Goldman's Hunger Bonds Dodge U.S. Sanctions That Bypass Traders

(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. levied additional sanctions on Venezuela on Friday, but one of the nation’s largest bondholders may be breathing a sigh of relief.

Goldman Sachs Asset Management, which bought $2.8 billion of notes issued by the state oil company in May, has faced sharp criticism for a deal that appeared to supply fresh funds to President Nicolas Maduro. While observers thought the securities would be a prime target for new penalties, they were exempt from the order. In fact, the only bonds covered by the trading ban are notes due in 2036 that appear to never have been sold outside Caracas.

“That was somewhat surprising,” said Francisco Rodriguez, the chief economist at Torino Capital in New York. “I guess the logic is that those bonds are already in the hands of bondholders, so you wouldn’t be really blocking new financing.”

Investor reaction across the board was fairly muted Friday, with both sovereign bonds and notes from Petroleos de Venezuela SA registering slight gains. The new executive order seeks to ban Venezuela from raising cash with new debt offerings, and prohibits transactions in older bonds held by government officials and entities. These sanctions will likely force the oil-rich nation to reduce imports to conserve cash, thus deepening the already severe economic contraction in the country, according to Rodriguez.

“There is also the concern that the order may push Venezuela over the brink and lead them to default,” Rodriguez said. “Certainly the more restrictions on financing that you place, the harder you make it for them to pay.”

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the administration’s plan is to continue “turning up the heat” on the Venezuelan government. Mnuchin is one of several Goldman alumni in Trump’s administration. The president’s top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, was president of the investment bank before assuming his current role.

The gains on Friday -- with most notes up less than half a cent -- show investors’ relief after the Wall Street Journal reported earlier in the week that U.S. officials were considering a blanket ban on all trading in Venezuelan debt. Such a move would have left investors stuck holding debt that is considered among the world’s riskiest.

Goldman Sachs’s investing arm is the largest holder of bonds from Petroleos de Venezuela and the seventh-largest holder of Venezuelan sovereign debt as of June 30, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Andrew Williams, a spokesman at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., declined to comment.