A U.S. federal judge authorized the seizure of Citgo Petroleum Corp. to satisfy a Venezuelan government debt, a ruling that could set off a scramble among Venezuela’s many unpaid creditors to wrest control of its only obviously seizable U.S. asset.
Judge Leonard P. Stark of the U.S. District Court in Wilmington, Del., issued the ruling Thursday. However, his full opinion, which could include conditions or impose further legal hurdles, was sealed. A redacted version is expected to be available at a later date.
The court order raises the likelihood that Venezuela’s state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela SA, will lose control of a valuable external asset amid the country’s deepening economic and political crisis. The decision could still be appealed to a higher, federal court.
Attorneys for PdVSA weren’t available for comment. Citgo declined to comment.
Crystallex International Corp., a defunct Canadian gold miner that filed the legal action, is trying to collect on a judgment over lost mining rights involving Venezuela’s government. It has targeted Citgo, an oil refiner, because this is the largest U.S. asset of the cash-strapped and crisis-riven country.
Many other creditors of Venezuela are also circling Citgo, but Crystallex is the first to win a judgment authorizing its seizure. Crystallex had argued that Citgo was ultimately owned by PdVSA, which is an “alter ego” of Venezuela that is liable for the South American country’s debts. The judge’s decision in favor of Crystallex allows it to take control of shares of Citgo’s U.S.-based parent company, the first step toward a sale of the company.
Venezuela and its various state-controlled entities together have $62 billion of unsecured bonds outstanding, with approximately $5 billion so far in unpaid interest and principal. Analysts estimate that the government has approximately $150 billion total in debt outstanding to creditors around the world.
Venezuela and its state-controlled entities including PdVSA began missing bond payments last year and have since spiraled into a widespread default. U.S. sanctions bar creditors from engaging the Venezuelan government in any kind of restructuring or buying new debt.
For Venezuela, losing control of Citgo could jeopardize one of its only remaining sources of oil revenue, the U.S. At the same time, investors in Venezuela’s defaulted debt—as well at least 43 companies pursuing legal claims against the government—risk losing one of the few obvious assets in the U.S. that can be seized for repayment.
The only payment made this year by Venezuela was $107 million on its PdVSA bonds, due 2020, for which Citgo is pledged as collateral. That was a clear move by Caracas to protect that asset, analysts have said.
Without ownership of Citgo, investors worry PdVSA would have little incentive to continue to pay on the debt
Any sale of Citgo stock would require U.S. Treasury Department approval, and Crystallex needs to clear other legal hurdles before the shares could be sold.
In trying to lay claim to Citgo, creditors are following a familiar playbook. Hedge funds led by Elliott Management Corp. did something similar when they went after Argentine assets following that country’s 2001 default, the largest sovereign default at the time, on more than $80 billion in sovereign debt.
When Argentina refused to pay settlements arising from the default, the hedge funds sought out Argentine assets to seize and argued that everything from the assets of its central bank to its state-controlled oil company were an “alter ego” of the state.
Elliott in 2012 persuaded a Ghanaian court to impound a training vessel of the Argentine Navy, and in 2014 asked a California court to block Argentina from launching satellites into space. Argentina settled with the hedge funds in 2016, delivering gains of as much as 900% on some of their original principal investments.