Argentina bond pay-off 'a lesson for Europe'

Argentina bond pay-off 'a lesson for Europe'

Argentina's president celebrated the final US$2.3bn (€1.9bn) payment on a bond given to people whose savings were confiscated a decade ago, calling it a lesson for European countries mired in foreign debt.

The nation's economic disaster left thousands with a grim choice after the government seized their dollar-denominated deposits to stop bank runs in 2002.

They could switch to devalued pesos and regain access to what was left of their savings, or accept a piece of paper promising to repay the money in dollars over the next 10 years.

Few had any faith in the government's promises back then. Argentina had just defaulted on more than US$100bn (€81.33bn) in foreign debt, banks were shut, the economy was in ruins and streets were filled with pot-banging protesters whose chants of "throw them all out" would send five presidents packing.

But now Argentina has mostly paid up, making good on 92.4% of that defaulted debt so far, including US$19.6bn (€15.94bn) over the years to cancel the Boden 2012 bond.

Most of the hard-luck account-holders later sold the bonds at a loss, but as the government makes its last US$2.3bn (€1.87bn) payment today, the few stalwarts who kept the faith have been made whole, while earning a modest 28% profit over the years.

"It was good business" for anyone who got the bonds early and held them, said Jorge Oteiza, a bond trader with Banco Comafi in Argentina. "To have the same buying power you had back then isn't bad."

President Cristina Fernandez praised her government for meeting its commitments and blamed multi-national financial institutions for the debt crises that afflicted Argentina back then, and threaten Europe today.

"This is the money that the banks should have returned to the Argentine citizens," she said during a national address from the Buenos Aires stock exchange.

Showing charts and rattling off numbers, she argued that her government had shown the world how to emerge from default without imposing austerity measures, growing its economy and strengthening the social safety net.

This debt relief "has given us an immense independence from the activity of the market," she said to applause from the hundreds of guests she had invited on to the exchange floor.

Argentina's foreign-currency debt has dropped from a daunting 166% of GDP at the end of 2002 to a more manageable 42% of GDP at the end of 2011, said Ramiro Castineira of the Econometrica consulting firm.

"If before it was a burden to shoulder, now it's just a handbag. It doesn't restrict the economy as it did in the past," he said.

However, the debt has grown in nominal terms during the same period, from US$137bn (€111.4bn) to US$179bn (€145.5bn).

Many economists suggest the official story is misleading at best, since the government has refused to pay billions of dollars in other bad debts while borrowing freely within Argentina, taking money from pension funds, provinces, state-owned banks and the central reserve to stimulate the economy and reduce its foreign debt exposure.

In her determination to make Argentina financially independent, critics say Ms Fernandez has only shifted the debt burden on to her citizens, imposing terms that could stunt the country's future growth. For example, the government promised to pay negative 0.25% interest over 10 years for the US$27.9bn (€22.6bn) it took from the treasury for debt relief, the central bank said.

Economy minister Hernan Lorenzino proudly described the Argentine recipe in a column published by Telam, the government news agency: Spurn the requirements of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Strong-arm the so-called "vulture funds" into accepting lower returns on their risky bets.

Nationalise private pension plans, the airline and now the YPF oil company, putting their assets to use creating jobs. And tap central bank reserves to pay down international debts.

Frozen out of international markets as a consequence of the 2002 default, this government made breaking their rules a point of pride, Mr Lorenzino suggested.

"At first, they called us heretics and the international community turned its back on us," he said. But "this government makes policies today without conceding to international pressure, thinking first of those on the inside, and later on those outside".

Mr Lorenzino has said the government will not take on more international debts. Not that it could - today's pay-off still does not resolve nearly US$7.5bn (€6.1bn) it owes the US and other Paris Club nations, or the US$11.2bn (€9.1bn) claimed in US courts by bond holdouts.

Argentina also owes millions in court judgments to US companies and Spain's Repsol Group wants US$10.5bn (€8.5bn) for its shares in YPF that Ms Fernandez expropriated this year.

Many of these investors would try to seize any newly-borrowed money before it reaches Buenos Aires.

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