By Corina Pons and Brian Ellsworth
CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA is seeking to issue up to $4.7 billion (3.7 billion pounds) in debt securities to settle unpaid bills to contractors, according to a document seen by Reuters, as the cash-strapped firm scrambles to cope with low oil prices.
The proposal signals PDVSA’s increasing reliance on complex financial engineering to make ends meet after a slump in crude output and a severely depressed economy left it struggling to tap cheaper and more traditional forms of credit.
The quiet issuance of securities known as promissory notes could dampen a recent surge in investor confidence that PDVSA would avoid default through a $5.3 billion bond swap plan that is meant to help ease its payment burden in the coming months.
A PDVSA [PDVSA.UL] PowerPoint presentation drawn up in June that has not previously been made public said the company has proposed issuing the promissory notes to 63 companies.
PDVSA said in September that it had already issued $1.15 billion in promissory notes this year to services firms including Halliburton and Weatherford , as well as less known local companies.
It was not immediately evident whether that issuance was part of the proposed $4.7 billion package or whether the dimensions of the note issue have changed since it was initially proposed in June.
PDVSA and Weatherford did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Halliburton declined to comment.
The operations allow services companies to receive promissory notes, which are similar to bonds but more difficult to sell, in exchange for unpaid invoices for services performed months or even years ago.
Most service companies, particularly local ones, are willing to receive the notes as payment, according to a source involved. That could help companies that have slowed or halted work in response to non-payment resume services such as drilling wells.
It could also help PDVSA boost oil production that has fallen every month this year to slip a dramatic 10.2 percent to August, according to the country’s reports to OPEC.
PDVSA will settle large debts through individual negotiations with providers, and has contacted 44 local services companies with an offer to pool smaller debts into a single issue of more than $2.5 billion, a source with direct knowledge of the operation said last week.
The notes will have a three-year maturity and a one-year grace period, the source said, adding that an unidentified European bank will coordinate the issue. They are expected to be issued in coming weeks, he added.
The promissory notes issued so far will increase PDVSA’s annual debt service costs by $400 million starting in 2018, according to Reuters calculations, while completing the full package could lift them by as much as $1.6 billion.
Wall Street estimates show that the bond swap could save PDVSA as much as $3.5 billion in the next fifteen months, which is considerably less than the total amount PDVSA is proposing to issue in promissory notes.
Concerns about Venezuela’s economic crisis, which includes triple-digit inflation and shortages of basic staple items, have made Venezuela’s borrowing costs the highest of any emerging market – limiting its access to global capital markets.
PDVSA President Eulogio Del Pino in September acknowledged that the company faced difficulties in carrying out debt operations, which he attributed to a political campaign against the leftist government of Nicolas Maduro.
Wall Street sources also have said major banks have grown concerned about doing business in Venezuela due to corruption accusations surrounding PDVSA and U.S. investigations into high-ranking Venezuelan officials.
A Venezuelan businessman in June pleaded guilty to conspiring to pay bribes to PDVSA officials to secure energy contracts, in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
The company’s bonds have soared this year as investor concern over potential default has given way to optimism that payment is all-but guaranteed, with the bid price of PDVSA’s 2017N bond VE055409692= up 123 percent from February lows.
(Editing by Christian Plumb and Andrew Hay)