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Argentina defaults and its stocks …rise?

Leslie Shaffer | Writer for
Here's why Argentina is still seeing a bull market

Usually a sovereign debt default would be seen as a negative for a country's markets, but Argentina's markets have rallied to 20-year highs despite the threat hanging over its head.

"It's already in the price," emerging markets guru, Mark Mobius, executive chairman at Franklin Templeton, told CNBC Wednesday, before the widely expected announcement that Argentina was in technical default. "People have already seen that coming. There's no way they can pay."

Read More Argentina defaults for a second time in 13 years

Argentina went into technical default for a second time in 13 years at midnight on Thursday, after talks with holdout creditors who are seeking full repayment ended without a settlement.

U.S. ratings agency Standard & Poor's downgraded the country's long- and short-term foreign currency credit rating to "selective default," from triple-C-minus and C, respectively.

Protestor Francisco Sobrero holds a sign that translates as 'Vultures! Don't take our pound of meat' outside the office building of mediator Daniel Pollack July 30, 2014 in New York.
Stan Honda | AFP | Getty Images

But widely held expectations Argentina would default at midnight didn't dissuade investors, who sent the Merval up 6.9 percent by the close Wednesday, for a 65 percent gain year-to-date, tapping its highest levels in at least 20 years.

Argentina's bonds also surged, rising as much as 10 percent, pushing yields on the 10-year bond down to 8.79 percent from nearly 10 percent last week, according to data from Thomson Reuters; bond prices move inversely to yields. Argentina isn't included in the emerging markets index by either MSCI or FTSE, so its stocks aren't likely to benefit much from index-based flows.

Read More Argentine default 101: What you need to know

Mobius believes domestic investors are likely a driving force behind the gains. "The local investors want to escape cash. They want to be in assets," he said, noting other assets, such as property in Buenos Aires are also performing well. "They fear a massive devaluation."

For his part, Mobius, a long-term investor, is also sticking with Argentine stocks, noting that many are international players and adding that the default may be the best thing that could happen to the country.

"No one will be giving them any more money," he said. "They have to get their house in order. That's what people look forward to: the day when Argentina will really start a reform program which puts them on a sound financial footing."

Admittedly, it isn't clear if the rally with hold, with the U.S.-traded shares of YPF, an energy player, dropping nearly 8 percent and Banco Macro shedding nearly 13 percent in after-hours trading.

Read More Argentina's debt fight: What it is, why it matters

Even with the current default turmoil, some noted that this year's bull market in Argentina stocks has followed conciliatory efforts by the government.

Argentina: What are the possible scenarios?

"Over the last few months, the Argentine government has actually been doing some quite good work to engineer a rapprochement with the markets," Nicholas Watson, a Latin America analyst at Teneo Intelligence, told CNBC, citing a $5 billion settlement with Spanish oil company Repsol over the seizure of its operations as well as settling other arbitration cases and reaching a $10 billion deal with the Paris Club of creditors.

But Watson noted that this default would undo a lot of the good work and likely deepen a recession already underway.

Read More Argentina faces 'shock' if it defaults: Debt pro

While a default would usually spur capital markets to give a country's sovereign paper the cut direct, bond investors aren't phased.

"The market is somewhat sanguine on the outcome here," Tim Seymour, chief investment officer at Triogem Asset Management, told CNBC Wednesday before the announcement.

"Distressed debt players across emerging are looking at Argentina," he added and expecting the country will be able to do some domestic issuance to meet funding needs.

Read More What happens to Argentina if it defaults (again)

Some noted that the bond rally is less stellar than it may appear. "If we consider a country like Paraguay, one of its near neighbors, you have a country with similar political risks, similar levels of solvency, trading at less than 5 percent," Bradford Jones, a portfolio manager at Sagil Capital, told CNBC last week.

But he noted, "If we do have a resolution to these issues, we could see yields compress in Argentina."

To be sure, some do expect a serious market impact within the country.

"Sovereign risk means that many businesses within the country will have trouble raising capital," said Mark Cymrot, a partner at law firm Baker & Hostetler, who worked on Peru's debt default. "To what extent companies within Argentina will be able to get credit, that's where you will see an impact, where it may have a big impact on the economy."

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter