Ex-Wall Street Insider's Tough Task: Make Peace With Paul Singer

  • Luis Caputo will be Finance Secretary under Macri's government
  • Argentina locked out of overseas debt markets since 2001

Luis Caputo is about to inherit one of the most difficult, and pressing, jobs in Argentina’s new administration: negotiate an end to a bitter, decade-long legal dispute with creditors led by billionaire Paul Singer.

President-elect Mauricio Macri will name Caputo, the former head of Deutsche Bank AG’s Argentina unit and ex-chief of Latin America debt trading at JPMorgan Chase & Co., as his new finance secretary, according to a person familiar with the decision, who asked not to be identified because he isn’t authorized to speak publicly.

The 50-year-old Wall Street veteran will be the key man in negotiations with disgruntled bondholders who have hounded the government for repayment and effectively kept the nation out of international debt markets since its record default in 2001. None of its creditors has been more dogged than Singer, who since rejecting the country’s debt restructurings, has repeatedly sought to force its hand. Among his hedge fund’s more audacious moves: the temporary seizure of an Argentina naval ship docked in Ghana. 

Those exploits earned Singer and other hedge funds the wrath of outgoing President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who called them “vultures” and whose refusal to abide by a U.S. court order to repay the creditors pushed the country into another default last year.

Given this history, nobody expects reaching an accord will be easy. But Caputo’s knowledge of bond markets and experience working at some of Wall Street’s biggest banks means he’s well-suited to the task, according to Patrick Esteruelas, a senior sovereign analyst at EMSO Partners, which oversees $2.6 billion.

“Caputo is, frankly, something of a breath of fresh air after going through a number of secretaries of finance recently who were somewhat lacking,” he said. “He’s a well-known quantity in the market, with strong technical knowledge of market liquidity concerns and considerations.”

Caputo, currently the president of Buenos Aires-based money manager Axis Inversiones, didn’t respond to an e-mail and telephone message seeking comment on his future role or a strategy with disgruntled creditors.

Alfonso Prat-Gay, who will be Argentina’s finance minister, wasn’t available to comment, according to his spokeswoman. Prat-Gay, a former central bank president from 2002 to 2004, worked with Caputo at JPMorgan.

Macri, who takes office Dec. 10, has pledged to open up the economy after 12 years of rule by Fernandez and her late husband, Nestor Kirchner. Central to that goal will be settling with Singer and the other so-called holdout creditors. 

Argentina is currently in default on about $28 billion of foreign-currency bonds after U.S. District Judge Thomas Griesa blocked the country from making payments on the debt until it settles with a group of hedge funds including Singer’s Elliott Management and Aurelius Capital Management. 

Stephen Spruiell, a spokesman at New York-based Elliott, didn’t reply to an e-mail seeking comment, on Caputo’s possible appointment. Brian Schaffer, an Aurelius spokesman at Prosek Partners, declined to comment.

The hedge funds aren’t the only ones Caputo will have to deal with in order for Argentina to regain access to capital markets. Creditors with as much as $10 billion will also get a seat at the table after Griesa allowed other litigants to join the negotiations this year.

In an interview with Bloomberg in April 2014, Caputo said Argentina will have to strike a deal with its creditors.

“You have to settle the issue in U.S. courts,” said Caputo, who was managing an Argentina fund for Noctua International LLC at the time. “It’s not reasonable to think they will be breaking the law for an indefinite period of time. It’s not good for the country.”

Caputo, whose 11-year stint at Deutsche Bank ended in 2008, was head of Latin America debt trading at JPMorgan from 1994 to 1997. He was also previously a director at Empresa Distribuidora & Comercializadora Norte SA, Argentina’s biggest electricity distributor.

“Caputo knows markets; he’s a true trader,” said Rafael Di Giorno, a director of Proficio Investment in Buenos Aires who worked at Deutsche Bank at the same time as Caputo. “He’s well known in the market. If he has to sit down with Paul Singer, he probably makes two phone calls to get the meeting. He’s credible and presentable.”

In addition to ending the creditor impasse, Caputo will also need to help the new government shore up foreign-currency reserves that have tumbled this year to a nine-year low of $25.6 billion amid sluggish economic growth and sinking prices for commodity exports.

“It’s a more professional group than Argentina has had in a very long time,” said Diego Ferro, the co-chief investment officer at Greylock Capital Management. “People with experience who will have their own ideas on how to resolve the issues. I have a lot of professional respect for them. Since they know the foreign market, I have no doubt that they’ll find a reasonable solution on how to face it.”

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