Global Policy Forum

Hedge Funds May Sue Greece if It Tries to Force Losses

In recent months several hedge funds have been buying up cheap Greek debt securities in order to make profits from them as the threat of default looms. Instead of bullying Greece through orthodox legal action, hedge funds are now suggesting taking the country to the European Court of Human Rights, because they may be allowed to argue that property rights are human rights. Legal experts say the "vulture funds" may technically have a case despite the fact that the Greek people will suffer even more for the profit of a few.

By Landon Thomas Jr.

January 18, 2012

Hedge funds have been known to use hardball tactics to make money. Now they have come up with a new one: suing Greece in a human rights court to make good on its bond payments.

The novel approach would have the funds arguing in the European Court of Human Rights that Greece had violated bondholder rights, though that could be a multiyear project with no guarantee of a payoff. And it would not be likely to produce sympathy for these funds, which many blame for the lack of progress so far in the negotiations over restructuring Greece’s debts.

The tactic has emerged in conversations with lawyers and hedge funds as it became clear that Greece was considering passing legislation to force all private bondholders to take losses, while exempting the European Central Bank, which is the largest institutional holder of Greek bonds with 50 billion euros or so.

Legal experts suggest that the investors may have a case because if Greece changes the terms of its bonds so that investors receive less than they are owed, that could be viewed as a property rights violation — and in Europe, property rights are human rights.

The bond restructuring is a critical element for Greece to receive its latest bailout from the international community. As part of that 130 billion euro ($165.5 billion) rescue, Greece is looking to cut its debt by 100 billion euros through 2014 by forcing its bankers to accept a 50 percent loss on new bonds that they receive in a debt exchange.

According to one senior government official involved in the negotiations, Greece will present an offer to creditors this week that includes an interest rate or coupon on new bonds received in exchange for the old bonds that is less than the 4 percent private creditors have been pushing for — and they will be forced to accept it whether they like it or not.

“This is crunch time for us. The time for niceties has expired,” said the person, who was not authorized to talk publicly. “These guys will have to accept everything.”

The surprise collapse last week of the talks in Athens raised the prospect that Greece might not receive a crucial 30 billion euro payment and might miss a make-or-break 14.5 billion euro bond payment on March 20 — throwing the country into default and jeopardizing its membership in the euro zone.

Talks between the two sides picked back up on Wednesday evening in Athens when Charles Dallara of the Institute of International Finance, who represents private sector bondholders, met with Prime Minister Lucas Papademos of Greece and his deputies.

While both sides have tried to adopt a conciliatory tone, the threat of a disorderly default and the spread of contagion to other vulnerable countries like Portugal remains pronounced.

“In my opinion, it is unlikely that this is the last restructuring we go through in Europe,” said Hans Humes, a veteran of numerous debt restructurings and the president and chief executive of Greylock Capital, the only hedge fund on the private sector steering committee, which is taking the lead in the Greek negotiations.

“The private sector has come a long way. We hope that the other parties agree that it is more constructive to reach a voluntary agreement than the alternative.”

At the root of the dispute is a growing insistence on the part of Germany and the International Monetary Fund that as Greece’s economy continues to collapse, its debt — now about 140 percent of its gross domestic product — needs to be reduced as rapidly as possible.

Those two powerful actors — which control the purse strings for current and future Greek bailouts — have pressured Greece to adopt a more aggressive tone toward its creditors. As a result, Greece has demanded that bondholders accept not only a 50 percent loss on their new bonds but also a lower interest rate on them. That is a tough pill for investors to swallow, given the already steep losses they face, and one that would be likely to increase the cumulative haircut to between 60 and 70 percent.

The lower interest rate would help Greece by reducing the punitive amounts of interest it pays on its debt, making it easier to cut its budget deficit.

To increase Greece’s leverage, the country’s negotiators have said they could attach collective action clauses to the outstanding bonds, a step that would give them the legal right to saddle all bondholders with a loss. This would particularly be aimed at the so-called free riders — speculators who have said they will not agree to a haircut and are betting that when Greece receives its aid bundle in March, their bonds will be repaid in full.

If the collective action clause is used — and Greek officials say it could become law next week — these investors, who bought their bonds at around 40 cents on the dollar, are likely to suffer a loss.

That, in turn, could prompt suits from investors claiming in the Court of Human Rights that their property rights had been violated.

“Because Greece is changing the bond contract retroactively, this can become an issue in a human rights court,” said Mathias Audit, a professor of international law at the University of Paris Ouest.

Not all funds are pursuing such a strategy. Such a case would take years and would have to run its course in Greece before being heard by human rights judges in Strasbourg, France.

But with their considerable financial resources, some funds may be willing to pursue such a route, and they point to similar cases won by hedge funds in Latin America. While the prospect of Greece paying an investor any time soon is slim, the country wants to avoid a parade of lawsuits across Europe, which would restrict its ability to raise money in international markets.

Argentina, which defaulted on its debts in 2002, still faces legal claims from investors that have made it nearly impossible for the country to tap global debt markets.

“It cannot be Angela Merkel that decides who suffers losses,” said one aggrieved investor who was considering legal action and did not want to be identified for that reason. “What Europe is forgetting is that there needs to be respect for contract rights.”

It is not just the legal cudgel that investors are threatening to use. Some hedge funds have discussed among themselves the possibility of demanding a side payment, as they describe it, as a price Europe and Greece must pay if the two want the funds to participate in the agreement.

With the stakes so high, a compromise may well be reached. Germany and the I.M.F. may realize that if the private sector is pushed too hard, the deal will collapse and they will have to pay even more money to keep Greece afloat in the coming years.

Eager to put the issue behind them, private sector creditors may accept a larger loss and exchange their nearly worthless Greek bonds for more valuable securities that would also offer enhanced protection if Greece had to restructure in the future.

As for the holdouts, they could run up millions of dollars in legal bills chasing after Greece in European courts.

But beyond all the byzantine wrangling, a crucial question is how this would benefit Greece. Even with the deal, Greece’s debt would be no less than 120 percent of G.D.P. in 2020 — which seems to be slight progress given the austerity and pain its citizens must endure during this period.

“The real issue is not who participates in the deal,” said Jeromin Zettelmeyer, the deputy chief economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and an authority on sovereign debt. “The question is whether there is enough debt relief for Greece, and there may not be, because the fiscal and growth situation in Greece is quite dire.”


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