I- The Question
I have been getting some emails asking about why it is that the PDVSA bond issued last week, the so called PDVSA 2022, has a price that is so much below the identical Global 2022 Venezuela bond issued by the Republic last summer.
II.-Bonds in general
But to understand why this is relevant, let me start at the beginning: Typically, when a country or a company issues a bond, it has a price and a yield to maturity which depends on the perceived “risk” associated with the issuer. Such a bond is simply a promise that I will pay the annual payments, the coupon, and at maturity, the day the bond ends, you will get 100% of the nominal or face value of the bond.
III.- Venezuela’s bonds and risk
Venezuela currently is perceived as being high risk, in fact, very high risk. There are two reasons for that, one is simply political, the feeling that one day Hugo may wake up and decide not to pay the country’s debt. The second one is that Venezuela has been issuing more and more debt and at some point this can’t go on, the country has to pay at maturity, as well as the increasing annual or coupon payments to the bond holders, which are already near US$ 5 billion per year.
As this risk has increased over the last few years, this coupon has gotten higher, meaning that the country or PDVSA has to pay more to convince someone to buy your bond. As an example, in 2009, PDVSA issued bonds maturing in 2014,2015 and 2016 with coupons around 5%. That means that if you hold $100,000 of the bond PDVSA has to pay you $5,000 per year and then at maturity give you back your money.
IV.- How Venezuela issues bonds
This is where things get complicated. Because of exchange controls, these bonds are not issued internationally, where they would trade very close to each other, but instead are sold to Venezuelan individuals or companies for Bs. That is, you pay so many Bolivars for each dollar face value of the bond at Bs. 4.3 per US$, but you know based of the coupon, that the bond will not trade at 100%, but at a lower value.
Because Venezuela would have to pay coupons of 14-16% for the bond to trade near 100% if issued in US$ directly. Instead, what the Government or PDVSA do, is to set a lower coupon, knowing that the bond will trade below 100%. Thus, if you are a Venezuelan and you pay say Bs. 4,300 per $1,000 of a bond that should trade around 70%, you buy it, sell the bond for 70% of its face value (You get $700) and then you are simply buying dollars at Bs. (4,300/700) or Bs. 6.14 per US$.
Since exchange controls are so strict now, people love these bond issues, because other than what the foreign exchange control office sells you at Bs. 4.3, there is no way for an individual to buy dollars as it is completely illegal to do so since last May. The same applies to companies. If the Government does not give them dollars for imports, they have to either use their own money or simply stop importing, it is illegal to buy foreign currency other than from the Government.
V.- The Venezuela Global 2022 bond
Last summer, Venezuela issued a bond maturing in 2022 (It actually matures in three parts, one third in each of 2020, 2021 and 2022) with a coupon of 12.75%. This is a very high coupon, very few companies or countries in the world issue at such high coupons. Even worse, these bonds trade at a discount in order to equilibrate with what investors expect from Venezuela. Last week, for example, this Global 2022 bond, as it is called, was trading at 88% of its face value just before PDVSA announced its bond. At that price it was yielding around 15.3%. The difference between coupon and yield is that coupon is what you get paid every year over the face value, yield to maturity is what your annual return will be if you keep the bond until it matures.
VI.- The PDVSA 2022 bond
And here is where the Bolivarian arbitrage and the topic of this post begins. You see, this week PDVSA announced an issue of a bond also maturing in 2022, also having a coupon of 12.75% and also having maturity in three parts in 2020,2021, 2022. That means the two bonds are identical. Given that PDVSA and Venezuela are so inter twinned, you would think they should have very similar prices and very similar yields. Right? Well, yes and no, because of all of the artificialities in the Venezuelan economy due to the controls, at the beginning of the trading of a bonds this does not happen. In time they will be very close, but it will take time.
In fact, last Thursday when the PDVSA 2022 began trading, it was being sold at 74% of its face value, while the Global 2022, essentially the same risk, same yield, same coupon, was trading at 86.4%, a full 12.4 points above the new PDVSA 2022 issue. Illogical. right?
VII.- The Bolivarian Arbitrage
You would think these two prices would become the same immediately, but they don’t. This is the Bolivarian Arbitrage, the subject of this post and the question I have been getting from readers: Why are they different, why doesn’t the gap close immediately? How can it make sense for Venezuela to be yielding 15.7% (same coupon, higher price of 86.4%), while an identical bond from PDVSA yields almost 19% (same coupon, lower price of 74%)? Aren’t markets “efficient”?
The answer is that this exists because of the dynamics of the bond sales by the Government and the banks. Eventually, the difference will close, but it will take time. Here is why:
Companies don’t want to buy the bonds, they want to get the dollars when they get the bonds and sell them. So, they go to a local bank and say: I will place an order with you, of say US$ 50 million, if you can guarantee a price for each dollar such that no matter what amount I get, the price will not change.
For the bank this is not easy. The client could be assigned zero of the bonds or it could be assigned the 50 million, the rules are never clear and vary from bond to bond. So, suppose that the bank expects the new bond to have a fair value of 82%, that means that each dollar costs (Bs. 4.3/0.82)=Bs. 5.24, but the company wants a guaranteed price, so you say I will pay you 70% for the bond, no matter how much you are assigned. This means, for the company, that the dollars will cost Bs. 6.14. This is a great deal in a country where there are no dollars to be had, so if your objective is to get dollars cheap, you are not very sensitive to the price, between not having access to any dollars or paying Bs 6.14 per US$, it is still a bargain. In fact, I bet most companies would pay even higher values, if they could get all they wanted.
VII.-Why the Government wants to sell cheap dollars
And here is another distortion. The Government knows that people would pay more, but it does not want to sell the dollars at a more expensive price (offering a lower coupon) because it wants to keep inflation down. Thus, it prefers to give away the dollars cheap, than to have the political risk of higher inflation. (Although in the end it is not as important for inflation as the Government thinks, it is mostly financing capital flight)
VII.- How local banks affect the international markets
But now, the bank has a problem. If six customers show up, each asking for a US$ 50 million guarantee of purchase, then the bank has undertaken US$ 300 million of risk, which could be dangerous. So, the bank measures how much risk it can take and starts selling these bonds in the international markets at say 74%, like the first day of the PDVSA 2022. It guarantees it will make a four point profit and lowers the size of its risk.
What is the risk? Well, the bank could have the opposite problem, that all customers are given nothing and then it has to go buy the bonds that it promised to deliver. Or that prices will go down because oil goes down or too many bonds hitting the market.
The problem is that these are huge issues for the markets, US$ 3 billion. To give you an idea, two weeks ago Petrobras issued the largest corporate bond in Brazilian history, a US$ 6 billion issue. PDVSA has issued US$ 9.15 billion since last November! Thus, there is an over supply of PDVSA bonds and when the bank tries to sell US$ 100 million, there are only buyers at a low price, if there is no bargain, there are no big buyers.In time, prices will go up as the bonds leaving Venezuela are absorbed by the international markets.
This is the Bolivarian Arbitrage, another artifact of the distortions and complicated schemes the Government has built in around the exchange controls and the large and frequent issuance of bonds. These type of arbitrage has allowed many people in the past few years to make a lot of money, it was just not as obvious to the average person because the bonds were never identical like this time.
VIII.- Making money with the Bolivarian Arbitrage
Let me give you an example. Suppose you had a Venezuela 2010 bond in 2009 which you bought at 70-75% in the middle of the world financial crisis. In August of 2009, that bond was back up at 94% when PDVSA announced a Petrobono 2011 with no coupon. This 2011 bond came out at around 64%, you could have sold the 2010 and bought the Petrobono 2011. Then, PDVSA issued the PDVSA 2014, which was sold at around 56% when the Petrobono was already at 82%. Then, you could have sold the PDVSA 2014 at around 63% to buy the Global 2022 at 76%. In that sequence, ignoring interest, you would have made over 100% profit in less than two years and now you are ready to make some more money again, switching to the PDVSA 2022.
IX.- The risk of playing this game.
The risk, obviously is that one day you will not get paid if Venezuela decides not to pay and the bond will drop to around 30-35% of its face value, the so called recovery value. (That is why some people buy the long dated bond, which trade around 45%) You will lose a lot of money, in fact, you will lose all your gains. Of course, everyone assumes they are so smart that if that ever happens or comes close to happening, they will have no Venezuelan bonds in their portfolio by then. They did not expect Russia to default in the 90’s or Argentina in the new century. They both did.
Of course, that is what markets are about. Some think oil is going to soar. Others that the Government will change. Many that Venezuela can do this for a few years without defaulting. Everyone has a different opinion on it.
In the meantime, they will continue riding the Bolivarian Arbitrage.
X.- Why this is so crazy.
But this whole thing is absolutely crazy and it should not be this way. Venezuela’s risk premium is high because of the constant supply of bonds to the market and the non-transparent way in which things are done. If the Government set up a road map every year telling markets exactly how much it will issue and in roughly which part of the year, the risk premium would go down, the debt would not be as costly. Instead, after telling investors for weeks there would be no issuance in the first few months of the year, PDVSA surprised them with this bond. A road show abroad by the Government once in a while to explain its finances, would also not hurt either.
Additionally, there is no justification for the overvaluation of the currency in these sales. Venezuela has high inflation because monetary liquidity keeps going up and up while productivity goes down and down. It is the classic inflationary set up. But instead of attacking the real causes of inflation, the Government decides to sell these dollars cheap to those that have access to them. It is in the end a subsidy to the well to do and to foreign investors, who are as happy as can be investing in yields that are impossible to find anywhere else in the world.
But it is a crazy scam that will one day come back and get us. It is the Bolivarian Arbitrage.