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.