US hedge fund seizes Argentine naval ship

The ARA Libertad is now the property of Elliott Capital Management.

An American hedge fund has seized a ship owned by the Argentine navy from a Ghanaian port, as part of an attempt to collect on bonds purchased after Buenos Aires defaulted in 2001.

The fund, Elliott Capital Management, has been engaged in a long-running legal battle with the Argentine government. It specialises in what is euphemistically termed "distressed debt" – it buys up bonds held by countries which are extremely likely to default, or which have already defaulted. As a result, it gets them for a pittance, around one fifth of face value.

The strategy from there is to refuse to accept the default. If it does not voluntarily enter into any debt-swaps, then the company can continue to claim it is rightfully owed the full amount on the bonds. If, eventually, it gets paid, a massive profit has been earned.

This tactic has led to Elliot, and other funds which operate in a similar manner, being dubbed a "vulture fund", profiting from dead or dying economies. The firm itself insists it only takes action against countries that can afford to pay, but choose not to.

The decade-long fight to recover the face value of the Argentine bonds has been carried out on a number of battlefields, from the US Courts to the World Bank (£), but the latest turn is the most nautical of them all.

The seizure, of a 100m-long tall ship staffed by 200 sailors, appears to have been planned for some time by Elliott. The FT reports (£):

Elliott had been waiting for the ship to stop in a port where it would have a chance to enforce legal judgments previously awarded by UK and US courts. The hedge fund declined to comment. . .

US and UK courts have awarded $1.6bn in claims in [Elliott's] favour, but Argentina has taken a tough line on lingering holdouts, saying there will be no further offers.

If a US court ruling from February 23 is upheld on appeal, Argentina must pay interest to Elliott before making any payment to holders of bonds issued in the 2005 and 2010 swaps. An appeals ruling has not yet been issued.

The Libertad, which Elliott expects to be awarded ownership of, has been estimated in value at between $10m and $15m.

The vessel, a tall ship used by the Argentine Navy to train sailors and a former holder of the world speed record for a transatlantic crossing by sail, was on a graduation tour. It is free to leave the Ghanaian port of Tema if Buenos Aires posts a bond with the court, which Elliott would then also seek to recover.

In the long-run, Elliott will still rely on winning court cases to pressure the Argentine government into paying the outstanding loan in cash, rather than boats.

The ARA Libertad in better days. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

How austere will Philip Hammond be?

The Chancellor must choose between softening or abandoning George Osborne's approach in his Autumn Statement. 

After becoming Chancellor, Philip Hammond was swift to confirm that George Osborne's budget surplus target would be abandoned. The move was hailed by some as the beginning of a new era of fiscal policy - but it was more modest than it appeared. Rather than a statement of principle, the abandonment of the 2019-20 target was merely an acceptance of reality. In the absence of additional spending cuts or tax rises, it would inevitably be missed (as Osborne himself recognised following the EU referendum). The decision did not represent, as some suggested, "the end of austerity".

Ahead of his first Autumn Statement on 23 November, the defining choice facing Hammond is whether to make a more radical break. As a new Resolution Foundation report notes, the Chancellor could either delay the surplus target (the conservative option) or embrace an alternative goal. Were he to seek a current budget suplus, rather than an overall one (as Labour pledged at the last general election), Hammond would avoid the need for further austerity and give himself up to £17bn of headroom. This would allow him to borrow for investment and to provide support for the "just managing" families (as Theresa May calls them) who will be squeezed by the continuing benefits freeze.

Alternatively, should Hammond merely delay Osborne's surplus target by a year (to 2020-21), he would be forced to impose an additional £9bn of tax rises or spending cuts. Were he to reject any further fiscal tightening, a surplus would not be achieved until 2023-24 - too late to be politically relevant. 

The most logical option, as the Resolution Foundation concludes, is for Hammond to target a current surplus. But since entering office, both he and May have emphasised their continuing commitment to fiscal conservatism ("He talks about austerity – I call it living within our means," the latter told Jeremy Corbyn at her first PMQs). For Hammond to abandon the goal of the UK's first budget surplus since 2001-02 would be a defining moment. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.