Hugo Chávez cancer recurrence sends Venezuelan bonds soaring

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez speaks at the presidential

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez speaks at the presidential palace in Caracas. (Oct. 13, 2012) (Credit: Getty Images)

Venezuelan bonds surged, sending benchmark yields to a five-year low, as speculation mounted that President Hugo Chávez will be unable to complete his third term after he acknowledged a recurrence of his cancer.

The yield on the government's dollar bonds due 2027 plunged 57 basis points, or 0.57 percentage point, to 8.79 percent at 10:52 a.m. in New York as traders anticipated a new administration taking office and courting the investment Chavez drove away.

The bond's price soared 4.61 cents to 103.71 cents on the dollar, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Chavez traveled to Cuba for more surgery Monday after urging Venezuelans to vote for Vice President Nicolas Maduro if he is unable to remain in office, marking the first time he's indicated who he wants to succeed him since falling ill in June 2011.

Speculation his health was deteriorating following his re-election mounted after he spent 12 days in Cuba as part of a 21- day absence from public view that ended Dec. 7.

"This is different because Chavez has never addressed his successor before," Kathryn Rooney Vera, a strategist at Bulltick Capital Markets in Miami, said in a telephone interview Monday. "This is a de facto admission of near term incapacitation. That he specifically mentioned a chance he might not be at inauguration day, that told the market this guy isn't going to be around for his six-year term."

CURRENCY CONTROLS

Monday's gains add to a two-week rally that left Venezuelan bonds up 44.7 percent this year, the second-biggest return in emerging markets after the Ivory Coast. In his 14 years in office, Chavez has seized more than 1,000 companies and imposed currency and price controls as part of what he says is a push to turn South America's biggest oil producer into a socialist country. Those moves left Venezuela's yield premium to U.S. Treasuries over 1,000 basis points as recently as Oct. 10, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s EMBI Global index.

"There is a clear correlation between the price of Venezuela's debt and Chavez's health," Jorge Piedrahita, chief executive at Torino Capital LLC, said in a telephone interview on Dec. 6. "The market believes that a post-Chavez Venezuela will not be socialist."

Five-year credit-default swaps insuring Venezuelan bonds against nonpayment fell 64 basis points Monday to 584 basis points, the lowest level since September 2008, at 10:22 a.m. Monday in New York. The contracts pay the buyer face value in exchange for the underlying securities or cash. Falling prices signal improving investor perceptions of a borrower's creditworthiness.

The five-year credit-default swaps may fall to about 500 basis points, according to Nomura Securities Co. Ltd and Jefferies Group Inc.

"We've already had impressive gains to date and I think once five-year credit-default swaps reach around 500 basis points then investors will look to start to take profits," Siobhan Morden, the head of Latin America fixed-income strategy at Jefferies Group Inc., said in an emailed response to questions.

RE-ELECTION

Chavez defeated opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski in October's vote by more than 10 percentage points, winning a third six-year term.

Before the vote, Chavez told Venezuelans he was "totally free" of cancer following three operations and six prior trips to Cuba this year for treatment.

Chavez, who has never said what kind of cancer he has, is due to be inaugurated to his third term on Jan. 10.

"We finished radiation treatment in May, several days before I registered as a candidate for the elections," Chavez said on Dec. 8. "If they had found anything negative, you can be sure that I would not have stood for re-election."

Venezuela's opposition had called for the government to provide more information about Chavez's health.

YIELD SPREAD

"I hope there is profound reflection in our country about the need to speak the truth," Capriles, who will stand for re-election as governor of Miranda state this month, said Sunday in comments carried on the Globovision television network.

"Venezuela does not have succession. This is not Cuba nor is it a monarchy that has a king. Here in Venezuela, when someone leaves a position, the people get the last word."

National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, who spoke on state television on Dec. 8, said that the South American country's military supported Chavez and that the opposition shouldn't try and take advantage of Chavez's health concerns. He said Chavez's cancer will not disrupt gubernatorial elections set for Dec. 16.

"Even the opposition should be praying that Chavez gets better," Cabello said. "He is the guarantee of peace in the country."

The extra yield, or spread, investors demand to hold Venezuelan government dollar bonds instead of U.S. Treasuries dropped 66 basis points to 7.48 percentage points Monday, according to JPMorgan's EMBI Global index. Investors demanded an extra yield of 8.29 percentage points to hold Ecuadorean debt and 10.39 percentage points to hold Argentine notes Monday.

BOLIVIA, MONGOLIA

Venezuela is a more attractive investment than Bolivia, which sold bonds at 4.9 percent in October, and Mongolia, which last month sold $1.5 billion of bonds in two tranches at yields of 4.1 percent and 5.1 percent, Russ Dallen, head bond trader at Caracas Capital Markets, said in an interview.

"Venezuela is actually a much better story than any of those countries because of the oil exports at $100 a barrel," he said.

Venezuela has the world's largest reserves of oil, totaling about 300 billion barrels, according to the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, and currently produces about 2.8 million barrels of oil a day.

peculation Chavez would devalue the bolivar after his re-election helped spur a 46 percent plunge in the currency in unregulated trading this year to 16.01 per dollar, according to Lechuga Verde, a website that tracks the rate. Venezuelans use the black market when they can't get access to dollars at the official exchange rates of 4.3 and 5.3 per dollar.

CHAVISMO OPTIONS

Chavez's return to Cuba could delay the devaluation, said Bret Rosen, a Latin America strategist at Standard Chartered Bank.

"With Chavez out of the country indefinitely, and his health a major worry, we doubt any major economic decisions will be taken in the near term," he wrote in a note to clients Sunday. "The timing of a devaluation is likely to be on hold."

Under Venezuelan law, if Chavez is too ill to carry out his duties, the vice president would take over until the beginning of a new presidential term Jan. 10. If Chavez is unable to attend the inauguration scheduled on that date, the National Assembly president would assume power while elections are arranged within 30 days. If he does take office and then becomes too ill within the first four years, the vice president takes over the presidency for 30 days while elections are held.

While "Chavismo," the political movement led by Chavez, will seek to stay in power should he not be able to complete his new term, his party's economic policy may be more pragmatic, according to Torino Capital's Piedrahita.

"The market is going to take it that things are serious and the time of Chavez leading Venezuela may actually be coming to an end," Ray Zucaro, who helps manage about $240 million of emerging-market debt at SW Asset Management LLC in Newport Beach, California, said in a telephone interview Sunday. "The market's reaction will be that anything is better than the current status-quo."

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