Bet on Greek Bonds Paid Off for ‘Vulture Fund’

When Greece announced on Tuesday that it had made a €436 million bond payment to the hold-out investors who rejected the country's historic debt revamping deal in March, the decision came as no surprise, the New York Times reports.

The Parthenon in Greece
Scott E. Barbour | Getty Images
The Parthenon in Greece

After all, with the Athens government in disarra, and investors wary of having anything to do with Greece, now would be a bad time to make things worse by defaulting on a bond payment.

What’s news is where most of that money went. Almost 90 percent was delivered to the coffers of Dart Management, a secretive investment fund based in the Cayman Islands, according to people with direct knowledge of the transaction.

Dart is one of the best known of the so-called vulture funds, which have a track record of buying the distressed bonds of nearly bankrupt countries — and if they do not get paid, suing the governments for the money. Dart and another big vulture fund, Elliott Associates, perfected that strategy during the various Latin American debt crises in years past.

By accumulating the bulk of these bonds at prices that traders estimate to be from 60 to 70 cents on the dollar, Dart stands to make a hefty profit, having received 100 cents on the dollar — an outcome likely to be especially galling to the Greek banks and other local institutions that were forced to take a 75 percent loss on their Greek bond holdings.

The big winning bet by Dart could presage a more aggressive tack by vulture funds, if Greece is forced to restructure its bonds a second time.

Lynn Smith, a spokeswoman for Dart, said that the firm does not comment on market speculation.

Dart’s payday may well offer encouragement to other holdouts among investors now in possession of about €6 billion, or $7.6 billion, in Greek bonds. Another payment is due in September, although for a lesser amount.

Greek officials insisted Tuesday that the reason to pay largely had to do with the fact that Greece was lacking a government. But there was also evidently fear that Dart, or smaller holders of the same bonds, might immediately sue Greece — something that could potentially tie up the European bailout funds on which the country is counting on to stay in business.

“They caught us at the weakest possible time,” said Gikas Hardouvelis, a senior economic adviser to Prime Minister Lucas Papademos who was involved in the decision making process. “But it does not prejudice future judgments on this matter.”

Greece is scheduled to hold elections next month. And under a new government, especially one that may include the leading left-wing vote-getter, Alexis Tsipras, the attitude toward holdout investors is sure to harden. Not to mention the fact that Greece could default on a broader level if Europe finally cuts off funds.

Indeed, concerns are mounting about coming payments that Greece is obliged to make on the €50 billion or so of its bonds held by the European Central Bank.

On May 18, for example, the country must make such a payment, worth €3.3 billion. For now, bailout funds are set to cover such obligations. But if those funds were cut off, Greece would be in no position to make future bond payments.

Already, the decision to pay Dart and the other holdouts is being attacked in Greece, not just by left-leaning politicians, but by market experts who predict it will enrage the thousands of small Greek investors who took haircuts on their own holdings of the government’s bonds.

“I think it was a huge mistake to pay these guys,” said Jason Manolopoulos, a Greek hedge fund investor and author of a book on Greece's debt burden. “This will just give the left more ammunition to attack the pro-European parties.”

The Dart fund’s founder is Kenneth Dart, heir to a billion-dollar Styrofoam cup business and a U.S. tax exile who lives in the Cayman Islands. The Dart fund has been investing in sovereign debt since the 1980s. Dart, along with Elliott Associates, is also suing Argentina, which defaulted on its debt in 2002. The funds are seeking up to $2 billion in payments from the country via U.S. courts.