7 posts from January 2020

The "Necessity" Defense in Sovereign Debt Cases

posted by Mitu Gulati

My international debt class this week discussed the US Supreme Court’s gold clause decisions from 1935; and, in particular, US v. Perry. This is one of my favorite topics, in part because the events that occurred are so surprising to most students (as they were to me). Plus, there is some wonderful writing on the topic including a 2013 law review article by Indiana U Law School’s Gerard Magliocca (here) and a 2018 book by UCLA Economic Historian Sebastian Edwards (here).

For those who don’t know this case, basically the US imposed a massive haircut on its lenders by abrogating the gold clauses in its debt contracts via Congressional action in 1933.  Creditors yelled bloody murder and sued, and the case quickly made its way to SCOTUS.  There, the government, which didn’t have very many strong legal arguments on its side, threw itself at the court’s mercy and pled that the court deny the creditors’ claims on public policy grounds. That is, that the country was in such a deep crisis – arguably the worst it had ever seen – that extreme steps (such as the abrogation of a contract term) needed to be taken to improve general welfare.  It was a Hail Mary pass, and it worked even though the justices had to hold their noses and rule.  The Court ruled in a somewhat bizarre fashion, finding a constitutional violation but no damages.  The bottom line though was that the government won.  Better still, the US economy recovered and lenders became even more eager to lend to the US than they were before. (see here and here).

The question raised by Edwards and Magliocca though is whether we might see the use of this extreme necessity defense ever again.  And it turns out that there is a sovereign debt case going on right now, in January 2020, in a federal court in New York, where necessity is being raised as a defense. The country in question is Venezuela and the conditions surrounding Venezuela’s inability to pay are as extreme as they come (evil dictator, deep humanitarian crisis, broke government-in-exile stuck dealing with myriad lawsuits). The case is Casa Express Corp. v. Venezuela (Case 1:18-cv-11940-AT).  Question is whether, given that the crisis is occurring in a distant country as opposed to the US itself, the US federal court will find the appeal to “necessity” convincing in the same way that they did in 1935. (Venezuela is asking for a lot less relief in this case than the US was in 1935; Venezuela just wants a stay until Mr. Maduro can be induced to leave office and the IMF can help it prepare to deal with creditor claims).

Continue reading "The "Necessity" Defense in Sovereign Debt Cases" »

Argentina’s Hundred-Year Bond and its Make-Whole Premium: A Spanner in the Works?

posted by Mitu Gulati

Argentina is on the brink of attempting a restructuring of its sovereign debt.  And, of course, that has attracted the birds of prey.  An article in Bloomberg a couple of days ago (here) reported that potential holdout creditors had hired expert lawyers to examine the fine print in Argentine contracts in the hope of finding a vehicle to support their litigation strategies.

Assuming that it is not going to be long before Argentina is in full restructuring mode, my question is whether an unusual clause in one of the Argentine bonds, combined with a recent case out of the Southern District of New York, might interfere with the Argentine government’s restructuring plans?

The clause is the Optional Redemption provision in the $2.75 bn hundred-year bond that Argentina issued in June 2017, with the hefty coupon of 7.125%.  Optional Redemption clauses, as my co authors (Amanda Dixon, Madison Whalen and Theresa Arnold) discovered in an analysis of over 500 recent sovereign and quasi sovereign issuances, are rare creatures in this market.  Fewer than 20% of all the sovereign issuers use them. Some, like Mexico, are frequent users. But others, such as Argentina, have used them only on rare occasion.

Oversimplifying, these provisions typically allow the issuer to call the bonds at a supra compensatory amount (somewhat misleadingly called the “make-whole” amount).  Our data suggests that such provisions were largely absent from the sovereign market in the period between the mid 1990s and 2010.  Somewhere around 2010 though, Issuer Call provisions with their “make-whole” premia began migrating into the sovereign world from the high-yield corporate bond market.  Precisely why the Issuer Call provisions are set at a supra compensatory amount is something of a mystery to me (Marcel Kahan and I discuss the mechanics of these clauses here).

What I’ve heard from lawyers and bankers in the interviews that Marcel and I did for our piece (here) is that high-yield corporates sometimes need to retire their old bonds to they can escape onerous covenants (for example, to engage in a lucrative merger).  And to do that they are willing to pay a high amount – that is, a supra compensatory “make-whole” premium. In the sovereign context though, not only is there not going to be any lucrative merger, but the covenants are not all that onerous such that issuers would want to pay a big premium to get out of them.  But maybe there are countries that think that their current borrowing costs are unduly high (e.g., the 7.125% coupon on Argentina’s 100-year bond) and that these costs will surely go down some day in the future.  That, in turn, will make the redemption option valuable to that optimistic issuer. And, maybe, like Argentina was in June 2017, the issuer will be willing to promise pay a high amount to creditors if conditions ever become so positive that it wants to retire substantial amounts of its high coupon debt. Alexander Hamilton certainly thought so in the Report on Public Credit in 1790 (here).  Things haven’t quite worked out for Argentina in the manner that they did for Hamilton and the US.  But a hundred years is a long time. 

Now, you might ask, why is an Optional Redemption clause relevant in the context of an attempted sovereign restructuring?  After all, an Issuer Call option and should only be relevant where the issuer chooses to exercise the option.  And Argentina is seeking to get creditors to take haircuts, rather than exercise its redemption option.  Remember, the redemption option typically requires the issuer to pay a supra compensatory amount (because it is intended to operate in a state of the world where things have improved so dramatically for that issuer that it wishes to retire the debt) – which is the opposite of the haircut that Argentina needs to impose currently (because things have turned terrible for Argentina).

The answer has to do with a New York case from late 2016, Cash America v. Wilmington Savings.  Drawing from a blog post that Marcel Kahan and I did for the Columbia Law School Blue Sky Blog a couple of days ago, here is the story of the case:

Bond indentures [for high-yield corporate issuers in the US] commonly contain what are called “make-whole” provisions that give the issuer of the bonds the option to redeem the bonds, at a premium over par. Bond indentures also contain an acceleration clause that gives bondholders the option, upon an Event of Default, to demand immediate payment of the principal amount and receive par. To reiterate, redemption is an option of the issuer while acceleration is an option for bondholders.

In Cash America [v. Wilmington Savings], the issuer was found to have violated a covenant in the bond indenture, thereby generating an Event of Default.  The court ruled that when the issuer engaged in a “voluntary” covenant breach, holders are entitled to receive as a remedy the amount they would have received upon redemption, that is a premium over the amount receivable under the acceleration clause.  [And that redemption amount was a supra compensatory “make-whole” amount].

Continue reading "Argentina’s Hundred-Year Bond and its Make-Whole Premium: A Spanner in the Works?" »

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. 

Continue reading "Mick Mulvaney's South Carolina Land Shenanigans All Under Seal" »

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.

Continue reading "Buybacks as a Sovereign Debt Restructuring Strategy: Why the Disfavor? " »

"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.

Continue reading "Consumer Bankruptcy, Done Correctly, To Help Struggling Americans" »

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.

Continue reading "A Cautionary Tale: Argentina’s Pari Passu Debt Debacle " »

Contributors

Current Guests

Follow Us On Twitter

Like Us on Facebook

  • Like Us on Facebook

    By "Liking" us on Facebook, you will receive excerpts of our posts in your Facebook news feed. (If you change your mind, you can undo it later.) Note that this is different than "Liking" our Facebook page, although a "Like" in either place will get you Credit Slips post on your Facebook news feed.

News Feed

Categories

Bankr-L

  • As a public service, the University of Illinois College of Law operates Bankr-L, an e-mail list on which bankruptcy professionals can exchange information. Bankr-L is administered by one of the Credit Slips bloggers, Professor Robert M. Lawless of the University of Illinois. Although Bankr-L is a free service, membership is limited only to persons with a professional connection to the bankruptcy field (e.g., lawyer, accountant, academic, judge). To request a subscription on Bankr-L, click here to visit the page for the list and then click on the link for "Subscribe." After completing the information there, please also send an e-mail to Professor Lawless (rlawless@illinois.edu) with a short description of your professional connection to bankruptcy. A link to a URL with a professional bio or other identifying information would be great.

OTHER STUFF