It's Been Twelve Years

posted by Bob Lawless

12th BirthdayToday is the twelfth anniversary of the Credit Slips launch date. I always like to mark the date because it is hard to believe that it has been that long. When we started, Barack Obama was a senator, and Elizabeth Warren was blogging (for us and others). The solar system had nine planets. Worldcom was the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history, and we were trying to parse the meaning of the not-always-clear bankruptcy amendments in 2005. OK, we are still trying to do the latter.

Happy birthday to us. Thanks for reading.

And, yes, that is a picture of Zachary Taylor.

Keeping up with the Appointments Clause: Puerto Rico bankruptcy update

posted by Melissa Jacoby

In January I wrote about Aurelius seeking a do-over. In a carefully reasoned thirty-five page decision, the district court has denied the do-over.  Put more legally, the court held that PROMESA's method of establishing the Puerto Rico Oversight Board did not run afoul of the Constitution's Appointments Clause. The Oversight Board is an instrumentality of Puerto Rico, concluded the court, not officers of the United States.

Keeping up with the Contracts Clause: the Supreme Court's decision in Sveen v. Melin

posted by Melissa Jacoby

In June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Sveen v. Melin, a case applying Contracts Clause* jurisprudence to a state revocation-on-divorce statute and preexisting insurance contract. It isn't like the Supreme Court hears a Contracts Clause case every week, every term, or even every decade. Given its relevance to many Credit Slips topics, such as a financially distressed government unit without bankruptcy access or mortgage/foreclosure crises, it seems worth fostering a conversation about the case here.  

Continue reading "Keeping up with the Contracts Clause: the Supreme Court's decision in Sveen v. Melin" »

Tripling Down on Plain Meaning: Bankruptcy and the Kavanaugh Appointment

posted by Jason Kilborn

It seems fairly clear that, if Trump's latest nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, is sworn in, the Court's trend of resolving virtually all statutory disputes on the basis of "plain meaning" will be cemented in place. An analysis of Kavanaugh's bankruptcy-specific jurisprudence seems unnecessary in light of his fairly clear comments, nicely summarized by Anthony Gaughan over at the Faculty Lounge blog. His rejection of legislative history and search for intent/purpose does not bode well for bankruptcy and consumer-protection disputes, such as Obduskey v. McCarthy & Holthus LLP, the FDCPA case on the Court's docket for next year. Perhaps the words in these statutes are less clear and meaningful than those in the Constitution, but it seems likely that a Justice Kavanaugh would retreat to the comfortable confines of statutory language as frequently as possible to maintain his vision of a passive and unthreatening judiciary. Dust off your Webster's and probably also your Garner!

Unsolicited, Live Check-Credit

posted by Adam Levitin

The Washington Post has an interesting story about consumer installment lender Mariner Finance.  Three brief observations.

First, Mariner has found an interesting regulatory loophole.  The Truth in Lending Act prohibits the issuance of "live," unsolicited credit cards.  That provision, however, only applies to devices that can be used for multiple extensions of credit, not single use items like a check. So Mariner can mail out live checks to consumers (it presumably prescreens a population to target), without running afoul of the federal prohibition on mailing live, unsolicited credit cards.  That's a  creative way of reaching customers without having an extensive and expensive brick-and-mortar presence.  It also avoids some of the adverse selection problems of internet-based lending.

Second, there is no federal preemption obstacle to states prohibiting the issuance of live, unsolicited checks used to create a credit balance. Mariner seems to be the only major firm doing this, and it doesn't have any preemption argument I can see.  

Third, no one should be shocked that large financial institutions provide the money behind Mariner. Large banks don't do small dollar lending themselves; there are too many regulatory and repetitional issues, but they will provide the financing for small dollar lenders, whether by providing lines of credit or by making equity investments in them. And this has political consequences:  the lobby opposing the regulation of small dollar lenders isn't just finance companies, but also the large financial institutions that are funding them.  Consider how that might affect efforts to close the unsolicited live check loophole on either the federal or state level. 

 

Access to Justice, Consumer Bankruptcy Edition

posted by Pamela Foohey

The Great Recession, the CFPB's creation, the rise of debt buying, changes in the debt collection industry, and advances in data collection have encouraged more research recently into issues of access to justice in the context of consumer law and consumer bankruptcy. This spring, the consumer bankruptcy portion of the Emory Bankruptcy Development Journal's annual symposium focused on access to justice and "vindicating the rights of all consumers." Professors Susan Block-Lieb, Kara Bruce, Alexander Sickler, and I spoke at the symposium about how a range of consumer law, finance, and bankruptcy topics converge as issues of access to justice.

We recently posted our accompanying papers (detailed further below) to SSRN. My essay overviews what we know about the barriers people face entering the consumer bankruptcy system, identifies areas for further research, and proposes a couple ideas for improving access to bankruptcy. Susan Block-Lieb’s essay focuses on how cities can assist people dealing with financial troubles. And Kara Bruce’s and Alex Sickler’s co-authored essay reviews the state of FDCPA litigation in chapter 13 cases in light of Midland Funding v. Johnson and explores alternatives to combat the filing of proofs of claim for stale debts.

Continue reading "Access to Justice, Consumer Bankruptcy Edition" »

Hurry Up and Wait: The Weinstein Co. Chapter 11 Hearing #6

posted by Melissa Jacoby

All Credit Slips readers are old enough to remember when a quick going-concern sale of The Weinstein Company was said to be imperative. So much so that even the seemingly skeptical creditors' committee ultimately went along, thus making the request to sell the company to Lantern Capital uncontested.

On June 22, at its 6th hearing, and about 6 weeks after the court's sale approval, TWC essentially acknowledged it cannot close the sale to its stalking horse bidder on the terms requested and approved by the court, and certainly not by the end of June as represented at hearing #5. TWC therefore will be seeking court approval for Lantern to acquire the company for less money than the agreement and court order specified. By the creditors' committee's calculation, TWC is seeking a 11% reduction in the cash price, but that estimate is one of several points of contention between it and TWC. Given the dates and deadlines in various financing orders and deals, TWC said the issue absolutely positively must be resolved in early July - while the presiding judge is out of the country. The parties did not embrace the presiding judge's suggestion of a popular federal court tool: mediation by a fellow sitting judge. So a key outcome of the June 22 hearing is that a different Delaware bankruptcy judge will preside over a July 11 hearing on changing the TWC/Lantern deal. That judge already has held a quickly-scheduled telephonic status conference today, June 25 (see dockets ##1106, 1107).

As an outside observer not privy to the negotiations, I have no idea whether this deal will close. Perhaps due to lack of imagination, I have never understood how a potential purchaser could be deemed the highest and best bid for a company without a basic understanding what contracts and licenses were included. Meanwhile, especially if it was true that some competing bidders could not meet the deadline due to inability to get information from TWC in a timely fashion, significantly changing the deal without resuming some competitive process seems troubling.

No one at the June 22 hearing disputed that general unsecured creditors would be directly affected by TWC's request to change the terms of the sale. But the judge implied some skepticism by asking whether, say, "very secured" creditors have reason to care. The answer depends, it seems to me, on how  "very secured" is determined, due to allocation issues among entities in the TWC corporate family. If there was ever a case to highlight why one should resist the assertion of a single waterfall, it is this one.

 

 

Ohio v. American Express

posted by Adam Levitin

The Supreme Court handed down a disastrous antitrust opinion in Ohio v. American Express.  In a 5-4 opinion the Court's conservative majority held that the district court failed to properly define the relevant market because it looked only at the merchant-side of Amex's business, not the also the consumer side.  The case has far-reaching implications for any so-called "two-sided" markets--basically platform markets that connect buyers and sellers.  Justice Breyer wrote a lengthy and very lucid dissent that tries furiously to cabin the scope of the majority's opinion (explicitly arguing that most of it is dicta).

I'm not going to try to parse through the analysis in the case here, but suffice it to say Justice Thomas's opinion reads like the sort of just-so arm-chair law-and-economic analysis that the academy has largely moved beyond. Justice Breyer scores a lot of points in his dissent.  Damningly, he points out some findings of fact by the District Court that the majority simply wouldn't address, most notably that Amex was able to raise prices 20 times over 5 years without losing appreciable market share and that most of the price increases were retained by Amex, not passed through to its cardholders.  Under any market definition, that should be pretty convincing evidence of an exercise of market power. 

There is also a pretty embarrassing factual mistake in Justice Thomas's opinion.  He writes "Visa and MasterCard earn half of their revenue by collecting interest from their cardholders, Amex does not.”  Visa and MasterCard don’t make ANY money from interest. Their issuer banks do, but their issuer banks are not the networks. If the Court can't get this level of factual description right, it doesn't leave me with much confidence in its ability to parse the economics.

I don't think this ruling completely shuts the door on credit card antitrust litigation, but it makes it harder--plaintiffs will have to plead facts about the consumer half of the card market.  Given that only a fraction of interchange fees actually get passed through to consumers in the form of rewards, I think it's still possible for plaintiffs challenging anti-steering rules to make a case—indeed, I don't see what prevents the state plaintiffs in the case from simply repleading their case, as the decision that now stands is simply that they did not prove their case because they didn't prove market power.  There's no double-jeopardy issue in civil suits, and res judicata here only covers the question of market definition. 

File This Under Calling BS on Bankruptcy Fearmongering

posted by Jason Kilborn

As anyone familiar with bankruptcy would have predicted, the dire predictions of disaster for municipalities seeking bankruptcy protection have proven to be ... let's just say exaggerated. Bloomberg is out with a notable story this morning on Jefferson County's healthy return to the bond market, carrying an investment-grade rating of AA-  within five years of emerging from municipal bankruptcy. This squares with similar accounts of consumers rehabilitating their credit within two to four years of a chapter 7 liquidation-and-discharge (see, for example, here and here). Let's all file this in our "lying liars and their bankruptcy impact lies" file and be prepared to continue to counter this, among the many, many other, bankruptcy scare myths to be debunked.

Combatting Fear of Abuse--A Sisyphean Task?

posted by Jason Kilborn

Over the past few weeks, at conferences with judges and policymakers in Varna (Bulgaria), Seoul, and Beijing, I've been confronted with a surprising degree of skepticism about personal insolvency systems and fear of opportunistic individuals abusing the ability to evade their debts (especially while hiding assets). I've pointed out the interesting progression identifiable in Europe in recent years of a marked relaxation of such fear of abuse, especially in places like France and most recently Slovakia, which have gone all the way to adopting a very US-like open-access system to immediate discharge. For the real skeptics--and they are numerous in Bulgaria and China, both of whom are considering adopting their first personal insolvency laws--these arguments seem to fall on more or less deaf ears. Detractors put me in a no-win situation by offering one of two rejoinders: (1) the incidence of discovered abuse is low in these systems because debtors are crafty or anti-abuse institutions are weak, or (2) anti-abuse institutions like the means test and restrictive access hurdles are successfully dissuading abusers from seeking access, so we need more--not less--of this kind of effort (which I've criticized as wasteful, unnecessary, and counterproductive). A common third response is the classic "we're different" position--that is, any comparative empirical evidence from elsewhere is irrelevant to the new, entirely unique context of [insert skeptical country's name here].

Continue reading "Combatting Fear of Abuse--A Sisyphean Task?" »

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