We know that finance capital is powerful, but that a hedge fund can impound the navy of the world’s eighth largest country is nonetheless startling.
Financiers the world over have fumed over Argentina escaping their clutches a decade ago — the example of a country refusing to acknowledge the maximization of bank profits as the central organizing principle of civilization is too scary to contemplate — but most have made their peace. Accepting that something is better than nothing, at least for now, almost all of Argentina’s creditors accepted 30 percent of the face value of the country’s sovereign debt.
Much of that debt is odious, accumulated by Argentina’s military dictatorship as it killed, tortured, “disappeared” or forced into exile Argentines by the hundreds of thousands as it imposed the Pinochet/Chicago School economic model. The rest of the debt came courtesy of the the country’s neoliberal rulers following the end of military rule, as it followed International Monetary Fund instructions into a crisis that culminated with economic crisis at the end of 2001. When Néstor Kirchner became Argentina’s fifth president in two weeks, he put an end to austerity and defaulted on the debt, ultimately agreeing to pay 30 percent to those willing to negotiate a settlement but refusing to pay anything to holdouts.
Many of Argentina’s creditors are not the financial institutions that originally made the loans; much of the debt was sold to speculators. Two of those speculators, the hedge funds Elliott Capital Management and Aurelius Capital Management, are among the seven percent of creditors who refused to agree, instead demanding full payment of the face value of the debt that they bought for pennies on the dollar. The key speculator here is Paul Singer, the type of character for which the term “vulture capitalist” was coined. Mr. Singer’s hedge fund is Elliott Capital and one of the fund’s subsidiaries is NML Capital.
The eyes of a billionaire
To all appearances, the billionaire Mr. Singer is determined to squeeze every dollar out of every “investment,” and he has the means at his disposal to bring this about. Using the Internet, his NML Capital tracked a ship used as a training vessel for the Argentine Navy. Calculating its chances, NML Capital waited for the ship to dock in Ghana, then quickly went to a local court, where it successfully obtained an order impounding the ship. The ship remains stranded in Ghana’s main port, and the Argentine government had to resort to chartering a flight to bring most of the crew home; it couldn’t use an Argentine airplane under fear that the plane, too, would be impounded.
Mr. Singer has long used such tactics, according to a report in Forbes magazine, and he purposely waited for the ship to dock in Ghana because he believed it was the country among the ship’s ports of call that would most likely grant his wishes. Forbes reports that Elliott Capital had sought in 2007 to seize the Argentine presidential plane when it was scheduled for maintenance in the United States (the plan was foiled when Argentina was tipped off) and two years later plotted to seize Argentine assets at the Frankfurt Book Fair, forcing the government to withhold showing works of art.
That having the ship stranded in port might have negative effects on Ghana, a poor country, does not seem to have been of concern. The ship’s presence has greatly slowed down the ability of cargo ships to use the port, causing dozens of vessels to wait offshore in a lengthening queue, according to The Financial Times. Such delays are also costing the shipping companies and others considerable money.
But what could be more important than a speculator trading on other people’s misfortune scooping up windfall profits?
Buying (very) low, demanding (very) high
There is nothing out of character for Mr. Singer to be using such hardball tactics. In fact, his hedge fund’s strategy is to buy outstanding debt at a tiny fraction of its value and then demand to be paid in full. A report on him and the other billionaires with whom he plays, including David and Charles Koch, on the ThinkProgress blog reports:
“Singer, manager of a $17 billion hedge fund, earned the moniker ‘vulture capitalist’ for buying the debt of Third World countries for pennies on the dollar, then using his political and legal connections to extract massive judgements to force collection — even from nations suffering from starvation and violent conflicts. Singer and his partners have used such tactics in Panama, Ecuador, Poland, Cote d’Ivoire, Turkmenistan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In addition to squeezing impoverished countries with sovereign debt schemes, Singer speculates in the oil markets, a practice which can lead to gasoline price hikes.”
Among his other exploits, Mr. Singer is the chairman of the Manhattan Institute, an extreme Right “think tank” that specializes in promoting neoliberal ideology.
That affiliation is evidentially not a coincidence. Investigative journalist Greg Palast, writing for Truthout, provides some of the details of the speculator’s previous efforts to “collect” his debts:
“Singer’s modus operandi is to find some forgotten tiny debt owed by a very poor nation (Peru and Congo were on his menu). He waits for the United States and European taxpayers to forgive the poor nations’ debts, then waits a bit longer for offers of food aid, medicine and investment loans. Then Singer pounces, legally grabbing at every resource and all the money going to the desperate country. Trade stops, funds freeze and an entire economy is effectively held hostage.
Singer then demands aid-giving nations pay monstrous ransoms to let trade resume. … Singer demanded $400 million from the Congo for a debt he picked up for less than $10 million. If he doesn’t get his 4,000 percent profit, he can effectively starve the nation. I don’t mean that figuratively — I mean starve as in no food. In Congo-Brazzaville last year, one-fourth of all deaths of children under five were caused by malnutrition.”
The financier war on Argentina
The billionaire speculator has also been attempting to get many pounds of flesh out of Argentina courtesy of the U.S. federal court system. The latest in a series of thundering rulings by a senior U.S. district judge, Thomas Griesa, earlier this month ordered Argentina to pay US$1.3 billion to Elliott Capital Management and Aurelius Capital Management, the two main holdouts who refused to agree to the 30 percent deal with Argentina.
The Argentine government appealed to a higher court on November 25. That is a routine the government is already familiar with, after the same judge last year issued a ruling that the two hedge funds could seize Argentina’s deposits with the Federal Reserve. Yes, it has come to the point where even the world’s most powerful central bank can be seen as a mere piggy bank to be raided at will by financiers. Well, almost, because that ruling was too much even for the U.S. government — it joined an appeal to a higher court, which threw out the ruling on the basis of sovereign immunity.
The Federal Reserve holds money and gold owned by many of the world’s governments, and has an interest in maintaining a shield that protects those holdings from private seizure.
This was a matter of the principal of sovereignty — the U.S. doesn’t want its overseas assets seized, either — so let us hold off from celebrating the appeals court reversal too joyously. The various bilateral and multilateral “free trade” agreements that elevate corporate profit above all other human considerations, and the arbitration bodies such as the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes that improvise ever harsher rulings that become precedents for future cases, quietly lurk in the background. Not that long ago the idea that a regulation against pollution that threatens human health would be illegal because it hurts profits would have been bizarre. Yet it is now routine international trade law.
A billionaire speculator seizing a military vessel is bizarre; the billionaire’s tactics are sufficiently outlandish that, in this case, other financiers oppose his insistence on being paid in full if only because they are afraid they would not receive their own payments if Argentina has to pay him. President Cristina Fernández has repeatedly said there will be insufficient money available to continue to pay back the creditors who accepted the 30 percent deal nor for domestic social programs if full payments are made to the holdouts Elliott Capital and Aurelius Capital.
But if the holdout hedge funds’ tactics ultimately work, what is outlandish will become accepted. What will be seized next? A country’s food supply?
Financiers love to portray themselves as the lubricants of the modern economy, enabling capital to be distributed to where investment is needed. They can believe that if they wish, but there is no reason for the rest of us not to see financiers as what they are: parasites.