The possibility of Ukraine either outright defaulting
Kiev - AFP
Ukraine was expecting the announcement on Friday of a crucial debt restructuring agreement that could save the pro-West but strife-torn country from a devastating default.
Five months of excruciating negotiations between Kiev's cash-strapped leadership and some of the world's biggest commercial creditors have reached the finishing line with the outcome still in serious doubt.
At issue is both a debt burden of around $19 billion and the very economic future of Ukraine -- a vast former Soviet republic straddling the diplomatic no-man's-land between the European Union and an increasingly assertive Russia.
The possibility of Ukraine either outright defaulting on its obligations or imposing a payment freeze could shut Kiev out of global borrowing markets and severely hamper its IMF-led austerity and economic restructuring drive.
The International Monetary Fund has patched together a $40 billion (35.8 billion euro) rescue package that could wean Ukraine off its reliance on Russia and turn it permanently toward the West.
But that deal includes finding a compromise with bondholders which could save the nation of about 40 million people $15.3 billion over the next four years.
Franklin Templeton and three other financial titans that own $8.9 billion of that sum believe Ukraine is in strong enough shape to repay the debt in full and more or less on time.
The four have rejected Kiev's request to accept a 40 percent cut to their Eurobonds' face value and instead offered a conditional write-down or "haircut" of between 5.0 and 10 percent.
What Kiev described as the "final" round of discussions between US-born Ukrainian Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko and Templeton managers at their home base near San Francisco concluded without a deal.
But several sources with knowledge of the negotiations said a major debt announcement of some sort would finally be made on Friday.
Economists agreed that the time for such a breakthrough could hardly be more rife.
"Some agreement should be reached this week," Dragon Capital economist Olena Bilan told AFP.
- Sweeteners and threats -
Time is of the essence because the IMF's support package requires Kiev to restructure a $500 million Eurobond that matures on September 23.
Talks however with all of Ukraine's investors -- stipulated to take no more than three weeks -- cannot effectively begin until terms with the Templeton-led group are reached.
Jaresko has warned repeatedly that Ukraine could impose a repayment moratorium as early as this week.
The decision would save Kiev $60 million in interest payments that come due on Sunday. Yet it would also find the government possibly facing lawsuits and push its borrowing costs out of reach.
The IMF and Washington have both pressed the creditors to accept some short-term losses to help the strategic east European nation to stand up to Russian "aggression" and eventually become a full member of the European Union.
But economists said a workable compromise would probably see investors accepting a rather severe "haircut".
"The fair value of Ukrainian bonds is closer to 46 cents per dollar, versus the current 58 cents, which would imply a 35-percent haircut, an eight-year maturity extension and a four-percent coupon reduction," Oxford Economics researcher Evghenia Sleptsova told AFP.
Some said they expected the two sides to agree somewhere in the middle -- a big write-down that included "sweeteners" such as a promise by Kiev to pay back more should its economy perform better than expected next year.
"We maintain our view that Ukraine will press the creditors for a nominal haircut of at least 25 percent," said Kiev's ICU Group analyst Alexander Valchyshen.
Yet not everyone was as optimistic. Sleptsova of Oxford Economics said "it may well take a (repayment) moratorium by Kiev for the compromise to be reached."
"The government may be tempted to try its luck and announce a moratorium and then soften its position if the impact on the economy turns out to be dramatic."