Argentina accuses US of judicial malpractice for triggering needless default
Country threatens to take US to The Hague after defaulting on its debts for the second time in 12 years
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
7:56PM BST 31 Jul 2014
Argentina has threatened to take the US to the International Court of Justice for judicial malpractice, accusing the country of gross incompetence for allowing two small hedge funds to push the Argentine state into default, regardless of the mayhem caused for other creditors and the damage to ordinary people.
The bitter attack came after a New York court prevented Argentina paying $539m to its creditors even though the Peronist government of Cristina Kirchner wants to do so, in the latest bizarre development in the country’s long struggle to regain access to global capital markets.
Judge Thomas Griesa said Argentina must first pay $1.5bn in arrears to “hold-out” investors who never accepted a restructuring deal following Argentina’s last default 12 years ago, even though many scooped up the bonds for a fraction of their face value during the crisis.
Standard & Poor’s immediately declared the country to be in “selective default” after a last-minute compromise collapsed and the deadline passed on Wednesday night. Fears of a chain reaction set off panic in Buenos Aires, where the Merval index of stocks fell 7pc and leading banks plunged 12pc. Other markets suffered, too, with America's Dow Jones Industrial Average down 1.6pc in late trading. All major European markets fell, too.
“To say that Argentina is in technical default is a ridiculous hoax,” said Jorge Capitanich, Argentina’s cabinet chief, accusing Judge Griesa of acting as an “agent” of speculative funds. “There’s been mala praxis here by the US justice system, for which all three branches of the government are responsible. Argentina has tried to negotiate in good faith,” he said.
Mr Capitanich said Argentina is considering calling for a debate at the United Nations and launching an appeal at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. “We can’t have a global financial system that lets a miniscule group of funds undermine the process of debt restructuring,” he said.
The default will almost certainly push the country deeper into recession but is nothing like the traumatic events of 2000-2002 when Argentina’s GDP contracted by 11pc. Police lost control of the streets and president Fernando de la Rua had to be rescued from the roof of his mansion, Casa Rosada, in an air force helicopter. The country then defied the world, imposing a 70pc haircut on bondholders in the biggest debt repudiation in history.
This time Argentina is widely seen as the victim of sharp practice. “This has been forced upon Argentina by predatory speculators. Paying the vulture funds would be disastrous, making it harder for countries across the world to resolve future debt crises,” said Sarah-Jayne Clifton, from the Jubilee Debt Campaign.
Axel Kicillof, the economy minister, said Argentina has been paying interest willingly to 92pc of bondholders who accepted deals to restructure the country’s debt in 2005 and 2010, but could not settle with “vulture funds” without setting off an avalanche of claims that could cost the country more than $100bn.
So-called RUFO (rights upon future offers) clauses in the restructured bond stipulated that these bondholders must be offered the same terms as the hold-outs, though some have already said they would waive their rights to help break the deadlock. The hold-out funds NML Capital and Aurelius Capital Management say they offered a compromise through a court-appointed mediator but Argentina refused to give any ground.
In a sign of how Baroque this saga has become, Argentina actually tried to wire the payment to US banks in New York but the money was returned in order to comply with a court order, leaving it unclear whether this will trigger credit default swaps on Argentina’s debt worth $1bn. The Argentine press said the government may pay the interest into an escrow account to maintain the goodwill of the main bondholders.
Neil Shearing, from Capital Economics, said the impasse is likely to last months, with Argentina stuck in limbo until these RUFO clauses expire at the end of the year. “The longer the dispute goes on, the greater the economic damage. Our forecast is for GDP to contract 1pc this year,” he said.
The interminable drama is a reminder of how difficult it can be for a country to regain its footing in financial markets if it breaks the taboo and carries out a unilateral default outside the auspices of the International Monetary Fund.
Countries that turn to the IMF usually recover trust quickly. Uruguay was able to borrow again within a year after defaulting in 2003 because it was seen to have behaved honourably, even heroically. Argentina is still shut out of global capital markets 12 years later.
Although Argentina recovered during the global commodity boom – crucially after breaking free of its deflationary dollar peg – it has been left far behind by well-managed states like Chile. It has never been able to develop its shale industry because it cannot borrow abroad, and remains stuck in a low-growth trap.
The peso was devalued by 20pc in January. Foreign reserves have fallen to three months import cover, money is leaking out in capital flight and the current deficit is nearly 3pc of GDP. The economy is now in the grip of old-style Latin American stagflation, with GDP contracting even as prices rise by 2pc a month.
For the country that was one of the five richest nations in the world in 1900 and once seemed like Australia’s economic twin, the lurch from crisis to crisis since the 1940s is a textbook study of bad government.