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Argentina’s Griesafault

Argentina's recent default was the work of one man: US federal judge Thomas Griesa, who prohibited the country from repaying its creditors until it repaid in full the 7% who refused a restructuring deal. Ultimately, however, it may be America that pays the steepest price.

NEW YORK – On July 30, Argentina’s creditors did not receive their semiannual payment on the bonds that were restructured after the country’s last default in 2001. Argentina had deposited $539 million in the Bank of New York Mellon a few days before. But the bank could not transfer the funds to the creditors: US federal judge Thomas Griesa had ordered that Argentina could not pay the creditors who had accepted its restructuring until it fully paid – including past interest – those who had rejected it.

It was the first time in history that a country was willing and able to pay its creditors, but was blocked by a judge from doing so. The media called it a default by Argentina, but the Twitter hashtag #Griesafault was much more accurate. Argentina has fulfilled its obligations to its citizens and to the creditors who accepted its restructuring. Griesa’s ruling, however, encourages usurious behavior, threatens the functioning of international financial markets, and defies a basic tenet of modern capitalism: insolvent debtors need a fresh start.

Sovereign defaults are common events with many causes. For Argentina, the path to its 2001 default started with the ballooning of its sovereign debt in the 1990s, which occurred alongside neoliberal “Washington Consensus” economic reforms that creditors believed would enrich the country. The experiment failed, and the country suffered a deep economic and social crisis, with a recession that lasted from 1998 to 2002. By the end, a record-high 57.5% of Argentinians were in poverty, and the unemployment rate skyrocketed to 20.8%.

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