Today, the U.S. Supreme Court inflicted a major blow to Argentina in its decade-long legal struggle with some of its creditors since it defaulted on its debt in 2001—the largest sovereign default in history.
While in 2005 and 2010 most of Argentina’s creditors settled to swap their old bonds with heavily discounted new bonds, a group of holdout creditors challenged Buenos Aires in the courts. In October 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit sided with plaintiffs to rule that Argentina must treat all its creditors equally and pay owners of defaulted bonds that were issued under New York law. Today, SCOTUS rejected Argentina’s appeal to that ruling. Buenos Aires now faces three options:
- Comply with the ruling and pay the holdout creditors the $1.33 billion it owes them. Argentina can afford this. According to the most recent estimates (June 6), the country has $28.6 billions in Central Bank reserves. Paying the holdouts would send a strong signal that Argentina is willing to play by the rules and honor its debts. However, the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has made a political crusade out of its struggle against the holdouts (whom she calls “vultures”). Unfortunately, most voices in the opposition share her distaste for paying the holdouts.
- Ignore the ruling. If it does so, Argentina will be legally prevented from paying the other 93% of creditors that agreed to the previous bond swaps of 2005 and 2010 because the ruling requires Argentina to pay holdouts along with those who accepted the swaps. If this happens, Argentina would enter into a technical default. The economic consequences are uncertain. The central government is already mostly shunned out of international markets. But Argentine provinces and businesses could face a more difficult time servicing their debts.
- In an effort to avoid a technical default, Argentina could offer the bondholders who agreed to the 2005 and 2010 debt swaps new bonds issued under Argentina’s jurisdiction. Thus, the bondholders would face a terrible choice: either they stick to their U.S.-issued bonds and risk an almost certain default, or accept Argentina’s offer of new bonds issued under the “protection” of its shaky legal and political institutions. The chants of “Argentina, Argentina!” in the chambers of Congress in 2001 when the country opted for defaulting should be in the bondholders’ minds when considering this option.
Clearly, the best option for Argentina’s long-term economic prosperity is the first one. But it requires the country’s political class to swallow its pride and agree to play by the rules. That would be a first in a very long time.