At the end of June, 2014, a New York’s Second District Judge ruled in favour of a hedge fund, NML Capital, and against the Republic of Argentina. The issue at stake was if a hedge fund that bought debt paper three years after a debt restructuring, had or not the right to collect on the same terms as the rest of creditors. The ruling was, yes it has. The problem is that in the original debt restructuring creditors received new instruments with a strong haircut that made the payback possible for Argentina, while the old instruments do not have any debt reduction. In this way, the profitability of the hedge funds in buying, in 2008, those old unwanted instruments of a debt rescheduled in 2005, and unpaid since 2001, will be of 1,600%. The way the hedge fund works is through buying, at a very heavy discount, the debt paper that was not included in the rescheduling, and then suing the Argentine Government for full payment of capital plus all the interest due. Interest comes free when debt paper is under impaired value credit category. Elliott Associates, major shareholder of NML Ltd., has made a reputation for cornering Governments in times of need and getting away with it. Panama was the first one, Congo, Peru, Argentina amongst others. Their argument is that these lawsuits discipline the debtors.
The international relevance of this sort of activity is that it brings to the fore the nature and presence of US law and rulings in international finance. Most US dollar-denominated debt is issued under US law and subject to the Southern district courts of New York City, those near Wall Street. This means that if Botswana borrows from Uganda in US dollars, it is almost certain those contracts will be written under NY law. The ramifications of this are that any legal action between those two countries will be subject to New York law, with the implication that New York law becomes world law and is applied worldwide, becoming a mechanism of coercion. The enforcement of payment in the ruling is executed through bank account or asset embargoes. For example, in 2012 the Argentine frigate Libertad was seized in a port in Ghana under orders from the New York judge. She was released after some months under a ruling from the UN International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea because she holds diplomatic immunity.
The last ruling includes non-dollar denominated instruments signed under British and other laws, with the argument that the payment due to one creditor is equally due to all. Ecuador, a debtor that defaulted and bought its debt at a 70% discount in 2008 decided in May 2014 to buy back 80% of the held out debt plus interest and got it over with. The huge return on investment for unpaid bondholders was less of a problem for Ecuador than the likelihood of having its accounts frozen after the new loans were disbursed, given it is a dollar denominated economy.
Vulture funds are hedge funds specialised in buying debt paper from problem debtors who have solved or are in the process of solving a default problem. They jump over their prey, the struggling country, purchase his debt instruments not included in the final debt restructuring arrangement at a small percentage of face value and sue the country for full payment including interest. If the country is undergoing duress, the fund is perfectly happy to subject her citizen’s to more hardship in exchange for a huge profit. This is possible because debt papers before 2001 did not have collective action clauses (CAC) yet, which means that if most creditors agreed to a debt workout solution, this included only those who joined voluntarily. With a CAC, if a large portion of the creditors are in favour of a workout, all instruments are included.
The lack of CAC was made evident when Elliott sued Peru in the 1990s and won the case in 2000. Peru had undergone the longest sovereign default in history, from 1984 to 1994, and came out with a debt restructuring that included a sharp haircut and new Brady bonds. Only four instruments were left at Swiss Bank Corp., the Peruvian manager of the Brady deal, belonging to Banco Popular, a bankrupt bank closed in 1992. These four instruments were sold by Swiss Bank, the agent for Peru’s debt, to Elliott not to Peru, after the Brady deal had been signed in what appeared to be a breach of contract on Swiss bank’s side. Elliott then sued Peru and apparently got a helping hand from a Peruvian lawyer who happened to be an official at the Ministry of Finance in 1994. There was much information passed in 1994 from the Ministry of Finance to the creditors leading to the trial of Finance Minister Camet, responsible for this operation. He died in 2013 serving prison term at home for this and other cases.
Elliott sued Peru for 100% of capital. It had paid 5% of the face price of the papers. On top it sued it for unpaid interest since 1984. The profitability on the Peruvian operation was 1,600%. Peru’s case was made using the Champerty Doctrine that says that no debt purchased with the sole purpose of harming a debtor should be taken into account by the US judiciary. Investors who become creditors through the purchase of debt instruments at a time when the debtor is undergoing hardship should not be taken into legal consideration. Nevertheless, the New York judge ruled against Peru. Amongst the group of investors was a former US ambassador to Peru. It remains unclear if the former ambassador was there on his own right or as a representative of the US State Department. The Peruvian Government lost the case and the appeal and as a result all Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) dollar transactions were blocked. After that, Elliott sued Peru in the Belgian courts that ruled in favour of Elliott and prevented the use of Brussels based Euroclear. It then proceeded to use Clearstream in Luxembourg, but knowing this would also be blocked. The argument of the Belgian Court was pari passu, all creditors should be treated equally.
The Argentine operation
NML associates, a subsidiary used by Elliott to do the Argentine operation, purchased 50 million dollars of debt paper that had not entered the restructuring scheme in 2005 and has sued for 1,500 million USD. The holders of those unrestructured papers sold them to NML in 2008 after the 2005 swap was arranged and before the 2010 swap was finalised. They then started the legal proceedings that have lasted six years until finally the judiciary ruled in favour of NML. The Argentine debt is held with creditors in many jurisdictions and not all are subject to US law, theoretically. Equally there are dollar and non-dollar denominated instruments and agent banks operating outside the US. The ruling however starts from a peculiar reading of the principle of pari passu, equal payments must be made to all creditors either if they restructured or if they did not, regardless of the law applied in their contract. The Trustee in charge of making the payments is Bank of New York who must abide by this ruling and comply with the law.
This ruling essentially takes away the incentive to restructure sovereign debts normally done on the basis of debt reductions. Worse, it places legal creditors who underwent the restructuring procedure on the same basis as highly speculative investors who operate on bad faith buying the debt after the swaps are finalised, in the spirit of Champerty. The gravest consequence is that a New York ruling is converted into a global ruling for any Argentine assets held by anyone anywhere. An explanation was given that the ruling is not meant to be a precedent which means the ruling was done as a specific punishment reminding the ruling of the Court of the Hague against Austria in 1931 when it decided it wanted to form a customs union with Germany. Then as now, if it is not a precedent, it is a punishment. The question is why.
Argentina’s position is that it is the right of a sovereign debtor to restructure its debt. It believes in the principle of non-intervention in foreign states and does not admit legal actions executed outside the natural range of the justice of the United States. In so doing it believes it is defending the property rights of the holders of Argentine bonds, especially those whose right is not governed by justice of the United States. But also of those who entered willingly and in good faith in the swap agreements of 2005 and 2010 and who this ruling has declared, for all purposes, invalid. Argentina is opening the fight by depositing the money at the Bank of New York so bondholders will collect. As the money belongs to the bondholders, they should be able to do so. This is the sense of a communique published in the international press in July, 2014, a week after the ruling was made public.
The vultures, being what they are, have a press campaign stating that Argentina does not want to pay any of its debt nor comply with US law. Argentina, on its side, has informed the clients it will pay through Euroclear which should protect them from the US international payment embargo, as book entry accounts in Euroclear enjoy unconditional immunity from attachment.
The international support given to Argentina is an expression of what is globally perceived as being an unjust ruling from a court that should not have extraterritorial functions over currencies and assets that are not US assets. The capture of a payment for Cuban cigars traded between Germany and Denmark under US law is an expression of the extraterritorial use of US law, which is unacceptable. If the international system is going to evolve it must go in the direction of international law and international courts and not in the direction of local law with a local court with global ramifications. This implies a new financial architecture which, following the lines of the BRICS in terms of financial reforms, could mean the creation of a clearing house and greater use of non-dollar means of payments in international transactions. The creation of an international financial law process in the United Nations sphere, similar to that being developed for international trade law (UNCITRAL), is vital. This should come together with the development of the concept of international tribunals for debt arbitration in order to obtain reasonable debt workouts of sovereign defaults following the principles of fair and transparent arbitration that should begin with a debt audit, keeping the Champerty principle in mind.
There are major flaws in the international financial architecture that allow the supreme court of the leading debtor country in the world to rule over the lives of millions of people in another land in an unjust, unfair and non-transparent manner. The ruling affects the position of other bondholders in non-dollar denominated instruments issued under other legal domains and opens the possibility of embargoes worldwide. It also opens up the possibility of disavowing the debt to international bondholders, following the same logic in reverse.
The practice of extorting money from troubled nations in favour of a minuscule group of investors who purchase debt paper after debt negotiations with the rightful creditors are finished, with the sole purpose of extorting an unfair profit from it, is sanctioned by US law. This is called the Champerty Doctrine. This sort of practice was outlawed in New York by Judiciary Law §489 http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/nycode/JUD/15/489#sthash.TroVCUs0.dpuf. The rulings from the New York courts, however, seem to favour the vultures and the application of the rulings worldwide has dire consequences on the debtor.
The lesson from the NML-Argentina case is that non-OECD countries in the future should not issue debt instruments in US dollars nor be subject to New York law and courts, given the risk expressed above. Given the world power structure change, BRICS should continue to develop a new international financial architecture. International trade should equally not be settled in US dollars and a new non-OECD international clearing house should be started to prevent harassments from dubious US rulings. International capital is not going to give up its power to extort wealth from distressed countries.
Newcastle and Fortaleza, 15 July, 2014.
– Oscar Ugarteche, Peruvian economist, is the Coordinador del Observatorio Económico de América Latina (OBELA), Instituto de Investigaciones Económicas de la UNAM, México – www.obela.org. Member of SNI/Conacyt and president of ALAI www.alainet.org
 “Ecuador Sells $2 Billion in to Bond Market,” Bloomberg, 17 June, 2014, at http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-06-17/ecuador-plans-bond-market-return-today-five-years-after-default.html
 “Argentina’s Woes don’t Chill Ecuador’s New York Bond Sales”, Bloomberg, June 24, 2014 at http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-06-24/argentina-s-chilling-effect-on-new-york-debunked-by-ecuador-sale.html
 Congreso del Perú. Comisión Investigadora de la Corrupción. Caso Elliott. Junio, 2003. Fallo judicial. http://www.congreso.gob.pe/historico/ciccor/anexos/CASO%20ELLIOT%20ASSOCIATES%20LLP%20TOMO%20II.pdf
 Rodrigo Olivares-Caminal, “The Pari Passu Interpretation in the Elliott Case. A Brilliant Strategy but an awful (mid long term) outcome”, Hoftsra Law Review, 2011, Vol. 40, pp. 39-63.
Conversations with various Argentine officials over the February to June 2014 period.
 “Don’t worry about an Elliott vs Argentina precedent”, January 11, 2013, http://blogs.reuters.com/felix-salmon/2013/01/11/dont-worry-about-an-elliott-vs-argentina-precedent/
 “US snubs out legal cigar transaction.” Copenhagen Post, February 27, 2012. http://cphpost.dk/news/us-snubs-out-legal-cigar-transaction.898.html