Exclusive: Argentina needs 'substantial' relief in $70 billion debt talks, economy minister says

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina will need “substantial relief” as it restructures nearly $70 billion in debt with international bondholders, the country’s economy minister Martin Guzman told Reuters, signaling a tough tonic ahead for the country’s creditors.

Argentine Economy Minister Martin Guzman gestures during an interview with Reuters, in Buenos Aires, Argentina March 11, 2020. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

In his first interview with international media since taking up his role in December, the 37-year-old U.S. trained economist, said a March 31 deadline to strike a deal with bondholders may also be affected by a global coronavirus outbreak that was hitting plans for road shows for the government’s debt proposal.

In an hour-long conversation in his office in central Buenos Aires, Guzman said Argentina does not have the capacity to service its foreign currency bonds for a “few years” and that any agreement with creditors needed to put public debts on a sustainable path.

“There is need for substantial relief,” he said, adding that all options were on the table and ongoing talks sought to find a path that “maximizes creditor acceptance.”

“But if anyone thinks we are going to kick the can down the road in a way that forces another restructuring later on, they should think again, because we are not going to do that.”

Argentina is locked in debt restructuring talks with global creditors including Pimco and BlackRock Inc BLK.N to avert a damaging sovereign default that would block the giant grain producer's access to global markets.

Guzman and his debt team have laid out a plan to strike that deal with creditors by the end of March, though he indicated that there may have to be flexibility given the current global situation, including the coronavirus outbreak.

He added road shows planned for this month for government officials to take their case to creditors had been affected and may have to be done by video conference.

“We have been on track, but now we are in a situation of global emergency that requires that every side is flexible,” Guzman said, adding if the March 31 deadline was missed it should only be by “a matter of days.”

Guzman said the proposal to bondholders would be made before the end of the month, but declined to give any details about what the government’s offer would look like.

“We will not accept anything that is not sustainable. We will be absolutely firm on that,” Guzman said, adding that any deal would have to avoid putting more fiscal austerity on Argentina’s recession-hit economy.

“Clearly Argentina has no capacity to service interest over the next few years.”

Government officials met with bondholders earlier this month, while negotiations are ongoing with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which has lent around $44 billion to the South American country.

The debt negotiations could determine Argentina’s economic future and global standing in markets for years following the current period of economic turmoil that has seen high inflation, recession and rising poverty.

Argentina - a serial defaulter - settled long-standing court cases with creditors in 2016 under ex-president Mauricio Macri after a 2002 default left the country a pariah with investors.

By 2018 the country was back in debt trouble again, after Macri borrowed heavily in the bond market based on what turned out to be overly optimistic economic growth projections.

Peronist President Alberto Fernandez has said that the country cannot pay its debts until given space to revive growth and ruled out imposing fiscal austerity measures to help pay debts while poverty levels remained high.

“There’s not going to be a reduction in the primary fiscal deficit in 2020. In the most optimistic case we can achieve fiscal primary balance in 2022 or 2023,” Guzman said.

Guzman said the country was looking to “roll over” its debts with the IMF, though the deal with bondholders was more urgent, considering that bond payments were fast coming due and that the country could not keep paying debts with international reserves.

“We are running out of the reserves that the Treasury can use for servicing debt. So we need to resolve this problem quickly,” Guzman said.

Reporting by Hugh Bronstein and Eliana Raszewski; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Christopher Cushing