In the 1990s, the Clinton administration pushed Argentina to privatize its state-owned industries, tie its currency to the dollar and institute the "Washington Consensus" of combining tax cuts with austerity. The result was economic disaster. From 1998 to 2002 Argentina's economy shrank 20 percent and half the population fell below the poverty line.
Buenos Aires defaulted on its $100 billion debt in order to staunch the hemorrhage and pull the country out of an economic death spiral. In 2006, it negotiated a deal with 92.4 percent of its debt holders to pay 30 and 50 cents on the dollar. It was that deal that drew the vultures, which swooped in, scooped up some of the debt and then refused to accept the settlement.
The 2001 default blocked Argentina from tapping into international finance to tide it over until the economy recovered, but policies to end austerity and increase government spending eventually did the job. The economy grew at an average rate of 6 percent from 2002 to 2012 and Argentina paid off the IMF in 2006 and the Paris Club countries (representing the world's 20 largest economies) in 2014.
But the vultures now threaten to undo much of this.
The Obama administration has come down on the side of Argentina because it is worried that financial institutions will shift their business to London if "pari passu" is allowed to stand. Hillary Clinton, however, has been quiet on the subject of international debt and Argentina. Given that her husband's administration helped push Argentina off the cliff, that is hardly a surprise.
What is disquieting is that Clinton and people such as Raben, Shapiro and Soderberg have an economic philosophy that many times marches in step with that of Wall Street.
According to The New York Times, the financial sector was the second largest contributor to Hillary Clinton's 2008 run for the White House. She is also close to the center-right Third Way think tank that advocates cutting Social Security and tends to be allergic to financial regulations. It is hard to imagine a Hillary Clinton administration stacked with Wall Street insiders and hedge fund lobbyists coming down on the vultures.
Clinton's most recent comment on the debt crisis was to complain that she and Bill were "dead broke" when they left the White House in 2001, rhetorically putting herself in the same boat as tens of millions of indebted people in the U.S. and around the world. "Dead broke" in Chappaqua, N.Y., is not quite the same as "dead broke" in Brazzaville, or in the growing number of homeless encampments around the U.S.
Argentina is currently negotiating a compromise with the vultures, who have Buenos Aires over a barrel. The country desperately needs outside financing to exploit its huge Vaca Muerta gas reserves and to underwrite agricultural exports. "These hedge funds are equipped with an instrument [the New York court decision] that forces struggling countries into submission," says Eric LeCompte, executive director of the anti-poverty religious organization Jubilee USA Network.
Countries are wising up to the hedge funds. Many of them now require that a debt agreement include a collective action clause (CAC), in which a majority or two-thirds vote by creditors is binding on all and would block a handful of vultures from tying up agreements. Because they signal economic fragility however, the CACs will string out negotiations and may result in higher interest rates.
In the meantime, the vultures have backed Buenos Aires against the wall. At a minimum, Democratic candidates for the presidency should make it clear that they stand with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. One way would be to endorse campaigns by organizations such as Oxfam and Jubilee to forgive foreign debt, and to make it clear they will also press for financial regulations to block vulture speculation.
In the world, vultures are estimable creatures. There is a "yuck" factor, but at least they wait until their prey are dead before making a meal of them, and they do clean up after themselves. The vultures of Wall Street prey on the living and leave behind an unspeakable mess.
Read more of independent journalist Conn Hallinan's work at his blog, Dispatches from the Edge.