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Think Twice Before Buying Cuban Bonds

Think Twice Before Buying Cuban Bonds
By Katia Porzecanski and Christine Jenkins January 08, 2015

If anyone in the U.S. knows the market for defaulted Cuban , it’s
Leo Guzman. The walls of Guzman & Co., his Coral Gables (Fla.)-based
brokerage firm, are covered with framed copies of the island’s defaulted
sovereign and municipal bonds, as well as bond and stock certificates
from Cuban railroads and sugar mills. He followed the country’s bond
market for three decades, buying and selling a bit along the way, until
trading was outlawed by legislation strengthening the U.S. in
1996. So pay attention when he says it’s premature for investors to be
interested in snapping up the debt for pennies on the dollar.

While Obama restored U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba in
December, the 18-year-old statute that prevents U.S. citizens from
investing in Cuban assets remains intact. And because the ban can be
lifted only by Congress—currently controlled by the Republicans—Guzman
doesn’t see the market opening up. “Investing could be a complicated
issue,” says Guzman, 68, who came to the U.S. from Cuba in 1961, two
years after swept to power. “The move by Obama is largely
symbolic. I would think that his chances of getting congressional
approval are low and certainly not immediate.”

It isn’t only Americans who have been squeezed out of the market.
Trading by investors in Europe and the rest of the world slowed to a
trickle as the Obama administration stepped up its crackdown on global
financial firms found to be violating U.S. sanctions on the Castro
regime. Since 2010, trading of defaulted Cuban debt has averaged just
$13 million a quarter. That’s down almost 90 percent from an average of
$100 million a quarter in 2009, according to data from institutions that
aren’t subject to U.S. bank regulations compiled by EMTA, a trade group
for emerging-market investors.

STORY: Here’s What Happened in Cuba Today, and Why You Should Care
There are many defaulted securities out there, including pre-Castro-era
debt, such as a 40-year government bond issued in 1937 at an interest
rate of 4.5 percent. In July, Russia agreed to write off 90 percent, or
almost $32 billion, of Cuba’s Soviet-era debt. In total, Cuba’s foreign
debt, including bonds and loans, is about $19 billion, according to
estimates by Moody’s Investors Service (MCO), which rates Cuba’s bonds
at Caa2, eight levels below grade. An e-mail to Guillermo
Suarez at the Cuban mission to the United Nations in New York wasn’t

The Herzfeld Caribbean Basin Fund (CUBA), a closed-end mutual fund
started in 1994 with the ticker symbol CUBA, aims to profit from
improved U.S.-Cuba relations. After the Obama announcement, the $47
million fund saw gains in some of its investments, including
Panama-based Copa Holdings (CPA) and bottler Coca-Cola Femsa
(KOF). The fund also holds defaulted Cuban bonds with a face value of
$165,000. Because of the U.S. restrictions, it values those bonds at
zero. “The reason we bought those is that we obviously expected them to
get paid,” says Erik Herzfeld, co-portfolio manager for the fund. “If
you look at what could happen, those could be quite valuable.”

Phillip Blackwood, whose London-based firm, EM Quest Capital, has held
defaulted Cuban bank loans since 2008, says he hasn’t spotted any trades
in the securities in about two years. The last he saw, they were priced
at about 9¢ on the dollar. Obama’s move to normalize relations is
“certainly positive, but it’s not a game changer,” Blackwood says.

Cuban President Raúl Castro, who succeeded his brother in 2008, has said
he welcomes Obama’s decision and urged the U.S. to end a five-decade
economic embargo against the Caribbean island nation. Castro has been
working to make the less reliant on longtime patrons
and Russia, which have been squeezed by plummeting oil prices. He hasn’t
said anything publicly about restructuring defaulted debt or paying $1.9
billion in claims by U.S. citizens and companies for expropriated
property. If Cuba moves to resolve those issues, “Then the liquidity
comes back,” says Oliver Takacs, founder of London-based Terium, which
invests in and advises on illiquid assets. “But before then, I can’t see
it frankly.”

The bottom line: Moody’s rates the estimated $19 billion in Cuban
foreign debt at eight levels below investment grade.

Porzecanski is a reporter for Bloomberg News in New York.
Jenkins is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Bogota.

Source: Cuban Bonds: Think Twice Before Buying – Businessweek –

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