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Argentine President Cristina Fernandez Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP/Press Association Images

Column The 'vulture fund' eyeing Argentina - and what it means for other indebted states

A New York court will today influence the economic future of Argentina in a case that will have wide-ranging ramifications for other indebted nations, writes Nessa Ní Chasaide.

DUBBED THE “sovereign debt court case of the century”, today a New York court will influence the economic future of Argentina – and that of other vulnerable, indebted nations.

Over 10 years ago, Argentina defaulted on its debt. Mired in economic and political crisis, compounded by the damaging policies of external lenders such as the IMF, Argentinian President Kirchner offered the state’s creditors about 25 cent in the dollar. Most creditors, seeing the writing on the wall, eventually took the deal.

‘Vulture funds’

However, some opportunistic creditors, coined ‘vulture funds, bought up this high- risk, distressed debt on the secondary market hoping to make a killing over time.

Cayman Islands based fund, NML Capital Ltd, a subsidiary of Elliot Associates, has been suing Argentina since as a route to reclaiming this type of debt, culminating its actions late last year in the dramatic seizing of national Argentine symbol, the Libertad naval ship, off the coast of Ghana. This was followed by a New York court ruling that the Argentine Government must pay US$1.3 billion to NML capital Ltd.

Today, the court will hear Argentina’s appeal.

The implications of the court ruling are enormous. For Argentina, if it loses its appeal, it will be legally obliged to pay NML Capital at the same time it pays its previously re-structured debts to other creditors. Furthermore, any bank that allows Argentina to repay one creditor without paying NML Capital would be in contempt of the ruling.

This could push Argentina back into a technical default and is being posited as a grim warning to other countries vulnerable to similar actions in the New York jurisdiction.

Opportunistic debt collection

Over recent years governments of some of the most impoverished countries in the world, including Zambia and the DRC in Africa, have been sued through such opportunistic debt collection. For example, in 2007, the Zambian Government, on the verge of writing off a debt owed to the Government of Romania, was forced to pay a British Virgin Islands registered fund, Donegal International, about US$ 15 million. This is roughly equivalent to Ireland’s annual Official Development Assistance (ODA) to Zambia, now lost forever to that speculative company.

Can increased powers be afforded to sovereign states in cases when private companies essentially gamble on people’s suffering and win? As sovereign states are legally viewed as simply another actor in the market, the responsibility of states to protect the rights of their citizens is currently entirely unaccounted for. As a result, indebted governments tend to weakly argue that they must “meet their obligations” to international financiers, even as they tread upon their people’s social and economic rights to do so.

Indeed, so entrenched and fear-inducing is this belief, that it has been applied incorrectly and unjustly by the Irish government as a reason to pay the illegitimate Anglo Promissory Notes (now in the form of bonds) – incorrect, given that the Anglo bonds are not being traded on international markets.

Debt audits

The United Nations has responded to this imbalanced situation by arguing that the concept of co-responsibility of lenders as well as borrowers, in debt crises must be accounted for. Campaigners on the ground are taking action into their own hands by introducing citizen debt audits in their countries to ascertain for themselves whether a debt has been extended, and accepted, with due diligence, as a route to measuring the impact of such debts on their lives, and to decide whether or not certain debts should be re-paid. Admirably, the Norwegian government has just become the first government to audit debts owed to it by African, Asian and Latin American nations in order to critically examine the due diligence, or otherwise, of its sovereign debt contracts.

In a welcome move, in 2012, laws to curtail vulture funds have been put in place in the UK by limiting the ability of vulture funds to sue some of the worlds most impoverished countries. Sadly, Argentinian campaigners do not have such legal support in the New York jurisdiction and are calling for international backing to censure any ruling that will push their country back into default. They are also calling for an independent debt audit to ascertain the legitimacy, or otherwise, of the facets of Argentina’s sovereign debt, much of which has its roots in international loans extended during the death and repression imposed under the Argentinian dictatorship 40 years ago.

The impact of debt on the lives of citizens

These important efforts place the impact of debt on the lives of people at the centre of the international debt debate and should be vigorously supported by our Minister for Finance Michael Noonan and Minister of State for Trade and Development Joe Costello.

Today, the people of Argentina face the possibility of another debt default due to financial speculation on their previous debt crisis. Debt and Development Coalition Ireland calls on NML Capital to leave Argentina alone. In turn, Argentinian campaigners are calling on people in highly indebted countries in Europe and Latin America alike, not to accept the status quo. They have responded, “don’t cry for Argentina – fight back”.

Nessa Ní Chasaide is coordinator of the Debt and Development Coalition Ireland, a campaigning coalition of organisations concerned about global economic justice. Her work focuses on local and global debt and tax justice. She tweets from @Debt_Ireland

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