Payment dispute could trigger defaults on other 1MDB debts, put pressure on ringgit

The stand-off between the Malaysian government and Abu Dhabi over disputes at 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) is set to present both governments with challenges sure to rattle financial markets in the coming weeks.

For Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government, the immediate worry is that the dispute with Abu Dhabi over billions of dollars in payments, which the Gulf emirate’s state-owned entities claim they did not receive from 1MDB, could trigger cross-defaults on borrowings amounting to roughly US$5.1 billion (S$6.9 billion).

In faraway Abu Dhabi, public disclosures about how its state-owned entities led by the International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC) entered complex financial arrangements with 1MDB are set to lift the lid on the often opaque business dealings in the rich Gulf Arab state, according to financial executives tracking the unfolding saga.

IPIC is Abu Dhabi’s second-largest wealth fund and is chaired by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a high-profile businessman who owns the Manchester City football club and is the brother of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the ruler of Abu Dhabi and President of the United Arab Emirates.

Financial executives who have close business dealings with Abu Dhabi and IPIC say Sheikh Khalifa ordered an internal due diligence on the workings of the kingdom’s numerous state-owned entities. The IPIC audit tossed up a number of irregularities, including the fund’s dealings with 1MDB and the obligations covered under the guarantee of 1MDB’s 2012 bond issue.

Under the May 2012 agreement, the London-listed IPIC guaranteed 1MDB bonds valued at US$3.5 billion. In return, 1MDB agreed to make payments as collateral to IPIC’s subsidiary, Aabar.

Malaysian government officials say that IPIC has informally advised 1MDB that it has no intention of honouring the interest payment because of the alleged default of the bond agreement. The Najib government has also taken the position that it, too, will not step in to cover the interest payment because it has done nothing wrong.

“Settling the interest (payment) is not an option because that would be seen as acknowledging IPIC’s position,” said a Malaysian government official involved in negotiations in the dispute with IPIC.

But Malaysia’s strategy comes with huge risks and the Najib administration has been presented with several worst-case scenarios in the event that the 2012 bond agreement is declared in default. They include the prospect of cross-defaults that may be triggered on other 1MDB debts, and potential legal suits from bondholders and IPIC against the Malaysian government.

The default situation could also present complications to government-linked agencies other than 1MDB in their efforts to raise funding, dim the country’s sovereign ratings, and put intense selling pressure on the ringgit and local stock market, financial executives and bankers say.

“The big challenge will be to send the message that this is a specific problem (with IPIC) and not something that is systemic,” said one government official.

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