“Vulture” Funds Await Court Decision On Poor Countries’ Debts

Via The Guardian, an interesting article on the speculators who trade in bonds issued by war-torn countries:

Jean Ngaigy, the head of a school in Lepaigagone, interprets the words of one of her six-year-old students. The girl is happy to have a school now. Her favourite subjects are maths and French.

Like many children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, both the girl’s parents were killed in the country’s civil war, which left up to 7.2 million people dead. Now, though, a fragile peace in the town, outside the capital Kinshasa, means mines are reopening and the factory is coming back to life. The school has been rebuilt and has running water. In the DRC, that represents hope.

The DRC should be one of Africa’s richest countries. It has a mineral wealth estimated to be around $24 trillion (£15tn). There are huge deposits of cobalt, diamonds, gold, copper, oil and 80% of the world’s supplies of coltan ore – a valuable mineral used in computers and mobile phones.

Yet 100 women a week are still dying in childbirth and 16,000 children under the age of five die every year. One in three children in the DRC will never get anything more than primary education.

One of the reasons the country has been unable to recover is that it is being pursued by international debt speculators, known as vulture funds, through offshore tax havens such as Jersey, for debts that were run up during 30 years of war and civil war.

Vulture funds operate by buying up a country’s debt when it is in a state of chaos. When the country has stabilised, vulture funds return to demand millions of dollars in interest repayments and fees on the original debt. New York vulture fund FG Hemisphere has gone to Jersey to claim $100m from the DRC because a legal loophole means that the island remains free of anti-vulture laws that were passed in the UK last year.

Jersey will decide next month whether to allow its courts to let the $100m go to FG Hemisphere.

It has been 16 years since most of the world began writing off the debts of the world’s poorest countries, but the vulture funds, a club of between 26 and 35 speculators, have ignored the debt concerts by pop stars such as Bono and pleas from the likes of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to give the countries a break and a chance to get back on their feet.

The DRC has been a particularly fruitful target for vulture funds, being ravaged by conflict but rich in natural resources. One of the earliest cases against the country came in 1996 when $30m worth of Congolese sovereign debt was purchased by Kensington International Inc, a subsidiary of the well-established hedge fund Elliott Associates, headed by prominent vulture financier Paul Singer.

Singer, a major contributor to the Republican party, reportedly bought the debt at a significant discount and began pursuing lawsuits against the impoverished African nation through the world’s courtrooms. Bloomberg has reported that the DRC has spent an estimated $5m fighting Singer’s lawsuits. Finally in 2005 Kensington International was awarded $39m in the UK high court.

So far, according to the World Bank, the top 26 vultures have managed to collect $1bn from the world’s poorest countries and still have a further $1.3bn to collect. Gordon Brown has described the payouts as “morally outrageous”.

The World Bank has described vulture funds as “a threat to debt relief efforts” and the former, Bush-era US treasury secretary Henry Paulson said: “I deplore what the vulture funds are doing” in testimony before the House of Representatives’ financial committee in 2007.

In terms of public donations, the impact of the vulture funds is huge. The $1bn collected by the funds is equivalent to more than double the International Committee of the Red Cross’s entire budget for Africa in 2011. $1bn could fund the entire UN appeal for the famine in Somalia and is more than twice the amount of money raised by Save the Children last year.

Vulture funds also scare off new investors, who the vultures will target their investment, from a country. In the DRC, a large US company with plans to invest millions in mining pulled out last year after one vulture sued it as a result of its business with the DRC government.

It is thought FG Hemisphere bought the debt for which it is claiming $100m in the Jersey court for $3.3m, with the help of another vulture fund, Debt Advisory International (DAI).

FG Hemisphere, headed by Peter Grossman and DAI, run by Michael Sheehan – both men were former Morgan Stanley consultants – have attempted to collect on the debt by suing DRC state companies and their foreign investors.

When interviewed as part of a joint investigation between Newsnight and the Guardian, Grossman defending his involvement in the DRC, saying “he wasn’t beating up on the Congo but collecting on a legitimate debt”. The last decade has seen FG and DAI chase the DRC, for the same debt, in the United States, Jersey, Hong Kong and Australia. In 2010, Britain passed a law banning vulture funds from collecting in UK courts. But the legislation failed to mention Jersey. Because Jersey is not specifically mentioned, it is automatically excluded under British law, a loophole that FG Hemisphere immediately exploited.

Grossman said it was not the vultures whose activities needed to be investigated but mismanagement in the DRC. He also denied having any knowledge that, as alleged by the Bosnian police, the debt was acquired illegally in the first place.

Sheehan, who is nicknamed Goldfinger, brokered the original deal with Bosnian state company EnergoInvest and owns some of the debt. The DRC originally owed the money to EnergoInvest for a contract to build power lines.

But as Grossman looks for payment from DRC through the Jersey legal system, the world’s biggest charities, including Oxfam, Christian Aid and Jubilee Debt Campaign UK, are appealing to Jersey to close the loophole.

Jubilee Debt Campaign UK, which has been campaigning for debt relief for over a decade, is sending a representative to Jersey next week to put the case directly to the island’s government to close the vulture funds’ loophole.

Tim Jones, of Jubilee Debt Campaign, said: “The DRC is the second poorest country in the world. The country desperately needs to be able to use its rich resources to alleviate poverty, not squander them on paying unjust debts to vulture funds left by the dictator Joseph Mobutu. Jersey has to shut vulture funds down.”

UK legislation on vulture funds has already had an impact, when Liberia last year reached agreement to repay just over 3% of the face value of a $43m debt.

That case was originally brought by two Caribbean-based vulture funds, Hamsah Investments and Wall Capital Ltd, over a debt dating back to the 1970s and it sparked a furore when the high court ordered Liberia to repay the full debt in 2009. Liberia mobilised debt campaigners, who pushed for a change in the law, resulting in the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Act 2010 being passed.

The law, a world first, requires commercial creditors to comply with the terms of international debt cancellation schemes, which specify a single discount rate for creditors to ensure equal treatment.

The law applies to the UK courts and ensures that public money given towards debt cancellation is not diverted to private investors.

The World Bank estimates that more than one-third of the countries which have qualified for Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt relief have been targeted by vulture funds. HIPC countries are those whose debt is unsustainable and qualify for loans from the World Bank’s International Development Association or the IMF’s poverty reduction and growth facility.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is poised on the edge of a fragile peace but elections later this month could again destabilise the country. Having spent $5m fighting off the vulture funds, the DRC is waiting for news from 4,000 miles away, where Jersey will decide whether the vultures will get their money.

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