Argentina wins ship, loses IMF

The economic situation in the nation is concerning.

The saga of the Argentine ship, the ARA Libertad, seized by a US hedge fund looks to have come to an end, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea in Hamburg has ruled that it should be released back to the country. As we wrote when it was originally seized:

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.

Elliott had been waiting for the ship to enter a port in which it would have a chance to enforce the legal judgements it had been awarded in US and UK courts; but it now seems that the Law of the Sea trumps Elliott's desire that other sovereign nations act as bailiffs for it.

There is a fair amount of sympathy internationally for Argentina; although it defaulted on its debt a decade ago, the "holdout" creditors like Elliott largely consist of investors who bought the debt after the default, and have been hindering the nation's attempts to become a responsible debtor ever since.

The Jubilee Debt Campaign, for instance, is firmly on Argentina's side. Its director, Nick Dearden, says:

We are delighted that Argentina has won this case. It is a disgrace that a group of speculators can seize the property of a sovereign nation in this way and points to the need for a fundamental change in the international debt system. Hopefully the ARA Libertad will now be promptly released.

Argentina is still facing a case in the United States in which the supposed 'rights' of these vulture funds will be put far ahead the needs and aspirations of Argentina's people. We must stop these funds profiteering from economic crises, wherever it takes place. If we don't, then what is happening to Argentina today will be happening to Greece and other European countries in years to come.

Even while past defaults continue to haunt Argentina, its current economic situation isn't much better. The country has failed to meet a deadline set by the IMF over the fact that its official measure of inflation is woefully inaccurate. Official statistics show inflation of around 10 per cent, but the actual rate is more likely to be about 25 per cent. Indeed, Argentina clamps down so much on reporting the true state of its economic situation that there are even suggestions that it has forced McDonalds to discount the Big Mac in order to skew the Economist's famous Big Mac index.

Artificially depressing the reported rate of inflation doesn't just make the country look better. It also means that any inflation linked bonds – and it issued many during its debt restructuring in 2002 –  won't be as expensive to pay off.

Of course, that may be the least of the problems Argentina's creditors have. Although the country has won a stay against Elliott in the New York courts, there is every chance that it may still be forced to choose between paying Elliott and not paying its current creditors. And if it comes to that, it's clear which way Argentina will go.

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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.