Argentine Senate to vote on settling big foreign debts

Argentine Senate to vote on settling big foreign debts
Argentine Senate to vote on settling big foreign debts

Buenos Aires (AFP) - Argentina's Senate prepared to vote Wednesday on a deal to repay disgruntled creditors, as the government seeks to end a 15-year US court battle over a catastrophic debt default.

The settlement deal is widely expected to clear its final legislative hurdle, after passing the lower house two weeks ago.

The debate ahead of the vote started on Wednesday morning and was expected to last late into the evening.

The bill paves the way for the government to pay billions of dollars to so-called "holdout" creditors that rejected Argentina's efforts to restructure the debt it defaulted on in 2001.

Conservative President Mauricio Macri's administration has called the deal bitter but necessary medicine to end the country's status as a pariah on international capital markets.

Argentina has effectively been locked out of international finance since its nearly $100 billion default, the largest in history at the time.

It managed to persuade some 93 percent of creditors to take losses of 60 to 70 percent on their bonds, but lost a lawsuit in US federal court to hedge funds demanding full payment.

After years of combative relations with the holdouts -- dubbed "vultures" by former president Cristina Kirchner (2007-2015) -- Argentina in December got a new president, Macri, who promised to settle the dispute.

His more conciliatory approach is part of his broader push to reverse the slowdown of Latin America's third biggest economy.

The pro-market president has spent a busy first four months undoing his leftist predecessors' protectionist legacy, devaluing the peso, scrapping import restrictions and slashing export taxes.

- 'Numbers say it all' -

The new bill allows the government to take out up to $12.5 billion in loans to settle with the two US hedge funds that sued it -- Aurelius Capital Management and billionaire speculator Paul Singer's NML Capital -- as well as other remaining holdouts.

Its passage in the lower chamber of deputies was a major victory for Macri, who had to win opposition votes in a Congress where his party lacks a majority.

He looks set to pull off a similar coup in the Senate.

Kirchner's party, the Front for Victory (FPV), has 42 of the 72 seats. But nearly half its senators have reportedly caved in to pressure from the governors of their provinces, who need loans to fund infrastructure projects.

The FPV's leader in the Senate, Miguel Angel Pichetto, said it was an "unjust and painful" deal.

But he added: "It is in Argentina's interests to try to reach a settlement."

Support for the deal is far from universal in the politically polarized country, however.

FPV Senator Maria Ester Lobato said she would vote against it.

"What happens in this chamber will have repercussions for the Argentine people, from the humblest to the most powerful," she told the house.

The former economy minister who presided over the 2005 debt restructuring, Roberto Lavagna, called it a "bad and extremely costly" bargain.

"We settled $90 billion in debt with $35 billion. Now they're settling less than $5 billion with $12.5 billion. The numbers say it all," he said.

Macri's administration says it is paying for the negligence of its predecessor, which scored political points attacking the "vultures" while letting the interest on the unsettled debt accumulate.

The president has warned that the alternative is hyperinflation and painful economic cuts.

If the Senate does remove the legal barriers to payment, the judge in the US case, Thomas Griesa, has agreed to lift an injunction that bars Argentina from borrowing the new money necessary to pay off the old claims.

Not all remaining holdouts have agreed to the deal. Analysts have estimated the full cost of settling all outstanding claims could total $15 billion.