postings by Mark Weidemaier

Kindred Nursing Centers--More on Arbitration and State Contract Law

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Kindred Nursing v Clark, an arbitration case in which the Kentucky Supreme Court declined to enforce arbitration agreements between a nursing home and two patients. The agreements had been executed by relatives holding powers of attorney granting broad authority to enter contracts, but the Kentucky Supreme Court held that a power of attorney must specifically grant the authority to agree to arbitration. It was clear--as it often is--that the U.S. Supreme Court would reverse. The Kentucky rule just can’t be squared with governing federal arbitration law. Put simply, state law can't say that a broadly-worded power of attorney grants authority to enter contracts generally, except for arbitration clauses. Not surprisingly, then, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed in a 7 to 1 opinion authored by Justice Kagan.* The dissent wasn’t on the merits, either; Justice Thomas does not believe the Federal Arbitration Act applies to proceedings in state court.

I teach contracts and arbitration law, among other classes, and I find it increasingly frustrating to teach arbitration cases. So many involve plausible applications of contract law (like Kindred) but get the arbitration law flatly wrong. Others involve questionable applications of contract law or related doctrines, seemingly to avoid the effect of arbitration law. Here’s a recent case by the Maryland Court of Appeals, Cain v Midland Funding, which falls into the latter camp.

Continue reading "Kindred Nursing Centers--More on Arbitration and State Contract Law" »

More Thoughts on Ukraine

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Having had a few days to digest the ruling awarding summary judgment to the trustee (suing at the direction of the Russian government), I wanted to elaborate on my earlier thoughts about the court's reasoning. As Anna points out, the ruling may be appealed, and in any event the dispute will not be settled for some time. But the recent ruling may be the most significant to come out of the case, so it's worth talking about in a bit more detail. I have already described the defenses Ukraine raised in response to the lawsuit, so I'll skip those details here. In brief, however, Ukraine argued that the loan was made under duress, that the government lacked capacity to enter it, and that the loan included implied terms equivalent to the doctrines of prevention or impracticability--i.e., that Russia implicitly promised not to seek repayment if its own conduct (annexation of Crimea and military intervention in the east) made it difficult or impossible to repay.

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Ukraine's Defenses to Russian Bond Claims Rejected

posted by Mark Weidemaier

The judge hearing Russia's lawsuit to enforce its $3 billion loan to Ukraine issued an opinion today, rejecting Ukraine's defenses to the lawsuit. Bloomberg and the Financial Times both have coverage of the decision. We've discussed the loan quite a bit here on Credit Slips, and also Ukraine's defenses to enforcement (e.g., here, and here, and here). The lawsuit is fascinating, in part because Ukraine's defenses ask the judge to use traditional contract law doctrines to police what is clearly an international dispute between sovereigns who have been engaged in armed conflict. As I have explained in more detail elsewhere, Ukraine's contract-law arguments were actually quite plausible, though by no means a sure thing. Among others, the defenses included duress (always a bit of a stretch, in my view), lack of capacity, and what would typically be called prevention and impracticability under U.S. law (characterized as implied terms of the contract by Ukraine).

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Inter-Creditor Duties in Sovereign Debt

posted by Mark Weidemaier

This is a joint post by Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier

As we discussed in a couple of earlier posts, we have been thinking recently about the use of exit consents to restructure sovereign debt, especially in the context of Venezuela and PDVSA, the state oil company. Though focused on corporate workouts, Bill Bratton and Adam Levitin's new paper, The New Bond Workouts, raises questions that also matter in the sovereign context. Bratton and Levitin give a detailed account of the Second Circuit's Marblegate opinion, a 2-1 decision that seems to authorize very aggressive use of the exit consent technique. (Creditors were essentially given a choice between accepting the restructuring plan or being left with claims against an entity that was nothing more than an empty shell.) Bratton and Levitin generally approve of the Second Circuit's decision, but also suggest that courts should revive the doctrine of intercreditor good faith to police against coercive workouts of bond debt.

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Scotexit and Allocating the UK's Debt

posted by Mark Weidemaier

This is a joint post by Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier.

Scotland voted 62% in favor of remaining in the EU in last June's Brexit vote. Now, with nationalism on the rise in Britain, Scotland has begun to rethink the decision to stay in the UK. Fears of a so-called "hard exit," in which Britain foregoes easy access to the common market, have Scottish leaders like Nicola Sturgeon demanding another referendum on Scottish independence. Which has us wondering: What happens to the (rather large) pile of UK debt if one of its members decides to exit?

It seems like voters in Scotland ought to care about the answer, if given another chance to vote on UK membership. More broadly, one would think voters would want some idea how the UK's assets and liabilities would be divvied up. Things like the public debt, the crown jewels, pension obligations to veterans, the nuclear arsenal, Balmoral castle, and so on. The UK has a lot of stuff. How should it be divided?

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Bankruptcy and Non-Bankruptcy Options for PDVSA

posted by Mark Weidemaier

This is a joint post by Mark Weidemaier and  Mitu Gulati.

We have talked before about the possibility that Venezuelan state-owned oil company PDVSA will need to restructure. With oil prices still low, the early-2017 gloom about the company's economic prospects hasn't lifted. True, the company and its sovereign owner have managed to stave off default for a while now; perhaps this can continue. But restructuring is a real possibility. In our international debt finance class this year, we have been asking students to think about how a restructuring might work.  

For PDVSA the options basically come down to bankruptcy and the use of exit consents. We talked about the latter option--basically a voluntary exchange offer in which participating bondholders also vote to eliminate contractual protections in the old bonds, making them less attractive to hold--in an earlier post. For many corporations, bankruptcy would be the preferred option, if only to benefit from the automatic stay of creditor collection efforts. But PDVSA's bankruptcy options are limited. It is a Venezuelan company, and Venezuelan bankruptcy law is not ideal for debtors seeking to restructure. Plus, in order to be worth anything, a Venezuelan bankruptcy proceeding would need to be recognized in the United States, likely under Chapter 15 of the Bankruptcy Code. It isn't clear that a Venezuelan proceeding would merit such recognition. Nor is it clear that PDVSA meets eligibility requirements under US bankruptcy law. Still, bankruptcy offers the only mechanism for imposing restructuring terms on dissenting creditors, and that is what PDVSA most needs (with regard to its bond debt, anyway).

Euro-Area Redenomination Risk and the Gold Clause Cases

posted by Mark Weidemaier

This is a joint post by Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier.

Odds seem to be against a Marine Le Pen victory in the French presidential election, though a victory by Emmanuel Macron is hardly assured. And there continues to be chatter about redenomination risk in Europe, to the point that, according to a recent Deutsche Bank estimate, even short-term German bonds were factoring in a 5% risk of redenomination. Last week, in our class on international debt finance, we discussed the so-called Gold Clause cases from the 1930s. Though ancient history in some respects, the cases offer important lessons for some of the debates regarding redenomination risk. First, though, some background.

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A Century of... Not Much for Puerto Rico

posted by Mark Weidemaier

This is a joint post by Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier   

March 2 was the hundredth anniversary of the Jones Act, which gave United States citizenship to many inhabitants of Puerto Rico. An act of benevolence? Hardly. The U.S. needed soldiers. The infamous insular cases ensured that, while tens of thousands from Puerto Rico could fight in the U.S. military, they would remain "foreign in a domestic sense." 

Today, Puerto Rico and its municipalities are mired in debt--over $100 billion counting pension obligations. A bizarre exception to the bankruptcy laws prevented it from restructuring much of this debt, although no one seems to know exactly why the exception exists (aside, perhaps, from the fact that Puerto Rico has no representation in Congress). 

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Marblegate and the Use of Exit Consents to Restructure (Venezuelan) Sovereign Debt

posted by Mark Weidemaier

This is a joint post by Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati.

About a decade and a half ago, exit consents were a big deal in sovereign debt restructuring. At the time, sovereign bonds governed by New York law required unanimous bondholder approval before any modification to the payment terms of the bonds. The result was that creditors could easily hold out from a restructuring. Needing to mitigate the holdout problem in Ecuador in 2000, sovereign debt guru Lee Buchheit borrowed a technique from corporate bond restructuring practice in the United States. There, the Trust Indenture Act forbids out-of-court bond exchanges that modify "the right of any holder ... to receive payment ... or to institute suit" without the consent of each affected bondholder. To oversimplify, Buchheit leveraged the fact that other terms of the bonds could be amended with a lesser vote, often a simple majority or 66.67% of the bonds. This meant that potential holdouts risked having key protections stripped from their bonds in a restructuring that won the approval of a majority of bondholders.

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Stripping PDVSA's Assets

posted by Mark Weidemaier

This is a joint post by Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

In a previous post, we talked about how ordinary corporate-law principles, and especially the rules concerning piercing the corporate veil, might play an important role in any debt restructuring conducted by Venezuela or PDVSA, the state oil company. As an example, we cited the fact that PDVSA doesn't own the oil reserves it exploits and the possibility that Venezuela might transfer the right to exploit these reserves to a new entity. Readers who have been following the Venezuelan crisis will recognize that we were not-too-subtly referring to a proposal floated back in October 2016 by Ricardo Hausmann and Mark Walker, writing on Project Syndicate. (Registration required.) In a nutshell, their proposal with regard to PDVSA is that Venezuela can induce PDVSA creditors to participate in a restructuring--conducted either in bankruptcy or through the use of exit consents--by withdrawing or modifying PDVSA's right to exploit hydrocarbon reserves. Essentially, that is, Venezuela can strip the company of its primary productive asset.

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Mr. Regling's "Alternative Facts" About the Greek Debt

posted by Mark Weidemaier

(This is a joint post by Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati.)

In November 2016, Klaus Regling, managing director of the European Stability Mechanism, announced that reforms were going so well in Greece that it would be able to return to the private debt markets by 2017. It's 2017, and neither the markets nor the IMF seem to share the sentiment. Yields on Greek bonds, already high, have increased, and the IMF has concluded the debt is unsustainable. Greece needs an infusion of cash to make a large payment due in July, but the private debt markets aren't willing to oblige.

What does Mr. Regling say? That the IMF (and, apparently, the markets) are wrong; that the ESM's long time horizon and Greece's relatively low debt servicing costs mean there is no cause for alarm (Financial Times, subscription required). Referring to the 174bn euros that the ESM and EFSF have already lent to Greece, he says: "We would not have lent this amount if we did not think we would get our money back." Implication: the IMF and the Euro area nations should lend even more.

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Veil Piercing When a Sovereign Owns the Shares; Venezuela Edition

posted by Mark Weidemaier

This is a joint post by Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati.

At least in the short term, the odds of Venezuela continuing to service its mountain of external debt are looking slightly better, though long-term prospects remain bleak. State-owned oil company PDVSA may be even worse off. A default or restructuring by one or both borrowers will raise issues that are typically peripheral in a sovereign debt crisis. If Argentina's pari passu saga tested the willingness of courts to approve novel injunctions, Venezuela's debt crisis will test the willingness of courts to disregard the legal fiction that corporations are separate legal "persons." That fiction means that a corporation's shareholders are not liable for corporate debts (or vice versa), unless a creditor can "pierce the corporate veil"--i.e., prove the shareholder abused the corporate form to engage in "fraud or inequitable conduct."

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Paul Blustein's Laid Low, and Some Musings on the Next Crisis

posted by Mark Weidemaier

(This is a joint post by Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati)

We jointly teach a class on international debt, focusing on what happens when sovereign governments and the entities they control go bust. We love this class, because we work with our students to design a restructuring plan for a country in financial distress, and our students often come up with terrific ideas. This semester, we're focusing on Venezuela, which would involve an enormously complicated restructuring. One reason is that Venezuela has not exactly cozied up to the IMF, which typically plays a key role in a restructuring. To get a sense of the IMF's role and limitations, we asked our students to read Laid Low, Paul Blustein's new book about how the IMF played a part in managing (and mismanaging) the Greek debt crisis. Blustein is a terrific story-teller, with rare access to key players at the IMF and elsewhere. Although we followed the European debt crisis closely, much of what's in Laid Low was new to us.

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Pari Passu Nevermind

posted by Mark Weidemaier

One last (I hope) gift from the pari passu litigation against Argentina: this opinion ruling that Argentina does not breach its pari passu obligations by paying holdouts like NML (who recently settled claims against the country) or by paying bondholders who had previously participated in its 2005 and 2010 exchange offers. The result was basically a given. The judge was hardly going to lift the injunction only to reinstate it when the next holdout came along. The interesting question was how the judge would distinguish bondholders who refused Argentina's latest settlement offer from bondholders who had refused prior offers.

There was an obvious and sensible answer. Because holdouts already have claims for money damages, the meaning of the pari passu clause isn't all that important unless violation produces a different remedy, such as an injunction. But an injunction is appropriate only when the benefits to the plaintiff exceed the costs to the defendant and third parties. Now that Argentina has made a reasonable settlement offer (in the court's judgment) and obtained the assent of the vast majority of bondholders, an injunction might do more harm than good. Thus, in the opinion linked above, the court holds that, whatever the meaning of the pari passu clause, an injunction would be inappropriate because "significantly changed circumstances have rendered the pari passu injunctions 'inequitable and detrimental to the public interest'" (p. 9). So far, so good. But the opinion doesn't stop there. Instead, the court's primary ruling is that the selective payments Argentina is currently making do not violate the pari passu clause at all.

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Disarming Holdouts in Sovereign Debt Restructurings

posted by Mark Weidemaier

The pari passu litigation against Argentina—discussed extensively here on Credit Slips, on FT Alphaville, and elsewhere—caused many people to worry that future government debt restructurings would become more difficult. Some have their eye on Venezuela as the next to default, though the country and its troubled state-owned oil producer PDVSA stubbornly continue to pay external creditors despite dire economic and humanitarian circumstances. Wherever the next crisis occurs, there will be interest in devising ways to avoid the fate that befell Argentina.

A quick re-cap: federal courts in New York (i) interpreted the pari passu clause in Argentina’s contracts to forbid the country to keep current on its restructured debt unless it also paid holdout creditors in full and (ii) implemented this ruling through an injunction preventing financial and other intermediaries from helping Argentina continue making payments. Some worry that this remedy, if widely applied, could make it impossible to restructure.

So…what to do? Here’s a new proposal from Lee Buchheit (Cleary Gottlieb) and Mitu Gulati (Duke). It’s cute. And it has a clever name: the Cryonic Solution.

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Uber Helps Me Revise My Contracts Syllabus

posted by Mark Weidemaier

I've been meaning to post about this recent decision, by Judge Rakoff in the Southern District of New York, denying motions by Uber and its CEO Travis Kalanick to compel arbitration of a class action lawsuit. More coverage here (Bloomberg) and here (Law360). The lawsuit alleges that Uber suppresses price competition among drivers in violation of the antitrust laws. The court's opinion covers some arcane issues of arbitration law, such as the defendants' argument that the plaintiff had to arbitrate the question whether an arbitration agreement existed. (Answer: No.*) But mostly, the opinion is about contract law--or rather, about how not to design a system for forming contracts on-line.

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Ukraine's Defense: Russian Suit Part of a "Broader Strategy of Aggression"

posted by Mark Weidemaier

It has taken several months, but the Russian Particulars of Claim and Ukraine's Defence (akin to complaint and answer in U.S. civil procedure) have now been filed. Distilled to its essence, Ukraine's response, as the Financial Times notes, is that "if you wanted your money back you should not have invaded our country." Or as Ukraine's lawyers put it in the Defence: "The [Russian] claim forms part of a broader strategy of unlawful and illegitimate economic, political and military aggression ... aimed at frustrating the will of the Ukrainian people to participate in the process of European integration." 

Russia's version of events is straightforward and looks like any other debt case: Russia lent the money, Ukraine committed a breach of contract by not repaying. Ukraine, by contrast, will have a harder time translating its defenses into the dry language of legal doctrine. But it can be done. As I have written here at Credit Slips, and in more detail elsewhere, contract law provides Ukraine with a number of potentially viable arguments. Now that we know the arguments asserted by Ukraine, here are some preliminary thoughts.

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