Among emerging market countries that have needed to restructure in recent decades, Venezuela is uniquely dependent on external commercial ties, especially oil exports to the United States by state oil company PDVSA. Because of this, many wonder whether holdout creditors pose a unique threat to the country's restructuring prospects. Unlike, say, Argentina, which could keep most valuable assets away from creditors, Venezuela must worry that holdouts will seize oil receivables. PDVSA's assets include money due from U.S. customers. These intangible assets are located in the United States, where courts can easily divert them to satisfy judgments obtained by holdouts. Note that this logic assumes that courts treat PDVSA as Venezuela's alter ego--a topic discussed several times on this blog--but the assumption is plausible.
But even if we assume that courts will ignore the boundaries between PDVSA and the government, is the risk of asset seizure really so great? The scenario described above presumes that Venezuela structures oil sales to U.S. entities in implausibly straightforward ways. Suppose, for instance, that PDVSA sells oil directly to U.S. buyers in exchange for a promise to pay on delivery. In that case, sure; creditors of both PDVSA and the government will have a field day. But while I am no expert on how PDVSA structures its operations, I would be stunned if things were so simple.
It seems to me a sign of serious regulatory dysfunction when a government expressly uses bankruptcy law as a means of collection, rather than rescue or at least collective redress, with an aim to treating economic stagnation. I've seen several stories recently like this one, touting the new Indian insolvency law and government regulators' strategy of putting pressure on banks to use involuntary insolvency (creditors' petitions) to clean up the NPL problems of a series of major industrial firms. The notion that insolvency law is about collecting NPLs seems at best anachronistic, and likely at least a sign of major dysfunction in other law or policy.
The right way for one lender (including the government tax collector) to collect one defaulted loan is to engage an ordinary collections process (judgment enforcement)--which itself might well result in the sale of the company, as envisioned in the story linked above. Creditor-initiated bankruptcy/insolvency proceedings should be the nuclear option, engaged only when creditors are worried that the debtor's assets will be dissipated by other enforcing creditors before the later-in-time ones can reach the ordinary enforcement stage. Such cases should be rare. The primary users of modern insolvency law should be debtors responding to positive incentives to seek an orderly opportunity for a global renegotiation of their debts, or an orderly way for the governors of those companies to liquidate and redeploy the assets of their companies more effectively--avoiding in the process a protracted battle about their own liabilities as personal guarantors and/or as directors liable for "insolvent trading."
The subtext of the stories I've seen about the new Indian insolvency law seem to be (1) it does not provide an adequate incentive for debtor-companies to seek either rehabilitation or orderly liquidation when they realize they're in obvious financial distress, (2) the ordinary collections apparatus in India must be totally dysfunctional if banks have no incentive to engage it to deal with their NPLs, (3) the new insolvency law also provides an inadequate incentive for creditors to engage it to seek collective redress, since the government has to put pressure on banks to do so, and (4) all of the work on proper, modern insolvency policy in recent years by UNCITRAL, the IMF and World Bank, and many, many others has been lost on Indian regulators. Especially in developing nations like India and South Africa, the battle over the appropriate, modern role of insolvency law as debtor-initiated rescue or exit, as opposed to old-fashioned creditor-initiated collections, continues to rage.
And so it begins. As Anna notes, Venezuela is in dire straits, yet its stubborn insistence on paying bondholders puts it in the running for "world's slowest train wreck." When the wheels finally leave the tracks, expect a free-for-all in which competing claimants (bondholders, arbitration claimants, etc.) fight to recover as much as possible, both from the government and from state-owned oil company PDVSA. The major players will include creditors holding billions of dollars in arbitration awards against Venezuela. These creditors, unlike those holding government or PDVSA bonds, need not fear a debt restructuring. They will, however, have to find attachable assets that can be seized to satisfy their claims.
Enter Canadian mining company Crystallex, which has been trying to enforce a $1.2 billion arbitration award against Venezuela, so far without success. A few days ago, it tried a new tack--one with broader implications for any restructuring of Venezuela's or PDVSA's debt. Crystallex asked a federal court in Delaware to attach the shares of PDV Holding, Inc., a Delaware company that is the ultimate U.S. parent of CITGO petroleum. PDV Holding is owned by PDVSA, which, in turn, is owned by Venezuela.
Guess who’s sponsoring legislation to facilitate predatory lending? It’s not just the usual suspects from the GOP, but it looks like a number of centrist “New Democrats” are signing up to help predatory financial institutions evade consumer protections.
Yup, you heard me right: Democrats. Ten years after the financial crisis, it seems like we’ve gone back to the mistakes of the Clinton years when centrist Democrats rode the financial deregulatory bandwagon. What I’m talking about is the McHenry-Meeks Madden “fix” bill, the “Protecting Consumers’ Access to Credit Act of 2017”. The bill effectively preempts state usury laws for non-bank finance companies like payday lenders in the name of ensuring access to credit, even if on extremely onerous terms.
Right now there's only one Democratic co-sponsor, but others seem to be preparing to join in. They shouldn't, and if they do sign onto this bill, it should only be in exchange for some solid consumer protections to substitute for the preempted state usury laws. This bill should be seen as a test of whether New Democrats "get it" about financial regulation. I'm hoping that they do. If not, perhaps its time to find some new Democrats.
Time for a CFPB politics update: FSOC veto, Congressional Review Act override of the arbitration rulemaking, Director succession line, and contempt of Congress all discussed below the break.
Last year, I posted about John Oliver's segment on Last Week Tonight dissecting multilevel marketing (MLM) companies (aka pyramid schemes), and proposed a link between personal debt, bankruptcy, and MLM companies. Prominent MLM companies include Amway, Herbalife, the relatively new Rodan + Fields, and the even newer (to me, at least) LuLaRoe, through which women sell brightly-colored stretchy women's and kids' clothing. Indeed, posts about LuLaRoe--complete with mom and daughter wearing matching leggings--increasingly are overshadowing posts about Rodan + Fields in my Facebook feed. Since 2010, the MLM industry has grown 30%. LuLaRoe apparently adds 150 retailers a day (a figure unconfirmed by LuLaRoe). This all makes the MLM industry ripe for budget-crushing debt -- and for more news stories about that debts' effects on people's lives.
Quartz recently published such a piece, aptly titled: Multilevel-marketing companies like LuLaRoe are forcing people into debt and psychological crisis. Although the piece is far from a rigorous study of the financial pitfalls of joining a MLM, it is an interesting and entertaining read. It uses LuLaRoe to highlight the reality of MLMs: lots of self-empowerment language and lots of debt. According to an FTC study cited in the piece, 99% of people who join MLMs lose money.
Last time on Super-Sad Updates, I speculated (i) that the Venezuelan people could be in for more suffering and bondholders for more coupon payments (see Romania), (ii) that Venezuela’s complex debt stock was prone to shell games and inter-creditor conflicts, which could delay a workout (see Puerto Rico), and (iii) that a bet on PDVSA bonds over sovereign bonds today required too many assumptions to hold my shrinking attention span (but see Turkmenistan … or not). Now I try to imagine what might happen if the government did decide to restructure. It brings back memories of …
Market and civil society observers have taken Venezuelan debt restructuring as a certainty for more than two years, putting it in contention for the world’s slowest train wreck and quite possibly the messiest. Designs abound, but even after last weekend’s vote followed by new U.S. sanctions, too many variables remain too far up in the air to start laying the yellow brick pavers quite yet.
Depending on where you sit and how long you stare, Venezuela can present as some, none, or all of many past sovereign debt crises. The tour that starts below with broad-brush analogies is not exhaustive, but still plenty depressing.
Following his appointment of Steven Mnuchin as Treasury Secretary, the President has nominated Joseph Otting, former CEO of OneWest Bank, to be the chief federal bank regulator as head of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The OCC is the bank cop for the nation's largest banks. The OCC determines whether banks are taking too many risks with depositor and taxpayer money, and is charged with preventing failures of banks that are too big too fail, in other words, with preventing the next financial crisis.
OneWest Bank was founded by Treasury Secretary Mnuchin in 2009 primarily to acquire, and foreclose, thousands of troubled mortgage loans made by the failed subprime lender IndyMac. Otting served as CEO of OneWest from 2010 until 2015. The President's two leading bank regulators made considerable fortunes by running this very unusual bank, relying on some big-time government funding.
IndyMac had specialized in "nonprime" mortgages, including no-doc interest-only loans and other toxic products, that failed massively in the foreclosure crisis. IndyMac was the first large federally-regulated bank to fail and be bailed out by the FDIC in 2008.
The California Reinvestment Coalition determined from several Freedom of Information Act requests that the FDIC will pay OneWest $2.4 billion for foreclosure losses on the IndyMac loans. Housing counselors in California identified OneWest as one of the most ruthless and difficult banks to deal with in trying to negotiate foreclosure alternatives on behalf of homeowners. In 2011 OneWest signed a consent decree with the federal banking agencies, neither admitting nor denying the agency's findings that OneWest had routinely falsified court documents in foreclosure cases, the practice known as robosigning. In his Senate confirmation hearing last week, Otting insisted that the regulators' findings of OneWest misconduct were a "false narrative." False or not, OneWest foreclosures, and its deal with the FDIC, do seem to have proven very profitable. Bloomberg estimates that Mnuchin made $200 million from the sale of OneWest in 2015, and Otting earned about $25 million in compensation and severance in his final year at OneWest.
OneWest was acquired by CIT group, one of the few banks that did not repay the taxpayers for their 2008 TARP bailout--the bank filed bankruptcy in 2009, stiffing the taxpayers for $2.3 billion. The bankruptcy reorganization and the shedding of CIT's debt allowed CIT to return to profitability and eventually fund its purchase of OneWest from Mnuchin and his partners.
photo credit Walt Mancin Pasadena Star-News
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