11 posts from December 2017

Is Poland on its Way to Being Expelled From the EU?

posted by Mitu Gulati

Poland has been thumbing its nose at key European Union norms for some time now (refusal to comply with environmental commitments, unwillingness to take refugees, and so on). The most recent and egregious norm violation being the reforms of the judiciary being pushed by the current right-wing ruling party that will (in the view of critics) enable it to stack the judiciary with judges favoring it. These were signed into law by President Duda roughly ten days ago.

The European Commission, the EU’s principal administrative body, viewing these latest actions as inconsistent with basic democratic commitments of all EU nations to rule of law principles (independence of the judiciary and so on), has recommended that Article 7 proceedings be initiated. That could end up stripping Poland of its voting rights in EU matters; something that would be unprecedented in EU history. As a practical matter this is not likely to happen, because the removal of voting rights requires a unanimous vote of the remaining 27 members of the EU, and Hungary (with a government of similar inclinations to the Polish one) is one the members. But in a community that values collegiality and cooperation to a very high degree, this is a big deal (at least to this outsider).

There is a broader question here, that some in the press are already asking, which is whether, at some point soon, Poland’s (and perhaps Hungary’s) refusals to act consistently with EU values can constitute enough of a justification for the rest of the EU to expel them? As I explain below, an argument can be made that no member of the EU can ever be expelled, given that there is no explicit process contemplated in any of the EU treaties for expulsion. But can that really be the case?

Continue reading "Is Poland on its Way to Being Expelled From the EU?" »

Battle of the Bonds: PDVSA Versus Venezuela

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier

Over at Bloomberg, Katia Porzecanski notes that investors in Venezuelan debt are “worried they’re getting ghosted.” Overdue coupons are piling up, and no one is sure whether it is because the government is done paying or because U.S. sanctions have made financial intermediaries slow to process payments. Meanwhile, the government has maintained radio silence about the restructuring it purported to announce six weeks ago. The fact that a few PDVSA coupons have been paid in the meantime prompts Porzecanski to ask whether Venezuela is capitalizing on bondholder inertia to “quietly, selectively default,” and whether the government “may ultimately prioritize PDVSA’s debt over its own.” This Reuters article by Dion Rabouin answers the latter question in he affirmative, opining that Venezuela is more likely to default on its own bonds than on PDVSA’s, for two related reasons. First, PDVSA’s oil revenues are the government’s main source of foreign currency; second, a PDVSA default may prompt creditors to seize oil-related assets abroad, potentially including CITGO.

Continue reading "Battle of the Bonds: PDVSA Versus Venezuela" »

Tax "Reform"

posted by Stephen Lubben

Key takeaways for Slips readers from a Moody's report, dated today:

The legislation is credit negative to the US sovereign, owing to the reality that the cuts do not pay for themselves, and Moody's estimates the cuts will add $1.5 trillion to the national deficit over ten years. Higher deficits will put further pressure on the federal government's finances, which are already facing prospects of increased costs of entitlements. Unless fiscal policy reverses course, Moody's estimates that the federal government's debt-to-GDP ratio will rise by over 25 percentage points over the next decade, to above 100%. Combined with rising interest rates, debt affordability for the US will weaken significantly.

The net impact to state and local governments is negative. While the new $10,000 limit on state and local tax (SALT) deductions does not directly impact state or local tax receipts, it will blunt the effect of lower federal rates for many taxpayers. Because the state and local provisions raise the effective tax cost for many taxpayers, public resistance to tax increases will likely rise, and that in turn will constrain local governments' future revenue flexibility. In addition, if larger federal deficits caused by the tax cuts result in attempts to cut entitlement spending, states will be pressured to backfill cuts to federal funds from their own budgets.

The SALT change, combined with the higher standard deduction and tighter limit on the mortgage interest deduction, also reduces the tax incentive for home ownership, which is likely to slow home construction and sales, and moderately suppress home values and property tax growth in higher-price markets.

 

Comparative Insolvency Conferences of Note

posted by Jason Kilborn

I thought Credit Slips readers might be interested in using some holiday down-time to catch up on a couple of recent comparative insolvency conferences with particularly cutting-edge presentations, some of which are or will be available for viewing online (and many of the papers are available on SSRN or elsewhere).

First, on Nov. 23-24, the Notary College of Madrid offered its spectacular hall to host an international conference on consumer credit information privacy and regulation (day one) and the treatment of insolvency for SMEs and consumers (day two). The second day offered a particularly interesting presentation by one of the leaders of the EU Commission's initiative for a Directive on harmonization of European laws on preventive restructuring and second chance discharge relief (followed by a bit of constructively critical commentary by an American who fancies he knows something about European personal insolvency). Recordings of the entire conference were just posted to YouTube--most of the recordings are in Spanish, but the EU Directive and critical commentary presentations are in English after a short Spanish intro (nos. 8 and 9 of the 10 recordings). Congratulations to the architects of this fabulous event, who also made impressive presentations: Matilde Cuena Casas (Univ. Complutense de Madrid), Ignacio Tirado Martí (Univ. Autónoma de Madrid), and David Ramos Muñoz (Univ. Carlos III de Madrid).

Second, the following week offered a special, rare treat with the conference, Comparative and Cross-Border Issues in Bankruptcy and Insolvency Law, hosted by the Law Review of the Chicago-Kent College of Law. The line-up of panels on both comparative and cross-border issues was particularly impressive, and we were treated to a keynote by Jay Westbrook refining his latest thinking about cross-border coordination. The conference was live streamed, and the recordings are promised in the near future, but for now, the livestream page still has (scroll down to Day 1) the recoding of Adrian Walters's terrific paper on restrictive English interpretation of the notion of international cooperation. Again congratulations to the organizers of this fabulous event (who, again, gave very impressive presentations of their own): Adrian Walters, Chicago-Kent College of Law, and Christoph Henkel, Mississippi College School of Law.

Puerto Rico: Unexpectedly Hilarious Gifts From YouTube

posted by Mitu Gulati

HT: Joseph Blocher & Rich Schmalbeck

Joseph Blocher and I were talking to our tax guru friend and colleague, Rich Schmalbeck, yesterday about the provisions in the new tax bill relating to Puerto Rico and, specifically, how it was that the Puerto Rico could be treated as "foreign" for certain purposes (e.g., taxes on intellectual property).  The context being that these taxes will likely cause some employers to move operations from Puerto Rico to the mainland or elsewhere, thereby worsening the economic crisis on the island.  The answer, best we can tell, goes back to the horribly racist Insular Cases from the early 1900s that allow for Puerto Rico to be treated as "foreign in a domestic sense" (i.e, not on its way to incorporation into the United States - and therefore not worthy of full constitutional protections) -- something that Joseph and I have been railing about (here).

During that conversation, Rich asked us whether we remembered a tourism jingle that ended with "Puerto Rico -- a vacation . . . that lasts a lifetime . . . "   So, of course, Joseph and I went looking for it on YouTube (Rich has a brilliant sense of humor and we knew that we'd laugh if we could find it) . . . we didn't find it (still searching though), but we found a truly hilarious (unofficial, surely) government video touching on many of our favorite topics (debt, colonialism).  For my friends who work on Puerto Rican debt -- this will make you laugh as well, I think --  the video is here

Of course, going down that the YouTube path, takes one back to John Oliver's hilarious riff on the second class status of Puerto Rico, here

And if you watch that, you get taken to this one on the territories.

And then this (the Trump response to Hurricane Maria). For this one, all I can say is Aiyiyiyiyi

John Oliver is able to do harsh social commentary and humor in a way few others can.

And now, I'm watching cat videos.

Call for Commercial Law Topics (and Jargon!)

posted by Melissa Jacoby

For the spring semester, I am offering advanced commercial law and contracts seminar for UNC students, and have gathered resources to inspire students on paper topic selection as well as to guide what we otherwise will cover. But given the breadth of what might fit under the umbrella of the seminar's title, the students and I would greatly benefit from learning what Credit Slips readers see as the pressing issues in need of more examination in the Uniform Commercial Code, the payments world, and beyond. Some students have particular competencies and interests in intellectual-property and/or transnational issues, so specific suggestions in those realms would be terrific. Comments are welcome below or you can write us at bankruptcyprof <at> gmail <dot> com. 

We also are going to do a wiki of commercial law jargon/terminology. So please also toss some terms our way through the same channels as above (or Twitter might be especially useful here: @melissabjacoby).

Thank you in advance for the help!

(Updated) About That Mysterious Crystallex Settlement

posted by Mark Weidemaier

[Update: Here is the unsealed letter describing the settlement between Crystallex and Venezuela. As expected, it reveals nothing of note, simply explaining that the settlement's terms require confidentiality and redacting portions discussing the settlement itself. Also, note that the first paragraph of the original post (below) has been edited for clarity.]

We have covered Crystallex’s attempt to enforce its $1.2 billion judgment against Venezuela a bunch here on Credit Slips (for example, here, here, here, here, and here). In late November, the parties reached a settlement, shortly before a December 5 hearing in Crystallex's lawsuit seeking to attach assets belonging to PDVSA. The hearing was to address Crystallex's argument that PDVSA is the government's alter ego, and PDVSA’s cross motion to dismiss. A ruling in Crystallex’s favor would have let it look to PDVSA’s assets to satisfy its judgment against the government. As noted in the Financial Times, a pro-Crystallex ruling might also have had broader implications, potentially letting “holders of defaulted Venezuelan sovereign bonds ... seek to seize PDVSA assets, potentially including those of Citgo.”

Continue reading "(Updated) About That Mysterious Crystallex Settlement" »

Aurelius v. The Control Board: What is Going On? (Part II)

posted by Mitu Gulati

First, thanks to all of you who emailed and commented with possible answers as to what the Aurelius strategy in challenging the constitutionality of the Puerto Rican Control Board might be (the subject of Part I).  My favorite answer was the simple: “Create Chaos”.  That was followed by another answer: “Once the sheep start panicking, they become easy pickings for the wolves.”  I’m not sure that I understand either strategy, but that’s why I’m not running a multi-billion dollar hedge fund (if I were an investor, I suspect that I’d be one of the sheep trying to avoid being eaten by the wolves).

Second, I want to ask the “What is going on?” question from a different direction this week.  I’ve read or skimmed almost all of the anti-Aurelius briefs in the Aurelius v. The Control Board case now (for background on this, see here). Two things puzzle me about them.  I should say at the outset though that my being puzzled may stem directly from not understanding how these fancy constitutional law cases play out.

  1. Puzzle One: None of the anti-Aurelius briefs provide a clear and coherent explanation of exactly what would be at stake for Puerto Rico, financially, if the Control Board were to be deemed unconstitutional. More crassly, they don’t answer the following question at the outset: How much is it going to cost Puerto Rico if Aurelius wins? 

I'm a realist in thinking about what courts do in tough cases (as contrasted with the “legalist” who thinks doctrine does the overwhelming majority of work in predicting outcomes in all cases).  To my reading, the research tends to show that courts care a great deal about the social costs or policy implications of their decisions.  Yes, of course, they care about doctrine too.  But judges care a great deal about the impact of their decisions on real people (and how their decisions will be viewed in hindsight).

So, if a decision ruling that the Control Board is unconstitutional would impose a huge additional cost on the people of Puerto Rico (who have already suffered so much), and the law isn’t crystal clear, would it not be good legal strategy for the anti-Aurelius lawyers to emphasize that?  Clearly, I’m wrong, since that’s not what the all-star group of lawyers on the anti-Aurelius side have done.  But it puzzles me.

My thinking on this borrows heavily from my brilliant political scientist colleague, Georg Vanberg (see "Financial Crises and Constitutional Compromise”).

  1. Puzzle Two: Isn’t it a high-risk strategy to base key parts of one’s argument (as some of the anti-Aurelius briefs do) on cases that are, for want of a better word, “odious”? The cases here are the Insular Cases, that are an embarrassment. My guess is that many lawyers would at least balk at, if not outright refuse, to cite cases like Plessy or Korematsu as their primary support. And most judges, I’d think, would be mortified at having to turn to those cases for support for their decisions (and would like to be shown less yucky ways to getting to the right outcome by the lawyers).

There is a cool article here on the “Anti-Canon” in constitutional law, by Jamal Greene. Getting more specific, in terms of judges who are likely to be faced with these the Aurelius case on appeal, Judge Torruella of the First Circuit has a wonderful set of articles on the yucky Insular cases (and a thundering speech delivered at Harvard Law, where the key ideas for these awful cases were developed in the early 1900s).  A little more distant: Judge Lynch of the First Circuit has a fascinating recent piece talking about Korematsu (a star member of the Anti-Canon).

Odious Debts: A New Book

posted by Mitu Gulati

Classes are over, which means that I get to finally open some of the fun books that I've been meaning to read. Most of what I read is too low brow for me to have the courage to mention here. Plus, Mark tells me that the books in question have to have at least a distant relationship to credit and law.

A couple of days ago, Mark and I talked about Barak Richman's wonderful "Stateless Commerce".

Here is my next recommendation: Jeff King, The Doctrine of Odious Debt in International Law: A Restatement.

Jeff, who teaches at University College in London, was one of the pioneers in the rejuvenation of the Odious Debt literature in 2003-04, when Saddam's government in Iraq was overthrown.  Indeed, it was his co authored article for a Canadian think tank - the Center for International Sustainable Development Law, that jump-started the literature.  Now, thanks to Jeff and his co authors (and to Saddam too, I guess), there is a large and robust modern literature on the topic.  Along the way, in the years that have followed, Correa in Ecuador and Maduro in Venezuela have helped keep interest in the Odious Debt idea alive through their shenanigans. Indeed, Mr Maduro may end up rivaling Saddam in his contributions to the revival of this doctrine whose origins go back to the days of the Czarist regime in Russia in the early 1900s. As an illustration, sovereign debt gurus Ugo Panizza and Ricardo Hausmann have a nice recent piece in Project Syndicate on the relevance of Odious Debt concepts in the context of Venezuelan debt (they have an idea for an Odiousness rating system).

Slipsters are familiar with the Odious Debt debate, I suspect, since Anna G was one of its pioneers.  Plus, it is fascinating.  Basically, it is a doctrine of international law that says that the debts of "odious" regimes that are utilized for the private illicit purposes of the rulers (and where the creditors almost surely knew this was the case), do not have to be repaid by successor governments. The problem with this doctrine though -- to my mind, and to that of many others like Andrew Yianni, Anna, Mark W, Anupam Chander, Adam Feibelman, Sarah Ludington, Lee Buchheit, Eric Posner, Paul Stephan  -- is that it simply does not exist anywhere in international law (or that the basis for it is very very thin). There are some bits and pieces of historical precedent that one could arguably cobble together; but it strikes me as implausible that any modern court would accept the existence of a doctrine of Odious Debt today -- it is just too outlandish for them to do so without a more solid signal from the international community. At least, that was my view until Jeff's book showed up.

Jeff, in his superb book, argues otherwise -- he thinks there is much more of a basis for a doctrine of Odious Debt (and he very politely calls me out for having my head up my backside).  And while I can't quite bring myself to go over completely to his side, I found myself nodding in agreement with a great deal of his analysis. It is nuanced, careful and thoughtful.  Darn it! I don't think I've changed my mind, but that might simply be because I'm too stubborn.

Continue reading "Odious Debts: A New Book" »

Aurelius v. Puerto Rico's Control Board: What's the Game?

posted by Mitu Gulati

While most of the sovereign debt world is focused on Mr. Maduro’s shenanigans in Venezuela, a fascinating litigation is playing out in federal district court in Puerto Rico.  Aurelius, a hedge fund known to many of us because of the role it played in the legendary pari passu litigation against Argentina, is challenging the constitutionality of the Control Board that was put in place to run Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring (and, essentially, key aspects of its fiscal affairs). 

Elsewhere, Joseph Blocher and I have written about why this suit is exciting for us in the context of our other work on Puerto Rico’s problematic (okay, shameful) second-class status.  Specifically, this Aurelius case, has the potential to get the federal courts to confront the question of what the legal validity today is of a set of infamous cases from the early 1900s (the Insular Cases). We hope that the courts, when faced with arguments that derive their authority from these cases, will clearly say – and there is enough of a basis for them to do so – that the actions and developments of the past 100 years have effectively overruled these cases. These cases, for anyone unfamiliar, are a set of stunningly racist cases produced by many of the same judges who ruled in favor of “separate but equal” in Plessy v. Ferguson.  Oversimplifying, these cases ruled that Puerto Rico and its people, partly because they were not deemed to be civilized enough in the early 1900s, constituted an “unincorporated” territory (that is, so very foreign that they were not on their way to eventual statehood).

So, in a sense, I find myself in the bizarre position that while I am not rooting for Aurelius to win, I hope that their lawsuit ends up getting the Insular Cases condemned, once and for all, as an awful relic of an ugly past.  That said, what puzzles me about this case though is its economics, particularly from the perspective of Aurelius.  What do they get by undermining the Control Board? My assumption here is that a ruling that the Control Board is unconstitutional and that all of the actions it has taken so far are void will be hugely expensive for Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring effort.  After all, one of the key aspects of the Control Board is that it has been given the power to solve the traditional collective action problem that bedevils every sovereign or quasi-sovereign debt restructuring.  Remove the Control Board, and we go back to square one where the creditors are fighting with each other about who has what level of priority and how to avoid giving the holdouts a disproportionate share of the pie. End result: Lawyers get paid a lot, but both the people of Puerto Rico and the creditors (including Aurelius) have a much smaller pie to divide up.

Continue reading "Aurelius v. Puerto Rico's Control Board: What's the Game?" »

Commerce Without Law

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier

We are gearing up to teach our joint class on sovereign debt next term and, as usual, are mulling over background readings to provide context for the work we ask of students—which typically involves designing a restructuring plan. To do this, students must read many long bond indentures and other financial contracts. Occasionally, we show students historical examples of such contracts, often from the era of absolute sovereign immunity, when sovereigns couldn’t be sued in national courts. Often, students ask why lawyers bothered with such extensive documents when there were no courts to interpret and enforce them. Which gives us an opportunity to talk about reputational and other non-legal mechanisms for enforcing promises, which we and many others have written about, probably more than is, strictly speaking, necessary.

Nothing in the sovereign debt literature, however, is as interesting and immediate as Barak Richman’s new book, Stateless Commerce, which explores how a robust system of international commerce can work for hundreds of years without any state involvement. His exemplar, building on classic work by Lisa Bernstein, is the diamond trade. In theory, opportunistic breach of contract should be endemic, given the ease of theft, the highly subjective nature of quality assessments, and the need for credit to acquire such expensive products. So one might expect the trade to flourish only if there are strong legal institutions capable of rigorously enforcing deals. Instead, the enormously profitable global diamond market has operated for decades largely independent of the state.

Continue reading "Commerce Without Law" »

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