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
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.