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Locked In U.S. Hedge Fund Battle, Argentina Faces Default


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer. The nation of Argentina could default this week on billions of dollars of debt. It would be the second time Argentina has defaulted in less than 15 years. The Argentine government has been locked in a multiyear legal battle over whether it should be forced to repay two U.S. hedge funds that bought its bonds. A federal judge in New York has tried to resolve the dispute without success. To explain, we're joined now by NPR's Jim Zarroli. Jim, first of all, how much does Argentina owe these creditors?

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Well, this dispute goes back more than a decade to when Argentina defaulted on some of the bonds that it had sold. Now the government of Argentina was eventually able to reach a settlement with most of the bondholders, so they agreed to take less money. But there was this small group of holdouts who said no, we want to be paid in full. And Argentina has been in this epic court battle with these holdouts ever since. The judge has basically sided with the holdouts all along. He says Argentina has to pay them what they owe, which is about a billion and a half dollars at this point.

WERTHEIMER: So why not just pay a billion and a half and move on?

ZARROLI: Well, Argentina maintains that paying this money would end up being a lot more expensive than it seems. And that's because when it negotiated with its bondholders, it agreed to a contract. And the contract has a clause that basically says that all of the creditors have to be treated equally. In other words, if it pays some of the creditors all they're owed then all the other creditors, you know, the ones who have already agreed to take less, they can come back and say well, you have to pay us the same thing. And that would end up costing way more money than Argentina has at this point. Argentina has said to the judge, you know, we're willing to sit down and resolve this but first you have to free us from this clause. And the judge has refused to do that.

WERTHEIMER: So this has stretched on for years and years. Why has it been so difficult to come to an agreement?

ZARROLI: Yeah, it is pretty amazing. I mean, you know, in the international debt market, these kinds of disputes happen sometimes and, you know, they're almost always resolved somehow. The bonds get renegotiated. Everybody walks away, you know, not happy maybe but pretty satisfied. But this one has just been a legal nightmare. Argentina views these holdouts, these creditors as vultures that have swooped in to take advantage of the country's troubles. And the political rhetoric has been really fierce. Even this month, you know, as the clock has been ticking, the government has refused to sit down with the creditors and try to work out a solution. The judge appointed a mediator to try to bring everyone together. He's been meeting with them separately. But so far they have not met face-to-face. And the judge has expressed a lot of frustration.

WERTHEIMER: What does it mean to Argentina's economy if it does go into default on these bonds?

ZARROLI: Well, the most important thing is it will be frozen out of the debt market. It hasn't really been able to borrow since 2002. That's been OK because the economy has been pretty good for a while. But over the past few years, the economy has weekend. Inflation's pretty high, and the government needs to borrow again. And if it can't do that, it's going to make it harder for the government to pay for things then. It may have to take steps to shore up its currency. That means restricting imports, and that's going to hurt companies from the U.S. and other places that sell to Argentina. So this is going to have an impact, for sure.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Jim Zarroli. Jim, thank you.

ZARROLI: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.
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