The retail credit universe is dominated by the FICO score. A consumer with a low FICO score will pay higher interest rates or suffer rejected credit requests. Similarly, a nation’s borrowing power is governed by scores from rating agencies. Moody’s, Standard and Poor’s, and Fitch are major players. High ratings make it possible for governments to borrow at favorable rates, typically through the bond markets. The reverse is true for lower ratings.
Consumer vs. Sovereign Default
When an individual defaults on credit obligations, the consequences are usually severe. Consumers face repossession, foreclosure, legal action, and long-term impairment of their ability to access credit. The ramifications for defaulting sovereign nations are not so clear-cut. Argentina may well be the poster child for sovereign debt default, having reneged on its obligations, no fewer than eight times in its history.
The fact that Argentina has eight defaults under its belt, suggests the repercussions for sovereign default may be inadequate to deter it. While it is true that no sovereign state can prosper absent access to capital markets, Argentina has repeatedly succeeded in post default borrowing efforts. This fact is apparently not lost on Argentina, in default for the second time in a dozen years and its third default in the past three decades.
Who is to Blame?
Argentina points its finger at “vulture” hedge funds as the principal architect of its current default … but is this accusation accurate? Argentina pledged to accede to U.S. financial laws, but having lost its case in U.S. courts, is reneging on that pledge as well.
The argument could certainly be advanced that Argentinean investment was feckless on the part of hedge funds and others given its prior default record. This does not, however, excuse Argentina from its obligations.
The Pertinent Facts
Argentina’s December, 2001 default was the largest in history involving international bond obligations totaling more than $82 billion. Restructuring agreements were concluded with most creditors, who acquiesced to reductions of up to 70 percent of the actual debt due but, there were ‘holdouts’—notably hedge funds, seeking full repayment of the bonds they hold.
While Argentina has adhered to the repayment terms struck in 2005 and 2010, it has repaid nothing to the holdouts. The suit filed by hedge funds and other holdout creditors was adjudicated in their favor. Simply put, the courts concluded that the terms of the bond sale require that all bondholders be treated equally. Translation: Argentina cannot pay the restructured debt and not repay holdouts.
Lesson Learned … or Not
Sovereign debt repudiations clearly have inadequate deterrents. Brazil and Columbia have seven defaults under their collective belts and Venezuela leads Argentina with nine defaults. Standard and Poor’s documents 84 instances of sovereign default around the globe between 1975 and 2002. Nonetheless, these governments have continued to gain access to credit.
Hedge funds and other private investors would like to be perceived as victims when governments default but are they? A case could be made that these investors arguably facilitate bad behavior, as exhibited by Argentina and other sovereign nations having a track record of default, by making such investments. If these investors are indeed facilitators, then wouldn’t the sovereign nations be victimizers rather than victims?