Russia defaults on foreign debt for first time since 1918


MOSCOW (BLOOMBERG) – Russia defaulted on its foreign-currency sovereign debt for the first time in a century, the culmination of ever-tougher Western sanctions that shut down payment routes to overseas creditors.

For months, the country found paths around the penalties imposed after the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. But at the end of the day on Sunday (June 26), the grace period on about US$100 million (S$138.55 million) of snared interest payments due May 27 expired, a deadline considered an event of default if missed.

It’s a grim marker in the country’s rapid transformation into an economic, financial and political outcast.

The nation’s eurobonds have traded at distressed levels since the start of March, the central bank’s foreign reserves remain frozen, and the biggest banks are severed from the global financial system.

But given the damage already done to the economy and markets, the default is also mostly symbolic for now, and matters little to Russians dealing with double-digit inflation and the worst economic contraction in years.

Russia has pushed back against the default designation, saying it has the funds to cover any bills and has been forced into non-payment.

As it tried to twist its way out, it announced last week that it would switch to servicing its US$40 billion of outstanding sovereign debt in roubles, criticising a “force-majeure” situation it said was artificially manufactured by the West.

“It’s a very, very rare thing, where a government that otherwise has the means is forced by an external government into default,” said Mr Hassan Malik, senior sovereign analyst at Loomis Sayles & Company LP. “It’s going to be one of the big watershed defaults in history.”

A formal declaration would usually come from ratings firms, but European sanctions led to them withdrawing ratings on Russian entities.

According to the documents for the notes whose grace period expired Sunday, holders can call one themselves if owners of 25 per cent of the outstanding bonds agree that an “Event of Default” has occurred. With the final deadline passed, focus shifts to what investors do next.

They don’t need to act immediately, and may choose to monitor the progress of the war in the hope that sanctions are eventually softened. Time may be on their side: the claims only become void three years on from the payment date, according to the bond documents.

“Most bondholders will keep the wait-and-see approach,” Mr Takahide Kiuchi, an economist at Nomura Research Institute in Tokyo.

During Russia’s financial crisis and rouble collapse of 1998, President Boris Yeltsin’s government defaulted on US$40 billion of its local debt.

The last time Russia fell into default vis-a-vis its foreign creditors was more than a century ago, when the Bolsheviks under Vladimir Lenin repudiated the nation’s staggering Czarist-era debt load in 1918.



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