Argentina, lead creditors settle 14-year debt battle for $4.65 billion

NEW YORK/BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina has agreed to a $4.65 billion cash payment to its main holdout creditors and will present the deal to Congress this week for a vote which would end 14 years of bitter legal battles and pave the way for its return to global credit markets.

Argentina's Finance Minister Alfonso Prat-Gay (L) speaks next to Finance Secretary Luis Caputo during a news conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, February 29, 2016. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

Finance Minister Alfonso Prat-Gay said he hoped to issue two or three new sovereign bonds on international markets for a total of up to $15 billion in April if lawmakers were swift in backing the accord. The bonds would finance the payout to all holdout creditors who had reached an agreement, he said.

The vote will be a test of center-right President Mauricio Macri’s ability to garner cross-party support for his reform package to revive the struggling economy.

“This is a giant step forward in this long-running litigation, but not the final step,” mediator Daniel Pollack said.

The deal, agreed in principle late on Sunday, will see the four largest remaining holdout creditors get paid 75 percent of the amount outstanding on their judgments, including principal and interest, Pollack said.

Hedge fund Elliott Management, run by billionaire Paul Singer, brought numerous lawsuits against Argentina.

The legal saga involved years of court battles, street protests in Buenos Aires, the seizure of an Argentine naval vessel, and increasingly distorted economic policies as the government tried to avoid settling with the holdout creditors who blocked them raising capital on the international markets.

“He was a tough but fair negotiator,” Pollack said of Singer.

In a statement, Elliott said it was “pleased” to have reached an agreement that awarded it slightly better terms than the 72.5 percent accepted by some other investors earlier this month. Pollack said negotiations with remaining holdouts would be based upon the original offer Argentina made on Feb. 5 rather than using the agreement reached on Monday as a new baseline.

The other main holdout investors also included in the deal are Aurelius Capital Management, run by former Elliott alumni Mark Brodsky, as well as Davidson Kempner and Bracebridge Capital.

A spokesman for Aurelius declined to comment.

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Argentina fell back into default in July 2014 after former leftist leader, Cristina Fernandez refused to negotiate better terms than those offered in bond swaps that followed Argentina’s then-record 2002 default on $100 billion.

Underlining the bitterness of the dispute, Fernandez blasted U.S. District Judge Thomas Griesa who oversees the cases as “senile” and branded the hedge funds “vultures.” Macri, a pro-markets advocate, made resolving the battle a priority after taking office in December.

January saw the beginning of weeks of marathon negotiations between creditors, Finance Secretary Luis Caputo and Pollack.

Prat-Gay said Argentina was taking the key step to curing its default and that Argentina was already in talks with banks over a new debt sale on global markets.

“We hope that if Congress reaches a decision quickly ... we will probably be able to go to the market in April,” Prat-Gay told a news conference.

If the payment is not made by noon eastern standard time on April 14, 2016, then the agreement could become null and void if the two sides do not agree an extension.

The holdouts rejected two prior debt restructurings in 2005 and 2010 that paid out roughly 30 cents on the dollar. The investors who accepted those deals have not been paid interest since July 2014 after Griesa barred further debt payments until a deal was reached with the holdouts.

On Feb. 5, Argentina put forward a plan, saying it had a $6.5 billion pot of money with which to settle roughly $9 billion worth of claims filed before Judge Griesa.

Despite the deal, the main holdouts filed a motion in court on Monday urging Griesa not to lift the injunctions because there are many other plaintiffs who have not yet settled the dispute.

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A final settlement would open financing options to Argentina’s new president as he tries to improve the country’s fiscal problems without imposing the kind of sharp spending cuts that have gotten previous Argentine leaders removed from office.

Under the terms of the agreement the holdout investors said they would not interfere with capital-raising.

Macri was elected in November promising free-market policies following eight years of protectionism under Fernandez.

“This is the equivalent of a giant albatross being lifted from Argentina’s neck,” said Aberdeen Asset Management’s head of emerging market debt, Brett Diment. “Argentina was facing a real financial squeeze this year. Now the litigation is resolved, the country should be able to access markets once again.”

Macri is expected to stress the need for Congress to approve a set of bills clearing the way for the deal with the holdout creditors when he presides over the opening of the 2016 Congressional session on Tuesday.

The government is confident it can muster the votes in both chambers, a task made easier after the main Peronist opposition party fractured earlier this month.

If the deal with Elliott and the other main holdouts is closed, it would leave more than 85 percent of the “pari passu” and “me-too” court injunctions resolved.

Prat-Gay said negotiations would continue with remaining holdout investors, including bondholders in Germany and Japan.

“We look forward to full implementation of the agreement, which should help Argentina return to the international capital markets and promote strong and sustainable growth,” a U.S. Treasury spokesperson said in a statement emailed to Reuters.

Argentine bonds were little moved by the accord.

“The implied yield at the moment would be about 8.25 pct on the restructured bonds so you could see that coming in to 7 - 7.5 percent,” said Stuart Culverhouse, head of research at emerging markets brokerage Exotix in London. “At that level it would be more than fair value so the scope for a big rally from here is probably limited.”

The 2033 U.S. dollar-denominated Discount bond ARGGLB33=RR was up marginally in price to bid 117.550, yielding 6.36 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data.

The 2038 Par bond closed up 0.5 percent at 65.69, yielding 7.06 percent ARGGLB38=RR.

Reporting By Daniel Bases in New York, Hugh Bronstein and Richard Lough in Buenos Aires; Additional reporting by Nate Raymond and Tariro Mzezewa in New York; Editing by Clive McKeef, Andrew Hay and Bernard Orr