SDNY Upholds Pledge of Collateral for PDVSA 2020s

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Today, Judge Failla of the Southern District of New York issued an opinion rejecting PDVSA's request for a declaration invalidating the PDVSA 2020 bonds. These bonds, which we've written about before (e.g., here, here and, here) are backed by a pledge of 50.1% of the equity in Citgo Holding. The argument for invalidating the bonds contends that the 2016 exchange offer and collateral pledge was a contract in the "national public interest," which, under Venezuelan law, required but did not receive the approval of the National Assembly. PDVSA argued, first, that under the act of state doctrine, the court had to defer to a series of National Assembly resolutions declaring the exchange offer invalid. It also argued that Venezuelan law governed disputes over the validity of the contract, even though the governing law clause in the bonds specified New York law.

The district judge rejected these arguments in a lengthy and thoughtful opinion. (There is one clear but fairly tangential mistake, when the opinion implies on p. 59 that PDVSA is neither a "foreign state" nor an agency or instrumentality of a foreign state for purposes of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.*) On the governing law question, the judge ultimately decided that New York law applied because--to oversimplify a bit--New York had a significant connection to the transaction. The bonds were negotiated and paid in New York, etc. For more on this conflict of laws issue, see here.

I'd expect to see an appeal, although whether that will benefit PDVSA (even if just by giving it more time) will probably depend on whether the district judge or court of appeals issues a stay of the current order. [edit: And of course on further developments in the U.S. sanctions regime.]

*Technically, the court said only that neither party argued that PDVSA was such an entity. The court made this point to help it distinguish FSIA cases that supported PDVSA's position. But this is no distinction at all. It is beyond dispute that PDVSA is an agency or instrumentality of Venezuela (or is indistinguishable from the government if treated as its alter ego). In either case, the FSIA unquestionably applies to PDVSA, so it is not obvious why cases under the FSIA would be irrelevant to the dispute.

Taub's New Book on White Collar Crime (and its connection to bankruptcy)

posted by Pamela Foohey

Big Dirty MoneyI just finished Professor Jennifer Taub's new book, Big Dirty Money: The Shocking Injustice and Unseen Cost of White Collar Crime. The book has been out for a couple weeks and it's already receiving rave reviews. I'm a bit late to the party. But I wanted to add my praise to the chorus. And add a shout out to bankruptcy's place in the dealing with the cost of white collar crime. Taub's introduction starts with three quick examples: the Sackler family, Pacific Gas & Electric, and General Motors. The examples aren't about their bankruptcy cases. They are about actions prior to their chapter 11 filings which had to be worked out in bankruptcy. As I read, I thought -- that ended in bankruptcy, so did that, and, yep, bankruptcy for that one too. Taub's book, of course, is not about bankruptcy. But if you're interested in white collar crime backstories of some headliner bankruptcy filings, this book will help make those connections. And it will elucidate the big business of white collar crime in a captivating read. In short, highly recommended.

New Greek Bankruptcy Code

posted by Jason Kilborn

Responding to an EU Directive and what was likely already a long-simmering plan to revise a not entirely satisfactory patchwork of constantly shifting bankruptcy and insolvency laws, the Greek government recently released a draft of a new Code for Debt Settlement and Second Chance. A webinar earlier this week hosted by Capital Link offered a rare insight into this developing legislation, introduced by the architects of the new law. If all goes as planned in the legislature, the new Code will become effective in 2021. Watch for much more of this type of activity in other European countries in the months ahead.

The Sideshow about Venezuela's Prescription Clause

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

We’ve written before about the perplexing prescription clause that appears (in one form or another) in Venezuela’s bonds. A common version of the clause says something like this:

Claims in respect of principal and interest will become void unless presentation for payment is made within a period of ten years in the case of principal and three years in the case of interest from the Relevant Date, to the extent permitted by applicable law.  “Relevant Date” means whichever is the later of (i) the date on which any such payment first becomes due and (ii) if the full amount payable has not been received by the Fiscal Agent on or prior to such due date, the date on which, the full amount having been so received, notice to that effect shall have been given to the Bondholders.

The clause is weird. Because Venezuela’s default in the payment of interest is now approaching its 3-year anniversary for some bonds, some investors worry that, unless they file suit, claims to recover those missed payments will become void. Seeking to reassure them, the interim government has released a statement saying not to worry. In the interim government’s view, the clause “addresses situations where the Fiscal Agent holds amounts paid by the Republic that are unclaimed by, or otherwise not distributed to, bondholders.” The statement asserts that the prescription period has not started to run because the fiscal agent hasn’t yet received the funds.

Continue reading "The Sideshow about Venezuela's Prescription Clause " »

Argentina-Inspired Reforms to Sovereign Debt Contract Terms (Yes, Again)

posted by Mitu Gulati

In terms of innovations in the boilerplate of sovereign debt contract terms, Argentina is the gift that keeps on giving (and giving and giving).  At least within my lifetime, its behavior has inspired more contract innovation than any other country (even Ecuador, that probably comes a close second).

Here is the abstract of a wonderful new paper by two sovereign debt legal experts from White & Case (London), Ian Clark and Dimitrios Lyratzakis (White & Case has a long history of innovation in sovereign debt contracts; it was one of the firms at the forefront of Collective Action Clause innovations way back in the 1980s):

The Collective Action Clauses published by the International Capital Markets Association in 2014/2015 aim to facilitate orderly and consensual sovereign debt restructurings. The clauses were designed to give sovereigns flexibility in structuring and consummating a transaction that would be capable of attracting broad creditor support, while safeguarding the integrity of the process and the rights of creditor minorities. The recent restructurings of Argentina and Ecuador presented the first opportunities for the ICMA CACs to be tested in practice, but the “re-designation” and “PAC-man” strategies first seen in the Argentine restructuring revealed shortcomings in the ICMA contractual architecture.

Argentina’s and Ecuador’s creditors responded by negotiating tailored refinements to the standard CACs that would mitigate the risk that a sovereign could compel a restructuring that is not supported by the requisite creditor supermajorities. The qualified restrictions on “re-designation” and “PAC-man” adopted by Ecuador and Argentina enhance the ICMA architecture and provide strong incentives for a sovereign to engage constructively with its private creditors in a consensus-building process that results in a restructuring proposal capable of achieving supermajority support.

The paper, "Toward a More Robust Sovereign Debt Architecture: Innovations from Ecuador and Argentina" (forthcoming in Capital Markets Law Journal) is particularly interesting because Ian and Dimitrios are two of the creditor-side lawyers who were involved in creating the innovations that they discuss. (Much of the writing in this area has tended to be from the debtor side). Now, it remains to be seen how the market responds to these innovations. In particular, will other deals embrace the changes that have been made in the Ecuador and Argentine restructuring documents or will there be yet more experimentation?

I'm particularly intrigued by some rather crucial differences in deal documents that seem to correlate to the governing laws (NY v. England).  Informally, there has been much chatter about whether those differences were the product of drafting goofs in the model clauses on one or the other sides of the Atlantic or intentional (Each side asserts that the other has goofed -- albeit in a very polite and passive aggressive fashion). Given that debate, and the unwillingness of anyone to openly talk about the issues, I wonder whether those differences will continue out of a sheer unwillingness to admit error. (Of course, this is a topic that Dimitrios and Ian diplomatically and cleverly avoid).

Trump's Personal Guaranties and Liquidity

posted by Adam Levitin

The revelations about Donald Trump's taxes might hold in them an explanation for why he didn't divest from his businesses when he became President, despite the obvious political problems that was going to create:  he couldn't afford divesting.  

Trump seems to have personally guarantied hundreds of millions of dollars of corporate borrowing. That's not uncommon for someone in his position, but I would imagine that at least some of those personal guaranties have key man provisions that require him to remain involved with the business. If he doesn't, the loan (and guaranty) might be in default and callable. And there are surely cross-default clauses in some of the borrowings, so it wouldn't be just one loan that could come due, but a bunch of them. It's pretty clear that in 2016 Trump didn't have the liquidity (and perhaps not even the assets) to deal with that sort of situation. 

Now let's be clear. There might have been other motivations for Trump to retain control over his businesses. But to that list, we should add the possibility that he had boxed himself in and couldn't divest even if he had wanted to without ending up broke. 

J. Screwed - A Paper

posted by Mitu Gulati

A number of months ago now, I listened to a fun podcast episode on Planet Money titled "J. Screwed" about contract shenanigans by J.Crew, as it was making its way into deep financial distress.  I'm fascinated by the exploitation of contract loopholes in debt contracts. So, of course, I wanted to know more. I went digging into the world of Google.  But I couldn't find anything good in the literature that explained to me the details of what was going on (the contract term in question, how widespread this problem was, how the market had reacted, etc., etc.). The best I found was a blog post that fellow slipster, Adam Levitin, kindly pointed to me.

But now there is a wonderful article up on ssrn by the author of that post (a former student of Adam at Georgetown Law, I believe).  The appropriately titled article, "The Development of Collateral Stripping By Distressed Borrowers" by Mitchell Mengden, is here.

The abstract reads as follows:

In the past decade, private equity sponsors have taken a more aggressive stance against creditors of their portfolio companies, the most recent iteration of which has come in the form of collateral stripping. Sponsors have been using creative lawyering to transfer valuable collateral out of the reach of creditors. This Article delves deeper into the issue by examining the contract terms and litigation claims raised by these transactions.

The lack of protective covenants and ease of manipulating EBITDA and asset valuations are key conditions that permit collateral stripping. Each of these conditions were present in the past decade, primarily due to the protracted expansionary stage of the credit cycle. Lenders, however, can protect themselves from collateral stripping by negotiating stricter covenants and tighter EBITDA definitions, as well as pursuing ex post litigation for fraudulent transfers, illegal distributions, and claims for breach of fiduciary duty.

Contractual opportunism and creative lawyering will almost certainly continue to pervade credit markets. This Article provides a roadmap of ways that lenders can protect themselves from opportunism during contracting and throughout the course of the loan. As this Article concludes, ex post litigation claims are often an inadequate remedy, so lenders should seek to tighten EBITDA definitions and broaden protective covenants—even if to do so requires other concessions—to avoid litigation.

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