4 posts from December 2017

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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