Thursday, July 31, 2014

Argentina Default Imminent as Talks Collapse

Argentina Default Imminent as Talks Collapse
Setback Sends Argentine Shares Down in After-Hours Trading

Updated July 31, 2014 3:45 a.m. ET

Argentina faces default Wednesday for the second time in 13 years if it doesn't meet a deadline to make payments to a small group of bondholders. WSJ's Matthew Cowley explains Argentina's dispute with these creditors and the long-standing battle that stems from the country's default in 2001. (Photo: Getty Images)

Argentina teetered on the brink of its second default in 13 years after talks with bondholders collapsed late Wednesday.

The setback, after glimmers of hope in recent days that a last-minute agreement could be reached, immediately sent Argentine stocks plunging in after-hours trading.

Still, there remained the possibility that talks could resume and a deal could eventually be reached.

At a press conference after talks with a court-appointed mediator ended Wednesday, Argentine Economy Minister Axel Kicillof, who had led the country's delegation to New York, said "we won't sign an agreement that would compromise Argentina's future." A spokeswoman later said negotiations would continue, without giving a timetable.

"Default is not a mere 'technical' condition, but rather a real and painful event that will hurt real people," said Daniel Pollack, the mediator, in a statement late Wednesday. He added, "The full consequences of default are not predictable, but they certainly are not positive."

The development is the latest turn in a years long battle between Argentina and a small group of hedge funds that have demanded full payment for bonds the country defaulted on in 2001. Argentina has refused to pay, despite an order by a U.S. District Court judge requiring it to pay the hedge funds. The issue came to a head Wednesday as Argentina missed a deadline to make a payment it owed to other bondholders, because the court order had prevented such a move.

Mr. Pollack, who had been trying to broker a deal between the two sides, said the country would "imminently" be in default. Standard & Poor's Ratings Services had earlier Wednesday declared Argentina in default on some of its bonds.

A default would pressure an economy already mired in recession, potentially leading to higher inflation and a weaker currency. The breakdown of negotiations also complicates President Cristina Kirchner's efforts to stabilize the economy ahead of elections next year.

Wednesday marked the end of a 30-day grace period for Argentina to make a $539 million interest payment to the holders of $29 billion of the country's restructured bonds that was due on June 30. A ruling by U.S. District Judge Thomas Griesa prevents Argentina from paying its restructured bondholders until the hedge funds, also known as the holdout creditors, are compensated. The holdout creditors are owed about $1.5 billion.

Mr. Kicillof hinted on Wednesday that a private-sector solution was a possibility, apparently referring to a proposal by a group of Argentine banks to offer a $250 million guarantee to the holdouts. The idea would be to give the hedge funds a financial incentive to ask Judge Griesa to suspend his ruling until the end of the year and allow payment of holders of the other bonds.

A default could shave as much as one percentage point off growth this year, said Martin Redrado, former governor of Argentina's central bank. Analysts said it would also fuel inflation, which some economists already estimate to be close to 40%, and deepen the country's recession. It could roil the country's financial markets, ending a period of relative calm in the peso's exchange rate and Argentine bond prices.

The U.S.-traded shares of prominent Argentine financial services and energy firms were hit Wednesday in after-hours trading. Grupo Financiero Galicia SA was recently down 22%, while Banco Macro SA fell 13%. Electricity firm Pampa Energia SA fell 18%, and oil and gas producer YPF S's shares fell 7.7%.

The economic damage from a prolonged default could prove politically costly for Mrs. Kirchner, who is trying to stabilize a shaky economy and win influence for her party ahead of presidential and congressional elections in October 2015.

Even if Argentina reaches a deal with holdouts, it likely won't be enough on its own to right the country's finances, said Roberto Sifon-Arevalo, head of the Latin America sovereign group at S&P.

A deal "would definitely be a good thing. I don't think that it would automatically be a solution, or a dramatic game-changer," he said. "The macroeconomic environment in the country has deteriorated significantly. It's weak and getting weaker. This situation certainly does not help."

Timeline: Argentina vs. Bondholders

The immediate impact to debt markets outside Argentina is expected to be limited. Argentina has been relatively isolated from global financial markets since its default in 2001, and the country's legal battles with its creditors are unprecedented and have dragged on in U.S. courts for years. In 2001, the country's bonds made up 20% of J.P. Morgan Chase JPM & Co.'s widely followed emerging-market debt index. Now, they are only 1.3% of the index, signaling little chance that another default would rattle the global economy.

"I don't think this is going to have much repercussion outside of Argentina," said Clyde Wardle, a senior currency strategist with HSBC Holdings PLC.

However, the case has raised questions about the power of U.S. courts to adjudicate cases involving sovereign nations and their creditors.

The concerns stem from the controversial 2012 ruling made by Judge Griesa, who has presided over disputes between Argentina and its creditors for more than a decade. He ruled that Argentina isn't allowed to pay the bondholders who accepted the country's restructuring offers since its 2001 default, unless it also pays the holdouts, who have refused those offers.

Lawyers said the ruling marked the first time a U.S. judge had issued such an injunction on the so-called "pari passu" clause of bond contracts, which states that all bondholders must be treated equally.

The U.S. government has called Judge Griesa's ruling "impermissibly broad" and said it could undermine U.S. foreign relations. The International Monetary Fund warned that Judge Griesa's ruling could make it easier for a handful of creditors to disrupt other debt restructurings. "There is a cost to the world," IMF Chief Economist Olivier Blanchard said last week.

Analysts say Wednesday's developments will likely rock Argentine markets on Thursday, as the country's stocks and bonds had rallied this week on hopes that the two sides would reach a deal and avert default. Investors said they had been encouraged by marathon talks on Tuesday and Wednesday between Argentine officials and a court-appointed mediator, as well as a proposal by Argentine banks to pay the holdout creditors.

"The market reaction won't be positive," said Brian Joseph, head trader at local brokerage Puente. "There were big expectations of a deal. This isn't good news."

Protesters in Argentina hold a mock vulture as they demonstrate against holdout investors locked in a legal battle with the country. Reuters

There are many investors who have actually bet on an Argentine default through so-called credit default swaps, but it could be days before those investors find out whether they can collect on their bets. Decisions about CDS payouts are made by a panel convened by the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, a financial trade group. There are $20.7 billion of CDS outstanding on Argentine government debt, according to Depository Trust & Clearing Corp.

The idea of default isn't much of a concern for many Argentines, who have lived through much greater crises over the decades and are adept at adapting to economic setbacks.

"We talk about this as if it's something normal. I'm not losing any sleep over it," said Juan Chamale, 36, who works at a Kodak store in downtown Buenos Aires. "We're very used to this kind of thing and have learned to take it in stride."

Argentina's default in 2001 led to the country's worst economic slump since the Great Depression. At the time, it was the largest sovereign default in history and triggered dozens of lawsuits against Argentina by creditors around the world.

After years of contentious talks, the country persuaded approximately 93% of its bondholders to take heavily discounted restructured bonds in exchanges held in 2005 and 2010. But a small group of investors refused to take the new bonds, with many suing in U.S. courts for full repayment. These included hedge funds led by Elliott Management Corp.'s NML Capital Ltd. and Aurelius Capital Management Ltd.

U.S. courts had jurisdiction over these lawsuits because Argentina had agreed in some of its bond contracts to resolve any disputes under New York law.

After Argentina denounced several U.S. court rulings awarding judgments to creditors and consistently refused to pay the holdouts, Judge Griesa issued his unprecedented 2012 ruling that barred Argentina from paying its restructured bondholders until it pays the holdouts.

For the next two years, Argentina tried every legal avenue to appeal the decision. But the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Judge Griesa's ruling, and the U.S. Supreme Court in June declined to hear Argentina's appeal.

Meanwhile, the holdout hedge funds chased Argentine assets around the globe in an attempt to get paid. NML seized an Argentine navy training vessel in 2012 and this year tried to block the country from launching a pair of satellites. Other creditors attempted to seize the presidential plane in 2007.

—Ken Parks, Shane Romig, Dan Strumpf and Katy Burne contributed to this article.

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