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Argentina is locked in a legal battle with its creditors, specifically two New York hedge funds. The funds specialize in buying distressed debt. They bought Argentina's bonds at fire-sale prices and now they stand to make huge profits off the country's financial troubles.

Now they want the Argentine government to pay up. Argentina's government is resisting and that's crashing the country's economy again. NPR's Jim Zarroli explains.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: By one estimate there are as many as 250 investment funds that specialize in distressed debt. One of them is Maglan Capital, a hedge fund in midtown Manhattan. The fund's president, David Tawil, named the company Maglan after the biblical name for the bird known as the ibis.

DAVID TAWIL: An ibis is well known for being the last animal to leave before a storm approaches and the first to return after a storm passes. And essentially that is our investment strategy

ZARROLI: What Maglan does is purchase securities in troubled companies and governments often for 15 or 20 cents on the dollar. Sometimes the fund can lose money. But if the company turns around, it can make a big profit.

TAWIL: We will buy the debt of these companies with an eye towards having an ownership stake or an equity stake once the company goes through this bankruptcy.

ZARROLI: Distressed-debt investors say they play an invaluable role in rescuing bankrupt companies. But distressed debt is risky. You have to pick a company with a real chance of turning around. And when you get involved with bankrupt companies, you can quickly become embroiled in messy legal battles with management, banks and other investors, all of whom have their own interests. Kent Collier is CEO of Reorg Research.

KENT COLLIER: There might be people that are higher in seniority than you. There might be people that, you know, want to shut the company down because they're going to get their money back faster. So very few elements of investing bring so much of the human sort of element into it.

ZARROLI: And things can get especially complicated when the debt you're buying was issued by a government because politics enters into it. Argentina defaulted on its bonds in late 2001. Most of its bondholders long ago agreed to take a fraction of what the bonds were worth.

But two hedge funds, NML and Aurelius Capital, swept in to buy some of Argentina's distressed debt. And though they paid a fraction of what the debt is worth, they're demanding to be paid the bonds' full face value. Edward Altman of NYU's Stern School of Business says there's nothing illegal about the hedge funds' demands.

EDWARD ALTMAN: They have the right to not accept what they think was a flawed plan. And the fact that they were holdouts doesn't make them vultures

ZARROLI: But Argentina is worried that if it pays the hedge funds full value, all its others creditors can line up to demand the same thing, something the country cannot afford. And so it's refused to pay. Meanwhile, a federal judge has ruled that until Argentina pays the hedge funds $1.5 billion, it can't pay any of its other creditors. So Argentina is now in default on other bond payments that have come due. Anna Gelpern is a professor at Georgetown Law School.

ANNA GELPERN: There is sort of this bizarre thing where on the one hand, you have a creditor that wants more than everybody else. On the other hand, you have a debtor that is just flat-out saying I have a contract, but I won't pay.

ZARROLI: The dispute is having a tangible effect on Argentina's economy. The peso fell to an all-time low on the black market recently. Back at Maglan Capital, David Tawil says he believes the hedge funds are legally within their rights to demand full payment. But on a moral basis, he says, he understands how people might disagree. Argentina, after all, is a sovereign government.

TAWIL: And I think that that's where things start to get muddy is that you're going ahead and taking advantage of a sovereign. A sovereign is not a corporation. A sovereign is simply there to serve its citizens. So the argument is you're hurting the citizenry of Argentina by doing this. Why would you do this?

ZARROLI: This dispute between the government of Argentina and the hedge funds could carry on for some time. But whoever wins, a lot of people in Argentina will end up paying a price. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.

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