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Equal Treatment in Sovereign Restructurings

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati & Mark Weidemaier

Last Friday, the Venezuelan government (at least, the representatives of that government recognized by the U.S.) issued a set of broad principles it intended to follow when it conducted the debt restructuring that is going to be necessary as soon as Mr. Maduro is given the proverbial boot from office.  One of those principles is going to be “equal treatment” of the various claims denominated in foreign currency – PDVSA bonds, promissory notes, Venezuelan sovereign bonds, arbitral awards and so on.  For those who are familiar with sovereign restructurings, the use of this broad equal treatment principle is going to be familiar (for example, Greece used it in 2012 when faced with an array of different types of debt instruments).

Our question is why.  The different debt instruments that Venezuela has – PDVSA bonds, sovereign bonds, Prom Notes, etc. – have different legal terms.  Some have stronger creditor rights and others have weaker ones. And that probably means that the current investors paid different amounts to buy them.  If investors paid different amounts for stronger versus weaker legal rights, doesn’t it stand to reason that the ones with the stronger rights should be offered a higher payout in a restructuring? And if they are not paid different amounts, isn’t that an invitation to the ones with stronger rights to engage in holdout behavior?

In Greece, for example, both the local-law governed Greek sovereign bonds and the foreign-law ones were offered the same deal.  Almost of the local-law bondholders took the deal, but relatively few of the foreign ones did. End result: Greece paid out the foreign-law bonds that refused the offer in full.  The same was true for a bunch of the Greek guaranteed debt. 

In Barbados, in the restructuring that is ongoing, the domestic-law bonds have taken the offer made by the government. But that same offer has been turned down the foreign-law bondholders; presumably because they think their instruments are worth more because of their stronger legal rights.  Wouldn’t it be efficient to offer the foreign holders more rather than getting mired in years of litigation?

There is undoubtedly a logic to the equal treatment principle.  We are wondering what it is. Efficiency? Maybe the logic is that if, for example, Venezuela were to offer the sovereign bonds requiring 100% of the creditors to approve of the restructuring a few cents more on the dollar than the ones requiring 75%, the whole process would get mired in disputes over whose bonds had stronger or weaker legal rights? Or maybe the logic is that investors will either hold out or not. Put differently, maybe there really is no marginal investor (i.e., one who, in exchange for a few extra pennies, might choose not to hold out and sue). Investors either have an appetite for litigation (in which case they aren’t interested in accepting restructuring terms) or they don’t (in which case there is no need to compensate them for rights they don’t have the appetite to assert). But again, we are speculating.

As a final puzzle, why are some bonds exempt from the equal treatment principle? The restructuring guidelines say that bonds backed by collateral will receive different treatment. But why? Why is a right to collateral different from a 100% voting right? Perhaps it is because some collateral pledges are relatively easy to enforce, such as the pledge of shares in U.S. entities. The PDVSA 2020 bonds are the primary example here. By contrast, a 100% voting right ensures the right to sue but doesn’t do much to help an investor enforce the judgment. However, the guidelines released by the Guaido team may have in mind something more than just the 2020s.

Comments

Herbert Rijken, which proposes that the risk profile of a sovereign mirrors the risk profile and health of its private sector

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