It is pretty clear that oil exports could be attached if PDVSA defaulted on its bonds. It would work as follows. PDVSA would sell oil to a refinery in the United States. Creditors would sue. The refinery would still get the oil, but a U.S. court would attach its payment to PDVSA and transfer it to the creditors. PDVSA, therefore, would get nothing from its exports.
If the Venezuelan government defaulted, however, the legality would get a bit dicier. It is possible that American courts would “pierce the corporate veil” and conclude that PDVSA is an instrumentality of the Bolivarian Republic, but that is not certain. Still, it is the way many investors and lawyers (inclduing myself) would bet.
So in theory sovereign default would lead to a fall in oil prices, as exporting countries with state-owned companies cast around for alternative markets.
In practice, however, the courts are slow and (as mentioned above) the legalities are far from certain. It is quite possible that a defaulting country would merrily continue selling oil while its buyers merrily continued buying. After all, the buyers might not care. They would still get the oil; what do they care if the seller wouldn’t get its money?
But the seller would still want its money. It would likely therefore sell to middlemen who would demand a discount and then resell the oil at some legal risk to themselves. In other words, the price of oil exports would certainly go down.
The empirical question, however, given all the legal uncertainties, is how quickly it would go down. It is quite plausible that the export price of a country’s oil would not be affected by default for months or years.
Well, Ecuador provides a nice test of that question!
Let me walk you through the data. This is going to be a little chart heavy, so I ask readers to comment if it is ever unclear or you lose the chain of the argument.
Ecuadorean oil generally trades a discount to the WTI benchmark price. That is because its oil is heavier than WTI and needs to travel from Ecuadorean fields to (mostly) Californian refineries. The below chart shows the percentage discount on Ecuadorean oil between the start of 2006 and the end of 2009. It shows a very steep fall in November 2008.
That seems convincing, until you add a control. Mexico also exports heavy oil to the United States. Its discount on WTI also widened in November 2008, although Mexico did not default.
Still, the increase in the discount on Ecuadorean oil was greater than the discount on Mexican oil. Might that have something to do with the default? Certainly! But to be sure of that, you need to also account for the fact that Ecuador and Mexico sell into two different geographic markets. Ecuadorean oil goes primarily to refineries in California, whereas Mexican oil goes overwhelmingly to the Gulf Coast of the United States. The price of crude oil can vary by several dollars per barrel between the two locations, given transport costs and varying demand conditions.
The below chart, therefore, compared the export price of the two countries’ blends to the price paid by refineries in California and the Gulf Coast (60% in Texas), respectively. Once you account for the fact that the price of oil in California fell more than the price of oil on the Gulf Coast, then the oil price dynamics in the two countries look pretty similar between 2006 and the end of 2008. This chart compares the price received by the exporting countries and the price paid by their primary customers:
The dynamics look similar when you express the discounts in dollar terms, rather than as percentages of the sale price. The stark increases in November 2008 go away completely, as artifacts of the general fall in oil prices. Mexican crude is a bit more volatile in the lead-up to November, but otherwise looks similar to Ecuadorean:
It is true that Mexican oil recovered faster than Ecuadorean oil. In fact, after January ‘09, Pemex managed to sell its oil for roughly the average price paid by all Gulf Coast refineries, elimating a long-standing discount. PetroEcuador also managed to improve its position relative to the pre-crisis era, but it took rather longer.
I do not know what happened in the Gulf Coast oil market. There are two hypotheses to explain the Ecuadorean recovery, however. One is that the Ecuador announced the form of its default in mid-2009 — a form brilliantly and perfectly designed to leave creditors without legal recourse. Freed of fears of attachment, therefore, the discount fell.
The other is that May is around when PetroEcuador began selling its oil to state-owned Chinese middlemen at a significant premium. The discount on Ecuadorean oil fell because Chinese companies absorbed it.
It is still possible, of course, that without the default Ecuadorean oil prices would have bounced back in January 2009 like Mexican ones and without the need to involve the People’s Republic of China. But there is no direct evidence for that story.
The next thing to do would be to nail down an explanation for the disappearance of the Mexican discount in January 2009. If an explanation for that can be found that Ecuador could not possibly have replicated, then the hypothesis that the Ecuadorean default affected the export price of its oil is likely incorrect. On the other hand, if the strategy employed by Pemex was one that Ecuador was prevented from using because it was in default, then the default cost Ecuador.
To be frank, my prior is that whatever happened to Mexican oil in January 2009 was likely idiosyncratic. I doubt that Ecuador suffered in oil markets for its big sovereign default.
Now, this is not to say that default would be costless for Venezuela. It could prove very costly! Eventually, Venezuelan receivables would probably be attached; sooner if PDVSA debt goes into default rather than Venezuelan sovereign debt. But in both cases Venezuela could continue to sell oil.
In short, the evidence from the Ecuadorean default of 2008 is not completely clear-cut ... but the preponderance of the evidence seems to be that any fall in oil prices will take some time to manifest.
Sources tell me that Venezuelan ministers fervently believe that default will lead to cut off in immediate oil exports, or at least a drastic fall in realized oil prices. I suspect that they are wrong ... but it is a good thing for creditors that they do not know that they are wrong.