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The Vultures’ victory


A recent decision by a United States appeals court threatens to upend global sovereign-debt markets. It may even lead to the US no longer being viewed as a good place to issue sovereign debt. At the very least, it renders non-viable all debt restructurings under the standard debt contracts. In the process, a basic principle of modern capitalism – that when debtors cannot pay back creditors, a fresh start is needed – has been overturned.


The trouble began a dozen years ago, when Argentina had no choice but to devalue its currency and default on its debt. Under the existing regime, the country had been on a rapid downward spiral of the kind that has now become familiar in Greece and elsewhere in Europe. Unemployment was soaring, and austerity, rather than restoring fiscal balance, simply exacerbated the economic downturn.


Devaluation and debt restructuring worked. In subsequent years, until the global financial crisis erupted in 2008, Argentina’s annual GDP growth was 8% or higher, one of the fastest rates in the world.


Even former creditors benefited from this rebound. In a highly innovative move, Argentina exchanged old debt for new debt – at about 30 cents on the dollar or a little more – plus a GDP-indexed bond. The more Argentina grew, the more it paid to its former creditors.


Argentina’s interests and those of its creditors were thus aligned: both wanted growth. It was the equivalent of a “Chapter 11” restructuring of American corporate debt, in which debt is swapped for equity, with bondholders becoming new shareholders.


Debt restructurings often entail conflicts among different claimants. That is why, for domestic debt disputes, countries have bankruptcy laws and courts. But there is no such mechanism to adjudicate international debt disputes.


Once upon a time, such contracts were enforced by armed intervention, as Mexico, Venezuela, Egypt, and a host of other countries learned at great cost in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. After the Argentine crisis, President George W. Bush’s administration vetoed proposals to create a mechanism for sovereign-debt restructuring. As a result, there is not even the pretense of attempting fair and efficient restructurings.


Poor countries are typically at a huge disadvantage in bargaining with big multinational lenders, which are usually backed by powerful home-country governments. Often, debtor countries are squeezed so hard for payment that they are bankrupt again after a few years.


Economists applauded Argentina’s attempt to avoid this outcome through a deep restructuring accompanied by the GDP-linked bonds. But a few “vulture” funds – most notoriously the hedge fund Elliott Management, headed by the billionaire Paul E. Singer – saw Argentina’s travails as an opportunity to make huge profits at the expense of the Argentine people. They bought the old bonds at a fraction of their face value, and then used litigation to try to force Argentina to pay 100 cents on the dollar.

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