The silly war on vulture funds

By Felix Salmon
May 7, 2009

I was on The World Today this morning, talking about vulture funds:

The bill they’re talking about is this one, which is very similar to the Stop Vulture Funds Act being pushed by Maxine Waters in the US. Essentially it says that if you lend money to a country you have the right to get your money back — but if you then sell that loan to someone else after it has gone into default, the person you sold it to does not have the right to be repaid in full, and instead can only be awarded the amount they originally paid for the debt, plus a small set interest rate.

In other words, the single greatest innovation in the history of debt capital markets — the idea that obligations can be traded, rather than just being held to maturity or litigated upon default — is destroyed at a stroke.

What’s more, the problem these bills are trying to solve is absolutely minuscule. Not only are vulture funds settling their debts for three cents on the dollar, but they more generally have had a very hard time indeed successfully collecting on court judgments around the world. That’s why litigation is a last resort for vultures: anybody who thinks that they buy up this debt with the intention of litigating for repayment in full simply doesn’t understand the business model.

The good news, however, is that neither the UK nor the US bill has any chance of making it into law: the governments in both countries, for all that they’re nominally left-wing, would never support either piece of legislation. This is basically theatre on the part of lawmakers, not a serious and thought-through attempt to rewrite the international financial architecture. If it were, maybe the lawmakers in question might have asked developing countries what they thought of this legislation. And they might well have been surprised at the answer, which is that countries want no part of any act which might hinder their access to capital or their equal-player status on the world stage.

Anti-vulture-fund legislation like this is paternalism of the worst kind: it might be well intentioned, but at heart it’s a bunch of ill-informed northerners telling impoverished southerners what’s good for them. If and when vulture funds ever become a real problem — which I doubt will ever happen — then I fully expect to see the afflicted countries coming up with their own suggested solutions. In the meantime, let’s not exacerbate the plight of those countries by cutting off whatever access to international capital that they currently enjoy.

Update: Sandrew has a very good comment.

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