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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What Donald Trump could learn from Ronald Reagan

Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement.

“No one remembers who came in second.” That wisdom, frequently dispensed by the US presidential candidate Donald Trump, came back to haunt him this week. Trump’s loss in the Iowa Republican caucuses to the Texas senator Ted Cruz, barely beating Senator Marco Rubio of Florida for second place, was the first crack in a campaign that has defied all expectations.

It has been a campaign built on Trump’s celebrity. Over the past eight months, his broad name recognition, larger-than-life personality and media savvy have produced a theatrical candidacy that has transfixed even those he repels. The question now is whether that celebrity will be enough – whether a man so obsessed with being “Number One” can bounce back from defeat.

Iowa isn’t everything, after all. It didn’t back the eventual Republican nominee in 2008 or 2012. Nor, for that matter, in 1980, when another “celebrity” candidate was in the mix. That was the year Iowa picked George H W Bush over Ronald Reagan – the former actor whom seasoned journalists dismissed as much for his right-wing views as for his “B-movie” repertoire. But Reagan regrouped, romped to victory in the New Hampshire primary and rode a wave of popular support all the way to the White House.

Trump might hope to replicate that success and has made a point of pushing the Reagan analogy more generally. Yet it is a comparison that exposes Trump’s weaknesses and his strengths.

Both men were once Democrats who came later in life to the Republican Party, projecting toughness, certainty and unabashed patriotism. Trump has even adopted Reagan’s 1980 campaign promise to “make America great again”. Like Reagan, he has shown he can appeal to evangelicals despite question marks over his religious conviction and divorces. In his ability to deflect criticism, too, Trump has shown himself as adept as Reagan – if by defiance rather than by charm – and redefined what it means to be “Teflon” in the age of Twitter.

That defiance, however, points to a huge difference in tone between Reagan’s candidacy and Trump’s. Reagan’s vision was a positive, optimistic one, even as he castigated “big government” and the perceived decline of US power. Reagan’s America was meant to be “a city upon a hill” offering a shining example of liberty to the world – in rhetoric at least. Trump’s vision is of an America closed off from the world. His rhetoric invokes fear as often as it does freedom.

On a personal level, Reagan avoided the vituperative attacks that have been the hallmark of Trump’s campaign, even as he took on the then“establishment” of the Republican Party – a moderate, urban, east coast elite. In his first run for the nomination, in 1976, Reagan even challenged an incumbent Republican president, Gerald Ford, and came close to defeating him. But he mounted the challenge on policy grounds, advocating the so-called “Eleventh Commandment”: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.” Trump, as the TV debates between the Republican presidential candidates made clear, does not subscribe to the same precept.

More importantly, Reagan in 1976 and 1980 was the leader of a resurgent conservative movement, with deep wells of political experience. He had been president of the Screen Actors Guild in the late 1940s, waging a campaign to root out communist infiltrators. He had gone on to work for General Electric in the 1950s as a TV pitchman and after-dinner speaker, honing a business message that resonated beyond the “rubber chicken circuit”.

In 1964 he grabbed headlines with a televised speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater – a bright spot in Goldwater’s otherwise ignominious campaign. Two years later he was elected governor of California – serving for eight years as chief executive of the nation’s most populous state. He built a conservative record on welfare reform, law and order, and business regulation that he pushed on to the federal agenda when he ran for president.

All this is to say that Reagan’s candidacy was built on more than his celebrity. By contrast, Trump not only lacks experience as an elected official, he isn’t part of any organised political movement – which enhanced his “outsider” status, perhaps, but not his ground game. So far, he has run on opportunism, tapping in to popular frustration, channelled through a media megaphone.

In Iowa, this wasn’t enough. To win the nomination he will have to do much more to build his organisation. He will be hoping that in the primaries to come, voters do remember who came in second. 

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war