Argentina loses New York court case, owes vulture fund $1.3bn

Elliott Capital Management must now be paid at the same time Argentina pays its normal bondholders.

Fresh off its success in seizing a 100m-long tall ship owned by the Argentine navy from a Ghanaian port, Elliott Capital Management – the biggest and boldest of Argentina's "vulture funds" – has secured what looks like a final victory over the country in the New York courts. Argentina is now caught in the unenviable position of either paying back debt which it thought it had defaulted on a decade ago (and which Argentine president Cristina Kirchner has sworn not to do), or default on entirely new debt, which it has both the will and the funds to stay current on.

The problem Elliott has had is that Argentina, as a sovereign nation, can't be bound by any court judgement. Once it decides not to pay up on bonds – as it did when it defaulted on its debt in late 2001 – there is very little its creditors can do.

As a result, after the default, the value of the bonds plummeted well below face value. Most creditors were happy to swap the defaulted bonds for new, lower-value ones, which ensured they at least got something, but some – like Elliott – decided to hold out for the full payment.

Elliott had pursued a nuisance strategy – seizing Argentine assets which had ended up under other nations' jurisdiction, like the sailing ship ARA Libertad – but at the same time, the hedge fund, which now holds bonds with a face value of well over $1bn, has been attempting to force the country to pay up on the total amount.

Faced with an inability to directly affect Argentina's actions, the fund has instead gone after an organisation it whose hand it can force: the Bank of New York. The bank is responsible for issuing Argentina's present-day debt, issued since the default. The judgement Elliott has won forces BoNY to pay them with the money Argentina hands over to pay its bondholders.

This is legally problematic at two levels. In the specific case, it means that BoNY and Argentina's current bondholders are being penalised for a case which they have nothing to do with. BoNY in particular is caught in a bind – either it breaks its legal obligations to the court, or to its bondholders. And the bondholders are doubly screwed. If Argentina doesn't pay the holdouts – and Argentina has a thing about not paying holdouts – then money which they are legally owed, and which Argentina is legally trying to get to them, will instead go to Elliott (and presumably other holdouts who will follow a similar route in court).

And in general, it's a worrying precedent for future sovereigns hoping to restructure their debt. There is no bankruptcy procedure for nations, but it is still perfectly possible for their debt to pile up to such an extent that they – and possibly their creditors, in aggregate – would be better off restructuring it. That just got slightly more difficult. If the precedent stands, then any sovereign holding bonds administered through the US can expect to have to pay them off, in full, no matter what their finances are. (Greece, are you listening?)

All of which means that we can probably expect Argentina to take the only other route open to it: default – again – and offer new bonds at face value, but issued under Argentine law. Bondholders shouldn't lose too much money, but they will lose a lot of security (if, that is, they haven't already). Argentina's reputation, slowly rebuilding after the initial default, will take another hit. And Elliott – which holds a lot of insurance against an Argentine default – will actually make quite a lot of money. Which makes the whole thing seem rather counter-productive on Argentina's part.

The ARA Libertad, the ship seized in Ghana. 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.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.