Argentina’s Secret Plan to Escape Default

By Sheelah Kolhatkar

“Default is not to pay,” Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner declared last week during a dramatic press conference in Buenos Aires. “Conditions for default are stated in the debt emission, in the contract, and a payment block is not in it.” She was referring to the fact that a Manhattan federal judge named Thomas Griesa issued an order blocking Bank of New York Mellon, the trustee that holds $539 million in funds Argentina deposited for a bond payment due by July 30, from distributing the money to holders of the notes until Argentina settles its dispute with a group of hedge funds. Because the payment was blocked, the country was declared to be in default on its debt, sending the markets into turmoil and triggering approximately $1 billion in credit-default swaps.

An examination of the terms of the bonds, however, suggests that Argentina may have outmaneuvered everyone. There’s a way for the country to escape default and still avoid settling with Paul Singer’s Elliott Management and other hedge funds. All Argentina has to do is drop a couple of checks in the mail.

Most bonds of this nature contain a provision saying that the debtor’s obligation to make a payment is fulfilled once it delivers the money to the trustee for the bondholders, which in this case is Bank of New York Mellon. Argentina has done that, so its argument, at least publicly, is that it’s up to the actual owners of the bonds to get their money from BNY Mellon. If a judge in New York is preventing that, it’s not Argentina’s problem.

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A Shadow of Mistrust Due to Argentina’s Falsified Inflation Statistics

Over the past fifty years, Argentina has often achieved the highest inflation rate in the world. Recently, there has evolved a severe disagreement between politicians and business executives regarding the publication of data and research of inflation levels.

Businesses (and researchers) want accurate reporting so that they can adjust their prices and forecasts accordingly. However, higher inflation numbers have severe economic repercussions for government, since there were commitments made to inflation adjust many government payments. In the budget, it makes a big difference whether the inflation rate is reported as 40 percent or as 8 percent.

In the country’s statistical office, starting in early 2007, the government replaced several statisticians, clerks, and field workers who collect consumer prices. Subsequently, starkly lower inflation figures began to be reported. Workers at the National Institute of Statistics protested Argentina’s miraculous declines in inflation and poverty rates. For example, the government numbers report an official poverty figure of 15.3 percent while the Catholic Church says it is near 40 percent.

Such discrepancies lead to controversy. Economists and political analysts say the allegations hurt the country’s credibility in terms of investments. In speeches, though, President De Kirchner and other officials have defended the country’s unorthodox economic policies, including high taxes on agricultural exports, heavy spending and energy subsidies .“Our different way of doing things has permitted growth and the creation of jobs,” Vice President Amado Boudou recently told reporters. “Argentines can be proud we did things our way.” Also, the government budget is less strained due to lower adjustment payments.

Who is right – the accuracy side, which is said to be particularly short term oriented, or the adjustment side, which claims there are other things than just numbers to worry about?

Sources:, accessed March 4, 2012; Juan Forero, “Fight over Argentina’s inflation rate pits government against private economists,” The Washington Post, October 31, 2011.