Friday, April 01, 2016

How Hedge Funds are Blood-Funneling the Life Out of Argentina

NYTimes |  PERHAPS the most complex trial in history between a sovereign nation, Argentina, and its bondholders — including a group of United States-based hedge funds — officially came to an end yesterday when the Argentine Senate ratified a settlement.

The resolution was excellent news for a small group of well-connected investors, and terrible news for the rest of the world, especially countries that face their own debt crises in the future.
In late 2001, Argentina defaulted on $132 billion in loans during its disastrous depression. Gross domestic product dropped by 28 percent, 57.5 percent of Argentines were living in poverty, and the unemployment rate skyrocketed to above 20 percent, leading to riots and clashes that resulted in 39 deaths.

Unable to pay its creditors, Argentina restructured its debt in two rounds of negotiations. The package discounted the bonds by two-thirds but provided a mechanism for more payments when the country’s economy recovered, which it did. A vast majority of the bondholders — 93 percent — accepted the deal.

Among the small minority who refused the deal were investors who had bought many of their bonds at a huge discount, well after the country defaulted and even after the first round of restructuring. These kinds of investors have earned the name vulture funds by buying up distressed debt, then, often aided by lawyers and lobbyists, trying to force a settlement.

The companies involved included some of the best-known vulture funds, including NML Capital, a subsidiary of Elliott Management, a hedge fund co-led by Paul Singer, a major contributor to the Republican Party, as well as Aurelius Capital and Dart Management. NML, which had the largest claim in the Argentina case, was the lead litigant of a group of bondholders in New York federal courts.

For a long time, Argentina refused to pay the holdouts. The funds tried all sorts of ways to change the country’s position, including, at one point, having an iconic Argentine ship seized in Ghana.

Then a 2012 ruling by Judge Thomas Griesa of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York threw the game in the vulture funds’ favor, ruling that Argentina had to pay them back at full value, a cost to Argentina of $4.65 billion. NML, for example, would get a total return of 1,500 percent on its initial investment, according to our calculations, because of the cheap prices it paid for the debt and because of a “compensatory” interest rate of 9 percent under New York law.

The ruling, which became effective in 2014, did something else: Judge Griesa issued an injunction blocking Argentina from paying anything to the creditors who had accepted the deal until it had paid the vultures in full.

The judge gave the vultures the weapon they needed: Argentina had to either pay them off or renege on the default they had negotiated, ruining the country’s credit in the future and threatening its recovery.