postings by Dalié Jiménez

Stormy Daniels, Donald Trump, and the Role of Arbitration in Ensuring Silence

posted by Mark Weidemaier

[Edited to correct names; too many aliases involved in this one]

For readers who haven't been following along: Stephanie Clifford, aka Stormy Daniels, is an adult film star who allegedly had a sexual relationship with Donald Trump in the mid-2000s. She recently sued Trump and other defendants, seeking to invalidate a settlement agreement in which she was paid to keep silent about the details of the alleged relationship. Here is her complaint, which includes the settlement agreement as an exhibit. And here is some coverage of background details.

The settlement agreement includes an arbitration clause, which should prompt some reflection about the use of arbitration to silence victims of sexual assault (a topic that has attracted attention in the wake of revelations about Harvey Weinstein). On the other hand, people are often too quick to blame arbitration for unrelated problems, so I hope this (long-ish) post can offer a bit of clarity. The short version: Whoever drafted the agreement between Clifford and "David Dennison" gets an A for cynicism, but would have to beg for a C in my arbitration class. (I’m guessing the draftsperson would fail professional responsibility...)

Continue reading "Stormy Daniels, Donald Trump, and the Role of Arbitration in Ensuring Silence" »

Chapter 11 Locale

posted by Stephen Lubben

For nearly two decades, the fact that many really large chapter 11 cases file in two districts has been a point of controversy.  On the one hand, the present system makes some sense from the perspective of debtor’s attorneys, and many DIP lenders, who value the experience and wisdom of the judges in these jurisdictions and the predictability that filing therein brings.  On the other hand, for those not at the core of the present system, it reeks of an inside game that is opaque to those on the outside.  And it is not clear the judges outside the two districts could not handle a big case; indeed, most could.

Where big chapter 11 cases should file is an issue again, at least among bankruptcy folks, given the possibility that the pending Cornyn-Warren venue bill might pass as part of some bigger piece of legislation, perhaps the pending S. 2155 (whose Title IV is so misguided it certainly warrants a separate post).

I have long been frustrated by the discussion of chapter 11 venue.  On the one hand, the present system has developed largely by accident, with little thought for the broader policy implications.  On the other, there is certainly some merit in concentrating economically important cases before judges who are well-versed in the issues such cases present.  The issue calls for careful study, but, as with most political issues these days, we are instead presented with a binary choice.

I have often contemplated concentrating the biggest chapter 11 cases among a group of bankruptcy judges, trained in complexities of multi-state or even global businesses.  A small panel of such judges could be formed in various regions around the country, such that the parties would never have to travel further than to a neighboring state for proceedings.  Geographically larger states – i.e., California and Texas – might comprise regions all by themselves.

Such an approach would ensure that cases would capture some of the benefits of the present system, without the drawbacks of having a Seattle-based company file its bankruptcy case on the East Coast.  Comments are open, what do readers think about developing a nationwide group of "big case" judges?

Education Department Request for Information on Student Loan Discharge in Bankruptcy

posted by Pamela Foohey

Following up on Alan White's post from this morning about the Education Department's draft notice about debt collection laws applicable to student loan debt collectors that prompted a Twitter moment, some more student loan news from the Education Department. Last week, it posted a less Twitter-popular request for information on evaluating undue hardship claims in adversary proceedings seeking discharge of student loan debt. The summary in the request:

"The U.S. Department of Education (Department) seeks to ensure that the congressional mandate to except student loans from bankruptcy discharge except in cases of undue hardship is appropriately implemented while also ensuring that borrowers for whom repayment of their student loans would be an undue hardship are not inadvertently discouraged from filing an adversary proceeding in their bankruptcy case. Accordingly, the Department is requesting public comment on factors to be considered in evaluating undue hardship claims asserted by student loan borrowers in adversary proceedings filed in bankruptcy cases, the weight to be given to such factors, whether the existence of two tests for evaluation of undue hardship claims results in inequities among borrowers seeking undue hardship discharge, and how all of these, and potentially additional, considerations should weigh into whether an undue hardship claim should be conceded by the loan holder."

Responses must be received by May 22, 2018.

Why Not Accelerate and Sue Venezuela Now?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

People have been asking for months when investors will accelerate PDVSA and Venezuela bonds that have fallen into default. Rumor has it that some investors have already done so. But there seems to be a consensus that investors aren't in a hurry. U.S. sanctions prohibit a debt restructuring, and few investors are eager for the legal battle that would follow acceleration. But we’re wondering if this view misses something important and unique to the Venezuelan crisis. It seems to us that investors who file suit may be able to negate most of the Republic's and PDVSA's restructuring tools, significantly enhancing leverage when a restructuring finally does occur and making it easier to hold out. So we’re a bit puzzled why some of the more aggressive investors aren’t already rushing to get judgments.

Continue reading "Why Not Accelerate and Sue Venezuela Now?" »

Preempting the states: US Ed to shield debt collectors from consumer protection

posted by Alan White

As if the power to garnish wages without going to court, seize federal income tax refunds and charge 25% collection fees weren't enough, debt collectors have now persuaded the Education Department to free them from state consumer protection laws when they collect defaulted student loans. Bloomberg News reports that a draft US Ed federal register notice announces the Department's new view that federal law preempts state debt collection laws and state enforcement against student loan collectors. This move is a  reversal of prior US Ed policy promoting student loan borrower's rights and pledging to "work with federal and state law enforcement agencies and regulators" to that end, as reflected in the 2016 Mitchell memo and the Department's collaboration with the CFPB.

Customer service and consumer protection will now take a back seat to crony profiteering by US Ed contractors. This news item has prompted a twitter moment.

Merit Mgmt. Group LP v. FTI Consulting Inc.

posted by Adam Levitin

The Supreme Court weighed in today on one of the the most important circuit splits in the bankruptcy world, namely the scope of one of the section 546(e) safe harbors from avoidance actions in bankruptcy.  Section 546(e) has two safe harbors, one for "settlement payments" and the other for transfers "made by or to (or for the benefit of) a ... financial institution ... in connection with a securities contract … commodity contract… or forward contract…”. This latter safe harbor had been read (ridiculously) broadly by some of the courts of appeals, as every non-cash transaction has to go through some sort of financial institution.  Specifically, imagine a transaction in which funds are moving from A to D, but go through intermediary financial institutions B and C:  A-->B-->C-->D.  Can D shelter in the fact that the transfer went through financial institutions B and C?  

The Supreme Court unanimously said no, and I think they clearly got the right result, although I fear the methodology the court used may ultimately be unhelpful for those who think that fraudulent transfer law has an important role to play in policing the fairness of financial markets and preventing against excessively risky heads-I-win, tails-you-lose gambles.  

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Seventh Circuit Victorious Again in Merit Mgmt

posted by Jason Kilborn

If you're challenging a Seventh Circuit ruling in a bankruptcy case on appeal to the Supreme Court, especially if (retired) Judge Posner was in the majority, you've got a challenge ahead. The Court's announcement this morning of its judgment in Merit Management Group v. FTI Consulting demonstrates this yet again. Long story short: paying for stock via a bank transfer (rather than a bag of money) is still a transfer from the buyer to the seller, not the buyer's and seller's banks, and therefore not "by or to ... a financial institution." That is, such transfers are not protected by the securities safe harbor provision in section 546(e) and are subject to avoidance as constructive fraudulent conveyances and/or preferences. The seeming silver-bullet arguments to the contrary in this battle of "plain meanings" apparently remained unarticulated and unavailing (see footnote 2 in the Court's opinion, suggesting someone up there might be reading CreditSlips!). Other big winners in addition to the Illinois-based Seventh Circuit are University of Illinois College of Law professors Charles Tabb and Ralph Brubaker, both of whom are cited prominently and approvingly in the opinion. Congratulations, Illinois!

The Student Loan Sweatbox

posted by Alan White

Studentloandebtballchain Student loan debt is growing more rapidly than borrower income.  The similarity to the trend in home loan debt leading to the subprime mortgage bubble has been widely noted. Student loan debt in 1990 represented about 30% of a college graduate’s annual earnings; student debt will surpass 100% of a graduate’s annual earnings by 2023.  Total student loan debt also reflects more students going to college, which is a good thing, but the per-borrower debt is on an unsustainable path. Unlike the subprime mortgage bubble, the student loan bubble will not explode and drag down the bond market, banks and other financial institutions. This is because 1) a 100% taxpayer bailout is built into the student loan funding system and 2) defaults do not lead to massive losses. Instead, this generation of students will pay a steadily increasing tax on their incomes, putting a permanent drag on home and car buying and economic growth generally. Student loan defaults do not result in home foreclosures and distressed asset sales. They result in wage garnishments, tax refund intercepts and refinancing via consolidation loans, and mounting federal budget outlays. In many cases, borrowers in default repay the original debt, interest at above-market rates, and 25% collection fees. In other words, defaulting student loan borrowers will remain in a sweatbox for most of their working lives. Proposals to cut back on income-driven repayment options will only aggravate the burden, further shifting responsibility for funding education from taxpayers to a generation of students.

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Central Bank Immunity - Don't Miss

posted by Anna Gelpern

This is an important intervention about a massively important topic that comes up over and over again in sovereign restructurings, and will come up in more and more interesting ways in the next few years.

Short version here.

New Saudi Bankruptcy Law ... A Boon for SMEs?!

posted by Jason Kilborn

Saudi Arabia's King Salman has approved a new bankruptcy law. {Download Saudi BK final 2-2018} Commentators have heralded this new law as a boost to economic reforms, in particular to the SME sector, but I have some serious doubts about this. A member of the Shura Council, the King's advisory body, is quoted in one report as explaining "[t]he idea is to simplify and institutionalise the process of going out of business so new organisations can come in." That latter part--new businesses coming in--requires individual entrepreneurs, either the one whose business just failed or new ones, to embrace the major risks of starting a new venture. In either event, a crucial aspect of an effective SME insolvency law, and I would argue THE most crucial aspect, is a fresh start for the failed entrepreneur (and a promise of such a fresh start for potential entrepreneurs). This fresh start is promised and delivered most effectively by provision conferring a discharge of unpaid debt. The new Saudi law all but lacks this key provision. Article 125 on the bottom of page 50 is quite clear about this: "The debtor's liability is not discharged ... for remaining debts other than by a special or general release from the creditors." It seems highly unlikely to me that creditors will offer such releases with any frequency. Yes, the new law provides a useful framework for negotiating restructuring plans, and the Kingdom deserves praise and respect for finally adopting such a measure. But the lack of a law- imposed discharge following liquidation when creditors are not willing to agree is not a foundation for a thriving SME recovery (though I understand and respect the reason why the Saudi law lacks an imposed discharge). Most SMEs are not enterprises--they are entrepreneurs; they are people, not businesses. Leaving these people to bear the continuing burden of unpaid debt does not, in my mind, reinvigorate failed entrepreneurship or entice others to join the movement. I'm afraid the effects on the SME sector of this law will be muted at best. I hope I'm wrong. 

How S.2155 (the Bank Lobbyist Act) Facilitates Discriminatory Lending

posted by Adam Levitin

If you think it's ridiculous that the CDC can't gather data on gun violence, consider the financial regulatory world's equivalent:  S.2155, formally known as the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act, but better (and properly) known as the Bank Lobbyist Act.  S.2155 is going to facilitate discriminatory lending. Let me say that again.  S.2155 is legislation that will facilitate discriminatory lending. This bill functionally exempts 85% of US banks and credit unions from fair lending laws in the mortgage market.  Support for this bill should be a real mark of shame for its sponsors. 

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Bankruptcy Venue Reform -- Yes, Again, But Maybe This Is the Time?

posted by Bob Lawless

As many Credit Slips readers will know, chapter 11 venue reform has been an issue for decades. As corporate filers have flocked to the Southern District of New York and the District of Delaware, the real reason some observers say is that these courts favor corporate managers, dominant secured lenders, bankruptcy attorneys, or a combination of all of them. Regardless of the merits of these claims, it certainly undermines respect for the rule of law when faraway federal courts decide issues affecting local interests. A great example comes from right here in Champaign, Illinois, where local company Hobbico has recently filed chapter 11. The company, a large distributor of radio-control models and other hobby products, has more than $100 million in debt. The company has over 300 employees in the Champaign area who own the company through an employee stock ownership plan. Yet, the company's fortunes are now in the hands of a Delaware bankruptcy court.

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People’s Pre-Bankruptcy Struggles -- New Paper from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project

posted by Pamela Foohey

The current Consumer Bankruptcy Project (CBP)’s co-investigators (myself, Slipster Bob Lawless, and past Slipsters Katie Porter & Debb Thorne) just posted to SSRN our new article (forthcoming in Notre Dame Law Review), Life in the Sweatbox. “Sweatbox” refers to the financial sweatbox—the time before people file bankruptcy, which is when they often are on the brink of defaulting on their debts and lenders can charge high interest and fees. In the article, we focus on debtors’ descriptions of their time in the sweatbox.

Based on CBP data, we find that people are living longer in the sweatbox before filing bankruptcy than they have in the past. Two-thirds of people who file bankruptcy reported struggling with their debts for two or more years before filing. One-third of people reported struggling for more than five years, double the frequency from the CBP’s survey of people who filed bankruptcy in 2007. For those people who struggle for more than two years before filing—the “long strugglers”—we find that their time in the sweatbox is marked by persistent debt collection calls, the loss of homes and other property, and going without healthcare, food, and utilities. And although long strugglers do not file bankruptcy until long after the benefits outweigh the costs, they still report being ashamed of needing to file.

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Other (Non-Religious) Non-Profit Organizations Also File Bankruptcy

posted by Pamela Foohey


NumberNRYesterday I posted about the number of religious organizations that filed chapter 11 between 2006 and 2017, and how their filings track fluctuations in consumer bankruptcy filings during those years. Non-religious non-profit organizations also file chapter 11, but in fewer numbers than religious organizations. As shown in this graph, between 2006 and 2017, a mean of 44 other non-profits filed chapter 11 per year (note: I count jointly-administered cases as one case).

 In comparison, a mean of 79 religious organizations filed chapter 11 per year between 2006 and 2017. Over these twelve years, 36% of all chapter 11 cases filed by non-profit organizations were filed by non-religious non-profits.

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Churches Are Still Filing Bankruptcy

posted by Pamela Foohey

Not only are religious organizations still filing under chapter 11. As in prior years, they continue to file under chapter 11 in line with fluctuations in consumer bankruptcy filings. Find a couple graphs below to show this. But first, some background.

In my prior work, I analyzed all the chapter 11 cases filed by religious organizations from the beginning of 2006 through the end of 2013. (I define any organization with operations primarily motivated by faith-based principles as religious.) I found that these chapter 11 cases were filed predominately by small, non-denominational Christian churches, which mainly were black churches (80% of more of their members are black). And, also, that the timing of the filings tracked consumer bankruptcy cases (chapters 7, 11, and 13), not business bankruptcy filings, but lagged by one year. That is, if consumer bankruptcy filings decreased in a given year, religious organizations' chapter 11 filings decreased in the next year. I linked this result to how religious organizations' leaders came to think about using bankruptcy to deal with their organizations' financial problems.

NumbersSince my original data collection, four years has passed. I thus recently identified all the religious organizations that filed under chapter 11 between the beginning of 2014 through the end of 2017. During these four years, religious organizations continued to file, but in smaller numbers per year, as shown in this graph (note: I count jointly-administered cases as one case).

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Strip, Swap, Restructure

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu and I have been posting jointly of late about restructuring options for PDVSA and Venezuela. Alas, I’ll have to write this one myself, because it’s time to talk about an idea that Mitu and Lee Buchheit have proffered for restructuring much of PDVSA’s debt. Their proposal has important similarities to one by Adam Lerrick (also described briefly here and in more detail in the Financial Times), so I’ll cover both.

Both proposals are laudably clear-eyed about some fundamental aspects of the Venezuelan debt crisis. First, if it ever made sense to view PDVSA and the Republic as separate credits, that time is long past. Second, for a restructuring plan to be feasible, it must simplify an enormously complicated debt stock and encompass more than bond creditors. Thus, while neither creates a mechanism for encompassing all of PDVSA’s liabilities, both the Lerrick and Buchheit/Gulati proposals envision a restructuring of both bond debt and the pesky promissory notes that PDVSA has issued to trade creditors. The latter instruments are especially problematic from a restructuring perspective, because they lack contract-based mechanisms for modifying their terms. Finally, both proposals recognize that something must be done to protect oil-related assets, including future receivables, from holdouts.

These shared assumptions result in similar proposals. The difference is in the details, which turn out to be important. Let’s call the Lerrick proposal Strip, Swap, Restructure.

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Wacky Warehouse Lien Scam

posted by Adam Levitin

The US Trustee's office just prevailed in a sanctions case against a law firm with a most creative fee scam.  To oversimplify (and leave out certain other issues of bad behavior), the law firm steered debtors who owned cars in which they had zero equity into an arrangement in which the debtor's car would be towed for an (unpaid) fee by an affiliated firm and then stored in Indiana. The existing auto lender would never be notified of any of this. The affiliate would then assert a warehouseman's lien for the unpaid fee and foreclose on the car, and use the sale proceeds to pay back the fee and pay the debtor's bankruptcy filing fee to the law firm, with the auto lender getting nothing. 

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Financial Education Isn't Consumer Protection

posted by Adam Levitin

The CFPB is out with its Strategic Plan for FY 2018-2022, also known (without any apparent irony) as The Five Year Plan.  Lots to chew on in this doozy, starting with this:

If there is one way to summarize the strategic changes occurring at the Bureau, it is this: we have committed to fulfill the Bureau’s statutory responsibilities, but go no further. Indeed, this should be an ironclad promise for any federal agency; pushing the envelope in pursuit of other objectives ignores the will of the American people, as established in law by their representatives in Congress and the White House. Pushing the envelope also risks trampling upon the liberties of our citizens, or interfering with the sovereignty or autonomy of the states or Indian tribes.

I've written about envelope pushing and Mick-Mulvaney-Think previously, but there's two new things here.  First there's the claim that going beyond the Bureau's statutory responsibilities violates the will of Congress.  (Note the unusual addition of "the White House" to the formulation.)  Narrowly that's uncontroversial, but the way Mulvaney-Think approaches the Bureau's statutory responsibilities, if there isn't a statutory clearly and directly prohibiting something, then there's no prohibition. Standards-based regulation is gone, even if that is exactly what Congress (and the White House when the bill was signed into law) demanded.

Second, there is a curious solicitousness for the rights of states and Indian tribes.  The CFPB has never previously been accused of trampling the rights of states, but the inclusion of states is all the more confusing given the Bureau's newfound commitment to protecting the sovereignty of Indian tribes. The only relevance of Indian tribes to the CFPB is that a few of them partner with "fintechs" in rent-a-tribe schemes to avoid state regulation, particularly state usury laws. It would seem that upholding state sovereignty and rights would require cracking down on rent-a-tribe schemes; the idea that a tribe has immunity for commercial activities extending outside of tribal lands is clearly wrong--were it so all of federal law could be subverted. It looks like someone forgot to remove the "states rights" talking point from the usual GOP talking points deck because someone didn't realize that it conflicts with the new tribal rights talking point.  Oops.  

But let's turn the the actual plan itself, not just the opening rhetoric. I'm only going to focus here on item number 1:  more financial education. This might qualify as Worst. Consumer. Protection. Idea. Ever. 

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Letting the Money Changers Back in the Temple

posted by Alan White

Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 2.36.55 PMGolden Valley Lending, Inc. is a payday lender that charges 900% interest on consumer loans sold over the internet. Golden Valley relies on the dubious legal dodge of setting up shop on an Indian reservation and electing tribal law in its contracts to evade state usury laws. In April 2017 the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau filed an enforcement action asserting that Golden Valley and three other lenders were engaged in unfair debt collection practices because they violated state usury laws, and also failed to disclose the effective interest rates, violating the federal Truth in Lending law (enacted in 1969).  Screen Shot 2018-02-12 at 2.35.39 PM

 Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s interim appointee to direct the CFPB, has now undone years of enforcement staff work by ordering that the enforcement action be dropped.  The advocacy group Allied Progress offers a summary of Mulvaney’s special interest in protecting payday lenders, in South Carolina and in Congress, and the campaign contributions with which the payday lenders have rewarded him.

 

 

Catch Veinte Dos

posted by Mitu Gulati

A few days ago, Mark and I put up a post on the possibilities of using Chapter 15 bankruptcy for Venezuela's state-owned company, PDVSA.  In response, we received a number of terrific comments, both via email and in the comments section.

One of the particularly interesting points that was made to us (both in email and in one of the comments), that we had not raised was the following: 

PDVSA is not just a Venezuelan company; it is the Venezuelan company -- the company responsible for generating 95% of the foreign currency earnings of the entire country.  Placing the fate of PDVSA into the hands of a bankruptcy judge poses an existential risk to the economy and to the government as the sole owner of the company unless, of course, the government can control the outcome of the insolvency proceeding.  But insolvency proceedings in which the equity owner of the bankrupt enterprise can control the outcome are not proceedings likely to be recognized or enforced by foreign courts.

Catch Veinte Dos?

The foregoing also brings up a slightly different question that Bob Rasmussen asked when he was visiting us last week, which was whether the bankruptcy proceeding could be conducted in a manner such that the 100% equity holder (who would normally have to turn over control to the debt holders in an insolvency) could retain all or almost all of the equity.  After all, it does seem clear that Venezuela is not going to accept giving up full control of PDVSA.  Bob did have some very interesting thoughts as to how this might be done in a purely domestic context.  The question that remained though was whether something similar could be engineered for the foreign state-owned company context that wasn't going to give up any control of the process.  But more on this later

 

Trump’s “Draining the Swamp” Scorecard: One Year In

posted by Mitu Gulati

Donald Trump came into office promising, among other things, to “drain the swamp” and get rid of all that corruption.  One year in, how are things looking in terms of swamp draining? 

The following is based on work with my super co author, Stephen Choi, of NYU Law School.

To answer (at least partially) the question posed at the start, we have analyzed data on Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) enforcement actions under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act – the primary U.S. statute that gets at, among other things, bribes to influence foreign officials with payments or rewards. 

We report data that compares SEC enforcement actions against public companies and subsidiaries of public companies under the FCPA from both the final year of the Obama administration and the first year of the Trump administration. We focus on public companies and subsidiaries of public companies because these are the larger economic actors that affect the economy. The Department of Justice also has authority to bring actions, but there were 0 actions brought by the DOJ against public companies and subsidiaries of public companies during the period we examined (although the DOJ has brought several actions against non-U.S. reporting issuers including a number of prominent foreign companies).

Image1

Figure I, we think, speaks for itself. On the graph, actions brought during the Trump months (from January 20, 2017 to January 31, 2018—roughly Trump’s first year) are in red, those during the Obama months (January 1, 2016 to January 19, 2017) are in blue. As compared to SEC enforcement activity under the Obama administration, the SEC under the Trump administration, appears to have taken a pause from FCPA swamp cleaning activities. For those who saw our report on partial year information (up to the end of September 2017) here, some months ago – the story has only become clearer with the passage of more time).  

The data is from the Securities Enforcement Empirical Database (SEED),a collaboration between NYU and Cornerstone Research.  It tracks SEC FCPA actions from January 1, 2016 to January 31, 2018. SEED defines a public company as a company with stock that trades on the NYSE, NYSE MKT LLC, NASDAQ, or NYSE Arca stock exchanges at the start date of the SEC enforcement action (note that this includes both U.S. incorporated and foreign incorporated companies). 

There, of course, are caveats as to what else might be going on.

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Student loans - the debt collector contracts

posted by Alan White

Twelve senators have just written EWKHto Education Secretary Betsy DeVos questioning why the Education Department continues to award lucrative contracts to debt collection firms, and criticizing the seriously misaligned incentives embedded in those contracts.

While most federal student loan borrowers deal with loan servicing companies like PHEAA, Navient and Nelnet, defaulting borrowers in an unlucky but sizeable minority (roughly 6.5 million) have their loans assigned to debt collectors like Collecto, Inc., Pioneer Credit Recovery, and Immediate Credit Recovery Inc. Borrowers assigned to collection firms immediately face collection fees of 25% added on to their outstanding debt. The collection firms harvest hundreds of millions of dollars in fees, mostly from federal wage garnishments, tax refund intercepts, and new consolidation loans borrowers take out to pay off old defaulted loans. Wage garnishments and tax refund intercepts are simply involuntary forms of income-based repayment, programs that could be administered by servicers without adding massive collection fees to student debt. Similarly, guiding defaulted borrowers to consolidation loans, and putting them into income-driven repayment plans, are services that servicing contractors can and do provide, at much lower cost. In short, the debt collector contracts are bad deals for student loan borrowers and bad deals for taxpayers.

 According to a Washington Post story, one of the collection firms to be awarded a contract this year had financial ties to Secretary DeVos, although she has since divested those ties. In other news, the current administration apparently reinstated two collection firms fired under the prior administration for misinforming borrowers about their rights. More in-depth analysis of the collection agency contract issue by Center for American Progress here.

PDVSA's Debt Restructuring: The Chapter 15 Option

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier

This past week, Bob Rasmussen of USC Law gave a talk at Duke on “Puerto Rico and the Netherworld of Sovereign Debt Restructuring.” Luckily for us, he also took a detour to UNC to talk to our International Debt students about whether PDVSA might use Chapter 15 of the Bankruptcy Code to restructure its debts. Our foil for that discussion was a recent paper by Rich Cooper (Cleary Gottlieb) and Mark Walker (Millstein & Co.) proposing Chapter 15 as a possible solution to PDVSA’s woes. This is one of a number of extant restructuring proposals for Venezuela and PDVSA; Lee Buchheit (working with Mitu) has published several others (here, here, and here). The Cooper and Walker proposal is the only one to explore the Chapter 15 possibility in detail, and it thoughtfully makes the case for that restructuring option. In very condensed form, the proposal is for Venezuela to pass a new bankruptcy law governing PDVSA and other public sector entities, for PDVSA to restructure its debts using that process, and then for PDVSA to ask courts in the U.S. to recognize that bankruptcy under Chapter 15.

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Bankruptcy's Lorelei: The Dangerous Allure of Financial Institution Bankruptcy

posted by Adam Levitin

I have a new (short!) paper out, Bankruptcy's Lorelei:  The Dangerous Allure of Financial Institution BankruptcyThe paper, which builds off of some Congressional testimony from 2015, makes the case that proposals for resolving large, systemically important financial institutions in bankruptcy are wrongheaded and ultimately dangerous. At best they will undermine the legitimacy of the bankruptcy process, and at worst they will result in crash-and-burn bankruptcies that exacerbate financial crises, rather than containing them.  The abstract is below.

The idea of a bankruptcy procedure for large, systemically important financial institutions exercises an irresistible draw for some policymakers and academics. Financial institution bankruptcy promises to be a transparent, law- based process in which resolution of failed financial institutions is navigated in the courts. Financial institutions bankruptcy presents itself as the antithesis of an arbitrary and discretionary bailout regime. It promises to eliminate the moral hazard of too-big-to-fail by ensuring that creditors will incur losses, rather than being bailed out. Financial institutions bankruptcy holds out the possibility of market discipline instead of an extensive bureaucratic regulatory system.

This Essay argues that financial institution bankruptcy is a dangerous siren song that lures with false promises. Instead of instilling market discipline and avoiding the favoritism of bailouts, financial institution bankruptcy is likely to simply result in bailouts in bankruptcy garb. It would encourage bank deregulation without the elimination of moral hazard that produces financial crises. A successful bankruptcy is not possible for a large financial institution absent massive financing for operations while in bankruptcy, and that financing can only reliably be obtained on short notice and in distressed credit markets from one source: the United States government. Government financing of a bankruptcy will inevitably come with strings attached, including favorable treatment for certain creditor groups, resulting in bankruptcies that resemble those of Chrysler and General Motors, which are much decried by proponents of financial institution bankruptcy as having been disguised bailouts.

The central flaw with the idea of financial institutions bankruptcy is that it fails to address the political nature of systemic risk. What makes a financial crisis systemically important is whether its social costs are politically acceptable. When they are not, bailouts will occur in some form; crisis containment inevitably trumps rule of law. Resolution of systemic risk is a political question, and its weight will warp the judicial process. Financial institutions bankruptcy will merely produce bailouts in the guise of bankruptcy while undermining judicial legitimacy and the rule of law.

English v. Trump Amicus Brief

posted by Adam Levitin

Slipsters/Slips Guest Bloggers Kathleen Engel, Dalié Jiménez, Patricia McCoy and I submitted an amicus brief (with numerous other co-signors) to the DC Circuit in support of appellant Leandra English in English v. Trump, which, despite its caption is not about assault and battery, but about who is the rightful acting Director of the CFPB.  We believe that the text, legislative history, and order of enactment of the relevant statutes makes clear that the Consumer Financial Protection Act, not the Federal Vacancies Act control.  We further argue that there are particular problems with the OMB Director serving as the acting Director of the CFPB given that OMB has certain oversight roles vis-à-vis CFPB, but is also in other case specifically precluded from exercising control over CFPB.  

The Bootstrap Trap

posted by Adam Levitin

I just had the pleasure of reading Duke Law Professor Sara Sternberg Greene's paper The Bootstrap Trap.  I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in the intersection of consumer credit and poverty law.  The paper is chok full of good insights about the problems that arise when low-income households strive for the goal of self-sufficiency, which results in the replacement of a public welfare safety net with what Professor Sternberg Green describes as a private one of credit reporting and scoring systems.  The paper shows off Professor Sternberg Greene's training in sociology with some amazing interviews, particularly about the perceived importance of credit scores in low-income consumers' lives.  

Other respondents referred to their credit reports or scores as “the most important thing in my life, right now, well besides my babies,” as “that darned thing that is destroying my life,” and as “my ticket to good neighborhoods and good schools for my kids.” Many respondents believed that a “good” credit score was the key to financial stability.

One respondent, Maria, told a story about a friend who was able to improve his score. She said, “He figured out some way to get it up. Way up. I wish I knew what he did there, because I would do it. Because after that, everything was easy as pie for him. Got himself a better job, a better place to live, everything better.” Maria went to great lengths to try to improve her score so that she, too, could live a life where everything was “easy as pie.”

Credit scores have become a metric of self worth and the perceived key to success.  

Continue reading "The Bootstrap Trap" »

Mick-Mulvaney-Think

posted by Adam Levitin

A couple of weeks ago there appeared a remarkable memo written by Mick Mulvaney (who claims to be the Acting Director of the CFPB) to the CFPB staff. The Financial Institutions practice group at Davis Polk, one of the top financial institution practices nationwide, seems to have elevated the ideas expressed in the memo into what one might call “Mick-Mulvaney-Think.”

The basic idea behind Mick-Mulvaney-Think is “a deep commitment to the rule of law as a philosophical concept and as an important brake on agency discretion in the administrative state.” In other words, agencies should not undertake any discretionary actions, but only enforce clear violations of express statutory prohibitions. There are two problems with this idea.

Continue reading "Mick-Mulvaney-Think" »

Jayfest and Bankruptcy Cases in the Supreme Court

posted by Jason Kilborn

Most of us Credit Slipsters enjoyed an absolutely fabulous symposium over the weekend celebrating the illustrious career of one of our own, Jay Westbrook. The Texas Law Review will publish a selection of several of the papers presented at the symposium (and TLR editors pulled off an amazing feat of organization in coordinating the travel and other logistics for this major event--kudos to them). All of the presentations were cutting-edge and extremely impressive, and many are available on the SSRN profiles of the authors listed in the symposium program. I want to highlight just one that I thought would be of particularly broad interest to Credit Slips readers.

The always impressive Ronald Mann described his recently released book, Bankruptcy and the U.S. Supreme Court. In his characteristically insightful and probing way, Mann looks into the private papers of the Justices for evidence of how and why they decide bankruptcy cases as they do. In his fascinating presentation at the symposium, he challenged conventional explanations of why the Court has construed the law to provide generally narrow relief (not only because of their boredom with the subject matter and/or a supposed adherence to narrow construction of statutory language) and offered provocative explanations based on, among other things, the presence (or absence) of a federal agency to advance a case for broader relief. The introduction of this new book immediately brought to my mind another recent and impressive analysis of Supreme Court bankruptcy jurisprudence, Ken Klee's Bankruptcy and the Supreme Court: 1801-2014. But Mann's latest contribution really seems to add something valuable, illuminating, and entertaining. Readers of this great new book will not find themselves, as Mann described one Justice's reaction to an oral argument, "in sleepy distress." Check it out, and watch for what will be a value-packed Texas Law Review symposium issue.

House Financial Services Fintech Hearing

posted by Adam Levitin

This Tuesday I'm going to be testifying about "fintechs" before the House Financial Services Committee's Subcommittee on Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit.  My written testimony on this impossibly broad topic is here.  It contains lots of good stuff on the so-called Madden Fix bill, "true lender" legislation, data portability, federal money transmitter licensing, small business data collection, and the need for a general federal ability-to-repay rule.    

The Pari Passu Strategy in Venezuela

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Should Venezuela worry that holdout creditors will use the strategy that NML Capital and other holdouts successfully used against Argentina? In this article, The Pari Passu Fallacy—Requiescat in Pace, Lee Buchheit and Andrés de la Cruz at Cleary Gottlieb argue not. Lee in particular has made no secret of his distaste for the “ratable payment” interpretation of the pari passu clause. (As many readers know, he is also Mitu’s longtime collaborator.) When interpreted to require ratable payments, the pari passu clause requires a government to pay holdouts in full if it intends to pay restructuring participants in accordance with the terms of their debt instruments. In Argentina’s case, the injunction resulted in another massive default, as the government refused to pay holdouts but could not find a way around the injunction.

Lee and Andrés argue that NML’s pari passu strategy was essentially killed by the person who gave it life, the late Judge Griesa. To oversimplify a bit, the judge’s initial decision--and a decision years before in Brussels in a case involving Peru and Elliott Associates--strongly implied that selective nonpayment is enough to violate the pari passu clause. That is, a government violates the clause simply by paying some equally-ranked creditors but not others. And, crucially, he remedied this breach by issuing an injunction barring everyone with any connection to the United States from cooperating in the continuing violation of the pari passu clause. Without that remedy, Argentina would simply have defied his ruling and continued to stiff holdout creditors.

Continue reading "The Pari Passu Strategy in Venezuela" »

Student loans - the other debt crisis

posted by Alan White
Screen Shot 2018-01-26 at 11.21.36 AM
Brookings Institute 2018

In a low unemployment economy, an entire generation is struggling, and millions are failing, to repay student loan debt. As many as 40% of ALL borrowers recently graduating are likely to default over the life of their student loans, according to a recent Brookings Institute analysis. Total outstanding student loan debt is approaching 1.5 trillion dollars, exceeding credit card debt, exceeding auto loan debt. Two other key points from the Brookings analysis: 1) for-profit schools remain the primary driver of high student loan defaults, and 2) black college graduates default at five times the rate of white college graduates, due to persistent unemployment, higher use of for-profit colleges and lower parental income and assets.

The rising delinquency (11% currently) and lifetime default rates are all the more disturbing given that federal student loan rules, in theory, permit all borrowers to repay based on a percentage of their income. Most student loans are funded by the U.S. Treasury, but administered by private contractors: student loan servicers. Study after study has found that student loan borrowers are systematically assigned to inappropriate payment plans,  yet the U.S. Education Department continues renewing contracts with these failing servicers. The weird public-private partnership Congress has created and tinkered with since the 1965 Higher Education Act is broken.

Unmanageable student loan debt will saddle a generation of students with burdens that will slow or halt them on the path to prosperity. Student loan collectors have supercreditor powers, to garnish wages and seize tax refunds without going to court, to charge collection fees up to 40%, to deny graduates access to transcripts and job licenses, and to keep pursuing debts, zombie-like, even after borrowers go through bankruptcy and discharge other debts. Recent graduates cannot get mortgages to buy homes, even if they are not in default, because their student loan payments are taking such a bite out of their monthly incomes. State legislatures have piled on educational requirements for a variety of entry-level jobs (nurse's aides, child care workers, teachers, etc.) while cutting state funding for public colleges and increasing tuition: unfunded job mandates. Finally, the combination of high debt and the harsh consequences of default are widening the racial wealth and income gaps.

Current reform proposals would make a bad situation worse. For example, it is difficult to see how increasing the percentage of income required for income-based repayment plans will help student borrowers, nor how extending the repayment period before loan retirement would reduce defaults. What is needed instead is to 1) deal with the for-profit school problem, 2) restore the state-level commitment to funding public colleges, 3) fix the broken federal student loan servicer contracting, 4) rethink the collection and bankruptcy regime for student loans and 5) repeal the student loan tax, i.e. the above-cost interest rates college graduates pay to the Treasury. Among other things. More on these themes in later posts.

An Update on the Lerrick Nomination

posted by Mitu Gulati

Among the multiple offline comments that I received on our post yesterday was a piece of information updating us on the Lerrick nomination and the drama with the Irish SPV that held Argentine debt (the one where a local children's charity was a trustee).  Two sources emailed to say that that the Irish SPV issue may be a thing of the past given that folks have discovered that the US Exim Bank has used the identical structure for virtually every major aircraft financing over the last 25 years (apparently this is publicly available information). 

This is not to say that the nomination is now going to sail through.  New drama can always show up (daily drama seems to be the defining characteristic of this administration).

Venezuela Errata: Airline Deposits and Administration Posts

posted by Mark Weidemaier

By Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier

The new semester has begun, and we are excited about the International Debt class we teach together, with students from both UNC and Duke thinking about the Venezuelan debt crisis. Their first task—and ours—is figuring out how much Venezuela owes, to whom, and under what contract terms. This year, we have been especially unreasonable, asking students, in just a few weeks, to find, read, and code all relevant contract terms for the entire unmatured bond debt of Venezuela and PDVSA. And the bond debt is only part of the story. For instance, another category of debt, which we haven’t encountered before, consists of local currency (bolivar) bank deposits of international airlines that fly routes to and from Venezuela, which the airlines are not-so-patiently waiting to convert into other currencies.

Continue reading "Venezuela Errata: Airline Deposits and Administration Posts" »

Aurelius Seeks a Do-Over; Puerto Rico and the Appointments Clause Litigation

posted by Melissa Jacoby

The lives of Puerto Rico residents remain profoundly disrupted by the aftermath of Hurricane Maria measured by metrics such as electricity, clean water, and health care access, with death tolls mounting. This week, though, in a federal court hearing on January 10, 2018, Puerto Rico has the extra burden of confronting Hurricane Aurelius.

Continue reading "Aurelius Seeks a Do-Over; Puerto Rico and the Appointments Clause Litigation" »

The Hausmann Addendum to the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Ricardo Hausmann, Harvard economist and former Venezuelan Planning Minister, has been a thorn in the side of the Maduro administration. His blog posts at Project Syndicate condemning the Maduro administration’s continued payment of bondholders while the people of Venezuela starve may well have deterred new lending to the regime. Among other things, Hausmann-induced opprobrium at Goldman Sachs’s infamous "hunger bond"—now trading at a deep discount--has scared many in the market. For more background, check out Cardiff Garcia’s FT podcast interview with Hausmann.

Hausmann’s latest Project Syndicate post goes well beyond complaining about the ethics of Wall Street bond investors. Hausmann first sets out his view of the political realities, in which Maduro’s manipulation of elections and co-option of the military negate any realistic chance for the political opposition to overthrow the regime, notwithstanding U.S. economic sanctions. Given the severe humanitarian crisis, astonishing depletion of national wealth, rampant inflation, widespread corruption, and other harms inflicted or exacerbated by the Maduro regime, Hausmann advocates military action by the United States and like-minded nations. The other nations presumably include countries like Peru, Colombia, Honduras, Argentina, and Chile, all signatories to the Lima declaration condemning the Maduro regime. 

Continue reading "The Hausmann Addendum to the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine" »

Implications of the Third Circuit’s Crystallex Decision

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

On Wednesday, the Third Circuit granted Venezuela a victory in its ongoing settled-but-not-settled litigation with Crystallex. The case deals with a limited issue: Whether Delaware law imposes liability for the fraudulent transfer of an asset on an entity that is not itself a debtor.  We want to use this post to speculate a bit about the implications the decision may have for the bigger Venezuelan debt drama. If the new decision is important, it is because it signals something about the receptivity of US courts toward claims that Venezuela, PDVSA, and perhaps US entities like CITGO are “alter egos.” We disagree a bit about that question. But first, some background on this aspect of the Crystallex case.

Continue reading "Implications of the Third Circuit’s Crystallex Decision" »

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.

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Alter Ego and Alter Id, Venezuela Edition

posted by Anna Gelpern

Venezuela is really really careening sideways into chaotic default. We know this not just because it has been missing payments and the ISDA Determinations Committee said so, but also because the government seems to be in a hurry to hand out what assets it might have to what claimants might show up on its doorstep with a credible threat to do ... something. ... or just to make them go away and buy another five minutes of delusional gambling for resurrection.

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OLC Legal Opinion and the Missing Legislative History

posted by Adam Levitin

The OLC's Legal Opinion on the CFPB succession is out. It's available here.  Three observations. 

First, the OLC opinion dispenses with the idea that only the FVRA, not the CFPA governs succession. That's an important point in terms of how the issue will likely be argued. The White House isn't bound to argue the OLC's analysis, but this strongly indicates that the White House isn't going to argue that the CFPA doesn't provide for succession.  

Second, the opinion argues that the FVRA exists as an alternative to the CFPA. The basis for this analysis is some of the FVRA's legislative history, prior OLC opinions, and a single circuit court opinion. The problem with the OLC's analysis, however, is that both the part of the legislative history cited, the previous OLC opinions (both about 28 USC 508 and OMB) and the circuit court opinion on the NLRB General Counsel deal with the effect of the FVRA on existing statutes. As I noted in a prior post, the Senate Report on the FVRA is very clear that existing statutes are treated differently than future statutes under the FVRA. For existing statutes, the FVRA is an alternative to the succession mechanism detailed in the statute. The Senate report specifically mentions this for the Attorney General, the OMB, and the NLRB General Counsel positions. Congress was of course able to do this because a later statute can always override an earlier one.  

But for future statutes, the FVRA is either exclusive or does not apply.  As the Senate report notes: 

"[W]here Congress provides that a statutory provision expressly provides that it supersedes the Vacancies Reform Act, the other statute will govern. But statutes enacted in the future purporting to or argued to be construed to govern the temporary filling of offices covered by this statute are not to be effective unless they expressly provide that they are superseding the Vacancies Reform Act." S. Rep. 105-250, 1998 WL 404532 at *15 (emphasis added).  

This would have to be the case because one Congress cannot tie the hands of a future Congress.  At most they can set up a default rule, but Congress if passed a law providing that one statute would always provide an alternative method of appointment no matter what any future Congress wanted to do, a future Congress would not have to repeal such a statute to avoid its application to a new office, only make clear that it did not apply to the new office.  In other words, the different treatment of existing and future statutes makes a lot of sense.  The CFPB is, of course, under a future statute, unlike all of the cases the OLC has addressed in the past.  That would suggest that the OLC's past opinions, on which it heavily relied in this opinion, were of limited value.  Yet strangely the above quoted language received no mention in the OLC opinion. I don't know if the OLC just overlooked it or what, but I think it really undermines the legislative history part of the OLC's argument, as well as the OLC's reliance on its past opinions and on the 9th Circuit opinion regarding the NLRB General Counsel. Instead, what we're left with is the statutory text, and that's ambiguous on its own. Once one plugs in this bit of legislative history, however, then I think it seems that the OLC just got it wrong. 

Third, check out the last paragraph in Part III of the OLC opinion. It really doesn't flow from the prior paragraphs or, for that matter, fit in Part III.  Part III is about whether the CFPB's independent status changes anything. But the final paragraph is about the legislative history of the CFPA's succession provision and whether that indicates that the FVRA applies. That's an issue that more properly relates to the Part I of the opinion, which is also discussing the same provision. This is just a guess, but my sense is that the final paragraph in Part III was a last minute addition to the memo. If so, it means that OLC wrote Part I without having properly dug through the legislative history....

Legal Malarkey from the White House about the CFPB Putsch

posted by Adam Levitin

We now have a CFPB succession crisis with a Director and a Pretender. The White House did a press briefing this morning to put out its case for why Mick Mulvaney is the rightful acting Director of the CFPB. I expected that the White House would argue that the Federal Vacancies Reform Act controls the succession, not the Consumer Financial Protection Act.  Curiously, the White House made a different argument.  The White House's argument is not that the Consumer Financial Protection Act does not provide a succession mechanism. The White House appears to acknowledge that it does.  Instead, the White House contends that the Federal Vacancies Reform Act stands as an alternative to the CFPA, and the choice between which mechanism to use is the President's. This argument appears underresearched and just not well-thought through.  The White House's position fails textually, on the legislative history, and as a matter of logic. 

Continue reading "Legal Malarkey from the White House about the CFPB Putsch" »

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