There aren’t many institutions powerful enough to bring a sovereign nation to its knees. Most of those that are wield their power with great care; the rest are dangerous fundamentalists. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court placed itself -- and the rest of the U.S. federal judicial system -- squarely in the latter camp when it refused to accept an appeal by Argentina against a lower-court decision. The consequences are certain to be dreadful for Argentina. More broadly, the ruling will make it more difficult for countries to free themselves from the burden of over-indebtedness. It will be very bad for international capital markets. Oh -- and it will also diminish national sovereignty.
The case involved Argentina and a group of so-called vulture funds, led by the deep-pocketed and highly litigious hedge fund Elliott Associates, which was demanding repayment in full on old Argentine debt. Elliott had first come to broad public attention in 2000, when it brought -- and won -- a similar case against Peru. That unprecedented victory against a sovereign government, although worth a mere $90 million, so deeply shocked the international financial community that it prompted the International Monetary Fund to undertake a messy and protracted attempt to create a brand-new sovereign bankruptcy court. The Argentina case is much, much bigger -- Argentina owes Elliott over a billion dollars. The total amount that it owes “holdout creditors,” as the vulture funds are more formally known, is some $15 billion. Given that other holdout firms will immediately demand any terms awarded to Elliott, Argentina is not lying when it says that it simply can’t afford to do what the U.S. courts are demanding of it -- which is to pay all the holdouts in full.
Nor, of course, would it ever want to. Argentina defaulted on all of its foreign bonds in 2002, at the end of a depression that saw its economy shrink by 28 percent, its currency devalue enormously, and millions of its citizens lose their