On Monday, June 16th, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a stunningly complete victory for NML Capital, the holdout bondholder in the much-watched litigation arising out of Argentina’s 2001 bond defaults.
On the one hand, SCOTUS refused to hear Argentina’s appeal from the Second Circuit’s decision on what the issuing documents meant by the pari passu language. A decision not to decide has no precedential significance itself, but this of course leaves the Second Circuit’s decision, issued in October 2012, intact. Both as a matter of the law as it applies to this case, and as a matter of precedential significance for many similarly worded documents, the Second Circuit is the circuit that counts.
What is Left Standing?
The Second Circuit left standing, and now the Supreme Court has also left standing, a district court injunction against any payments that in any way rank holders of the restructured debt over the hold-outs.
What the Second Circuit said was that in the pari passu clause in the issuing documentation of these Fiscal Agency Agreement bonds (FAA), the sovereign “manifested an intention to protect bondholders from more than just formal subordination.” The language was there to protect them precisely from what Argentina has more recently tried to do, that is, to protect them from any arrangement by which “Argentina as payor [discriminates] against the FAA bonds in favor of other unsubordinated foreign bonds.”
On the same day (a few minutes later) SCOTUS also delivered a full-dress opinion on a related issue. The New York district court has interpreted the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 narrowly, so as to allow for discovery orders that assist NML in its search for Argentina assets in third countries where they may not be immune. Since Argentina owes NML more than $1.5 billion, it has plenty of incentive to continue this search.
The Supreme Court upheld that statutory construction.
The opinion wasn’t closely split. There was one dissent (Justice Ginsburg) and one recusal (Sotomayor). Still, the opinion for the other seven Justices, written by Justice Scalia, had the support of Justices who aren’t, to say the least, reliable allies of Scalia’s in the kind of ideologically driven splits that draw so much MSM attention. The 7-justice majority included Obama appointee Elena Kagan as well as Clinton appointee Stephen Breyer.
What Happens Next?
Argentina’s immediate reaction was that it will fight on, apparently by continuing to pay the favored creditors [Exchange Bondholders] and by continuing to exclude from these payments the FAA hold-outs. “What I cannot do as President is submit the country to such extortion,” says President Cristina Fernandez.
The legal fight is over, though. And I should add that part of what SCOTUS has let stand here is a district court order the copies of its pro-holdout injunction be provided to “all parties involved, directly or indirectly, in advising upon, preparing, processing, or facilitating any payment on the Exchange bond.” Argentina’s New York agents cannot now give out money to the Exchange bondholders without aiding and abetting the defiance of a court order.
Argentina must now either pay $907 million to the plaintiffs by the end of this month, or lose the ability to use U.S. financial intermediaries of any kind to pay the holders it has favored. The only possible means by which Argentina can resist the “blackmail” now and continue to pursue the policy it has in recent years is if it can pay the favored creditors without the involvement of any financial intermediary subject to U.S. court orders. This would prove tricky, especially with a tight schedule.
The Rest of the World
And of course even success there leaves Argentine open to the second of SCOTUS’ two punches, discovery and perhaps successful seizure of assets in third countries.
Leaving Argentine matters to the side: what will be the consequence of NML’s victory in this matter, and the now-regnant Second Circuit reading of the pari passu clause, on the market for EM nation bonds?
If, as at least some authoritative sources have indicated through this long fight, the pari passu language used in Argentina in the FAA followed “standard language included in substantially the same form in numerous credit documents” and if this decision changes how that language has been understood, then the markets will have to develop work-arounds: because from time to time sovereigns will default, and some sort of restructuring will have to occur.
How those work-arounds will work is beyond me. But then, given my poor record trying to predict the twists and turns of this saga that is perhaps for the best.