A US appeals court ordered Argentina Friday to pay $1.47 billion to hedge funds holding its defaulted bonds, quashing an appeal by Buenos Aires against the initial 2012 judgment.
In a case closely watched by financial and debt markets, the court endorsed the original decision that Argentina must compensate two hedge funds 100 percent of the value of defaulted Argentine government bonds they hold, even though the two declined to take part in a restructuring of the debt.
Argentina had not made a convincing case that the court had abused its discretion, the decision said, and had also not proposed a viable alternative way to settle the debts.
In addition, the New York federal court said, Argentina's lawyer in the case and Argentine officials "have publicly and repeatedly announced their intention to defy any rulings of this court and the district court with which they disagree."
Given those points, the court said, it affirmed the earlier judgment, which was rooted in the specific contract obligations of the borrower.
However, it added, given that Buenos Aires had requested the US Supreme Court to weigh in on the case, it would hold off on enforcing the decision to force Buenos Aires to repay the debts.
The stay on enforcement effectively bought more time for Argentina, which has said that the court decision could force it back into default on all its debt.
The Argentine government has argued that bondholders who took part in the 2005 and 2010 restructuring of nearly $100 billion of defaulted debt, which forced on them huge writedowns of the face value of the bonds, would now be able to lay claim as well for 100 percent compensation.
That could overwhelm the country's finances and lead to a fresh default, Argentina has argued.
The case has implications for the massive global market for sovereign debt.
Critics say the New York judgment could set a precedent for all sovereign debt restructurings in which a majority of bondholders, but not all of them, accept a "haircut" or writeoff of the debt's value in order to help the borrower restore financial stability and make good on at least a part of the bonds' worth.
Analysts have pointed to the risks implicit for the massive restructuring of Greece's debt, a cornerstone of the international bailout by the European Union, European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
But the court said that its judgment did not open the way for restructured-bondholders to insist on equal payment to those who stayed out of restructurings.
"We believe that it is equitable for one creditor to receive what it bargained for, and is therefore entitled to, even if other creditors, when receiving what they bargained for, do not receive the same thing," the court said.
"The reason is obvious: the first creditor is differently situated from other creditors in terms of what is currently due to it under its contract."
In that case, the court added, the burden of the payments the case orders would not force the country into default: Argentina has the money to service all its debts under current contracts.
The court also insisted that the Argentine case is "exceptional" and hinged on the country's "extraordinary behavior".
It had "little apparent bearing on transactions that can be expected in the future."
"Cases like this one are unlikely to occur in the future because Argentina has been a uniquely recalcitrant debtor," it said.
In addition, it said, newer bond deals almost all include collective action clauses, "which permit a super-majority of bondholders to impose a restructuring on potential holdouts."
A group representing the hedge funds that are the plaintiffs in the case, the American Task Force Argentina, cheered the ruling.
"Today's unanimous, well-reasoned decision is a victory for the rule of law and the enforcement of contracts in the United States," it said in a statement.
"ATFA hopes that Argentina will see today's ruling as motivation to resolve its financial obligations through good-faith negotiations and discontinue its defiance of court judgments and the rule of law."
But Jubilee USA, an anti-poverty group that has followed the case, assailed the verdict as helping "vulture funds" while hurting the poorest in over-indebted countries.
"The religious community is saddened by the 2nd Circuit's decision as it hurts poor people around the globe," said executive director Eric LeCompte.
"It's up to the US Supreme Court now to overturn the 2nd Circuit ruling in order to prevent these hedge funds from targeting poor countries and struggling economies."