(Adds president’s comments)
By Jorge Otaola
BUENOS AIRES, Sept 30 (Reuters) - Argentina deposited a $161 million bond interest payment with a newly appointed local trustee on Tuesday, the Economy Ministry said, defying a U.S. judge who held it in contempt a day earlier for taking illegal steps to meet its debt obligations.
The country wants to show it can service its debt and that its failure in July to complete a payment to holders of bonds that were restructured after its 2002 default was the result of adverse U.S. judicial rulings.
“By making this deposit, Argentina confirms once again its unshakeable commitment to meet its obligations to bondholders,” the ministry said in a statement.
It was not clear how many bondholders would receive their coupon payments before the end of the Sept. 30 deadline without the assistance of foreign financial intermediaries, which could violate the U.S. court orders if they aid Argentina.
Luxembourg-based clearing house Clearstream said it always abided by court rulings, and a source at the trustee bank, state-controlled Nacion Fideicomisos, acknowledged little of the deposit had been transferred to creditors.
If the funds fail to reach bondholders, a 30-day grace period would be triggered, after which the default, which has so far confined to Discount bonds, would spread to the Par series.
The central bank deposited the coupon payment on its foreign law Par bonds with Nacion Fideicomisos after the government removed the former trustee, Bank of New York Mellon Corp, to skirt the U.S. court rulings.
Argentina’s July default came after U.S. District Judge Thomas Griesa blocked an end-June coupon payment, barring it from servicing its restructured debt until it paid in full a small group of U.S. hedge funds that had rejected the terms of bond swaps in 2005 and 2010.
The Argentine government responded by enacting a law allowing it to make payments locally to keep the money beyond Griesa’s reach.
Griesa on Monday held Argentina in contempt and issued a warning that the government must stop trying to get around his rulings.
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez reacted with typical defiance on Tuesday, saying she was not surprised by his ruling and would not be surprised if he issued sanctions.
“Perhaps they will arrest me next time I go to New York, but let me be clear, I‘m going to go anyway,” she said in a fiery speech at the presidential palace, the “pink house”.
Huge question marks surround how Argentina will locate all holders of its debt across 15 separate bond series.
Financial intermediaries with a U.S. footprint would need to collaborate in the process of identifying bondholders, but in doing so they too would risk violating Griesa’s rulings.
“Clearstream is monitoring the situation closely and always complies with court rulings on this subject,” said a spokesman.
Belgium-based Euroclear, another financial services company that handles Argentine debt payments, declined to comment.
“This is about making a deposit so that no one can say you did not want to pay,” said Roberto Drimer, an economist at Buenos Aires-based consultancy VaTnet. “Only a few will get paid.”
Investors and fixed income traders say a default on the Par bond series would increase the risk that creditors would demand accelerated payment of their bond holdings, which could leave the cash-strapped country facing claims of up to $30 billion. (Additional reporting by Chris Vellacott in London and Walter Bianchi in Buenos Aires; Writing by Richard Lough and Sarah Marsh; Editing by W Simon, Steve Orlofsky and Ken Wills)