Sunday, November 25, 2012

Oh ! What a mess

Come on Argentina. How often do you ask everybody to cry for you ?  On Wednesday, a US District Court Judge detonated an atom bomb (metaphorically, thankfully), in the world of financial markets. As usual, Argentina was at the centre of it. Here is the story, with a little bit of history.

In 2001, Argentina defaulted on its sovereign debt - one of the rare instances of a major country doing so. A default essentially means that a country has no money on the due date to repay a loan it had taken and tells the creditors to fly a kite. The consequences of such an action are drastic - the country immediately becomes an international pariah in financial markets and nobody would lend to it anymore. That has been Argentina's lot for the last decade, and the situation Greece is desperately trying to avoid today.

When Argentina defaulted, most of its creditors got together and negotiated a "restructuring package" which meant that they would get something back at least - spread over a long period of time. It was a crappy deal for the creditors, but at least they would get something. They did this settlement twice- once in 2005 and again in 2010.

Two hedge funds Elliott Associates and Aurelius Capital, however chose not to negotiate and filed a case in the US courts asking for payment in full. The court gave its sentence last Wednesday, which is the metaphorical atom bomb I referred to. The judge ruled that Argentina will have to pay in full to these two hedge funds who sued, even in priority to the vast majority of creditors who settled ! The amount is some $1.3 bn.

This action is like poking a stick in a hornet's nest. All sorts of ramifications abound. First is the predictable response from Argentina, telling the US judge to go stuff himself, saying he cannot order a sovereign nation to do anything. But since the original debt was issued in the US and in dollars, there is some jurisdiction for US courts. However, short of sending in the army, how would the US enforce this decision ? It is hardly likely to start a war to satisfy two hedge funds.  It can resort to freezing Argentinian assets and the like, creating a messy situation.

The creditors who negotiated and settled are crying foul. They will have to wait for some 30 years and get a percentage of the amount, whereas these two funds are supposed to get their money in full immediately. They are suing to stay the decision giving these two funds priority. So anybody who negotiates in future is an idiot. Greece, which is trying to negotiate a restructuring package currently is quivering in the boots.

Then there is the question of a nation "starving" to raise money to pay "evil hedge funds". An angle that is sure to stoke the fires against wicked capitalists. Cristina Fernandez, the Argentinian President, who can effectively rabble rouse, is already singing this tune.

Argentina is appealing (interestingly while saying that the US courts should f@&* off at the same time !) . This will go all the way to the US Supreme Court. 

All this raises the issue of countries borrowing too much and not being in a position to pay the debt back. Very often the money borrowed is wasted away - in subsidies, doles, etc etc. Every country is guilty of this; just witness what the US is up to with debt at completely unsustainable levels - where are they spending the money they are borrowing ? - in fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in providing free health care to the elderly and the poor and doling out money to the unemployed. How will any of this yield a return so that the debt can be paid back ? Every country is simply borrowing more to pay back the original debt and keep doing exactly what it has been doing.

 Oh ! What a mess.