What happens if Argentina defaults?

Argen

Argentina voiced hope Tuesday for a last minute solution to stave off a default on its debt in one day's time, but repeated its unwillingness to budge in negotiations with creditors. The poster, which depicts a U.S. and an Argentine flag, reads 'Yesterday Braden or Peron - Today Griesa or Cristina.

It’s looking increasingly likely that Argentina will default on some of its bonds.

How could that happen and what happens next? Here's what we know:

Argentina has defaulted before. After Argentina defaulted in 2001, it told its creditors: "We’ll give you 30 cents on the dollar: take it or leave it." Back then, 93 percent of those creditors took it and 7 percent left it. A tiny percentage of those holdouts  — who, incidentally, were not the original lenders, but rather funds that had purchased the distressed debt from the original creditors — sued.

They claimed they hadn't agreed to anything, telling Argentina that the terms of the contract (a term called “parity”) say 'if you pay those other guys, you have to pay us. And you have to pay us the whole amount on the dollar.' They won. Argentina now has to pay.

An Argentine default won’t cause a domino effect. Just like with people, for one country to catch another country’s economic bug, it has to be exposed to it.  

Stephen Kaplan, assistant professor of political science at George Washington University explains: “In Argentina’s case, they’ve been shut out of global capital markets for quite some time.”

It could still make things difficult for other countries trying to get out of debt. There’s no such thing as bankruptcy court in the world of sovereign debt. So there’s not an orderly system when countries can’t pay up. Many countries had been working on the assumption that if they got most of their creditors to say it's OK to be paid back less than they were owed, then the matter would be settled and they could move on. 

What the Argentine case means is that unless it’s spelled out in the contract, that assumption doesn’t work, and a minority creditor can squelch a deal.  

“It says to all investors, 'instead of settling after a country is facing financial crisis... hold out and [don't] allow a debt restructuring to take place,'” says Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA, a religious group that promotes international financial reform.

Argentina is damned if it defaults... Argentina has been trying hard recently to get back into the good graces of the international financial community and a default would dash those efforts.

As Henry Weisburg, a partner at law firm Shearman & Sterling who specializes in cross-border financial disputes, says “they have a large number of different kinds of bonds and instruments out there and virtually all of them are going to have cross default provisions.”

That means if the country defaults on one piece of debt, it defaults on another piece of debt, and those creditors can call in their loans. That results in a difficulty when Argentina wants to find money for financing trade and “in certain circumstances even commercial borrowers in Argentina will have a hard time raising money.” Lawyers for Argentina have suggested defaulting would allow them to restructure their debt in Europe or Argentina, and avoid the laws in the U.S. that made restructuring difficult in this situation.   

...but it's also damned if it doesn’t.  Argentina’s fear is that if it pays these creditors, it will encourage all the other holdout creditors to sue as well. 

“The UN Conference on Trade and Development noted that if Argentina paid these holdout creditors in full, it would essentially leave them open to another $135 billion in liabilities,” says LeCompte. “The entire Argentine reserve is less than $30 billion at this point.”

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.

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