Embattled Ukraine fights for debt deal on financial front
As government troops face off against pro-Russian separatists, Ukraine is also maneuvering on the financial front, scrambling to stave off disaster by renegotiating its foreign debts.
Kiev’s pro-Western government owes billions of U.S. dollars to U.S. and London-based investors, among others, as well as Russia, its rival in the current conflict that has pushed Ukraine’s recession-hit economy to the brink.
The International Monetary Fund has stepped in with a US$17.5 billion (NT$537.63 billion) rescue loan. As part of that deal, Ukraine must save a further US$15 billion over four years by restructuring its debts.
“If the debt operation fails, Ukraine will lose a big share of the package,” said Konstantin Kucherenko, a fixed-income trader at Kiev-based investment group Dragon Capital.
“The funds that other multilateral and bilateral donors provide will not be sufficient to keep the Ukrainian economy running for the next four years,” he said.
The IMF has so far dished out US$5.0 billion to Ukraine and must decide in June whether Kiev has met the terms for the next slice. With that deadline looming, Ukraine is trying to persuade investors to cut it some slack.
Investors Fear ‘haircuts’
Among Ukraine’s biggest creditors are five U.S. investment firms led by California-based Franklin Templeton. They risk a “haircut” — a potential reduction in the payback on their principal investment.
“The government is aiming to finalize everything by June. It’s not going to be easy,” Kucherenko said.
“The question now is principal haircuts. The creditors are resist- ing, particularly the top five who hold a blocking stake in the negotiations.”
Ukraine’s Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko in Washington last week tried to pressure investors to give ground, warning they may face greater risks over the country’s future if they do not.
“They’re misunderstanding ... the depth of the economic-financial distress that the country is in,” the Wall Street Journal quoted her as saying.
Her ministry said it “does not agree” with certain counter-pro- posals by the five creditors, who hold US$10 billion of Ukraine’s debt.
During the talks, “we can expect all kinds of declarations, but those just should be seen as attempts to gain an advantage in the negotiations,” said one senior Ukrainian official who asked not to be named.
Debt to Russia
Russia meanwhile holds a US$3.0 billion bond due for redemption in December, which it is refusing to renegotiate.
Russia is not taking part in the current debt talks, but analysts say its bond could be used to pressure Ukraine over its standoff with proRussian separatists in the east, the country’s industrial heartland.
“Most creditors and the IMF and EU will do whatever they can to help Ukraine muddle through this, but Russia is another story. It wants to be repaid in full,” said Liza Ermolenko, an emerging markets economist with Capital Economics research group in London.
Jaresko said she hoped to reach an agreement with the other lenders by the time IMF inspectors come to Kiev in late May. They will assess Ukraine’s progress in reforms before a June deadline for approving the next tranche of the rescue loan.
Among its reforms, Kiev has set up a state anti-corruption body and is cleaning up the banking sector, cracking down on irregular “insider” lending by banks to their own executives.
Ukrainians are suffering from soaring inflation and the weakening of their hryvnia currency, which has fallen by two-thirds against the U.S. dollar since early 2014.
Ukraine’s total public debt was US$70 billion in 2014, according to the government. Its proportion of public debt to gross domestic product is expected to reach 94 percent this year, from 40 percent in pre-crisis 2013, according to the IMF.
Ratings agencies Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s have cut Ukraine’s credit score to their lowest ratings, one step above default status.
Ermolenko said the question was now whether Ukraine would have an “orderly” default agreed with creditors, or a “disorderly” one where it simply stops paying them.
“If the default is disorderly, Ukraine would be locked out of international financial markets for some time, all of which would cause the recession to be even longer,” she said.
A file photo taken on March 16, shows Ukrainian Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko posing prior to a meeting at the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, DC.