265 posts categorized "Sovereign Debt"

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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

(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.

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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.

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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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Domination Isn't (Always) Fraud: Venezuela Edition

posted by Mark Weidemaier

I made a joke in the comments to Mitu’s post about whether the arrest of Citgo executives strengthened the argument for treating Citgo as Venezuela’s alter ego. The joke wasn’t very good; I called Venezuela a “typical activist shareholder.” But Mitu generously took it seriously, asking whether this is the kind of behavior creditors should have expected. His question highlights some interesting legal questions. One is whether a creditor who knows about shareholder misconduct before voluntarily dealing with a corporation should be able to enforce its claims against shareholder assets. A second has to do with the legal standard for finding a corporation and its shareholder to be alter egos.  

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Mr. Maduro Writes an Exam Question on Veil Piercing

posted by Mitu Gulati

It is that time of the year; where one of the excuses I use to escape Thanksgiving dinners that have degenerated into to food fights over our current president is: "I have to go write my exam questions".

This year though, for those writing Corporations exams, Mr. Maduro has written an exam question whose facts I could not have imagined.  I don't know the answer, but this is a topic that Mark W has written a brilliant article on already (even he didn't quite imagine these facts though) and Anna G has thought about too (and maybe has an article in the offing). So, I'm throwing this out in the hope that they might answer it.

Put simply, the question is:

Has the risk of the corporate veil of PDVSA (Venezuela's state-owned oil company) being pierced increased significantly after Mr. Maduro fired six of the top executives of Citgo, the refining arm of PDVSA (Citgo a Delaware corp, wholly owned by PDVSA).  Officially, the charges are of corruption; but it is quite possible that they are trumped up (at least, let us assume that for purposes of the hypothetical exam question). Reality, the NYT suggests, is that Mr. Maduro is trying to use the arrests of the executives (four of whom are US citizens) to build political support. His administration has described the alleged corruption as "putrid" (that's a new one).

As background, creditors of Venezuela who have been defaulted on, have already been trying to get at PDVSA's assets, by arguing that PDVSA and the Republic are, for all purposes, one and the same and should be viewed that way.  And at least one such creditor, Crystallex (a Canadian company) has made considerable progress in its suit.

Put another way: Have Crystallex's chances of victory suddenly increased?

My two cents is a Yes. The more Mr. Maduro uses these subsidiaries as his playthings for non-corporate purposes (and particularly purposes that were not disclosed to creditors ex ante), the more likely is a court likely to decide the veil piercing is appropriate. After all, if Mr. Maduro won't respect that separate status of the subsidiaries, why should the court?

Old Wine in New Bottles: Geopolitics and Venezuela's Debt

posted by Mark Weidemaier
Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati
 
Robin Wigglesworth and John Paul Rathbone have an insightful piece in the Financial Times on how China, Russia, and the US are jockeying for position in Venezuela, which needs debt relief. The other governments are in a position to either facilitate or impede this, with conditions. Very roughly speaking, Russia wants regional influence, China wants oil, and the US wants regime change (ideally, while limiting Russian and Chinese influence in the region).
 
Finance has long been both a tool of, and a pretext for, foreign intervention in Latin America. For example, historian Emily Rosenberg and others have written about “dollar diplomacy”—the US government’s early-20th century practice of tying loans to control over customs and taxing authorities. The practice was justified by narratives about the benefits of financial expertise and professionalization, but of course it also served to protect the interests of US lenders while limiting the influence of European powers. Venezuela is no stranger to this history, having endured heavy-handed and often brutal interventions by western powers in the early 1900s.

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Why Didn't Puerto Rico Use its "Local Law" Advantage to Reduce its Debt?

posted by Mitu Gulati

Good academic workshops are hard to run. I know, because this is a task that I have failed at, and continue to fail at, repeatedly.

For that reason though, it is a treat to see someone else run their workshop successfully. I was at one recently that was spectacularly run: Jill Hasday's Public Law workshop at the University of Minnesota. The setting is intimate: a small group of students and faculty gathers in the late afternoon (without wine -- which I usually think of as being key) and they take apart whatever paper is the focus of the discussion. Indeed, after about an hour, the paper that is being discussed almost becomes secondary to the idea that the participants have by then honed in on as being central.  My colleague, Joseph Blocher, and I were lucky enough to have our paper "Puerto Rico and the Right of Accession" be deconstructed last week and it was a special treat for the both of us.  We have a concrete measure for whether a workshop was good (taken from our dear friend, Steve Choi): Did it help generate ideas for a new paper?  This workshop gave us at least three.  That's more than any other workshop I've been to. I don't know how Jill inspires her students or what magic potion her colleagues who attend take, but I want the secret sauce to use next semester at my workshop series with Guy-Uriel Charles.

The one question that Jill, Daniel Schwarcz and at least two students asked that keeps bugging me is: Why didn't Puerto Rico use the fact that the overwhelming majority of its bonds were governed by its own local law to directly restructure it?  Couldn't Puerto Rico have passed a set of laws to enable it to engineer a sharp reduction of its debt?  Greece did precisely that in March 2012; and it faced constitutional protections of property and prohibitions on expropriation very similar to what Puerto Rico would have (as an aside, the challenges to the Greek restructuring of 2012 -- and there have been dozens of suits filed -- have failed so far).  Indeed, the US did something like this with the gold clauses in the 1930s, to jumpstart the economy and get it out of the depression (actions that withstood legal challenge in a set of famous cases such as U.S. v. Perry).

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Venezuela's Debt: Is the Game Afoot?

posted by Mitu Gulati

Mitu Gulati & Mark Weidemaier

The confusion over the status of Venezuelan debt over the past week has been remarkable. The government and its oil company, PDVSA, have, variously, defaulted, promised to pay, paid, claimed the money got stuck in bank purgatory, gotten a Russian bailout, triggered CDS contracts, hosted sham restructuring talks (with gift bags!), and more. All while humanitarian conditions worsen. The charade of being able to meet debt obligations may be nearing its end. The prevailing narrative is that investors are willing to be patient as long as they think the government wants to pay. But the investor mix may also be changing. Have the vultures (i.e. distressed debt investors) arrived?  

Two recent articles suggest that the answer is close to being a yes. In this article, from a couple of days ago, Landon Thomas of the NYT reports that, while more traditional investors are beginning to pull out, others who specialize in distress scenarios, like David Martinez of Fintech (a “mysterious” figure, Landon tells us), are entering. The next day, Bloomberg’s Katia Porzecanski published an interview with Jay Newman, formerly of Elliott Associates and infamous for leading the pari passu litigation against Argentina, who seemed very knowledgeable about the legal risks in Venezuelan bonds. (He is ostensibly retired, but one wonders if Venezuelan debt might tempt him out of retirement).

The Bloomberg story highlights an interesting difference of opinion. The markets seem to view PDVSA bonds as significantly safer than Republic bonds. Jay Newman views the former as near-worthless. Why the difference?

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Confusion in Venezuela; Alter Egos in Delaware

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Confusion reigns. Venezuela might plan to default, but maybe it's just pretending so it can buy bonds back on the cheap. Then again, it could be a "giant money laundering operation." If there are restructuring talks, U.S. investors can attend, and listen. Except that the talks will likely be hosted by a drug "kingpin," and investors can't have any "transactions or dealings, directly or indirectly" with that person. And don't ask whether PDVSA's late(ish?) payment was a credit event, or what the CDS payout will be on bonds that have experienced a credit event despite having been paid in full.

Thankfully, the law is clear, right? Here's PDVSA motion to dismiss the lawsuit Crystallex has filed in federal court in Delaware, alleging that PDVSA is Venezuela's alter ego and seeking to enforce an arbitration award against the government by attaching PDVSA's equity stake in the ultimate U.S. parent of CITGO. Here's a summary of the arguments the parties have made thus far. The case matters, first, because if successful Crystallex will sever PDVSA's indirect ownership stake in CITGO. It also matters because, as we've discussed here repeatedly, any debt restructuring will implicate questions of alter ego liability. For instance, many restructuring proposals begin by urging Venezuela to withdraw PDVSA's right to exploit oil reserves, so as to better insulate oil-related assets from creditors. This short article explains some of the issues of alter ego liability raised by these and other proposals.

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Puerto Rico, its Control Board and the "Two-Step Plan" Story

posted by Mitu Gulati

It is rare that the ideas in academic articles fundamentally change the world. A package of pieces by Clay Gillette and David Skeel (starting with "Governance Reform and the Judicial Role in Bankruptcy" in 2014, followed by a NY Times Op Ed in 2015,  and concluding with "A Two-Step Plan for Puerto Rico" in 2016) have arguably done just that though. The context, as many slipsters have written about, was the enormous financial crisis that Puerto Rico has been mired in for multiple years now. The three Gillette-Skeel articles were the foundation for the institution of a federal control board to displace the local elected authorities in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and, in their place, run Puerto Rico's debt restructuring.

Oversimplifying, the idea is that there are occasions when an electoral system becomes so dysfunctional in its running of the local government's operation that a more command-based system needs to be put in place temporarily. Clay has an aptly titled piece "Dictatorships for Democracy" that also explicates this idea. In political economy terms, the problem that Clay and David attack in their pieces is the one where the local competition among electoral candidates is, for whatever reason, consistently delivering severely sub-optimal local governance -- a consistently bad electoral equilibrium that eventually produces a severe government bankruptcy. And the way to get out of the bad equilibrium, they argue, is a temporary dictatorship (aka control board) that is not beholden to the kinds of political interests that were causing the dysfunction.

The question of why the local government system in Puerto Rico produced such immense fiscal mismanagement is a complicated one.  I am inclined to put a big portion of the blame for bad governance on the fact that Puerto Rico has not been allowed to meaningfully govern itself in the same fashion as the states for over a century ("foreign in a domestic sense" and all that). That said, it is hard to argue with the observation that, whatever the reason, Puerto Rico seems to be stuck in a bad governance equilibrium that it needs to be pushed out of. And Clay and David have provided one solution that might just work. (My preferred solution would be that Puerto Rico be allowed meaningful governance rights at the federal level, but no one in Washington DC seems to be willing to give them that).

Two things got me thinking about their idea over the past few days, and induced me to write this post.  First, the hearing on the legal challenge to the constitutionality of the control board is coming up soon (based on a challenge from a NY hedge fund).  Second, there was an interesting article Simon Davis-Cohen of The Nation (a lengthy piece about Clay and David and their ideas) that appeared about a week or so ago. Davis-Cohen's article, to my mind, manages to be both admiring of the ideas and goals that Clay and David have and also question the whether they are appropriate in the Puerto Rican context.

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Venezuela is Defaulting, Maybe . . . Maybe Not

posted by Mitu Gulati

The news out of Venezuela with regards to its debt situation has been keeping investors (who love the high returns, but dislike the uncertainty) in a tizzy, to put it mildly. But today's news was perhaps the most bizarre yet.  Mr. Maduro, on the one hand, announced that PDVSA (the big state-owned oil company that produces 95% of Venezuela's foreign currency earnings) was making its latest payment to creditors (due today) and, on the other hand, announced that a restructuring was being planned immediately.

What? Why? How?

If the plan is to restructure because there is no money, then why were the payments today (and a few days ago) made? That makes no sense to my little brain.

And how in the world is there going to be a restructuring when there are US sanctions prohibiting just that? Through some Russian proxy? Or Chinese? Via a loophole in the sanctions regime?

Katia Porzecanski, sovereign debt guru, has a super article up on this puzzle already at Bloomberg (with co authors Patricia Laya, Ben Bartenstein, and Christine Jenkins).

Venezuelan Debt: Call a Spade a Spade

posted by Mitu Gulati

Adam Lerrick, of the American Enterprise Institute, has offered an intriguing approach to the Republic of Venezuela/PDVSA debt problem. Call a spade a spade. The distinction in the market between Republic of Venezuela and PDVSA bonds has always been artificial and the market has normally perceived it as such. Only recently have market participants begun trying to figure out which bonds -- PDVSA or Republic of Venezuela -- will be more likely candidates for a debt restructuring and therefore which should trade higher in the market.

PDVSA accounts for 95 percent for the foreign currency earnings of the entire country. Without PDVSA, there is no credit standing behind Republic bonds.  At base, there is only one public sector credit risk in the country and Lerrick invites us to acknowledge this fact.

He proposes that the Republic assume the indebtedness of PDVSA and proceed to restructure that debt as part of a generalized Republic debt workout. As part of this process -- and to discourage potential holdouts from the Republic's offer to exchange PDVSA bonds and promissory notes -- he suggests that the Government take back PDVSA's concession to lift and sell Venezuelan oil. This risk has always been prominently disclosed in the PDVSA offering documents and should not come as a surprise to anyone.

Lerrick's proposal adds to the growing list of suggestions for how a future Venezuelan debt restructuring (and there almost certainly will be such a debt restructuring) may be accomplished without holdout creditors devouring the process. No one wants to repeat the experience of Argentina.

Recently, in the context of trying to work out the knotty problem of how to restructure Venezuela’s promissory notes, Lee Buchheit and I made a similar suggestion along these lines. (our friends, Bob Lawless and Bob Scott, two gurus of this world of secured financing and contracts, were invaluable in helping us figure this structure out -- all blame for errors is ours, of course).

The structure we suggest differs from the Lerrick proposal mainly on the question of what should happen to the PDVSA oil assets, including receivables for the sale of oil.  We suggest that PDVSA pledge those assets to the Republic in consideration for the Republic's assumption of PDVSA bond/promissory note liabilities (as opposed to transferring title to the assets back to the Republic).  Such a pledge is expressly permitted by the terms of the PDVSA bonds and promissory notes and should operate to shield the assets from attachment by holdout creditors.

Catalonian Bonds, Anyone?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Joint post by Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier.

Sovereign bonds issued under the government's own law are supposed to be riskier than bonds issued under foreign (typically, English or New York) law. The logic is simple: Local-law bonds can be restructured with the stroke of a legislator's pen; with foreign bonds, it's not so easy. One would expect that difference in risk to show up in bond yields, which should be higher for local-law bonds, especially in times of uncertainty. There's quite a bit of research to back up that intuition (e.g., Bradley et al. (2017), Nordvig (2015), Chamon et al. (2014), Clare & Schmidlin (2014), Choi et al. (2014)). 

Catalonian bond yields have been rising, thanks to jitters over the secession vote. But Nicolas Schmidlin, a fund manager (who worked on this topic as a graduate student and wrote the paper linked above), noticed something odd about bond yields.

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If I Were a Holdout ...

posted by Anna Gelpern

Bond pricing has always been a puzzle to me, so I leave it to Mitu. But one thing has bugged me for more than a year. Ever since Venezuela has joined the ranks of the walking dead, market participants have differentiated among its bond contracts in a way that might seem sensible--even sophisticated--to those who think that investors do (or should) occasionally read the small print. In particular, Venezuelan bonds that require 100% of the holders to consent to an amendment of financial terms have fetched a higher price than comparable bonds with so-called collective action clauses, or CACs, which can be amended by either 85% or 75% of the holders, depending on the bond issue. The 100% bonds also have relatively more enforcement-friendly pari passu clauses, which could make it easier to replicate the fabulously successful holdout strategy in Argentina. The price premium must reflect rational investors on the eve of default paying for the power to veto a restructuring or drop out and get paid in full, right? Not quite. As you read the bond documents, the 100>85 reasoning unravels, and the 100% bond starts looking like a pretty fishy holdout vehicle.

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Could Giving the Rohingya Refugees a Debt Claim Ameliorate the Current Crisis?

posted by Mitu Gulati

From Joseph Blocher & Mitu Gulati

Just a couple of weeks ago, the plight of the Rohingya, a muslim minority group in Myanmar, who are being oppressed (to put it mildly–they have been called “the most friendless people in the world”) was front page news. But, as has often been the case with the plight of the Rohingya over the years, news of their plight quickly receded as other human drama and tragedy took over (hurricane in Puerto Rico, Las Vegas shooting, Catalan secession vote/violence, North Korean craziness etc.)

We realize that we are likely engaged in a pointless task.  But we want to plead for the condition of the Rohingya, and indeed other refugees, not to be forgotten so quickly. As a threshold matter, we recognize that our government cannot be depended on to care much (if at all) about the plight of oppressed groups that are as far away, foreign and poor as the Rohingya. In other words, the top down mechanism isn’t going to work. The question then is whether, assuming that the oppression in question is clear and cognizable, there is some other solution—something bottom up--that the international legal system could provide to oppressed groups who are forced into refugee status that does not depend on other governments, such as the U.S., having a self interest in intervening.

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Could Puerto Rico be Expelled for its "Tremendous" Debt?

posted by Mitu Gulati

From Joseph Blocher & Mitu Gulati

We would not exactly call ourselves avid readers of the US Navy blogs. But there is an interesting post on the U.S. Naval Institute Blog today on Puerto Rico and debt by Commander George Capen (retired).

The context that inspired his blog post was the behavior of our president toward the current crisis in Puerto Rico. To quote: 

“Ultimately, the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort—will end up being one of the biggest ever—will be funded and organized, and what we will do with the tremendous amount of existing debt already on the island.” – President Donald J. Trump, 29 September 2017:

Commander Capen, whose post is worth reading in its entirety, writes:

Puerto Rico didn’t ask to become a U.S. territory in 1898; nor do they get to vote in U.S. elections; nor do they have voting representation in Congress. But they are Americans. And they also voted to become a state (over 97 percent) earlier this year.

As an unincorporated commonwealth, our Congress holds the fate of Puerto Rico in their hands. Following their vote for statehood, our Congress can make Puerto Rico a state. Congress could also vote to cast Puerto Rico aside as an independent nation.

That final statement raises a question that we have been fascinated by (and have struggled with). Could Congress really “cast Puerto Rico aside as an independent nation,” even stripping Puerto Ricans of their US citizenship, because they have a “tremendous debt”?

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Your Friendly Neighborhood Sanctions Running Strategy

posted by Anna Gelpern

We are about to hit an anniversary of sorts, a year since Venezuela was surely going to default on its debt ... except that it still hasn't, so the U.S. government has decided to nudge it along. Retroactive debt sanctions imposed on August 25 prohibit, among other things, extending new credit to the government of Venezuela and its state oil company PDVSA beyond 30 days and 90 days, respectively, as well as any transactions in previously issued government debt, and, separately, any direct or indirect, old or new bond-buying from the Venezuelan government. The sanctions are a big headache for U.S. bank compliance departments, but they also got some glorious creative juices running. Mark & Mitu offer a contrarian reading of the sanctions order and one of the general licenses issued by the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) as part of its implementation. As M&M read it, Venezuela cannot restructure all its debt in a debt swap (that would require issuing new bonds), but it could amend some of its old bonds using collective action clauses (CACs), and gain breathing room until oil prices recover, things change, or pigs fly. 

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Do Sanctions Prevent Venezuela From Restructuring CAC Bonds?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

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

At the end of last week, press reports noted that Mr. Maduro has given the green light for restructuring talks to begin with holders of Venezuelan debt. Curiously, the Russians may lead the talks. One question is whether bondholders subject to US jurisdiction can participate in a restructuring given recent sanctions levied by the Trump administration. Press accounts suggest that the sanctions were intended to prevent this. Bloomberg reports the sanctions were "designed to prevent investors from engaging in liability management, and, if Venezuela can't pay its debt, a restructuring." The Financial Times reports likewise, quoting a senior analyst who thinks the sanctions will work: "If these sanctions stay in place, then Venezuela cannot restructure."

We accept that the sanctions were intended to block a restructuring. But they don't seem to actually do this. There is a rather large loophole that would allow Venezuela to employ a common restructuring technique.

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How Easily Can Creditors Reach Venezuelan Oil Receivables?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Among emerging market countries that have needed to restructure in recent decades, Venezuela is uniquely dependent on external commercial ties, especially oil exports to the United States by state oil company PDVSA. Because of this, many wonder whether holdout creditors pose a unique threat to the country's restructuring prospects. Unlike, say, Argentina, which could keep most valuable assets away from creditors, Venezuela must worry that holdouts will seize oil receivables. PDVSA's assets include money due from U.S. customers. These intangible assets are located in the United States, where courts can easily divert them to satisfy judgments obtained by holdouts. Note that this logic assumes that courts treat PDVSA as Venezuela's alter ego--a topic discussed several times on this blog--but the assumption is plausible.

But even if we assume that courts will ignore the boundaries between PDVSA and the government, is the risk of asset seizure really so great? The scenario described above presumes that Venezuela structures oil sales to U.S. entities in implausibly straightforward ways. Suppose, for instance, that PDVSA sells oil directly to U.S. buyers in exchange for a promise to pay on delivery. In that case, sure; creditors of both PDVSA and the government will have a field day. But while I am no expert on how PDVSA structures its operations, I would be stunned if things were so simple.

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Venezuela is Like... PDVSA's Alter Ego, and Vice Versa?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

And so it begins. As Anna notes, Venezuela is in dire straits, yet its stubborn insistence on paying bondholders puts it in the running for "world's slowest train wreck." When the wheels finally leave the tracks, expect a free-for-all in which competing claimants (bondholders, arbitration claimants, etc.) fight to recover as much as possible, both from the government and from state-owned oil company PDVSA. The major players will include creditors holding billions of dollars in arbitration awards against Venezuela. These creditors, unlike those holding government or PDVSA bonds, need not fear a debt restructuring. They will, however, have to find attachable assets that can be seized to satisfy their claims.

Enter Canadian mining company Crystallex, which has been trying to enforce a $1.2 billion arbitration award against Venezuela, so far without success. A few days ago, it tried a new tack--one with broader implications for any restructuring of Venezuela's or PDVSA's debt. Crystallex asked a federal court in Delaware to attach the shares of PDV Holding, Inc., a Delaware company that is the ultimate U.S. parent of CITGO petroleum. PDV Holding is owned by PDVSA, which, in turn, is owned by Venezuela.

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Venezuela Is Like ... (Part II)

posted by Anna Gelpern

Last time on Super-Sad Updates, I speculated (i) that the Venezuelan people could be in for more suffering and bondholders for more coupon payments (see Romania), (ii) that Venezuela’s complex debt stock was prone to shell games and inter-creditor conflicts, which could delay a workout (see Puerto Rico), and (iii) that a bet on PDVSA bonds over sovereign bonds today required too many assumptions to hold my shrinking attention span (but see Turkmenistan … or not). Now I try to imagine what might happen if the government did decide to restructure. It brings back memories of …

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Venezuela Is Like ... (Part I)

posted by Anna Gelpern

Market and civil society observers have taken Venezuelan debt restructuring as a certainty for more than two years, putting it in contention for the world’s slowest train wreck and quite possibly the messiest. Designs abound, but even after last weekend’s vote followed by new U.S. sanctions, too many variables remain too far up in the air to start laying the yellow brick pavers quite yet.

Depending on where you sit and how long you stare, Venezuela can present as some, none, or all of many past sovereign debt crises. The tour that starts below with broad-brush analogies is not exhaustive, but still plenty depressing.

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Puerto Rico Bankruptcy: More on Audio

posted by Melissa Jacoby

Standing Order 8As my last post mentioned, release of hearing audio recordings does not appear to be standard practice in the District of Puerto Rico district court. But that isn't for lack of authority within that court. Standing Order 8, adopted in 2011, expressed with some pride that the District of Puerto Rico would be the "first in the entire Nation" after the pilot program (discussed in prior post) to make audio files available through PACER. The order makes clear that the recording is not the official record, preserving the role of court reporters. The use of the technology is left to the discretion of the presiding judge. The court's website indicates this order remains in effect.

Ideally recordings of the Puerto Rico hearings would be released for free on the court's website. But even if posted only on PACER for a flat fee, opting into this practice would increase accessibility. 

Puerto Rico Bankruptcy: Audio Recordings?

posted by Melissa Jacoby

As noted as an update in the prior post, May 17 is the first hearing in Puerto Rico's PROMESA restructuring cases (which also have new case numbers). However much interest these cases hold for the professional bankruptcy world, they are of critical importance to Puerto Rico residents. The idea of a government unit being bankrupt is frightening, with the anxiety heightened when the extent to which one's elected officials remain in charge is unclear. Sensitive to the number of stakeholders and high public interest, the courthouse has overflow space reserved for the first hearing. But even a capacious courthouse imposes natural limits on the in-person population.

If the court released audio recordings of hearings for free on its website, as happened in the Detroit bankruptcy, that would provide a window into the federal court process that could help build trust and legitimacy. Ordering and using hearing transcripts is critical to many parties and their lawyers, but that process is not a feasible form of education and access for others. In addition to being prohibitively expensive for residents to acquire, especially on an expedited basis, written transcripts provide insufficient contextual cues for those less familiar with federal courts and lawyers.

Releasing digital recordings does not appear to be standard practice in the District of Puerto Rico. Might this be an opportune moment for an experiment, or at least an exception?*

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Puerto Rico Bankruptcy: Week One

posted by Melissa Jacoby

[May 10 update: a hearing has now been scheduled for May 17] 

It is nearing the one-week anniversary of the biggest government bankruptcy in U.S. history: the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

  1. The debtor(s) and cases: So far, Puerto Rico's Oversight Board has filed the equivalent of a bankruptcy petition for the Commonwealth (17-1578) and COFINA (17-1599). Bond insurers have filed the equivalent of an adversary proceeding (17-1584). The Oversight Board has retained Prime Clerk, so dockets will be available to those who don't have access to PACER, Bloomberg Law, etc. In Detroit's bankruptcy, digital recordings of nearly all hearings were posted for the public, usually within 24 hours; I hope the same will be true for Puerto Rico, but so far I have not seen an indication either way on the District of Puerto Rico's PROMESA web page.
  2. Presiding judge: PROMESA greatly restricted Chief Justice Roberts' choice of presiding judge by excluding bankruptcy judges. Thus, it is especially a relief that a wonderful district judge with bankruptcy court experience has accepted Chief Justice Roberts' request to preside. Judge Swain will sit by designation in the District of Puerto Rico
  3. Venue: The Oversight Board filed in the District of Puerto Rico, rather than New York, which was also a venue option. Filing in San Juan makes hearings accessible for more residents (creditors or not) who are deeply affected by the Commonwealth's financial situation. Curiously, a New York Times story attributes to the Oversight Board's outside counsel the proposition that the presiding judge "has the option of holding proceedings" in Manhattan as well as in San Juan. I don't read the Judicial Code and Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure, particularly 5001, to be so flexible (PROMESA makes the Federal Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure applicable to these actions). Absent venue transfer or an emergency, it is reasonable to expect hearings to take place in Puerto Rico.
  4. Eligibility: PROMESA did not adopt the municipal bankruptcy eligibility test wholesale, although it incorporated parts. It sounds like some creditors may challenge eligibility and/or whether the Oversight Board satisfied the restructuring duties set forth in PROMESA. It is hard to imagine these cases getting dismissed on such grounds, but we will get a better sense from the parties' pleadings when and if they are filed.
  5. What else is formally pending: The docket does not yet reflect the magnitude of the case to come. As in municipal bankruptcy, Puerto Rico's filings created no bankruptcy estate and the debtors do not need federal court approval for decisions and expenditures to the same extent as, say, chapter 11 debtors. Thus far, the court docket is populated primarily by requests for notice and pro hac vice admission by lawyers. Also pending is a motion for the appointment of a retiree committee. Retiree committees have been common in municipal bankruptcies, but there remains the question of who will pay the committee's expenses in this case. Another twist is that the motion asks the court to restrict the member appointment discretion of the United States Trustee, requiring that the committee be constituted from a preexisting ad hoc committee. Yet another indication, perhaps, that this case will be a challenge from top to bottom.

Puerto Rico: Just Another Deadline or the Big One?

posted by Anna Gelpern

Midnight came and went with no news of a debt deal in Puerto Rico, and no extension of a stay on creditor enforcement under PROMESA. It sure looks like we are careening into an actual sovereign-ish bankruptcy-ish filing under Title III of the law.

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Judge Selection in Municipal Bankruptcy and PROMESA

posted by Melissa Jacoby

In light of the timeline on the Puerto Rico debt situation, I have just posted on SSRN a contribution to the ABLJ/ABA symposium last fall. The paper examines PROMESA's judicial selection requirements applicable to a Puerto Rico Title III filing (the equivalent of a bankruptcy), and puts them in the context of municipal bankruptcy history.  This paper can be downloaded here.

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 Loss: A Skid, Not a Crash

posted by Anna Gelpern

Mark posted a lucid analysis of Ukraine's loss to Russia in London yesterday (full 107-pp opinion here). The case will surely be appealed, and will drag on for a while, alongside the many other legal, political and military disputes between Russia and Ukraine. It will settle, if ever, as part of a grand-ish bargain between the two countries. For now, neither has any reason to fold, so I am not holding my breath for quick resolution.

While we wait, I wanted to think about what this ruling might mean for sovereign debt workouts, and for Ukraine's recently-restructured bonds.

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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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Brooklyn Law School Conference on Public Debt

posted by Melissa Jacoby

AboutthesymposiumOn March 1, 2016, Credit Slips commenced a virtual symposium on Puerto Rico's financial crisis. Where do things stand today, a year later? And what governance lessons can be learned from municipal bankruptcy cases like Detroit for the public debt problems of tomorrow? Thanks to a fortuitously timed conference at Brooklyn Law School, a subset of Slipsters will be considering these very questions on Friday March 3, 2017. Check out the agenda and join us in Brooklyn - register here today.

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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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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Venezuela

posted by Stephen Lubben

John Dizard has a useful, and clearly written, piece on the lay of the land in this morning's FT. What puzzles me is why PDVSA, the national oil company,  has not done a UK scheme of arrangement or a US prepack to exchange the bonds, instead of messing around with an exchange offer. But the entire situation is rather opaque.

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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Further Thoughts on Puerto Rico v. Franklin California Tax-Free Trust

posted by Stephen Lubben

The opinion is a good reminder that oral argument impressions don't always carry over to the final written product. In short, both the majority and dissent approach this as a simple matter of statutory construction, and in that regard the majority opinion is simply a more clearly articulated version of the First Circuit's opinion.

Neither the majority or dissent address the 10th Amendment implications of saying that states have to use chapter 9 if they want to reorganize their municipalities. After this opinion, there is no other option. This might suggest that the 10th Amendment concerns that once hovered around chapter 9 are effectively gone.

I find the majority's approach to the placement of the 1946 addendum to section 903 unconvincing, but of course I've already written that I saw section 903 as only coming into force when a state accepts the chapter 9 "bargain."

Is there any other provision of the Code in one of the operative chapters (7 and onward) that applies even when there is no eligible debtor? Here we have Justice Thomas telling us that part of section 903 applies to Puerto Rico right now, while the opening paragraph of the section is apparently hanging around "just in case."  

The end result is that Puerto Rico now faces the unattractive choice of attempting an Argentina/Greece style workout (with likely lesser sovereign immunity than either of those debtors had) or swallowing PROMESA, along with its oversight board.

The composition of the former is an issue that Puerto Ricans might understandably worry about, especially since the board, and not the Commonwealth, has final say on what a reorganization plan looks like. Indeed, it is not so much a matter of "final say," as whether the oversight board will listen to Puerto Rico at all. There is no formal requirement in PROMESA that they do so. Nonetheless, given the alternatives, Puerto Rico might decide it has to hold its nose and take PROMESA.

The only thing we know for sure is that Puerto Rico is headed for a default on July 1. One branch of the decision tree has been taken away.

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Bankr-L

  • As a public service, the University of Illinois College of Law operates Bankr-L, an e-mail list on which bankruptcy professionals can exchange information. Bankr-L is administered by one of the Credit Slips bloggers, Professor Robert M. Lawless of the University of Illinois. Although Bankr-L is a free service, membership is limited only to persons with a professional connection to the bankruptcy field (e.g., lawyer, accountant, academic, judge). To request a subscription on Bankr-L, click here to visit the page for the list and then click on the link for "Subscribe." After completing the information there, please also send an e-mail to Professor Lawless (rlawless@illinois.edu) with a short description of your professional connection to bankruptcy. A link to a URL with a professional bio or other identifying information would be great.

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