October 11, 2012
The long-running dispute between Argentina and the “vulture funds” took a turn to the bizarre this week. “Vulture funds” buy up defaulted debt of developing countries for pennies on the dollar then use lawsuits and other means to attempt to force repayment of the full face value. Now, the vultures have become pirates, holding an Argentine naval ship for a $20 million ransom, Reuters reports:
A court in Ghana upheld as legal on Thursday the detention of an Argentine naval vessel seized under a court order by creditors pursuing the South American nation over its 2002 debt default.
Argentina declared a sovereign default a decade ago and now faces a raft of lawsuits in U.S. courts by bondholders seeking state asset freezes to recover the value of defaulted bonds.
The Libertad, a navy frigate with 200 crew, was detained in Ghana’s eastern port of Tema on October 2 under a court order sought by NML Capital Ltd, an affiliate of the investment firm Elliott Management.
Elliot Management is run by billionaire Paul Singer, who has a long history of this sort of action. Singer took both Peru and Congo to court, eventually receiving at least $140 million for debt which he paid just a fraction of that for. Even the former head of Goldman Sachs called the vulture funds’ investment strategy of targeting poor countries immoral: “I deplore what the vulture funds are doing,” said Former Treasury Secretary Paulson to the House Financial Services Committee in 2007.
The backstory: in 2001 Argentina defaulted on some $81 billion (plus interest) of debt as a result of a severe economic collapse. Argentina has since reached agreement with holders of some 95 percent of this debt. Yet some “vulture funds” have refused to make a deal, seeking instead to use legal recourse to try to recoup the debt’s “full value”. Of course, these funds bought the debt for extremely low prices – in the case of NML, Bloomberg reported that they bought at least $182 million in debt for just 20-30 cents on the dollar. Of 15 bondholders who hold at least $25 million, nine of them are based in the Cayman Islands, including NML.
Nevertheless, they have enlisted the help of the U.S. congress to fight Argentina. The American Task Force Argentina, made up of many of the vultures, has spent over $3 million since 2007 lobbying against Argentina, while Singer himself has given over $1 million to Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. A “Stop VULTURE Funds Act” introduced in the 111th Congress by Rep. Maxine Waters never made it off the ground, and was not even introduced this legislative cycle. Meanwhile, Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Chair Connie Mack (R-FL) is the main sponsor of a bill designed to get Argentina to pay NML nearly $2 billion. While it is highly unusual for a bill to focus on a single country, it is not a surprise given that NML is Mack’s largest contributor. Fortunately, FiveThirtyEight gives Mack a 3 percent chance of winning the race for Bill Nelson’s Senate seat.
If the U.S. government wants to root out pirates in Africa, it should start with our own.