“Let’s speculate on North Korean debt!”

UPDATE 1 (2011-12-21): The Wall Street Journal (Dow Jones Newswire) points out movement on North Korean debt following the death of Kim Jong-il:

Saturday’s death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has given a lift to that country’s only openly traded securities, a batch of bonds that haven’t received a payment in almost three decades.

The defaulted bonds, which were created in 1997 when French bank BNP repackaged a series of non-performing syndicated bank loans that were granted to North Korea in the seventies, have suddenly sparked interest among speculators. The sporadically traded bonds, which trade at a deep discount to their face value, saw a tick up this week and were recently quoted at between 14 and 18 cents on the dollar, compared with 13 to 15 cents, according to London-based sales and brokerage house Exotix.

Those who have bought the bonds are making nothing less than a bet that the transfer of power to Kim’s son Kim Jong Eun will usher in a moment akin to that of the Berlin Wall’s collapse for the tightly controlled communist country.

“Investors are looking at this as an unlimited option trade with enormous potential gains,” said Andrew Chappell, head of European, African and Middle Eastern fixed income trading and sales at brokerage house Exotix in London, who says that inquiries into the bonds have increased in recent days.

According to Chappell’s calculations, investors’ claims extend to the principal and interest accrued from 1984 when the original loans defaulted. That amounts to anywhere between 300% to 600% in unpaid interest.

The premise that’s attracted hedge funds and pension funds is that North Korea can’t exist in isolation forever, and like other former communist countries will find a need to tap the international markets for funds.

That’s why the death of Kim Jong Il has opened a rare opportunity that bets on these bond could pay off. Although there’s no indication of what the structure of the government will look like under Kim Jong Eun, or of the direction it will take, some observers expect the U.S. and other western powers to use this opportunity to bring North Korea into the international fold.

By all accounts, North Korea is in very poor shape financially. A significant segment of the population is said to be dying of starvation. The country’s economy pulls in a meager $29 billion in annual gross domestic product, compared with $1.117 trillion in South Korea, according to IHS Global Insight estimates for 2011. That gaping shortfall in material well-being, the optimists reckon, will eventually drive North Korea to make good with the international community and seek foreign investment. But first it will have to clear its unpaid debts.

In fact, it was a similarly desperate need for funds that initially drove North Korea to borrow a total of 680 million Deutsche Marks and 455 million Swiss francs in syndicated loans from nearly 100 foreign banks in the late 1970s. By 1984, the country had defaulted on these loans and they were left dormant for more than a decade. But in the late 1990s, some of the banks wanted to capitalize on hopes at that time for a reunification between North Korea and South Korea, so they parceled some of the nonperforming loans into two tranches of DEM293 million and CHF217 million.

BNP, now called BNP Paribas, was the manager on the deal. It created a special purpose vehicle called NK Debt Corp., incorporated in the British Virgin Islands, to hold the loans and then sold rights to them to investors.

Over the years, even as North Korea has again distanced itself from the international community and toyed with nuclear ambitions, interest in the zero-coupon no-income bond has waxed and waned among a select few buyers interested in frontier markets or risky bets. As if passing the hot potato, fund managers have been buying and holding these bonds for a few years and then exchanging them for something else, Chappell said.

The holdings are now concentrated among a dozen or so blue-chip pension fund managers and hedge funds, he said, but declined to name them.

Franklin Templeton Emerging Market Debt Opportunities Fund, which is allowed to invest in defaulted debt, confirmed that it holds about $4.25 million in nominal value of the Deutsche mark-denominated bonds. It declined to comment further.

“These investors are not saying the bond has to pay off to make money,” said Tim Slaughter, head of fixed income at Auerbach Grayson, an agency brokerage in New York. “For them, if the price goes up from 14 cents to 16 cents it’s a good return on a $5 million investment. Investors are not necessarily looking for North Korea to reconcile with South Korea.”

But others say this speculative game is simply not worth the risk.

“The price on North Korean debt is too high in the sense there are so many alternatives in frontier debt that are actually paying coupons and redemptions that are trading at attractive levels,” said Morten Bugge, chief investment officer at Global Evolution A/S, a Denmark-based hedge fund that had held these North Korean bonds in the early years.

Read the full story here:
North Korea’s Leadership Transition Draws Brave Debt Buyers
Dow Jones Newswire
Prabha Natarajan and Erin McCarthy
2011-12-22

ORIGINAL POST (2010-3-11): According to Businessweek:

BNP Paribas SA, France’s biggest bank, in 1997 created bonds denominated in Deutsche marks and Swiss francs secured on non-performing loans owed by the Foreign Trade Bank of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The notes mature today, and Exotix plans to issue new ones with about a 10-year tenor.

“There are very few investments left in the world like this,” Andrew Chappell, head of London emerging market fixed- income for Exotix, a broker specializing in distressed securities, said in a telephone interview. “The North Korean bonds are very cheap,” they may rise on signs of improved international relations and they are easier to trade than the underlying loans, he said.

President Kim Il Sung drove North Korea to become the first communist nation to default 34 years ago by spending almost a third of gross domestic product on its military. The United Nations toughened sanctions on son Kim Jong Il’s government after it detonated a second nuclear device in May, deepening an economic crisis that forced North Korea to revalue its currency in November by removing two zeros from the face value of the won.

“Investors have good reason to hold the notes even by extending them,” said Dong Yong Sueng, a senior fellow in the economic security team at the Samsung Economic Research Institute in Seoul. “They hope that the South Korean government may take over North Korean debts and repay them if the communist state collapses or the regime changes.”

About 320 million marks and 240 million francs ($225 million) of the zero-coupon 1997 bonds are outstanding, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Exotix last quoted them at 12.75 percent of par value as of March 8 from 11.5 percent a month earlier and 33 percent in December 2007.

While prices that low may be attractive to investors willing to take a five- or 10-year bet, “there are just so many better opportunities for investing in high-risk assets,” Richard Segal, director of emerging markets fixed-income at Knight Libertas Ltd., said in a phone interview from London.

“I don’t see much value in the notes even at 10 or 11 percent of par because I see no willingness of North Korea to reschedule the underlying loans and no willingness of South Korea to pay them off short of unification,” he said. That’s “unlikely for a long time.”

North Korea is overhauling its legal system in a bid to attract as much as $400 billion in foreign investment over the next decade, almost 20 times current GDP, South Korea’s MBC television reported on March 4.

Read the full story here:
North Korea bonds due today spur exotix bet on political change
Businessweek
Jungmin Hong
2010-3-11

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