Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

Archive for June, 2016

An auction that didn’t solve the problem and the past as an aberration

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The outcome of the offshore króna auction 16 June has now been made public: offers at the rate of ISK190 a euro or lower were accepted. According to the Central Bank of Iceland press release a “total of 1,646 offers were submitted and 1,619 accepted; however, these figures could be subject to change upon final settlement. The amount of the accepted offers totalled just over 72 b.kr., out of nearly 178 b.kr. offered for sale in the auction.” – The on-shore rate is ISK139 to the euro. The question is how credible this outcome is, given the good economic conditions in Iceland. (Further to the background see an earlier Icelog here).

Although the auction apparently was a final offer the CBI is now offering to “purchase offshore króna assets not sold in the auction at the auction exchange rate of 190 kr. per euro.” The terms and conditions will be published tomorrow with the deadline at 10 o’clock this coming Monday morning, 27 June. The finale outcome of the 16 June auction and potential transactions in the following days, until Monday morning, will be published that Monday with settlement of both transactions completed on that day.

This outcome is far from the stock of ISK319bn that the offshore króna amounts to. The auction was supposed to be the last in a series of 23 auctions; this offer to buy offshore króna at the auction price of ISK190 is now a tail to that last auction.

In an interview on Rúv tonight, CBI governor Már Guðmundsson said that out of 1,646 offers submitted 1,619 had been accepted, or 98%. This means there are now a whole lot fewer offshore króna holders left – but the problem is, as Guðmundsson rightly acknowledges, that all the big funds holding these assets are holding on to their króna. “It is clear that the rather big holders have either not participated or offered a rate we could not accept,” said Guðmundsson.

In a cage – at the back of the queue

The governor said that with the auction out of the way, capital controls can now be lifted on domestic entities and individuals, i.e. Icelandic companies, pension funds etc. The process has been designed in such a way, according to Guðmundsson “that those who do not leave now stay in a similar financial environment as they have been in so far as to investment offers with added changes, which were necessary to secure that this environment would be stable even if we lift controls on domestic entities. They (i.e. the offshore króna holders) will now go to the back of the queue, they were at the front and then at some point it will again be their turn.”

This is undoubtedly a description the big offshore króna holders will contest. They will claim that conditions have been seriously tightened. When their assets mature these assets will automatically go into deposits at 0.5% interest rates, effectively negative interest rates, held with the CBI, very much akin to the cage that Guðmundsson once described so vividly at a meeting in Iceland.*

Thus the big offshore króna holders, who did not participate (or offered a non-accepted rate) will now feel they are in a cage at the back of a queue not knowing when they will be released. Or in other words: they will claim that the sovereign isn’t paying back its loans.

Calling things their right names

What is it called if a country pays only some of its debt? The term is “selective default” – and worryingly that’s now the term attached to Iceland if offshore króna holders, where Icelandic sovereign bonds and T-bills are the underlying assets, are not paid out in full.

Offering a rate of ISK190 to a euro when the on-shore rate is ISK139 in a country doing pretty well seems like a drastic haircut – and it is incidentally involuntary, from the point of view of the offshore króna holders, although the Icelandic government claims there was a fair second offer, i.e. the cage at the end of the queue.

In a defiant answer to a WSJ op ed, minister of finance Bjarni Benediktsson rejects that Iceland can be compared to Argentina. However, he fails to point out that after fighting creditors for fifteen years Argentina did indeed finally settle with creditors. A country can claim as much as it wants that it’s honouring all its obligation but the arbiter is not the country itself but the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, ISDA, which decides on which events release credit default swaps.

Reputation risk

I have earlier talked about the mixed messages from Iceland in dealing with creditors. Last year, great care was taken in negotiating with creditors when it came to lifting capital controls on the estates of the three collapsed banks.

This time, when the sovereign is directly involved, contrary to last year, the strategy is to offer a cage at the back of a queue with no date as to when that backend will be served. There must be a strategy somewhere but I can’t see it, which is worrying since the outcome could be lengthy court cases in all and sunder jurisdictions for years to come. In the world of short-term politics that would inevitably be a problem for another day and another government.

In the meantime, the financing cost of all things Icelandic, whether state or private sector, will either go up or stay as it is, instead of going down as it well could soon with the bright economic prospects there are (and as Moody’s had already beckoned). This was kept in mind last year. Now it seems that this past of playing carefully was not a prologue to the present but an aberration. Consequently, Iceland might be back to a costly future of reputation risk.

*At a public meeting on the offshore ISK in 2013, some of those present argued that the solution to the Icelandic current account problem was just to cage in the foreign-owned assets so capital controls could be lifted on the domestic part of the economy. Present at the meeting was CBI governor Már Guðmundsson who pointed that when new investors would then arrive in Iceland they would see the cage and ask who was in it. “The investors who invested in Iceland last time around.” (From an earlier Icelog).

Update: This morning, Wed. 22 June, minister of finance Benediktsson talked at Euromoney Global Borrowers and Investors Forum where I interviewed him afterwards; Benediktsson claimed the offshore króna auction had been a success in terms of the many bids received and now those remaining would have to wait. He said there had been no legal aftermath following the composition of the estates last year, precisely because it had been well prepared but said he was not worried this time. It was to be expected that the hedge funds holding offshore króna were making a noise but that was nothing the minister was worried about.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

June 22nd, 2016 at 1:11 am

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Mixed messages from Iceland

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While the Icelandic government is planning to play clever and give offshore króna holders, i.e. sovereign bondholders, a haircut – apparently because the Icelandic economy isn’t strong enough – Kaupthing, the largest owner of Arion bank , and that bank are assessing how to make use of the strong Icelandic economy with regards to Kaupthing’s shares in Arion. An intriguing case of “mixed messages”… now that another step is being taken to further ease the capital controls, in place since November 2008.

In the past few days, two articles have appeared – an op ed in Wall Street Journal and a guest blog on FT Alphaville – spelling out that Iceland is about to opt for a sovereign default, quite voluntarily and apparently with open eyes.

Iceland, of course, doesn’t quite see it that way, as I explained recently at some length. That said, I have been utterly baffled why Iceland, having taken such care last year to avoid all legal risk by negotiating with the creditors of the three fallen banks, is now reverting to the tactic, which at the time of the collapsing banks in October 2008 was half (but not quite) jestingly called “xxck the foreigners.”

Last year, some foreign pundits were comparing Iceland’s situation with Argentina, a wholly misplaced comparison since the government was no partner to the composition of the estates of the banks though the government had to take on the role of a facilitator in solving problems related to the foreign-owned, i.e. offshore ISK assets of the estates.

The outcome was around 75% haircut of the Icelandic assets. So successful was this step towards easing  capital controls that foreign inflows into sovereign bonds started at once, now amounting to around 5% of GDP – nothing compared to the 44% of GDP in November 2008 when the capital controls were put in place, under the auspice of the International Monetary Fund.

This time the government IS the other party since the offshore ISK assets are sovereign securities, which led James Glassman in the WSJ and then Arturo Porzecanski* in FT Alphaville to compare Iceland to Argentina: Iceland was about to turn into a very chilly version of Argentina.

Actually, after years of legal wrangling Argentina has of course finally settled with creditors, advised by the law firm Cleary Gottlieb, also advising Iceland (though somewhat ominously Cleary was the adviser not only in solving the Argentinian problem but also during the dark years); Argentina is now happily borrowing again. Financial firms have a notoriously short memory, after all they can’t afford to hold grudges. But the legal wrangling all over the world did blight the lives of Argentinians for around 15 years and no need to minimise how unpleasant and costly it all was.

The Icelandic situation right now is that tomorrow, on June 16, the Central Bank of Iceland will hold an auction for OS ISK holders (all info here). After setting the terms in such a way that a hair cut was all but inevitable for those participating in the auction and negative interest rates for those who didn’t the terms were changed this week – last minute wisdom… or panic, depending on the reader:

The amendments to the Terms of Auction removes ambiguity about whether, in spite of the auction results, the Bank can decide on a more favourable auction price than is specified in the table. As before, all owners of offshore krónur will receive the same price for their krónur, as the auction has a single-price format, which applies irrespective of whether the price accepted is lower than is specified in the table. It is appropriate to reiterate that as before, the Central Bank reserves the right to accept some or all of the offers submitted, or to reject all of them (emphasis mine).

Effectively, the CBI can now choose to accept the best offer… or well, come up with a better one.

Two questions: why this sudden and very late change and why was such care taken last year to negotiate whereas now it’s a take it or leave it offer?

As to the sudden change I don’t know but given the fact that a high participation is needed to solve the issue – or otherwise the OS ISK will be locked up in a really cold dungeon, i.e. at negative interest rates with no maturity in sight but only some vague words of a revision when suitable – it can be surmised that the CBI sensed that the large OS ISK holders were not going to participate: they have indicated as much. Although the auction is set for June 16 this isn’t the kind of auction where bidders walk in from the street and wave their hands; the bids will have been placed earlier due to time-consuming procedures.

On the different approach last year v now I had already made some guesses in my last blog: whetted appetite for collecting more for the state coffers, following last year’s windfall from the estates’ ISK assets; political need for a victory before the planned election in October (no date set yet); the certainty that OS ISK owners can’t rely on Icelandic courts to rule in their favour against the sovereign; using the harsh terms as a stick to beat the ISK holders (but when?) – I don’t find any of these very plausible, partly because I don’t see any of these reasons as a winning strategy.

One lesson from the Argentina very very long struggle is that international creditors rely on a many-pronged strategy, i.a. legal actions not only in the home country of the bond issuer but in many jurisdictions. I refuse to believe that Icelandic courts would side with the sovereign against the law but ultimately that’s not a deciding point since legal action will, most likely, be taken in many jurisdictions. And it’s not up to Iceland to define if a certain action is a default event or not.

The fact that two non-journalistic articles have already been published in international finance media indicates interest in certain quarters and a preparation, meaning that the large OS ISK holders, quite unsurprisingly, already have their plan A B and C mapped.

Considering the strong Icelandic economy Iceland has in general a weak case for forcing a haircut on holders of Icelandic sovereign bonds. The government can certainly hold its course but testing its limits to such a degree that it loses control of the situation – as it would i.a. if legal action were taken against it – shows at best lack of realism and worst a staggering stupidity.

That brings me to the same question as earlier: after the care taken last year to avoid time consuming action and legal risk why is the government and the CBI now opting for a course that involves all the things religiously avoided last year?

*In his blog Porzecanski is dismayed that the CBI and the government have recently passed a Bill to temper inflows. This action does however not come as any surprise. Already in its 2012 outline of prudence rules following the lifting of capital controls the CBI spelled out various measures which would be used in the future to secure financial stability. Considering the fact that the inflows in the years up to 2008 ultimately caused Iceland to opt for the capital controls, now being eased, this prudence is highly sensible, in my opinion. Yes, interest rates could be lowered in order to temper the appetite of international investors but that’s another thought for another day. In short, I definitely don’t share Porzecanski’s view though I can see his point. There is an Icelandic saying that a burnt child stays away from the fire – and that is, I’m sorry to say, an apt description of the mood in Iceland re foreign inflows.

Updated: Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson has now responded in the Wall Street Journal, claiming that Iceland shares little with Argentina except that creditors have bought distressed debt at knock-down prices. – However, in the end it only matters who holds the debt, not how it was acquired. Also, Benediktsson does not mention that after legal wrangling, at great cost also legal cost, over 15 difficult years Argentina did indeed negotiate with creditors.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

June 15th, 2016 at 11:02 pm

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