Distressed debt investors don’t have much credence as victims. These are, after all, hedge funds that buy up bonds in or near default, typically at a steep discount, in the hope they’ll be able to boost the value of the debt through the bankruptcy process or litigation in U.S. courts. Right now, for instance, distressed bond funds are preparing for battle over billions of dollars worth of Greek sovereign debt that they snatched up in anticipation of that country’s default in March. Distressed debt funds quite literally feed off the flesh of moribund companies and foreign economies, which is why they’re frequently called vulture funds. Vultures flanked by crafty lawyers aren’t entitled to a whole lot of sympathy.
But they earned some from me when I read the Justice Department’s new amicus brief, filed last week at the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in the long-running battle between The Republic of Argentina and NML Capital, Aurelius, and other holders of defaulted Argentine bonds. The brief suggests that the Justice Department believes the foreign policy objectives of the executive branch trump the obligations of a foreign sovereign to comply with U.S. court directives. That’s an argument the government clearly feels conflicted about, based on the brief. And its support of Argentina, at the expense of the power of the U.S. court system, could roil the vulture-dominated secondary market for distressed sovereign debt in the midst of the Eurozone crisis.
Usually, the United States wouldn’t get involved in a dispute over contract interpretation, which is at the heart of the cases at the 2nd Circuit. But the Justice Department believes Argentina’s appeal implicates a “cornerstone” foreign economic policy. Last December, U.S. District Judge Thomas Griesa of federal court in Manhattan issued a series of orders in various bondholder cases against Argentina concluding that under the standard contract provision known as pari passu (or “equal footing”), Argentina must pay the vulture funds in full before making payments to investors who agreed to participate in two rounds of restructurings that followed Argentina’s 2002 bond default. In February, Griesa issued injunctions based on those orders, which meant that Argentina could not make any payment to investors who were issued new debt in the 2005 and 2010 restructurings until it paid the holdouts everything it owes them.
Those injunctions, according to the Justice Department, are based on a misreading of pari passu precedent that endows holdout investors with too much power and interferes with the ability of sovereign nations to restructure their debt. The amicus brief, as well as Argentina’s appellate brief, argued that Griesa’s ruling offers investors little reason to participate in a foreign sovereign’s efforts to resolve its debt crisis — and every incentive to disrupt restructuring for their own selfish purposes:
The district court’s interpretation of the pari passu provision could enable a single creditor to thwart the implementation of an internationally supported restructuring plan, and thereby undermine the decades of effort the United States has expended to encourage a system of cooperative resolution of sovereign debt crises.