10 posts from September 2021

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.

Continue reading "Coral Reef Protection in Exchange for Debt Relief: Could it Really Work?" »

Further Thoughts on Coinbase: Two Mysteries

posted by Adam Levitin

I've been puzzling over two mysteries in the Coinbase saga:  first, why does Coinbase care so much if Lend is deemed a security, and second, why did the SEC want the list of Coinbase customers who had signed up in advance for Lend. I don't know that I've got all of this sussed out, but I figure I'll put my thinking out into the Internets and see if others have thoughts.

Continue reading "Further Thoughts on Coinbase: Two Mysteries" »

Coinbase and the SEC

posted by Adam Levitin

"All fintech is regulatory arbitrage, to some degree," Felix Salmon writes at Axios. And he's right. In the last couple of days we've seen two striking examples. First, the CFPB entered into a consent order with the provider of Income Share Agreements, a type of education financing. The consent order makes clear that the CFPB will be treating ISAs as student loans--that is credit--and therefore subject to the Truth in Lending Act and Equal Credit Opportunity Act.

And then we saw crypto-Twitter blow up over Coinbase's spat with the SEC regarding what is a security. Coinbase is the largest crypto exchange in the United States. It wants to offer a cryptocurrency lending product called Lend. According to Coinbase, the SEC told Coinbase that it thinks the product is a security and that it will sue if Coinbase offers the product without first registering it. After Coinbase got a Wells Notice from the SEC, Coinbase got huffy and decided to take its case to Twitter with a thread by it's CEO calling the SEC's behavior "sketchy".

There's a lot of confusion about the Coinbase matter, so I'm going to spell out what the stakes are, how I think the product works, and then why (assuming that I have the product's operation correct) Lend is obviously a security.

Continue reading "Coinbase and the SEC " »

Bypassing the Indenture Trustee?

posted by Mitu Gulati

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Earlier today we had a great time recording a Clauses and Controversies episode about the Province of Buenos Aires restructuring, which should post sometime next week. Our guest was Bloomberg reporter Scott Squires, who knows the Argentine context inside out and has also taken a deep dive into the mechanics and details of this restructuring. We got to talk about the PBA’s various shenanigans, and one aspect of our conversation continues to confuse us all. PBA offered to pay past due interest to creditors who consented to the restructuring; non-consenters did not receive the payment.

In the post linked above we wondered whether this payment, when added to PBA’s various threats, made the deal coercive. And we wondered why creditors, despite receiving fairly generous financial terms, were willing to accept this treatment. One answer we got from multiple sources is that it is simply too difficult and time consuming to deal with the trustee. Basically, it’s hard to get the trustee to act. First, holders of 25% in principal amount must instruct it to bring suit, then they have to negotiate the trustee’s indemnity, etc. And all this takes time. Meanwhile, the so-called “no action” clause in the indenture blocks individual bondholders from filing suit unless and until the trustee fails to act for 60 days. Perhaps any challenge the PBA’s conduct required quick, forceful legal action, but bondholders upset by the deal couldn’t muster the required 25% support or viewed the delay inherent in this process as a deal-breaker.

This would all make sense, were it not for the unusual drafting of another contract term. The clause played an important role in a lawsuit initially filed by Goldentree, one of PBA’s biggest creditors. Goldentree later changed course and were viewed as one of the drivers of the eventual deal. But the lawsuit was premised on the ability of individual bondholders to circumvent the trustee, found in this language (emphasis ours):

[E]ach Holder of Debt Securities shall have the right, which is absolute and unconditional, to receive payment of the principal of and interest on (including Additional Amounts) its Debt Security on the stated maturity date for such payment expressed in such Debt Security (as such Debt Security may be amended or modified pursuant to Article Eleven) and to institute suit for the enforcement of any such payment, and such right shall not be impaired without the consent of such Holder.

Our issuer-side friends have scoffed at this reading, telling us that the “no action” clause plainly requires all bondholder litigation to go through the trustee, at least until the bond has matured. That may be the common understanding. But that reading isn’t easy to square with the language above, which can plausibly be read to give individual investors the right to sue for missed coupon payments. Investors have a right to get “principal and interest on . . . the stated maturity date for such payment.” This is an unusual formulation. It is natural to say that principal comes due on the maturity date. But interest? Does interest “mature?” Our issuer-side friends would say, we assume, that the use of “stated maturity date” reinforces their understanding of the effect of the no action clause. But that reading seems to ignore the language “for such payment” (underlined above). This seems quite clearly to refer to individual payments, and the clause refers to both principal and interest. And it seems perfectly reasonable to interpret all of this to mean that, on the date when the interest is due, the interest obligation matures. Under this reading, investors can always sue for missed payments. It is other litigation—such as an acceleration in response to a cross-default trigger—that must go through the trustee.

Anyway, reading further, the clause says that an investor’s right to “such payment” – i.e., the interest that was due – and to institute suit” cannot be impaired “without the consent of such Holder.” That would at least arguably have enabled individual bondholder suits for past interest.

Again, many of our contacts in the market think this reading is nonsense and ignores the purpose and history of this clause. And we don’t really have a strong opinion as to which reading is correct. But we do think the reading above—which is presumably the reading underlying Goldentree’s suit—is plausible. Certainly there is a fairly straightforward argument to that effect based on the text of the clause, and text seems to matter quite a bit to judges applying New York law. It never ceases to amaze us how many seemingly settled questions—at least in the eyes of market participants—are not well reflected in contract language.

Personal Insolvency in Asia and Currency Comparison

posted by Jason Kilborn

While Shenzhen has gotten all the good press since its March launch of the first personal bankruptcy regime in Mainland China, a number of other Asian regimes have also been on the move. I recently examined the rapidly developing personal insolvency system in Singapore, and others have done great work on the unique processes in Japan and Korea. As an outsider, I struggle to capture the real feeling of life under these procedures. The challenge is expressed brilliantly by my favorite article on the difficulty of examining legal phenomena that are utterly foreign to the examiner, a paper that sought to answer the question "what was it like to try a rat?" This struggle is particularly acute in a new paper I've just posted on the fascinating evolution of Shenzhen's new law from its roots in a little-known 2008 consumer insolvency law in Taiwan. The Taiwan law is still in effect, of course (as amended in important respects), and the rocky experience of its first decade offers important lessons for personal insolvency policymakers in Asia and beyond. In both Taiwan and Shenzhen, a potential continuing challenge that intrigues me is among the most important and impactful in any such law--the measure of "necessary" household expenses to be budgeted to debtors for the purgatory period of three years (in Taiwan, it's six!) preceding a discharge. Both Taiwan and Shenzhen chose the social assistance minimum income; basically, the poverty level. Taiwan recently increased this by 20% after years of criticism of forcing bankrupt debtors into the extreme austerity of living within these tight budgets. Shenzhen has decided not to go beyond the poverty level, at least for now.

Expressing the strictures of these poverty levels in useful comparative terms is really difficult for me. Official exchange rates are quite misleading when the question is "what is it like to try to make do on X [local currency units] for three years in [X country]?" Purchasing power parity exchange rates likely get closer to the mark, but with China, I'm not even sure that approach captures the pain (or ease) that debtors in the "discharge examination period" must endure. The figures I'm wrestling with are 1950 yuan in Shenzhen and about 18,000 new Taiwan dollars (15,000 x 1.2) in Taipei (less in the outlying areas). I vaguely understand these to correspond to about US$465 and US$600, respectively, per month, but this just seems untenable to me. How could anyone survive on these amounts for 36 months in Shenzhen or 72 months in Taipei? Granted, both sets of figures are per person, so a debtor caring for parents and/or children might end up with several multiples of these figures per month, but even then, supporting a family of four on US$1860 per month for three years in a major city like Shenzhen still strikes me as so austere as to dissuade people from seeking relief. Am I just out of touch with the reality of modern financial struggles generally (I know some low-income Americans also strain to make ends meet on somewhat similar budgets), or am I not understanding something about life in big-city China, or are the figures just not reflecting the feeling of life within these limits? Any insight would be greatly appreciated.

Massachusetts Throws in the Towel with Credit Acceptance Corporation

posted by Adam Levitin

In 2020 the Massachusetts Attorney General brought one of the most significant consumer finance cases in years, a suit against subprime auto lender Credit Acceptance Corporation.  If you haven’t heard of CAC, it’s a one of the largest subprime auto lenders, and its stock has been one of the hottest growth stocks in recent years.  CAC is an indirect lender, meaning that it doesn't make the loan directly to the consumer, but instead purchases the loan from the dealer (who will not make the loan until the purchase is lined up).  

The suit contained a couple of really revolutionary claims, and Massachusetts was initially successfully, winning summary judgment on one count this spring and defeating the motion to dismiss on all challenged counts. The suit recently settled and for a surprisingly low amount and with virtually no meaningful prospective relief. CAC certainly had some possible defenses, but Massachusetts really seemed to be in a strong position, so it's a bit of a head scratcher what happened. 

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Might PBA Creditors Take a Lesson From the Black Widow?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

We’ve had lots of interesting responses to our earlier post on debt restructuring shenanigans engaged in by the Province of Buenos Aires. Many on the creditor side are miffed. Two issues raised by these responses seemed worth another post. So here we go.

Why not use the Black Widow Strategy?

At first, we didn’t understand the reference. But Google helped. Black Widow is the new Marvel movie starring Scarlett Johansson, who is suing Disney because it, and its subsidiary Marvel, did not do an exclusive release of the movie in theaters before selling it on the new Disney Plus streaming service (here). Instead of suing Marvel for breach of contract, she is suing Disney for tortious interference with contract. This is a standard move for parties bound, like Ms. Johansson, by an arbitration clause they would prefer to avoid. By suing a related third party, they get to proceed in court—unless the third party can argue that it is a third party beneficiary or otherwise entitled to invoke the arbitration agreement.

Why mention tortious interference in the context of the Province of Buenos Aires’ recent exchange offer? Tortious interference is an old common law tort action. It is typically brought against a non-party who induces one of the contracting parties to breach. Since it is a tort, one has to show causality and, in some circumstances, also that the non-party not only interfered but did so with some improper motive or by some improper method. (And defining what counts as improper has proven difficult). A senior lawyer who hated Ecuador’s original exit exchange in 2000 once commented that he was inclined to organize a tortious interference action and believed he would win. The logic then and now is that, by inducing participating creditors to vote to impair the rights under the contract they are exiting, the issuer is inducing a breach of that contract.

But we are less confident that tortious interference is a helpful way of thinking about behavior like PBA’s.

Continue reading "Might PBA Creditors Take a Lesson From the Black Widow?" »

Why Are Creditors OK With The Province of Buenos Aires’ Dodgy Use of Exit Amendments?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier

For the most part, the financial press has not scrutinized the details of the ongoing restructuring by the Province of Buenos Aires (PBA), which is nearing completion. The details are worth considering. Some aspects of the exchange offer might have crossed the line between good and bad faith and might have been subject to legal challenge. But this turns out be an uncertain area of law.

The basic transaction is structured as an exit exchange, and this technique raises some legal uncertainties even if we ignore the dodgy particulars of PBA’s restructuring. A debtor in financial distress needs to negotiate a debt reduction with its creditors. The debt contracts allow creditors to consent to reduce the amounts owed them, but only on condition that a majority or supermajority vote in favor. Let’s say, hypothetically, this requires the support of 90% of creditors. And let us say that the debtor has managed to persuade only 60% of creditors to support its restructuring proposal. So the debtor would seem to be out of luck.

Enter the exit exchange.

Continue reading "Why Are Creditors OK With The Province of Buenos Aires’ Dodgy Use of Exit Amendments?" »

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  • 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.

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