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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Trade Grows in Vnesh Bonds

Bankers in Russia and the West have started actively trading billions of dollars of Russian government bonds issued to Soviet foreign trading companies whose accounts were frozen in 1991 when Vneshekonombank, the then-foreign trade bank, went bankrupt.

Russian foreign trade companies and foreign joint ventures had accounts worth $7.89 billion frozen in late 1991 when the Russian government announced it had spent all the money in Vneshekonombank, the state bank which had held a monopoly on hard currency transactions under the Soviet Union.

The bank's collapse, a decisive event in the downfall of the old Soviet economy, hurt joint ventures which had been forced to hold accounts in Vneshekonombank.

It also triggered a huge chain of nonpayments by Russian trading companies with debts to foreign suppliers.

By issuing the bonds, the government created a security which could be sold for cash immediately, giving Russian firms immediate access to cash.

Armen Udumyan, securities director of the Russian Finance Corporation, a state-owned merchant bank, says that the market is indeed developing, and that his firm is one of about 10 which have started trading in the bonds since last October, when the first bonds were issued.

He estimates that bonds have so far been issued for 60 percent of the accounts, and of these about $1 billion have been sold on the market.

He said, however, that many Russian firms were delaying selling their bonds.

"They have already suffered the effects of having their accounts frozen," he said.

"They want to wait and see what happens."

According to a Western banking source in London who asked not to be named, a number of western merchant banks, including Morgan Grenfell & Co., are also trading the bonds.

The bonds have maturity periods varying from one to 15 years, depending on the amount and the type of account holder, and all bear a coupon rate of only 3percent. Most joint ventures will receive their payouts within the first six years.

One-year bonds which are to be repaid on May 14, 1994 now trade for about 95 percent of their face value, while 15-year bonds which mature in 2008 can be sold for around 20 cents in the dollar.

Udumyan said that the current prices of the bonds were fairly attractive.

He said that the discount rate applied to the face value was about 16 percent per annum for each year until maturity. This was low compared to interest rates on hard-currency deposits, which in Russia average about 20 percent.

If the market for Vneshekonombank bonds does grow, it may provide a boost to Western exporters who may be able to accept the bonds as repayment for trade debts they have been pursuing for the past two years.

Kodak Ltd. (UK), for example, is still trying to recover over half a million dollars for photographic services and equipment sold to Soviet companies, including a U.S.-Soviet joint venture, shortly before the collapse of Vneshekonombank.

The joint venture has now disappeared and other Russian firms have refused to pay up until they receive money from Vneshekonombank.

Philip Gibbons, deputy manager of Kodak's credit department, said the bonds offered one possibility of solving the bad debt problem.

However he did not expect a fast solution. "If they think they can create a market, I am skeptical."

Mark Borghcsani, a Moscow partner for the law firm Baker & McKenzie, said that the bonds could help some of the many Western exporters who were affected by the collapse of Vneshekonombank.

He said Soviet trading companies refused to pay debts estimated in the billions of dollars after 1991 on the grounds that their Vneshekonombank hard-currency accounts were frozen. "Lots of foreign trade organizations have been pleading force majeure," he said.

Borghcsani said that some clients had already been able to recover money through the Russian and international court system from Soviet foreign trade organizations that still existed.

He said court decisions could even force the Russian government to pay trade debts owed by state-owned foreign trade companies. He said the government was often legally obliged to do so because the organizations were just carrying out the state plan, acting as agents for end-users and receiving hard currency allocated by the state.

But he said that many such organizations have no significant assets which can be attached to legal proceedings. He said that in such cases, the new government bonds could make debt recovery easier if they come to be accepted as a valuable asset. "It will be positive if, in the end, it means that Russian debtors have more money, or if some creditors are willing to accept the paper in payment of the debt."

He warned, however, that any claims against Soviet foreign trade organizations would have to made by the end of this year to comply with a three-year legal statute of limitations.

The Vneshekonombank debt is considered internal hard-currency debt.

It pales in comparison with the estimated $80 billion of debts which Russia inherited from the former Soviet Union.

Most firms now refuse to deal with Russia on anything other than a cash basis.

The bulk of the Soviet Union's debt was owed either to governments or to commercial banks.

Russia has struggled over repayments, however, forcing the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations to grant a 15-year restructuring of $16 billion in government debts, but failing to reach agreement with Western commercial banks on a deal to reschedule $26 billion in overdue debts from 1992 and 1993.

Despite the relatively small amount of Vneshekonombank debt, financial markets will be waiting eagerly to see whether Russia actually makes the initial payment on the bonds, which is due in May this year, looking for an indication that Russia can pay back its debts.