13 posts from October 2019

USED could have seen PSLF Fail coming

posted by Alan White

The Department of Education (USED) knew by 2016 that hundreds of thousands of student loan borrowers planning to apply for public loan service forgiveness (PSLF) were headed for rejection as they started applying in late 2017. The Department conducted a review of servicing contractor PHEAA’s administration of PSLF on October 25, 2016, about a year before the first cohort of borrowers would become eligible for loan cancellation. At the time of the review, 449,860 borrowers were designated as PSLF participants, presumably because they had at least one approved public service employer certification form (ECF). The reviewers audited a sample of 34 borrower loan files, and found that 53% had ZERO qualifying payments. Of those, about 40% were in a non-qualifying payment plan and 60% had ECFs with employment periods ending more than one year prior to the review date, in other words, no current evidence of qualifying employment. Given that all of these borrowers submitted at least one ECF, it is reasonable to assume that most if not all of them were unaware that they were making no progress towards the required 10 years of repayment.

Instead of faulting PHEAA for a situation in which half of borrowers were in danger of not getting PSLF credit for their payments, USED delved into the minutiae of PSLF payment counting, and found two instances of payment-counting errors resulting from servicing transfers. In their recommendations, the USED reviewers stress “it is imperative that Fedloan Servicing and FSA partner to ensure only those truly eligible for forgiveness receive this benefit.” No mention is made of any need to get in touch with the 53% of borrowers who are in the wrong payment plan or do not have up-to-date employer certifications.

The authors of the October 25, 2016 review (Debbe Johnson, Larry Porter, and Christian Lee Odom of SFA) note on the first page that it is for internal USED use only and is a policy deliberation document, presumably to shield it from FOIA release. It became public when the House Education and Labor Committee released the review as an exhibit to the committee’s October 2019 report on the PSLF fiasco.

Argentina’s [Insert Adjective Here] Debt Crisis

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Okay, everybody ready? Argentina? Check. Debt crisis? Check. Cristina Kirchner and crew back in office to, um, right the ship of state? Check. Last time round, their plan involved hurling insults at a U.S. federal judge. Like Spider Man: Far From Home, it was briefly amusing, lasted far too long, and ended badly. Argentina eventually caved in 2016, paying handsome sums to creditors who had sued it in U.S. courts. We won’t rehash the details, but there is great coverage by Joseph Cotterill, Matt Levine, Felix Salmon, Robin Wigglesworth and others. We also covered it extensively here on Credit Slips.

Yes, sure, it would be nice to have a break of more than three years between the formal end of an Argentine debt crisis and the start of a new one. But here we are. Argentina has again borrowed many billions USD under New York law. This time, the legal issues will be a bit different, because Argentina’s debt stock has different legal characteristics. Below, we offer a few preliminary thoughts.

Voluntary Reprofiling

On August 28, Argentina announced a plan to conduct a “voluntary reprofiling” of debt (here). Reprofiling is a fancy term for maturity extension. That sounds gentle—just a flesh wound!—but a long maturity extension can impose a significant NPV cut. Plus, reprofiling might be just the first step on a path that leads to a brutal debt restructuring. Creditors will distrust rosy predictions that a reprofiling will fix the problem. Many will refuse to participate. What happens then? 

Last time around, after its 2001 default, Argentina’s NY-law bonds required the unanimous approval of all the creditors before any alterations to the payment terms could be made. That requirement, of course, magnifies the risk of holdouts. And in fact, Argentina spent the next 15 years engaged in various legal battles (e.g., here).

This time, Argentina’s bonds have collective action clauses, or CACs, which let a super-majority of creditors bind a dissenting minority. If Argentina gets the requisite proportion of creditors to agree, it can impose a reprofiling on the entire group. Of course, the devil is in the fine print.

Continue reading "Argentina’s [Insert Adjective Here] Debt Crisis" »

Christine Chabot on "Is the Federal Reserve Constitutional?"

posted by Mitu Gulati

I hate to admit that I'm beginning to find constitutional law interesting. First, there was the Puerto Rico v. Aurelius case that was argued at the Court a few weeks ago.  And then, a few days ago, I came across Christine Chabot's “Is the Federal Reserve Constitutional? An Originalist Argument for Independent Agencies” (here).

The background here is that a number of scholars have, in recent years, raised the question of whether the manner in which some FOMC members are appointed conflicts with the dictates of Article II's Appointments Clause (yes, the same clause that is central to the Puerto Rico v. Aurelius battle). Chabot's wonderful article unpacks the history of the obscure Sinking Fund Commission to show that, even under an originalist perspective, the current structure of the FOMC holds up.

Even if you have no interest in the constitutional debate, the historical and institutional origins of the open markets purchasing authority are fascinating -- I did not know that Alexander Hamilton had set up the federal open market committee to support the price of US debt. This first FOMC had Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and John Jay conducting independent monetary policy. Wow.

Here is the abstract:

The President’s inability to control the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy decisions raises significant constitutional concerns. The Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee executes critical statutory mandates when it buys or sells U.S. securities in order to expand or contract the money supply, and yet the Committee’s twelve voting members check one another instead of answering directly to the President. The President cannot remove Committee members who refuse to carry out his monetary policy directives. Seven of the Committee’s twelve voting members are Federal Reserve governors who enjoy for-cause protections from removal by the President. Congress delegated power to supervise and remove the remaining five voting members, who are presidents of regional Federal Reserve banks, to the governors rather than the President. Further, the President has no say in the appointment of regional bank presidents to the Committee. While the Committee’s independence and appointments process would likely pass muster under current precedent, a growing chorus of originalists have argued that the Constitution requires greater executive control and a more expansive application of Article II’s Appointments Clause requirements.

This paper demonstrates that existing originalist accounts are incomplete. They do not account for the structural independence of an obscure agency known as the Sinking Fund Commission. This Commission was proposed by Alexander Hamilton, passed into law by the First Congress, and signed into law by President George Washington. One would expect all of these actors to have a clear grasp on the original public meaning of the Constitution, as well as a strong dedication to the structural commitments established therein. Their decisions to form a Sinking Fund Commission with multiple members to check one another — and to include the Vice President and Chief Justice as Commissioners who cannot be replaced or removed by the President — belie the notion that an independent agency structure violates the newly minted Constitution. The Sinking Fund Commission directed open market purchases of U.S. securities pursuant to a statutory mandate. It provides a direct historical analogue to the Federal Open Market Committee’s independent purchases of U.S. securities pursuant to a statutory mandate. This analysis shows that the structure of the Open Market Committee is not a novel invention of the twentieth century. Rather, the independence stemming from the Committee’s multi-headed structure and protections from removal has an impeccable originalist provenance which dates all the way back to Alexander Hamilton and the First Congress.

How to Deal with a $3 Trillion Bully

posted by Adam Levitin

I don't like bullies.  And I just ran into a $3 trillion one.  JPMorgan Chase Bank, armed with six partners at two AmLaw 100 firms (Wilmer Hale and McGuire Woods) took the truly unusual step of filing an objection to an amicus curiae brief I filed in a 9th Circuit case called McShannock v. JPMorgan Chase Bank N.A. in support of neither partyChase objects because the brief is late (which it is) and supposedly irrelevant to the disposition of the case. So why is Chase spending thousands of dollars on attorneys fees to object to an irrelevant brief, particularly when it claims no prejudice from the late filing?

Continue reading "How to Deal with a $3 Trillion Bully" »

$5 to forgive public servant student loans

posted by Alan White

Five dollars is the contract payment the US Education Department makes to its servicer FedLoan for a borrower's first approved Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) employment certification. FedLoan is supposed to review employer certifications, track PSLF borrower payments for ten years, and then process a loan forgiveness application, all for five dollars (plus the servicing fee paid for all loan accounts.) FedLoan must verify that the borrower made each payment on time, in the right payment plan, for the right loan(s), while working for the right employer full time. US Ed. has made FedLoan's task far more difficult than the statute requires, with its 15-day on-time payment regulation and various employer exclusions. The Department needs to seriously rethink its contract design before renewing its 10-year servicing contracts early next year.

The process of matching each payment with a qualifying employment period appears to account for more than half of the astounding 99% denial rate. The Congressional proposals to fix PSLF have largely missed this point, although the House bill calls for one obvious fix by requiring US Ed. to give FedLoan a list or database of qualifying employers. FedLoan's task would be far easier if the on-time payment rule were scrapped, and replaced with a rule that any borrower who made a total of 120 payments in any payment plan without going into default qualifies, so long as they can submit employment verification for the relevant 10 years. Because borrowers submit IRS information to the servicer each year to set an income-based payment amount, another tech fix would have the servicer store the IRS employer identification number (EIN) and match it with a list of approved public service employers, rather than having the student and employer fill out a 10-page employment certification form every year.

US Ed.'s public stance (apart from Secretary DeVos' desire to kill PSLF) is to blame Congress for bad program design, while Congressional overseers can't seem to recognize that PSLF can only work with a comprehensive set of legislative, regulatory, and contractual fixes. Meanwhile the count of student loan borrowers with at least one approved ECF, i.e. future PSLF applicants, is 1.1 million.

 

It makes a fine Halloween gift!

posted by Stephen Lubben

image from www.e-elgar.comOn sale now, my latest book:  American Business Bankruptcy, A Primer. Suitable for use as supplemental reading in all sorts of bankruptcy classes, and even some corporate finance classes that cover financial distress (especially those using a certain textbook).

I also think it would be a good read for junior attorneys who (shockingly) neglected to take bankruptcy in law school. And don't forget the international attorneys who want a quick way to learn about American law. It also stabilizes wobbly tables and kills flies.

In short, it makes a great gift for everyone on your shopping list! Buy several copies today. And tomorrow too.

Aurelius v. Puerto Rican Control Board (or "Do Activist Hedgies Add Value?")

posted by Mitu Gulati

This post draws considerably from research on Puerto Rico and its current constitutional status with Joseph Blocher (see here).

Tuesday was oral argument day at the Supreme Court in the battle between the Puerto Rican Control Board and a big bad hedge fund, Aurelius.  Aurelius, zealous defender of the constitution that it is, had brought a challenge to the constitutionality of the Control Board. The claim being that the failure of President Obama and the then Congress to follow the strictures of the Constitution for the appointment of principal officers of the federal government (nomination by the President, followed by Senate confirmation) made the Board and all its actions invalid.

I am not a constitutional scholar and don’t have any desire to be one.  Still, the basic issue here seems fairly simple:  Are the members of the Control Board principal federal officers?

Continue reading "Aurelius v. Puerto Rican Control Board (or "Do Activist Hedgies Add Value?")" »

Congratulations to Pamela Foohey!

posted by Adam Levitin

Congratulations to Pamela Foohey on being named to the American Bankruptcy Institute's 40 Under 40 list for 2019!  Pamela joins Credit Slips own Dalié Jiménez (class of 2018) as an honoree

And it's been a great news day for our former co-blogger Katie Porter, who was not only the subject of an American Banker article, but was put on a SCOTUS short list

A Mini Q&A on Venezuela’s Possible Defense to Foreclosure on the PDVSA 2020

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Along with Ugo Panizza of the Graduate Institute in Geneva, we’ve put up a couple of posts in recent days asking whether Venezuela might have a legal basis for challenging its obligations on the PDVSA 2020 bond (here and here). A large payment of close to a billion dollars is due in a few weeks and there is no money to pay it.  Most important, the bond is collateralized by a pledge of a majority stake in CITGO Holding.

The possible basis for the legal defense is that the bonds, and especially the pledge of collateral, were not properly authorized under Article 150 of the Venezuelan constitution. (This matter has also received press attention over the past few days—e.g., here and here).

As background, provisions in the Venezuelan constitution (Art. 312) and related Venezuelan laws require the passage of a “special law” (our translation) to authorize public indebtedness, but exempt PDVSA from the requirement. However, a separate constitutional provision, Article 150, requires “approval” from the National Assembly for contracts of national interest. We don’t know of situations in which the provision has been invoked. With apologies for possible mistranslations here and elsewhere in this post, here is the text:

Article 150. The entering into of national public interest contracts will require the approval of the National Assembly in the cases determined by law. 

No municipal, state, or national public interest contract can be entered into with States or foreign official entities or with companies not domiciled in Venezuela, not being assigned to them without the approval of the National Assembly.

The law may require in public interest contracts certain conditions of nationality, domicile or any other kind, or require special guarantees

For a Caracas Chronicles piece on this, see here.

We have gotten numerous questions in response to our two pieces, one at Project Syndicate and one here. There were many excellent questions. And since we find this topic fascinating (we are working on an empirical paper on governing law provisions in sovereign debt contracts), we decided to go down the rabbit hole of trying to answer them. 

The caveat here is that while we know a good bit about sovereign bond contracts, we have no expertise in Venezuelan constitutional law. Here goes:

Continue reading "A Mini Q&A on Venezuela’s Possible Defense to Foreclosure on the PDVSA 2020 " »

Can Creditors Seize CITGO? Enforcing the PDVSA 2020 Bond Collateral

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Writing with Ugo Panizza, we have a piece out today on Project Syndicate (Should Creditors Pay the Price for Dubious Bonds?) discussing the collateralized bond issued by Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA (the PDVSA 2020 bond). We have written here previously about the bond as well. In 2016, when PDVSA was near default, it conducted a debt swap in which investors exchanged short-maturity bonds for the longer-maturity PDVSA 2020. To sweeten the deal, the PDVSA 2020 bond was backed by collateral in the form of a 50.1% interest in CITGO Holding, the immediate parent company of U.S. oil refiner CITGO Petroleum.

A payment of nearly $1 billion is coming due in the next few weeks on the PDVSA 2020 bond. The Maduro regime—no longer recognized as the legitimate government of Venezuela—can’t pay it. And the government-in-exile led by Juan Guaidó—though it desperately wants to retain control of CITGO—presumably can’t afford to pay. If there is a default, and bondholders seize the collateral, the loss of CITGO may significantly disrupt Venezuela’s ability to recover from its current economic and humanitarian catastrophe. To be sure, the prospects of recovery are dim while Mr. Maduro remains in power, but if he leaves, the loss of CITGO will be a major blow.

The Project Syndicate article describes how, under Venezuelan law, the National Assembly must approve contracts of national interest. That didn’t happen here. Venezuela might therefore challenge the issuance of the PDVSA 2020 bond, and the grant of collateral, as lacking proper authorization under Venezuelan law. Ugo and we examine the potential justification for such a challenge at Project Syndicate.

Here, we focus on a more wonky question: Is the validity of the PDVSA 2020 bond and the pledge of collateral to be judged under Venezuelan law or New York law? And would the outcome change depending on which law governs? The answers turn out to be more complicated than one might think. But, given the court battle that we expect, rather important.

Continue reading "Can Creditors Seize CITGO? Enforcing the PDVSA 2020 Bond Collateral" »

The Puzzling Pricing of Venezuelan Sovereign Bonds

posted by Mitu Gulati

by Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Venezuela’s sovereign bonds differ in ways that should, in theory, be reflected in market prices. For example, depending on the bond, the vote required to modify payment terms through the collective action clause (CACs) varies from 100% (requiring each holder to assent), to 85%, to 75%. Bonds with higher voting thresholds are harder to restructure and one would think prices would reflect this. Two bonds issued by state oil company PDVSA also have legal features that one might expect to have pricing implications. One bond benefits from a pledge of collateral (the PDVSA 2020) and, in consequence, should be priced higher than otherwise-comparable bonds. A second was issued at a particularly large original issue discount (OID); this is a potential legal defect that should lower its price. This is the so-called “Hunger bond” (PDVSA 2022 —see here, here and here for more)).

Although these differences seem like they should matter, reports from the European markets (where the bonds can still be traded) indicate that bid prices for Venezuelan sovereign bonds range from around 13.0 to 13.5 cents on the dollar, while ask prices range from about 14.5 to 15.5. Moreover, prices on the bonds with different voting thresholds are identical. That is, the bonds that cannot be restructured except with each creditor’s assent are trading the same as bonds that allow a creditor majority of 85% or 75% to force restructuring terms on dissenters. But why? Venezuela is in full-fledged default, when legal protections should matter the most.  Shouldn’t these non-US investors (US investors can’t buy, given OFAC sanctions) be offering higher prices for bonds with better terms?

Continue reading "The Puzzling Pricing of Venezuelan Sovereign Bonds" »

Badawi & de Fontenay Paper on EBITDA Definitions

posted by Mitu Gulati

I confess that, on its face, this did not strike me as the most exciting topic to read about (and that comes from someone who writes about the incredibly obscure world of sovereign debt contracts).  After all, who even knows what EBITDA definitions are?  Sounds like something from the tax or bankruptcy code.  But don’t let the topic be off putting.  This is a wonderfully interesting project; and elegantly executed (here).  By the way, EBITDA stands for earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation blah blah. Turns out it is especially important for young companies, where potential investors want to know about the cash flow being generated (Matt Levine has been writing about it recently in the context of the WeWork debacle - here). It is also very important because it generally ties into the covenants in the debt instrument and can impact whether or not the covenants are violated.

Using machine learning techniques, Adam and Elisabeth look at the EBITDA definitions in thousands of supposedly boilerplate debt contracts.  And they find a huge amount of variation in this supposedly boilerplate term; variation that can end up making a big difference to the parties involved. (For those interested, there is a nice prior study by Mark Weidemaier in the on how supposedly boilerplate dispute resolution terms in sovereign bonds are often not really all that close (here); and John Coyle’s recent work on choice-of-law provisions in corporate bonds is also along these lines (here))

The question that naturally arises here is whether the variation in these EBITDA definitions is the product of conscious and smart lawyering or just random variation that arises as contracts are copied and pasted over generations. (for more on this, see here (Anderson & Manns) and here (Anderson)). My understanding of the results is that these definitions are definitely not the product of random variation; instead, there seems to be a lot of sneaky lawyering to inflate the supposedly standard EBITDA measure.

Continue reading "Badawi & de Fontenay Paper on EBITDA Definitions " »

The Clock Is Ticking for the Sacklers

posted by Adam Levitin

It's funny how what goes on in one bankruptcy case can sometimes point to looming issues in another. The PG&E plan exclusivity fight suggests an interesting dynamic looming in Purdue:  Purdue's own plan exclusivity could expire, which would completely upend the dynamic of negotiations with the Sackler family for a plan contribution in exchange for a non-consensual release of creditors' claims against them.  

As I see it, the Sacklers have no more than 18 months (and perhaps as few as 4 months) to cut their deal. If the Sacklers fail to reach a deal before plan exclusivity lapses, a state AG (or anyone else) could easily propose a plan that assigns all of the bankruptcy estate's litigation claims against the Sacklers to a trust for opioid victims or sells off the claims to a litigation vehicle.  The trust (or litigation vehicle) will then go and litigate against the Sacklers, and any recoveries will go to opioid victims. Critically, if this happens, the Sacklers will not be able to get a third-party release from Purdue's creditors.  They can still settle the fraudulent transfer claims of the bankruptcy estate, but they won't be shielded from creditors' direct claims.  

Now, I'm not sure how strong those direct claims really are, and thus how important a third-party release is for the Sacklers. They might decide that the asking price isn't worth paying. And the AGs might prefer to get half a loaf, rather than nothing; if so, they don't want plan exclusivity to lapse either--it's a great threat until it actually has to be played. Again we see the standard bankruptcy dynamic of one party threatening to push the other out the window, and the other party threatening to jump. Mutual defenestration.   

More generally, though, I wonder if Purdue will be able to get a pro forma extension of exclusivity given the enormous conflict of interest of its Sackler-controlled management. This seems like exactly the sort of case where plan exclusivity should not be extended because its main effect is to give the conflicted equity owners time to play for a lower settlement figure for their own liability.  In other words, plan exclusivity is benefitting the Sacklers personally, not necessarily the estate. That's akin to letting out-of-the-money equity sit around in bankruptcy and gamble on resurrection while burning up estate assets on administrative expenses. Yes, it's a mess of a case, but letting Purdue maintain plan exclusivity hardly seems like the right way to deal with that problem. A better outcome might require letting someone else be in the drivers' seat.

[Update: It seems that there actually is someone else in the drivers' seat already. Purdue's board of directors has been transformed over the past year. It now has a majority of independent directors and they seem to have some degree of insulation from the Sacklers, who continue to be the majority shareholders. There's not a lot of visibility on this because it is a private company, but the "informational brief" filed by Purdue explains some of this--the two branches of the Sackler family each appoint up to two Class A or Class B directors, but that there are also four other directors chosen by jointly by Sackler family members. Critically, there is a Special Committee of the board (comprised of a star-studded cast of restructuring professionals). The Special Committee has no Class A or Class B directors on it, and the Special Committee handles all matters relating to the Sacklers. It seems from a Shareholder Agreement (which I do not believe is public) that the Sacklers lack the ability to get rid of the Special Committee or do things like bylaw amendments, etc. to keep control.

That said, what I cannot tell from the public documents is what sort of board vote would be needed to proceed with a bankruptcy plan. Is it a simple majority? Unanimous? Is it even a vote of the full board, or just the Special Committee? The Informational Brief does not indicate whether matters encompassing more than to the Sacklers are solely the purview of the Special Committee. All of which is to say that from the public documents I have seen, I can't tell if the Sacklers have been totally pushed out of any management influence or if it is just that their influence has been substantially diminished. In any event, to the extent there's new management in charge, the case for terminating exclusivity is much weaker. Additionally, the case for a creditors' committee bringing fraudulent transfer actions derivatively looks a lot weaker.]

Speaking of which, why haven't we seen a motion to dismiss for cause filed at this point?  My guess is because it doesn't obviously help any one.  

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