Sovereign Debt at Square One

CAMBRIDGE – Argentina and its bankers have been barred from making payments to fulfill debt-restructuring agreements reached with the country’s creditors, unless the 7% of creditors who rejected the agreements are paid in full – a judgment that is likely to stick, now that the US Supreme Court has upheld it. Though it is hard to cry for Argentina, the ruling in favor of the holdouts is bad news for the global financial system and sets back the evolution of the international regime for restructuring sovereign debt.


Why is it so hard to feel sympathy for a developing country that can’t pay its debts? For starters, in 2001, Argentina unilaterally defaulted on its entire $100 billion debt, an unusual step, rather than negotiating new terms with its creditors. When, in 2005, the government finally got around to negotiating a debt swap, it could almost dictate the terms – a 70% “haircut.”

In the intervening decade, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner, have pursued a variety of spectacularly bad economic policies. The independence of the central bank and the statistical agency have been severely compromised, with Fernández forcing the adoption, for example, of a consumer price index that grossly understates the inflation rate. Contracts have been violated and foreign-owned companies have been nationalized. And when soaring global prices for Argentina’s leading agricultural commodities provided a golden opportunity to boost output and raise chronically insufficient foreign-currency earnings, Fernández imposed heavy tariffs and quotas on exports of soy, wheat, and beef.

Some might counter that the holdout hedge funds that sued Argentina deserve no sympathy, either. Many are called “vulture funds” because they bought the debt at a steep discount from the original creditors, hoping to profit subsequently through court decisions.

But the problem with the Argentine debt case has little to do with the moral failings of either the plaintiffs or the defendant. The problem is the precedent that the case establishes for resolving future international debt crises.

The most common reaction to the recent rulings is pro-holdout. After all, the judge is only enforcing the legal contract embodied in the original bonds, isn’t he? As President Calvin Coolidge supposedly said of the American loans to the World War I allies, “They hired the money, didn’t they?”

If only the world were so simple. If only a regime of consistent enforcement of all loan contracts’ explicit terms were sufficiently practical to be worth pursuing. But we have long since recognized the need for procedures to rewrite the terms of debt contracts under extreme circumstances.

The British Joint Stock Companies Act of 1856, for example, established the principle of limited liability for corporations. Indentured servitude and debtors’ prisons have also been illegal since the nineteenth century. And individuals and corporations can declare bankruptcy. There will always be times when it is impossible for a debtor to pay.

As for corporate bankruptcy, it is recognized that a poor legal system is one that keeps otherwise viable factories shuttered while assets are frittered away in expensive legal wrangling, leaving everyone – managers, workers, and shareholders – worse off. A good legal system permits employment and production to continue in cases where the economic activity is still viable; divides up the remaining assets in an orderly and generally accepted way; and makes these determinations as efficiently and speedily as possible, while discouraging future carelessness by imposing costs on managers, shareholders, and – if necessary – creditors.

No such body of law exists at the international level. Some believe that this vacuum is the primary difficulty with the international debt system. Ambitious proposals to redress it, such as a Sovereign Debt Restructuring Mechanism (SDRM) housed at the International Monetary Fund, have always run into political roadblocks.

But incremental steps had been slowly moving the system in the right direction since the 1980s. In the international debt crisis that began in 1982, IMF country adjustment programs went hand in hand with “bailing in” creditor banks through “voluntary” coordinated loan rollovers. Eventually, it was recognized that a debt overhang was inhibiting investment and growth in Latin America, to the detriment of debtors and creditors alike.

Subsequent programs to deal with emerging-market crises featured an analogous combination of country adjustment and “private sector involvement.” Voluntary debt exchanges worked, roughly speaking, with investors accepting haircuts.

After Argentina’s unilateral default in 2001, many investors saw more clearly the need to allow explicitly for less drastic alternatives ahead of time, and so incorporated so-called “collective action clauses” into debt contracts. If the borrower runs into trouble, CACs make it possible to restructure debt with the agreement of a substantial majority of creditors (usually around 70%). The minority is then bound by the agreement.

Such incremental steps gave rise to a loose system of debt restructuring. To be sure, it still had many deficiencies. Restructuring often came too late and provided too little relief to restore debt sustainability. But it worked, more or less. By contrast, the US court rulings’ indulgence of a parochial instinct to enforce written contracts will undermine the possibility of negotiated re-structuring in future debt crises.

Time will run out for Argentina at the end of July. Unable to pay all of its debts, perhaps it will be forced to default on all of them. The more likely outcome is that it will manage to come to some accommodation that the holdouts find more attractive than the deal accepted by the other creditors. Either way, future voluntary debt-workout agreements have just become more difficult to reach, which will leave debtors and creditors alike worse off.


Jeffrey Frankel is Professor of Capital Formation and Growth at Harvard University.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
www.project-syndicate.org

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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