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Shapiro: Decision Time for Argentina

Bilateral relations between the United States and Argentina just became a good deal more complicated as legislation that would sanction Argentina for its scofflaw treatment of U.S. investors receives committee markup.

Although some have claimed that Buenos Aires welcomed President Barack Obama’s re-election, the reality is that the president’s second term will mark the continuation of his no-nonsense approach toward Latin America’s fourth largest economy. Now, with Thursday’s markup of legislation that would further penalize Argentina for its bad acts, all three branches of the U.S. government are working to rein in that country’s bad behavior.

For its part, the executive branch has, since 2011, carried out a policy of opposing new loans to Argentina by the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank; more recently, the administration revoked Argentina’s preferential trade status.

The judicial branch, through a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, recently upheld a District Court ruling in New York that Argentina must honor the contractual terms of its defaulted bonds and repay U.S. bondholders. This decision came in the wake of some 114 judgments by U.S. courts directing Argentina to pay these debts, all of which Argentina has chosen to ignore.

Now, the legislative branch has the opportunity to weigh in. The Judgment Evading Foreign States Accountability Act would sanction any middle-income country that refuses to pay its judgments (i.e., Argentina) by barring it from U.S. capital markets.

The bill is a reasonable legislative response to a persistent problem: How can we persuade a country that obstinately refuses to adhere to the rule of law to shift course and honor its obligations to American investors and taxpayers?

Argentina’s disregard for our courts has cost Americans billions of dollars. Moreover, this behavior, if left unchallenged and unchecked, could set a dangerous precedent for other countries around the world.

Today, Argentina owes U.S. bondholders more than $3.5 billion. Overall, that country’s 2001 sovereign debt default and subsequent restructuring have cost U.S. bondholders, taxpayers and shareholders more than $10 billion.

And there is no doubt that Argentina could pay these judgments. The country is sitting on more than $40 billion in official reserves.

And while the cost to Americans has been high, no one has suffered more from Argentina’s refusal to honor its debts than the Argentine people. The country is effectively unable to borrow in international credit markets, raising the costs of borrowing at home for both the public and private sectors. Inflation is among the world’s highest, as the government expands money supplies so its banks can buy more government bonds. In fact, Argentina fudges its economic data to such an extent that International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde has threatened to cut off IMF lending in mid-December. And foreign direct investment has plummeted as global companies conclude that Argentina is not a very safe or stable place to do business.

Now, it is vital that Congress join with the courts and the executive branch in demonstrating to the Argentine government that the rights of Americans cannot be dismissed.

Robert J. Shapiro is co-chairman of the American Task Force Argentina, chairman of the economic advisory forum Sonecon LLC and former undersecretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration.

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