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Understanding Argentina’s Coming Default

  • Daily July 30 Argentina flag
July 30, 2014

Tags Booms and BustsMonetary Theory

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At the time of this writing, Argentina is a few days away from formally defaulting on its debts.How could this happen three times in just twenty-eight years?

Following the 2001 default, Argentina offered a debt swap (a restructuring of debt) to its creditors in 2005. Many bondholders accepted the Argentine offer, but some of them did not. Those who did not accept the debt swap are called the “holdouts.” When Argentina started to pay the new bonds to those who entered the debt swap (the “holdins”), the holdouts took Argentina to court under New York law, the jurisdiction under which the Argentine debt has been issued. After the US Supreme Court refused to hear the Argentine case a few weeks ago, Judge Griesa’s ruling became final.

The ruling requires Argentina to pay 100 percent of its debt to the holdouts at the same time Argentina pays the restructured bonds to the “holdins.” Argentina is not allowed, under Griesa’s ruling, to pay some creditors but not others. The payment date was June 30. Because Argentina missed its payment, it is now under a 30-day grace period. If Argentina does not pay by the end of July it will, again, be formally in default.

This is a complex case that has produced different, if not opposite, interpretations by analysts and policy makers. Some of these interpretations, however, are not well-founded.

How Argentina Became a Bad Debtor

An understanding of the Argentine situation requires historical context.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Argentina implemented the Convertibility Law as a measure to restrain the central bank and put an end to the hyperinflation that took place in the late 1980s. This law set the exchange rate at one peso per US dollar and stated that the central bank could only issue pesos in fixed relation to the amount of US dollars that entered the country. The Convertibility Law was, then, more than just a fixed-exchange rate scheme. It was legislation that made the central bank a currency board where pesos were convertible to dollars at a “one to one” ratio. However, because the central bank had some flexibility to issue pesos with respect to the inflow of US dollars, it is better described as a “heterodox” rather than “orthodox,” currency board.

Still, under this scheme, Argentina could not monetize its deficit as it did in the 1980s under the government of Ricardo Alfonsín. It was the monetization of debt that produced the high inflation that ended in hyperinflation. Due to the Convertibility Law during the 1990s, Carlos Menem’s government could not finance the fiscal deficit with newly created money. So, rather than reduce the deficit, Menem changed the way it was financed from a money-issuance scheme to a foreign-debt scheme. The foreign debt was in US dollars and this allowed the central bank to issue the corresponding pesos.

The debt issued during the 1990s took place in an Argentina that had already defaulted on its debt six times since its independence from Spain in 1816 (arguably, one-third of Argentine history has taken place in a state of default), while Argentina also exhibited questionable institutional protection of contracts and property rights. With domestic savings destroyed after years of high inflation in the 1980s (and previous decades), Argentina had to turn to international funds to finance its deficit. And because of the lack of creditworthiness, Argentina had to “import” legal credibility by issuing its bonds under New York jurisdiction. Should there be a dispute with creditors, Argentina stated it would accept the ruling of New York courts.

Many opponents of the ruling today claim that Argentina’s creditors have conspired to take away Argentine sovereignty, but the responsibility lies with the Argentine government itself, which has established a long record of unreliability in paying its debts.

The Road to the Latest Default

These New York-issued bonds of the 1990s had two other important features besides being issued under New York legal jurisdiction. The incorporation of the paripassu clause and the absence of the collective action clause. The paripassu clause holds that Argentina agrees to treat all creditors on equal terms (especially regarding payments of coupons and capital). The collective action clause states that in the case of a debt restructuring, if a certain percentage of creditors accept the debt swap, then creditors who turn down the offer (the “holdouts”) automatically must accept the new bonds. However, when Argentina defaulted on its bonds at the end of 2001, it did so with bonds that included the paripassu clause but which did not require collective action by creditors.

Under the contract that Argentina itself offered to its creditors, which did not include the collective action clause, any creditor is entitled to receive 100 percent of the bonus even if 99.9 percent of the creditors decided to enter a debt swap. And this is precisely what happened with the 2001 default. When Argentina offered new bonds to its creditors following the default, the “holdouts” let Argentina know that under the contract of Argentine bonds, they still have the right to receive 100 percent of the bonds under “equality of conditions” (paripassu) with those who accepted the restructuring. That is, Argentina cannot pay the “holdins” without paying the “holdouts” according to the terms of the debt.

The governments of Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Kirchner, however, in another sign of their contempt for institutions, decided to ignore the holdouts to the point of erasing them as creditors in their official reports (one of the reasons for which the level of debt on GDP looks lower in official statistics than is truly the case).

It could be said that Judge Griesa had to do little more than read the contract that Argentina offered its creditors. In spite of this, much has been said in Argentina (and abroad) about how Judge Griesa’s ruling damages the legal security of sovereign bonds and debt restructuring.

The problem is not Judge Griesa’s ruling. The problem is that Argentina had decided to once again prefer deficits and unrestrained government spending to paying its obligations. Griesa’s ruling suggests that a default cannot be used as a political tool to ignore contracts at politician’s convenience. In fact, countries with emerging economies should thank Judge Griesa’s ruling since this allows them to borrow at lower rates given that many of these countries are either unable or unwilling to offer credible legal protection to their own creditors. A ruling favorable to Argentina’s government would have allowed a government to violate its own contracts, making it even harder for poor countries to access capital.

We can simplify the case to an analogy on a smaller scale. Try to explain to your bank that since it was you who squandered your earnings for more than a decade,you have the right to not pay the mortgage with which you purchased your home. When the bank takes you to court for not paying your mortgage, explain to the judge that you are a poor victim of evil money vultures and that you have the right to ignore creditors because you couldn’t be bothered with changing your unsustainable spending habits. When the judge rules against you, try to explain to the world in international newspapers how the decision of the judge is an injustice that endangers the international banking market (as the Argentine government has been doing recently). Try now to justify the position of the Argentine government.

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