A man walks next to a BlackRock sign pictured in the Manhattan borough of New York. Picture: REUTERS/EDUARDO MUNOZ
A man walks next to a BlackRock sign pictured in the Manhattan borough of New York. Picture: REUTERS/EDUARDO MUNOZ

Buenos Aires — She has spent little time in Latin America and her Spanish, by her own account, is just “mas o menos”. She had never coaxed a deal out of proud, broke governments. Yet in a single week, Jennifer O’Neil, 39, helped seal the debt restructuring of Argentina and Ecuador, propelling her into prominence at BlackRock and in the clubby, male-dominated world of sovereign bond negotiations.

Her role was particularly noteworthy in Argentina, which had defaulted on $65bn held by dozens of investment firms, including BlackRock, where she is an MD. It was the country’s ninth default and, amid the pandemic, the Peronist-led government wasn’t sending signals of flexibility.

Its economy minister, 37-year-old Martin Guzman, irritated many on the other side with his academic disquisitions — he’s the protégé of Nobelist and developing-world champion Joseph Stiglitz — leading to hours of stiff conference calls interspersed with stretches of silence.

Gerardo Rodriguez, a former top Mexican finance official, was leading the talks for BlackRock’s group and at the end of his rope. Argentina’s history of default was weighing heavily. At one point, voices were raised.

By July, O’Neil, a team member, slipped into the lead role. Despite being a relative outsider — or perhaps because of it — she became the face of her side. And when it was over, there was a deal. The resolution gave the creditors about 55c on the dollar, more than $13bn more than what the country said  originally was doable. A dozen people on all ends of the negotiations credit her work both within the bondholder group and with the Argentinians.

Instead of going through the brick wall, we’ve got to figure out how to make a house out of the brick wall or take it down brick by brick
Jennifer O’Neil, BlackRock MD

It’s not, O’Neil says, that Guzman’s academic theories didn’t frustrate her. They did. And it’s not that she wasn’t aware of Argentina’s tragic history of defaults. She was.

She just chose not to get caught up in either one, to see the talks as a marathon, rather than a sprint, she said in an interview last week after the government announced that 99% of foreign debt would be restructured.

“Instead of going through the brick wall, we’ve got to figure out how to make a house out of the brick wall or take it down brick by brick,” she said via video conference call.

Because of Covid-19, the negotiations were virtual, meaning the small talk and human interactions that can help create trust were in short supply. But O’Neil, who lives in New York’s Tribeca, engaged Guzman about his own years in New York where he’d been, until recently, a researcher at Columbia University. She’s an athlete, as is he, and she sometimes runs in Central Park near his old neighbourhood.

“He and I were able to connect,” she recalled. “It’s that kind of thing where you have five minutes of that type of conversation. Once we were speaking again on the economics, his tone was different. The words he said weren’t just ‘No.’”

People who took part in the negotiations call O’Neil detail-orientated and focused. A top Argentinian official described her as “professional, respectful, and rigorous”.

Her rising profile partly reflects the clout of BlackRock, the fund manager with more than $7-trillion in assets. Its chair, Laurence Fink, has made a point of asserting that investors must look beyond profit to social responsibility.

As Argentinian officials faced the pandemic’s economic catastrophe, they made early attempts to gain a nod from Fink. Mexico’s president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, also called him after a request from Argentina’s President Alberto Fernandez. But tension remained high until O’Neil took the lead.

Bioethics and law

She says it’s absurd to give her so much credit because this was an act of teamwork combined with luck. Certainly, others were important, including Ayres Investment’s Pablo Federico, who did much of the analysis, as well as Ian Glastein at Monarch Alternative. Still, she pulled it through and earned the trust of the bondholder groups.

A native of San Diego, California, O’Neil had planned to be a doctor and studied mathematical biology as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. But in a study abroad programme in Copenhagen, she discovered bioethics and law and found herself fascinated by dilemmas such as cloning and stem-cell research.

She briefly considered a doctorate in bioethics but chose law school at Boston University, known for its strength in health law. An internship at the American Cancer Society focused on health legislation made her reconsider again.

She was planning on returning to California since she found the East Coast unappealing (“It’s freezing and the skiing is terrible”) and figured she’d interview with East Coast firms to practise for the interviews out west. But she walked away less impressed with the Californian firms and ended up in New York at Jones Day, where she discovered the world of restructuring. It suited her.

She moved to BlackRock in 2015. She covers sovereign and US corporate distress restructuring. Besides Argentina, she was involved in Ecuador’s $17bn restructuring and in some corporate distress deals related to the pandemic. All this while working from home; O’Neil spent the past few months between Tribeca and Long Island.

Colleagues at BlackRock say that a team has grown around her, and Argentina has been a big break for her. She throws the credit back, saying that her career choices have been as defined by mentors and colleagues as by topics.

“Within our group, we let people play to their strengths,” she said. “It was about getting traction. Once I got it, I thought, ‘let’s just keep this going.’”

Bloomberg

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