Sunday, 2 August 2009

Vultures who scavenge off the living

The financial sector may be low on fans in the current climate, but even at a party of bank managers, vulture funds would probably find themselves standing alone by the canapes.

Vulture funds - otherwise known as distressed debt funds - feed off the very poorest. Usually based in tax havens, these funds buy up developing country debts for a fraction of their real value and then sue the country in question for full immediate repayment, making massive profits in the process.

Unsurprisingly, companies suing developing countries often find themselves popular targets for Western campaigners.

In 2003, owner of Iceland supermarkets The Big Food Group was suing Guyana for over £12 million but dropped the case after an outcry from debt campaigners. In December 2002, Nestle dropped a similar claim of $6m (£3.6m) against Ethiopia.

But vultures are less well-known than Iceland or Nestle. As a result, so are the cases that they fight and - all too often - win. Even more shocking is the fact that well over half of these cases are fought in US or British courts.

Vultures were seen in action in 1997 when a company called Donegal, a vulture registered in the British Virgin Islands, sued Zambia in the High Court for $55m (£33m) on a debt it had bought for $3m (£1.8m).

This debt was generated as far back as 1979, when Zambia was lent $15m (£8.9m) by Romania in order to buy Romanian tractors and other farming machinery. Twenty years later, Zambia was unable to repay its debts and became eligible for debt relief. The Zambian and Romanian governments were negotiating the cancellation of the tractor debt as part of this process.

Enter Donegal International, a fund set up purely to purchase this debt and run by US businessman Michael Sheehan - otherwise known as "Goldfinger."

Donegal was able to purchase the debt from Romania for $3.3m (£1.9m) and then sue Zambia in British courts for the full $55m - eventually winning $15m (£8.9m) in 2007.

In essence, some of the recent debt relief that Zambia had been given by countries like Britain was snatched back by a vulture fund.

Zambia is far from alone. The International Monetary Fund claims that at least 54 companies have taken legal action against 12 of the world's poorest countries, for claims amounting to $1.5 billion (£900m).

Vulture action is ongoing against Ethiopia, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and others.

A company called FG Hemisphere has been awarded $100 million (£59.8m) against the Democratic Republic of Congo and is now seeking the money in jurisdictions including Hong Kong, South Africa and the US.

The company recently won a court order in the US for fines of up to $80,000 (£47,860) a week against the war-torn DRC after it failed to disclose all of its assets across the world.

And even this isn't the whole picture. It doesn't include, for instance, "less poor" countries such as Argentina, which is facing a case brought by a vulture fund called NML.

NML bought Argentinian bonds that were defaulted on during the country's 2001 financial meltdown. It is currently using British courts to try to recover payment against assets that Argentina might have in Britain.

So it was particularly good news when the British government announced its intention last week to prevent these funds - in effect - from using British courts. The government's proposal is to apply the same terms to vulture-fund cases as are applied to all other creditors of countries deemed eligible for debt relief. So when cases come up before British courts, a large proportion of debt relief would be deducted from the total figure of the debt they seek to reclaim and vulture activity would become pointless.

Even better, in the US, Democrat Congresswoman Maxine Waters is leading the charge to ensure that vultures cannot use US courts to "profiteer," which is defined as making more than 6 per cent interest on any debt that is bought.

So this could be the end of the road for the vultures. It will certainly put a deep hole in their profits. But the case hasn't been won yet.

The government's consultation is open until October 8, and heavy lobbying can be expected from some in the financial sector. Moreover, the government's proposal only covers very poor countries which are eligible for debt relief.

The legislation will not come a moment too soon. As more and more countries fall into debt and the economic crisis worsens, vulture funds might seem like a recession-proof career.

"Vulture" is actually a somewhat favourable term for companies that scavenge not off the dead but the living. Closing them down is one small step towards combating the secrecy and irresponsibility of the financial system as a whole.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star.

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