Worst of the Worst

The financial sector is infamous for poor ethics. But there is nonetheless a hierarchy of vice, and it doesn’t get much worse than vulture funds. These are funds that buy up government debt from countries in deep crisis, debt that is cheap because the risk of default is high. They then refuse to negotiate with the government, even if other investors choose to do so, instead shopping around for a compliant court to force the country to pay the full value of the debt. If they succeed, the payoff can be massive.

Vulture funds prey on misery, extracting large profits from countries in dire straits. These include some of the poorest countries in the world, such as Congo. And aside from preying on the poor, they also undermine norms of international cooperation. In the case of both Argentina and Greece, the vultures refused to sign onto a deal supported by the international community—because their profits trumped the global common good.

The poster child for this unseemly behavior is Paul Singer from Elliott Management. In the 1990s, Singer bought $11 million in Peruvian debt, and used compliant courts to extract $58 million. And he is the person who preyed on Congo, making $90 million from debt he purchased for a mere $20 million. And now Singer has won big again, this time from Argentina. His years of holding out, of refusing to accept an offer that the vast majority of investors deemed fair, shows that anti-social behavior can pay off. Elliott Management will get a tidy 369 percent return on principal—three times higher than the investors who accepted the offer.

And yet Singer isn’t even the biggest winner. That dubious honor belongs to Nancy Zimmerman of Bracebridge Capital, who will make 8 times its principal. Who exactly is Nancy Zimmerman? She is the wife of Harvard economist Andrei Schleifer. This couple is infamous for financial double-dealing in Russia during the 1990s. At that time, Schleifer was advising the Russian government on its privatization process, on contract with the U.S government. Violating conflict of interest rules, Schleifer and Zimmerman started investing, taking advantage of their inside position to enrich themselves. They even concealed some of this investment by using the name of Zimmerman’s father.

In 2000, the government sued Harvard, Schleifer, Zimmerman and their business colleagues. In 2004, a judge determined that Schleifer had conspired to defraud the government as he enriched himself and blew through conflict of interest rules. Schleifer and one of his colleagues paid a small fine, but never admitted liability. He remains a Harvard professor in good standing. The whole tawdry story is told in a long and detailed article from 2006.

One more thing. Paul Singer is a huge donor to Marco Rubio. And Larry Summers protected his good friend Schleifer at Harvard. The corruption that comes from the divorce of ethics and economics runs deep and wide. 

Anthony Annett is a Gabelli Fellow at Fordham University and a Senior Advisor at the Sustainable Development Solutions Network. 

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