It is easy to see moral irony in the arguments of those who support Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s government in the ongoing dispute against a group of so-called vulture funds, led by the highly litigious Elliot Associates. Anyone even slightly familiar with the corrupt shenanigans of Fernandez, her late husband — former president Nestor Kirchner — and their cronies over the last 11 years is entitled to roll their eyes at claims that the interests of the Argentine people motivate Fernandez’s government to resist the vulture funds’ attempt to get paid in full for bonds the country defaulted on in 2002 (the largest debt default the world had ever seen until then — surpassed only by Lehman Brothers in 2008).
Egregious as the recent past of the Kirchner administration is, what truly adds insult to injury is the Kirchners’ earlier history. During the mid 1970s, Fernandez and her husband established a law firm in Rio Gallegos, in the Patagonian province of Santa Cruz. The firm thrived during those years, especially right after a sharp devaluation of the peso in 1980 caused by the disastrous economic policies of the military junta ruling the country at the time. When inflation-indexed rates on mortgage loans soared to sky-high levels, forcing desperate debtors to sell their homes at fire sale prices, the Kirchners cashed in handsomely, enforcing evictions on behalf of several financial houses and banks.
The methods they used for this purpose could easily be classified as “vulturesque.” Lawyer Rafael Flores — a fellow Peronist who would become one of the Kirchners’ main detractors during the ’90s — took up the case of Mrs. Ana Victoria de Aaset, a distressed mortgage-holder who successfully sued the Kirchners for allegedly keeping Asaet’s promisory notes rather than shredding them after payment. When Flores ran onto Fernandez right ouside the courtroom and asked her why she and her husband were doing this, she famously answered: “We want to get into politics, and for getting into politics, we need some serious dough.” Tony Montana couldn’t have said it better.
Sadly, Fernandez’s domestic political opponents, who include most local mainstream libertarians, have pathetically sided with the vulture funds, engaging in one of the most outrageous exercises of false free-market rhetoric the country has seen ever since the Menem years.
Their arguments amount to nothing more than crass rehashes of the well-PR’d statements championed by Elliot’s Paul Singer and others at the hedge fund community. As Jim Armitage put it in a recent article at The Independent:
The vultures argue that, were it not for the threat of relentless and unflinching court room battles, tinpot dictators, kleptocrats and plain old irresponsible populist leaders have nothing to prevent them racking up huge debts, wasting (or stealing) the money, and then disappearing off into the distance.
The most outrageous fallacy in this line of reasoning is the conflation of the political class of a country with its citizenry at large. Whenever vultures succeed in collecting the full value on defaulted government bonds, the ones who end up paying are, obviously, the taxpayers, the general citizenry of a given country. The local politicians who borrowed the money in the name of the people, obtaining enormous personal financial gains in process, won’t contribute to paying those debts any more than the regular Joe who does real work for a living. How can anyone in their right minds think that will discipline the political class into fiscal frugality of any kind? How can anyone claiming to defend any minimally substantive notion of human freedom advocate for socializing the losses of creditors who lend to corrupt, unaccountable governments, effectively subjecting the common people to government-debt peonage on behalf of crony financial operators?
Actually, many “free-market,” pro-Elliot pundits are so eager to counter Fernandez’s government at any cost that they end up defending Judge Griesa’s bizarrely heterodox interpretation of the pari passu clause in sovereign bonds. As financial blogger Felix Salmon recently pointed out, the clause “is a piece of hoary financial boilerplate that means absolutely nothing in a sovereign context.”
The traditional interpretation of pari passu by market players in international financial transactions is that it prevents the borrower from incurring obligations to other creditors that rank legally senior to the debt instrument containing the clause. Outside the framework of typical corporate-bankrupcy proceedings, the notion that a pari passu clause implies that equally-ranking debt must be paid equally is an utter fallacy.
No one with a minimum of common sense and intellectual honesty should portray financial operators specialized in extracting rents through unscrupulous legal manipulation as if they were free-market players seeking to enforce fair contractual terms — especially not those who call themselves “libertarians.”