; the government had issued 20,000 bolivar notes earlier this year.

"A 100,000 bolivar note coming the same year as a 20,000 note shows the situation in Venezuela is just getting worse," said Jason Marczak, director of the Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center at the Atlantic Council.

— With reporting from CNBC's Michelle Caruso-Cabrera.