Argentina suspends payment on $40 billion foreign debt

An obscure Argentine judge at the southern tip of Argentina has set the knees of this country leaders and the world's most powerful bankers to knocking. In quick succession over the past 10 days, Judge Federico Pinto Kramer of Santa Cruz Province has:

* Effectively suspended Argentina's payments on its $40 billion foreign debt and halted the rescheduling of that debt.

* Ordered the arrest of Argentina's central bank president.

* Ruled in effect that Argentine law supercedes New York State law in a case involving renegotiation of $600 million debt owed by the national airline, Aerolineas Argentinas. The ruling froze negotiations between Aerolineas and US creditors that had been under way in the US.

The immediate consequence of Judge Pinto Kramer's actions is the postponement by international lenders of $830 million in new loans and credits that Argentina need to keep from defaulting on foreign debt payments.

This delay in turn forced Argentina to suspend all foreign payments. Foreign reserves already are perilously low, hovering at $250 million, and no foreign exchange income is due for two weeks.

These debt developments raise serious political questions for the country, too, and raise doubt whether Argentina's Oct. 30 presidential election will take place on schedule. The campaign is heated - and the debt is a major topic on the hustings. The election is an especially critical one because it would return Argentina to civilian rule after 71/2 years of military rule.

Judge Pinto Kramer's decision also has implications far beyond Argentina. There is a possibility that the judge's ruling in the airline case could spark a revolt of debtor nations against the entire international financial system.

Judge Pinto Kramer held that Aerolineas debt contracts were invalid because of legal clauses that give New York State jurisdiction in the event of disputes. Argentine sovereignty overrides New York jurisdiction, the court ruled.

The ruling immediately froze negotiations on the Aerolineas debt and put all other Argentine debt talks on ice.

The Aerolineas debt talks were the first of 30 similar discussions on renegotiation between creditors and either the Argentine government or Argentine state enterprises. Judge Pinto Kramer's rulings indicate he may stop renegotiations on all the debts on grounds that the debt contracts wrongly provide for jurisdiction in the case of disputes in the country providing the money.

The judicial decision caught Economy Minister Jorge Wehbe and Central Bank president Julio Gonzalez del Solar completely off guard. They and a large Argentine delegation economic were in Washington for talks with the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and US creditors.

They hoped to return home with IMF standby credits of $330 million and ''bridge'' loan from US banks worth $500 million. The two packages were designed to get Argentina over the critical debt hump this month. But the Argentine officials return home empty-handed and Mr. Gonzalez del Solar now finds himself in jail.

The judge ordered Mr. Gonzalez del Solar arrested on charges he signed a tentative agreement on the renegotiation of the Aerolineas debt on Sept. 17 - which makes him culpable, in the judge's thinking, because he extended an agreement that was found invalid. The bank official was arrested Oct. 3 as he stepped off a plane here.

All these actions by Judge Pinto Kramer - who was a pupil of Dr. Wehbe at the University of Buenos Aires' law school - caught the Argentine military governemnt by surprise, as it did the Buenos Aires Financial Committee.

The Argentine government is appealing the judge's order to provide documents on debt negotiations. The judge says there can be no appeal and Argentine legal specialists are not certain what the legal ramifications will be if the appeal is turned down.

With the prospect that the Pinto Kramer ruling could be upheld, all debt contracts here are in jeopardy - and may further tarnish Argentina's international image, which was blackened over the Falkland war and by the magnitude of the nation's debt.

Some think the government will appeal its case right up to the nation's the Supreme Court. But this will take time and Argentina's debt problems are mounting.

The effect on the international lending community, which has massive loans in Latin America - including $40 million owed by Argentina, $95 billion by Brazil and $80 billion by Mexico - could be disastrous if courts in other nations were to follow Judge Pinto Kramer's decision.

Some Argentine jurists, however, hold that his ruling goes against established international practice.

Moreover, it is noted here that the ruling could affect a variety of contracts on which Argentina itself was an international lender.

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