Mick Mulvaney's South Carolina Land Shenanigans All Under Seal

posted by Adam Levitin

Last year the Washington Post covered Mick Mulvaney's South Carolina land deal gone sour. It was a pretty amazing case that is fantastic for teaching purposes. Mick's moves would have made some of the most sophisticated distressed debt funds (not to mention a real estate developer president) blush with shame (or green with envy).

I've got an update on the case that appears quite troubling: it seems that the South Carolina court has put everything except the docket entry list under seal, including previously public available documents. If I am correct, this is really disturbing because would indicate a willingness by the South Carolina court system to accommodate Mick's desire to shield keep his business dealings from any public scrutiny, even though there is no legitimate reason that I can see for the court to turn seal all the documents in a public judicial proceeding about a commercial real estate foreclosure action. 

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Buybacks as a Sovereign Debt Restructuring Strategy: Why the Disfavor?

posted by Mitu Gulati

The ideas in this post are drawn from work with Stephen Choi.  Errors are mine.

Last week was the first session in our International Debt Finance class, both at Duke and at NYU.  This is an exciting time to be teaching this material, given the many sovereign and quasi sovereign issuers that are struggling with over indebtedness.  Among them are Argentina, Lebanon, Venezuela, Italy (maybe) and, locally, Puerto Rico.

For day one, inspired by the provocative recent article by Julia Mahoney and Ed Kitch on the possible need to restructure the multi-trillion dollar US debt stock, we assigned both the Mahoney-Kitch (2019) piece (here) and Alexander Hamilton’s 1790 Report on Public Credit (here).

Hamilton’s Report on Public Credit is an astonishing document, since it is essentially a proposal to do a brutal debt restructuring (see here) for a new nation that, while significantly reducing the nation’s debt stock, would (hopefully) also serve as a building block for a solid reputation for this new debtor.  Somehow, it worked.  In what follows, we focus on only one aspect of Hamilton’s report: Hamilton’s views on the possibility of reducing the US debt stock--some of which was trading at pennies on the dollar--by doing a market buyback prior to the announcement of his plan.  In discussing possible strategies to reduce the public debt, he flags the possibility of doing a buyback of the debt at the current market prices.  Hamilton writes of this strategy:

Fourthly. To the purchase of the public debt at the price it shall bear in the market, while it continues below its true value. This measure, which would be, in the opinion of the Secretary [i.e., Hamilton, speaking of himself in the third person], highly dishonorable to the government, if it were to precede a provision for funding the debt, would become altogether unexceptionable, after that had been made. (emphasis added).

In other words, Hamilton says that doing a buyback before the government makes public its plan to fund the debt, would be wrong.  Why?  We don’t know exactly why.  But reading between the lines, AH would perhaps explain that the sovereign debtor should not be the beneficiary of its own misconduct (the default), particularly at the expense of its own citizens (the sellers of the paper at a discount). 

Question is, given that we have an additional 200 years plus of experience of sovereign restructurings since Hamilton, was he right to disfavor the buyback strategy? As a practical matter, in terms of the playbook of the modern sovereign debt restructurer, Hamilton’s admonition seems to have held sway. That is illustrated by this 2019 IMF publication on “How to Restructure Sovereign Debt: Lessons From Four Decades” which mentions buybacks only in a footnote (note 3, here) that suggests that prevailing economic wisdom is that they don’t work particularly well as a restructuring strategy.

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"Middle Class Faux"?

posted by Adam Levitin

I did some digging into Joe Biden's previously unexplored roll call vote on floor amendments to BAPCPA. They were ugly then and have not improved with age. My full take is in The American Prospect

Consumer Bankruptcy, Done Correctly, To Help Struggling Americans

posted by Pamela Foohey

Today, Senator Elizabeth Warren unveiled her new plan to reform the consumer bankruptcy system. The plan is simple, yet elegant. It is based on actual data and research (including some of my own with Consumer Bankruptcy Project co-investigators Slipster Bob Lawless, former Slipster, now Congresswoman Katie Porter, and former Slipster Debb Thorne). Most importantly, I believe it will make the consumer bankruptcy system work for American families. And, as a bonus, it will tackle the bad behavior that big banks and corporations currently engage in once people file, like trying to collect already discharged debts, and some non-bankruptcy financial issues, such as "zombie" mortgages.

In short, the plan provides for one chapter that everyone files, combined with a menu of options to respond to each families' particular needs. It undoes some of the most detrimental amendments that came with the 2005 bankruptcy law, including the means test. In doing so, it sets new, undoubtedly more effective rules for the discharge of student loan debt, for modification of home mortgages, and for keeping cars. It also undoes "smaller" amendments that likely went unnoticed, but may have deleterious effects on people's lives. Warren's plan gets rid of the current prohibition on continuing to pay union dues, the payment of which may be critical to allowing people who file bankruptcy to keep their jobs and keep on their feet. Similarly, the plan eliminates problems debtors face paying rent during their bankruptcy cases, which can lead to eviction.

One chapter that everyone files means that the continued racial disparities in chapter choice my co-authors and I have documented will disappear. No means test, combined with less documentation, as provided by Warren's plan, means that the most time-consuming attorney tasks will go away. Attorney's fees should decrease. Warren's plan also provides for the payment of fees over time. People will not have to put off filing for bankruptcy for years while they struggle in the "sweatbox." Costly "no money down" bankruptcy options should disappear. People will have the chance to enter the bankruptcy system in time to save what little they have, which research has shown is key to people surviving and thriving post-bankruptcy.

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A Cautionary Tale: Argentina’s Pari Passu Debt Debacle

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Tim Harford of the Financial Times has a brilliant new podcast, Cautionary Tales (here). A recent episode, “Danger, Rocks Ahead!,” centers on the wreck of the Torrey Canyon, an enormous oil tanker manned by an experienced crew and captain. Sailing under clear skies, but under a deadline, the ship ran aground on an infamous reef, The Seven Stones, off the southwest coast of the U.K. Harford recounts the series of decisions leading to the disaster, each small misjudgment slowly reducing the margin of error, until none was left. The lesson for Harford is about path dependence. Having committed to a course of action, people often don’t react and adapt when new information reveals flaws in the plan. Thus the experienced Torrey Canyon crew drove their ship onto the rocks when it should have been trivially easy to recognize and avoid the looming catastrophe.

Okay – so this is perhaps not the only metaphor for Argentina, but it fits, and we wanted to mention the Cautionary Tales podcast to Credit Slips readers. Harford’s story about the Torrey Canyon also made us wonder whether Argentina’s debt debacle of 2001-2016 might offer a cautionary tale for the country’s current crisis. We think it does. In fact, one might understand the legal disaster that unfolded over 2001-2016 as the product of a series of misjudgments by Argentine officials. These misjudgments slowly reduced the country’s margin for error and gradually persuaded the U.S. federal judges overseeing litigation against the country that Argentina no longer warranted their sympathy.

We won’t recount the details of Argentina’s decade-long, and ultimately disastrous, battle with holdout creditors. The FT’s Joseph Cotterill recounted the entire saga at FT Alphaville, see, e.g., here), and Bloomberg’s Matt Levine wrote about the 2016 settlement (see here, here and here). We’ll focus instead on the mistakes made along the way.

A simple explanation for Argentina’s legal disaster is that a few U.S. federal judges interpreted an obscure term in Argentina’s bond contracts (the pari passu clause) in an unexpected way and fashioned a novel and unprecedented equitable remedy that ultimately forced Argentina to settle. There’s some truth to this story, but it focuses attention on the outcome—the ship hitting the reef—rather than on the series of missteps that turned that outcome from a remote possibility to a near certainty.

A more complete story needs to highlight the failure of various actors on the Argentine side to take some simple, cheap steps that might have avoided disaster. There were plenty of warning signs along the way. But Argentine officials repeatedly failed to take note and adapt.

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600,000 student loan borrowers getting nowhere

posted by Alan White
Student loan borrowers who plan to apply for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)  after ten years of income-based payments are simply not getting their
Screen Shot 2019-12-24 at 11.15.17 AM
https://fsaconferences.ed.gov/conferences/library/2019/2019FSAConfSession18.pdf
payments counted. Between January 2012 and August 2018 nearly one million borrowers submitted an approved public service employer certification. As of August 2019 there are 600,000 of these approved borrowers with ZERO "qualifying" payments towards the required 120.  
 
In the same presentation USED asserts that most (80%) of borrowers who already applied for forgiveness believing they had completed the required ten years of payments had actually entered repayment less than ten years before applying. This explanation suggests that all is well except that borrowers simply need to wait a few more months to apply. The zero qualifying payments problem proves that the PSLF failure goes much deeper, for the reasons I described in a prior post.

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