IPS | 19 April 2017
Dispute settlement becomes speculative financial asset
By Jomo Kwame Sundaram
Jomo Kwame Sundaram was United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, and received the Wassily Leontief Prize for Advancing the Frontiers of Economic Thought in 2007.
Investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) provisions in bilateral investment treaties (BITs) and free trade agreements (FTAs) have effectively created a powerful and privileged system of protections for foreign investors that undermines national law and institutions.
ISDS allows foreign corporations to sue host governments for supposedly causing them losses due to policy or regulatory changes that reduce the expected profitability of their investments. Very significantly, ISDS provisions have been and can be invoked, even when rules are non-discriminatory, or profits come from causing public harm. ISDS will thus strengthen perverse incentives for foreign investors at the expense of local businesses and the public interest.
New opportunity for speculation
In recent years, ISDS provisions of investment treaties, free trade and other agreements have increasingly provided an investment opportunity to make money by speculating on lawsuits, winning huge awards and forcing foreign governments, and taxpayers, to pay. Financial speculators have increasingly purchased corporations deemed capable of profitably bringing winnable ISDS claims, sometimes using ‘shell companies’.
Some hedge funds and private equity firms even finance ISDS cases as third parties, with ISDS itself the raison d’etre for such investments. Such ‘third-party funding’ of ISDS claims has been expanding quickly as financing such claims has proven to be very lucrative.
Third-party financing reduces litigation costs to the corporations themselves, making it easier, and thus encouraging them to sue. Foreign corporations typically do not have to declare receiving third-party funding for an ISDS case. Not surprisingly then, the ISDS claims-financing industry is booming as different types of investors have been attracted by and drawn into financing lawsuits, treating ISDS claims as speculative assets.
The International Council for Commercial Arbitration estimates that at least three fifths of those considering ISDS claims have inquired about possible third-party financing before pursuing them. Financing firms provide clients with litigation packages from the outset, advising on what treaties to exploit and which law firms to hire, even recommending arbitrators.
While bondholders do not actually develop productive capacities or sell services in a host country, they too can resort to ISDS arbitration to maximize returns to their debt purchases. Thus, bond-holders who have lost value can use the ISDS back door to sue countries for compensation, thus encouraging a new speculative investment option for ‘vultures’. Hence, ISDS allows investors with little connection to the ‘aggrieved’ initial investment to benefit financially as well.
Ripe for the picking
ISDS advocates claim that case outcomes remain uncertain, with foreign corporations only winning about a quarter of the cases they initiate. But this proportion does not include settlements agreed to before arbitration proceedings are concluded when the foreign corporations secure huge gains. ISDS arbitration is very attractive, even tempting to foreign investors who would otherwise not pursue claims in national courts against host governments.
Recent ISDS arbitrations have seen much greater delegation of authority to arbitrators in interpreting and applying agreements, without any option to appeal or otherwise challenge the arbitrators’ decisions. There is no way to ensure that arbitration tribunals will interpret and apply treaty provisions in ways consistent with governments’ understandings of what treaty obligations imply.
Those investing in ISDS cases recognize that the most vulnerable governments for investors to sue are typically those already in some trouble. For example, when a country resorts to emergency economic measures to protect its citizens, investors can easily claim that these undermine earlier understandings of international agreements. Ensuing lawsuits typically hurt the country’s credit rating, raising capital costs and undermining its ability to attract investment.