Debeaking the Vultures

NEW YORK – In the midst of the ongoing dispute between Argentina and the “vulture funds” that hold its bonds, a broad consensus has emerged concerning the need for sovereign-debt restructuring mechanisms (SDRMs). Otherwise, US Federal Judge Thomas P. Griesa’s ruling that Argentina must pay the vultures in full (after 93% of other bondholders agreed to a restructuring) will give free rein to opportunistic behaviors that sabotage future restructurings.

Most recently, the International Capital Market Association (ICMA) recommended new terms for government bonds. Though the ICMA’s proposal leaves unresolved the hundreds of billions of bonds written under the old terms, the new framework says in effect that Griesa’s interpretation was wrong, and recognizes that leaving it in place would make restructuring impossible.

The ICMA’s proposed contractual terms clarify the pari passu clause that was at the heart of Griesa’s muddle-headed ruling. The intent of the clause – a standard component of sovereign-bond contracts – was always to ensure that the issuing country treated identical bondholders identically. But it has always been recognized that senior creditors – for example, the International Monetary Fund – are treated differently.

Griesa did not seem to grasp the common understanding of the clause. After Argentina defaulted on its sovereign debt in 2001, vulture funds bought defaulted bonds in the secondary market at a fraction of their face value, and then sued for full payment. According to Griesa’s interpretation of pari passu, if Argentina paid the interest that it owed to creditors that accepted the restructuring, it had to pay the vultures in full – including all past interest and the principal.