With Default 23 Days Away, A Little Clause Could Cost Argentina Big

After missing a June 30 deadline, Argentina has a 30-day grace period to pay investors $539 million in interest. Otherwise, the country will default on its debts. Argentinian officials argue they can't make the payment without triggering other debt payments that would bankrupt the country.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. The clock is ticking for Argentina. Yes, in the World Cup, but here, we're talking about its effort to prevent another debt crisis. Argentina has until the end of this month to pay its bondholders or it risks going into default. As NPR's Jim Zarroli reports, the dispute hinges on one particular clause in the country's debt contracts that could cost the country billions of dollars.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: A default by Argentina is just 23 days away. And yet, neither the government nor the creditors suing it have sat down together to talk. Yesterday, the country's finance minister, Axel Kicillof, was in New York to meet with a court-appointed monitor overseeing the case. Doug Rediker is a visiting scholar at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

DOUG REDIKER: It's small progress, but at least they're engaging in some form of conversation that could lead to a negotiated outcome.

ZARROLI: But there's a long way to go before the dispute is resolved. Argentina defaulted on its debt in 2001 and has been locked in a bitter dispute ever since then about how much to pay the investors that bought its bonds. Most of these bondholders agreed long ago to accept a partial payment, but there were holdouts including some large U.S. hedge funds, and a federal judge in New York has ruled that Argentina has to pay them what they're owed. Argentina could easily do that. It would cost about 1.3 billion dollars. But there's the little matter of the RUFO clause, which stands for rights under further offers. It essentially says once Argentina pays off some of its bondholders, all of the others can line up to get the same deal. And Diego Ferro of Greylock Capital Management says that could be very costly.

DIEGO FERRO: The estimates are anywhere between 100 to 150 billion. And that is clearly something that would be beyond absurd for Argentina to consider paying.

ZARROLI: Argentina has been fighting the bond holdouts in U.S. court for years and has lost numerous court rulings. The case even went to the Supreme Court which refused to intervene. Now, with time running out, Argentina has hinted that it wants to negotiate, but it says first the court has to find a way to protect it from the RUFO clause and the hordes of bondholders it says are threatening to storm its gates. Again, Doug Rediker.

REDIKER: They're saying, your honor, please give us time to negotiate without this looming over our head because we can't afford $120 billion.

ZARROLI: But Diego Ferro, whose firm owns some of Argentina's bonds, says the country has spent years engaging in delay tactics and fiery political rhetoric. So, Ferro says, Argentina has pretty much lost all credibility with the judge hearing the case. Now, he says, Argentina's back is really against the wall.

FERRO: The longer it takes, I would say, the more expensive it is for Argentina.

ZARROLI: But Ferro also believes there is still time to resolve the case if both sides want to. There's a lot at stake for the government and the creditors. If Argentina is forced to default at the end of the month, it would mean big losses for its creditors, and it would be a disaster for Argentina itself, locking it out of the debt markets for the foreseeable future. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

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