Bitcoin bond on horizon sends El Salvador's dollar debt diving

El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele speaking at the closing party of the “Bitcoin Week" in Teotepeque, El Salvador, on Nov 20, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - Plans for a US$1 billion (S$1.36 billion) Bitcoin bond in El Salvador sent the nation's United States dollar-denominated bonds to an all-time low.

El Salvador's dollar denominated notes due in 2050 fell 2.2 cents to 64.4 cents on the US dollar on Monday (Nov 22), the lowest ever. The Central American country's debt was among the world's worst performers on Monday as investors considered whether President Nayib Bukele's plan to sell sovereign Bitcoin bonds closes the door on a deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

El Salvador's progress with the IMF has soured since May, when Mr Bukele's party took over the assembly and fired five top judges and the Attorney-General. His policies, including the adoption of Bitcoin as legal tender, have been repeatedly criticized by the multilateral lender.

"This announcement cements the 'anything-but-the-IMF' path," said Stifel Nicolaus & Co managing director Nathalie Marshik. Bonds are falling "as the market reassesses possible recovery value lower on unpredictability of policies".

The nation's debt is trading in distressed territory, with investors now demanding 1,168 basis points in extra yield to hold El Salvador's dollar bonds over US Treasuries, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co data. While the plan to sell new, tokenised bonds could offer the government some breathing room, it also adds to uncertainties and potential risks.

For Ms Siobhan Morden, head of Latin America fixed income strategy at Amherst Pierpont Securities, the announcement of the Bitcoin bond is a sign that the nation is doubling down on its own funding and growth.

"Innovative financing is not in itself a solution," she wrote in a note.

The nation's next big payment to external creditors is not due until January 2023. The US$1 billion in the tokenised bonds could give the government a respite, as talks with the IMF for a US$1.3 billion loan were downgraded to an annual Article IV review that concluded before the bond sale was announced Nov 20, according to the lender said.

"Given Bitcoin's high price volatility, its use as a legal tender entails significant risks to consumer protection, financial integrity and financial stability," the IMF's statement on the 2021 Article IV Mission said. "Its use also gives rise to fiscal contingent liabilities."

The proposed 10-year tokenised Bitcoin bond is expected to pay 6.5 per cent annually, with an added dividend of 50 per cent of any Bitcoin gains once El Salvador has recouped its original investment, according to Blockstream Corp chief strategy officer Samson Mow, who announced the plan on stage with Mr Bukele during a Bitcoin conference.

Those dividends will either be paid in US dollars or the cryptocurrency Tether, a so-called stablecoin meant to be a dollar proxy, he said.

As soon as legislation is in place allowing the new bond, the nation will release a prospectus, Mr Mow said. For now, the biggest challenge is how little is known.

For the Bitcoin crowd, it may be a more risk-averse bet, said Mr Carlos de Sousa, a portfolio manager at Vontobel Asset Management in Zurich. The 50 per cent dividend the bond plans to pay if the price of the cryptocurrency rises, may look appealing if investors are not penalised for any Bitcoin weakening - but it is too soon to know without a prospectus, he said.

"If you have too much money on Bitcoin and you'd like to de-risk, this instrument, conditional that you can only share gains and not losses, gives you a 25 per cent upside but no Bitcoin downside, of course, at the cost of El Salvador's default risk," he said. "But since it's for retail investors, maybe the sovereign default risk is not something they're focused on."

And there is a chance the bond can win over pockets of investment on Wall Street.

"Institutional investors tend to overlook certain risks as long as they meet their goals for returns," said Franklin Templeton Mexico co-head of investments Luis Gonzali. "'I can't buy Bitcoin, but I can buy junk.' It's a way to get around mandates in their funds. Technically, you're not buying Bitcoin, just junk."

Still, the note would mark a new way for governments to borrow externally and could bring more retail investors into the emerging-market debt space.

The 6.5 per cent coupon would not be enough to compensate for the risks associated with El Salvador, assuming the bonds price at or near par, said Mr Jared Lou, a money manager at William Blair in New York.

"It seems like a desperation move, showing Bukele is moving away from Western institutions," said Mr Lou. The existing bonds will continue to make new lows, but "the market is a bit broken now".

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