Does J&J Have a Patriot Coal Problem?

posted by Stephen Lubben

J&J has put its Talc subsidiary into bankruptcy in North Carolina. Trick is, the only basis for venue in North Carolina is that the talc assets were put into a Texas LLC this past Tuesday, and then that Texas LLC converted into a North Carolina LLC the same day.  

Put to one side the problematic question of how the talc assets (and liabilities) ended up in the Texas LLC – what is the reason for the conversion to a North Carolina LLC?  It seems to be a rather transparent attempt to manufacture jurisdiction in North Carolina.

Arguably venue should be transferred to Texas. Perhaps the Western District of Texas – not that other Texas district – since J&J's only clear connection with Texas is incorporation ... 

Five reasons to read Unsettled by Ryan Hampton

posted by Melissa Jacoby

UnsettledRyan Hampton, author of a book about the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy published earlier this month, is a "national addiction recovery advocate, community organizer, author, and person in long-term recovery" who also was a member of the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy official unsecured creditors' committee. On Purdue's committee, Hampton and three other personal injury claimants sat alongside five institutional/corporate creditors, at least some of which were defendants in other opioid crisis lawsuits.  This is a quick post to recommend that the bankruptcy world read Unsettled for at least the five following reasons: 

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More on Belize: Marine Conservation is Nice; Deeper Haircuts Are Better

posted by Mark Weidemaier

A couple of additional thoughts on Belize’s debt workout, especially the relatively novel aspect involving the pre-funding of a marine conservation trust. The deal has featured prominently in the financial press lately, with great coverage in the FT (here by Robin Wigglesworth and here by Tommy Stubbington), Bloomberg (here), and elsewhere. For details, see Mitu’s posts here and here. Mitu has a relatively optimistic take, which I’m mostly on board with. It would be wonderful if countries could both ease debt burdens and increase investment in marine conservation and other forms of sustainable growth. It would be even more wonderful if investors paid for some of this by granting significant debt relief. But even if that’s what happened with Belize—and I’m not entirely sure that it is—the Belize deal may not be replicable at a scale that would matter.

The plan is for Belize to repurchase and retire its outstanding international bond. Reports suggest that negotiations over the repurchase price were stalled at around 60 cents on the dollar. Ultimately, investors agreed to take 55. In return for that concession, Belize will prefund a $23.4 million trust to support future marine conservation projects. One potential takeaway is that investors agreed to the additional 5 cent reduction after being presented with the debt-for-nature idea, perhaps in part because intense media coverage created pressure to demonstrate their ESG bona fides.

The first point to note here is that the additional 5 cents per dollar is very large in comparison to the concessions investors seem willing to make to achieve ESG goals in other contexts.

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The Super Cool Belize "Debt for Coral Reefs" Restructuring

posted by Mitu Gulati

This blog post draws on ideas developed with Ugo Panizza (Professor of International Economics, Graduate Institute) that form part of a paper we are working on. I am to blame for any errors though. 

In 2020, the stock of public debt in debt in developing and emerging market economies surpassed $19 trillion and reached 63% of the group’s GDP (up from 55% in 2019). Such levels of debt significantly increase the risk of multiple devastating debt crises hitting the global economy at the roughly the same time; a situation not seen since the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s. This is a scary prospect at a time when nations need to scale-up investment in climate change and sustainable growth.

The recent restructuring of Belize’s sovereign debt is an example of how a country can address a debt crisis while preserving investment that can promote sustainable growth. Hard hit by covid-19, Belize is restructuring its sovereign debt for the fifth time in two decades. So, why is this debt restructuring so exciting?

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Scholars' Letter in Support of Saule Omarova

posted by Adam Levitin

President Biden has nominated Cornell Law Professor Saule Omarova to be the next Comptroller of the Currency. While the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is not a well-known government agency outside of bank regulation circles, it is among the most important in financial regulation because it is the prudential regulator of national banks—the largest banks in the United States. The OCC is also the primary consumer protection regulator of all national banks with less than $10 billion in net assets, and the Comptroller is a member of the FDIC board. In short, this is a position with substantial influence over the banking industry. 

This week, numerous scholars of financial regulation (including me) sent a letter in support of the nomination to the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Banking Committee. We believe that Professor Omarova would make an outstanding Comptroller, and we hope that she will receive a fair hearing even from those who might disagree with her on policy questions. Professor Omarova is a lawyer's lawyer with impeccable credentials for the job. After completing a PhD and JD, she worked at the leading banking law firm and then in the GWBush Treasury Special Advisor to then Under Secretary Randal Quarles, now the Fed's Vice-Chair for Supervision. Her scholarship is careful, restrained, and masterful, and her co-authors include the top banking attorney in the US.  Not only is Professor Omarova's knowledge of banking regulation unsurpassed within the academy, but she would bring a welcome change to the OCC as the first Comptroller who wasn't a either a banker, bank lawyer, or bank lobbyist when nominated. Her independence is much needed at an agency that has often seen banks as its customers, rather than as its regulatory charges. 

Unfortunately, some of the financial services industry opposition to Professor Omarova has veered into xenophobic and McCarthyite dog whistling based on Professor Omarova having grown up in the former Soviet Union. The hypocrisy in this anti-immigrant prejudice is astounding given the way that the same folks who are claiming that Professor Omarova is suspect because of her childhood in the Soviet Union have celebrated another former Soviet bloc immigrant-turned-bank regulator. The dog-whistling has gotten so bad that in a remarkable press release Senate Banking Committee Chair Sherrod Brown (D-Oh) threw down the gauntlet at the "Red Scare" character assassination coming not just from bank lobbyists, but from the Committee's Ranking Member, Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa). 

The banking industry's decision to proceed through dog whistling suggests that it is reluctant to have it out over the substantive policy positions supported by Professor Omarova. But if you want to see a more sober and measured take on Professor Omarova from a law firm with numerous financial services industry clients, see Gibson Dunn's take here. What the law firm's take for its clients—rather than for political theater—suggests is that the sky won't fall with Comptroller Omarova, but that she will take a more skeptical view of bank activities outside of traditional core activity areas. In other words, it won't be business as usual. And that's the banking industry's real concern here. 

ED announces PSLF overhaul, aims to boost 2% approval rate

posted by Alan White

Education Department Secretary Cardona today announced a remarkably bold, yet sadly incomplete, emergency suspension of regulatory barriers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. The Secretary is using statutory authority to suspend, temporarily, some of the needless regulatory hurdles (as I and others have advocated) that have produced a 98% rejection rate for the program for the past five years. On the other hand, today’s announcement does not appear to address all of the hurdles, and some details remain vague. The Department estimates it can immediately approve 22,000 additional loan cancellations, increasing the approval rate from 2% to 5%, and another 27,000 need only obtain employment certifications for periods in which they already made payments, bumping the approval rate up another 3% to 4%. Another 550,000 borrowers may receive several years of additional credit towards the ten-year required total payment period, lining them up for discharges in future years.

In its biggest improvement the Department will allow all payments made on all loan types and all repayment plans to count towards the 120 month required total. Less clear is how the Department is addressing the two remaining hurdles. Many borrowers find payments are not counted because the payment is not within 15 days before or after the due date or is not in the exact amount the servicer requires. Early or lump-sum multi-month payments don’t receive full credit. The Department’s press release says the waiver will address this issue, but does not say how, or to what extent. Extending the window by 15 or 30 days, or the payment amount tolerance by 10% or 20%, will not do.  UPDATE: at negotiated rulemaking today, USED announces they will stop counting payments, and instead count time in repayment. If true this is a HUGE improvement. They mentioned in some cases borrower payment counts now go from zero to 120.

Borrowers also face a third hurdle, having to get employer certifications that their jobs qualify as public service covering each and every one of the 120 qualifying months. The Department’s servicer has rejected many certifications, the Department has failed to establish a universal database of qualifying employers, and some borrowers simply have difficulty filling gaps of long-ago employment. The Department says it will improve its employer database and audit prior rejections, but does not propose as I have recommended to allow borrower self-certification of qualifying employment.

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The Cheekiest Artist of Modern Times?

posted by Mitu Gulati

One of the students in my 1L Contracts class pointed me to this delightful article from the New York Times -- delightful because this is going to be so fun for us to discuss in class (here)

Here is the story as I understand it. A Danish artist, Jens Haaning, was commissioned by a Danish museum (the Kunsten Museum of Modern Art) to reproduce a couple of his prior works, where he had framed piles of real euros and kroner to symbolize wages and work in Austria and Denmark.  To do the reproduction work, the artist was paid 10,000 kroner and then also given a bunch of cash (532, 549 kroner) to put in the installation pieces.

The cheeky artist sent in a couple of blank canvases titled "Take the Money and Run", which seem to describe exactly what he did.  (The Times article literally has multiple photos of guests to the museum admiring the blank canvases -- or at least looking at them with interest).

The artist says that he gave them art -- symbolizing taking the money and running, (a modern critique of capitalism?). The museum director, Mr. Lasse Anderson (representing the capitalist museum?), appears neither amused nor pleased. He says: breach of contract.  

It is simply not possible to make this stuff up.  Maybe Tess and Dave will do an episode about this case for their brilliant Promises, Promises podcast?

I very much want the artist to win the contract suit. But if the museum director is right that the contract was for a reproduction of the prior piles of cash pieces (which seems likely from what the Times piece tells us), Jens will probably have to give the moolah back.  But not until after having gotten international notoriety as the cheekiest artist of modern times. And maybe that's all he was going for after all. Win win. 

I can only begin to imagine the kind of fun opinion someone like Richard Posner might have written on a case like this.

Many thanks to Maggie Rosenberg, 1L at U Virginia.

Scott & Kraus on the Private Law Podcast -- Magnifique!

posted by Mitu Gulati

Last year, when I was in zoom teaching hell and desperately looking for videos or podcasts with my contracts heroes to try and give my students a window into the magic of contract law and theory, I was unable to find anything at all that I could use for class from Bob Scott and Jody Kraus.  Lots of erudite law journal articles, yes. But I hate lengthy law review articles. I wanted to hear them talk and answer questions. 

My prayers have been answered, thanks to Felipe Jimenez's wonderful Private Law Podcast (here). The episode posted today is about Bob and Jody's wonderful and special collaboration that has given the world of contract law so much. And Felipe is brilliant in his gentle but insightful questioning (as an aside, if you are a fan of contracts theory, you might also like the episode with Brian Bix; I loved it).

Thank you, Felipe. Thank you, Bob and Jody. 

Hawkins & Penner--Marketing Race and Credit in America

posted by Bob Lawless

Past Credit Slips guest blogger, Jim Hawkins from the University of Houston, and his student, Tiffany Penner, alerted me to their recent publication in the Emory Law Journal entitled, "Advertising Injustices: Marketing Race and Credit in America." The paper takes an interesting approach to the issue of how consumer credit gets marketed in the United States. They visited fringe lending establishments as well as the web sites of these establishments and mainstream banks and looked at the persons used as models in their advertisements.

Although I have some questions about the magnitude of the effects--questions that come from how different government agencies Latino or Hispanic heritage sometimes as an ethnicity and sometimes as a racial identity--the core finding of the paper seems right. The models used in the advertisements send a signal about whether the financial service is "for people like you." How those people differ between mainstream banks and fringe lenders will not surprise anyone who has paid even a bit of attention to the structural racism that defines our economy. Hawkins and Penner close the paper with some thoughts on how the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and the Community Reinvestment Act might help fix the problems they identify.

UPDATE (9/26): My apologies to Ms. Penner for misidentifying her in the original title to this post.

SBRA technical amendment = technical foul?

posted by Jason Kilborn

A great Arabic folk idiom describes an all-too-common occurrence: Literally, "he came to apply eye liner to her, but blinded her." [اجا يكحلها عماها  izha ikaHil-ha, cama-ha] In other words, someone attempted to improve a situation but ended up ruining it. I believe I've encountered an example in the "technical amendment" made by the CARES Act to the Small Business Reorganization Act of 2019.

As Bob pointed out almost exactly two years ago, the original SBRA definition of a "small business debtor" was designed to keep out large public companies and their subsidiaries, but the language was ... inelegant. The first of two subsections (laid out in Bob's post) excluded companies subject to reporting requirements under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (that is, a company with shares widely held by "the public," as defined by the SEC), while an immediately following exclusion applied to such a company that was an affiliate of a debtor (that is, another company already in bankruptcy). Well, whether you're an affiliate of a debtor or not, if you try to file under subchapter V, and you're subject to the '34 Act reporting requirements, you're excluded by the first subsection, so isn't this second provision redundant?

Yes, but ... in 2020, the CARES Act came to put eye liner on this section and blinded it. Rather than fixing this by saying what seems to have been the intention--that an affiliate of a public reporting company cannot file under subchapter V--instead, a "technical amendment" changed the final provision entirely by simply excluding an affiliate of an "issuer, as defined in section 3 of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934." [the same language was inserted in both sections 101(51D)(B)(iii) and 1182, so this change is not temporary]

The problem, it seems to me, is that the definition of "issuer" in the '34 Act includes far more than a big, public reporting company--it includes any company that issues so many as one share of stock (or other "security"). The '34 Act is generally about trading of public securities, but that's not the only thing it's about, and the definition of "issuer" in the '34 Act is simply reproduced from the '33 Act, with far broader application.

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Coral Reef Protection in Exchange for Debt Relief: Could it Really Work?

posted by Mitu Gulati

Belize, as of this writing, is undertaking a restructuring of its sovereign bonds. Hard hit by covid and general economic woes, this is that nation’s fifth debt restructuring over the past decade and a half. This time though, Belize is trying to do something different with its restructuring.  Something that just might contain lessons for other emerging market nations struggling with covid related economic downturns.

Using funding from the environmental group, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), Belize is doing a bond buyback, offering investors around 50% of face value.  Once purchased, the bonds are to be cancelled.  Belize has collective action clauses in the so-called superbond in question, so the deal will be binding on all holders of its external debt if a supermajority of creditors (75%) agree to the deal.  The dynamics of collective action clauses have been examined in excruciating detail elsewhere and I won’t get into that here. What interests me, and has intrigued many in the financial press (e.g., see here,  here, here, here, and here) is Belize’s attempt to tie a promise to behave in a greener fashion in the future to its request for debt relief from investors.

Specifically, Belize is promising investors that it will, in conjunction with TNC set aside a significant portion of the funds that it will save from doing the restructuring for environmental protection endeavors in the future (Belize's gorgeous coral reefs feature prominently in most accounts of the deal). As explained by a Belizean official:

As an integral part of the offer to repurchase the bonds, Belize will commit to its bondholders to transfer an amount equal to 1.3% of the country’s 2020 GDP to fund a Marine Conservation Endowment Account to be administered by a TNC affiliate. After a period in which the Endowment Account will retain its investment earnings in order to reach a targeted aggregate size, the annual earnings on the Account will thereafter be used, in perpetuity, to fund marine conservation projects in Belize identified by TNC and approved by the Government of Belize.

I have at least four questions that strike me as relevant to figuring out whether this strategy can work for other nations also facing covid related debt restructuring needs.

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