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Yehuda Adar on Contract Damages -- In a Bond Default

posted by Mitu Gulati

Figuring out the right damages measure for default on an actively traded financial asset such as a government bond is, at first, obvious -- just pay what you promised on the bond.  But then, when one thinks about features of damages law such as the option to substitute performance or mitigation, things get murkier.

Yehuda Adar, a guru of the messy law of damages at Haifa, has a super new paper on ssrn.com (here).  How he manages to be so very clear and coherent about a topic that is so messy is beyond me. 

Here is the abstract:

What are the damages to which an investor facing a repudiation or a material breach by a government issuer is entitled? The conventional answer that most investors would probably give is that, in the face of such a default on the bond indenture, damages should include both the repayment of the principal (‘par’) and the payment of any remaining (i.e., unpaid) coupons (discounted to present value). Is this conventional understanding warranted? For at least some sovereign bond experts, the answer is not at all obvious and straightforward at it might seem at first blush. Aren’t such damages over-compensatory? Indeed, by obtaining – prior to maturity – both the par and every remaining coupon payment, isn’t the bondholder being put in a better position than if the contract had been performed? Indeed, if there had been no breach, wouldn’t the bondholder have to wait for those payments to be made until maturity date? Secondly, if damages are to be calculated this way, isn’t the bondholder going to receive something more valuable than what he had before the breach? More concretely, whereas prior to breach the bond’s market value reflected the issuer’s credit ranking, the conventional measure of damages seems to treat the bondholder as if he owned a U.S. treasury bond. Third, shouldn’t the investor be expected to purchase a substitute on either the primary or secondary market to eliminate or at least minimize his damages? Shouldn’t this option significantly reduce the scope of the issuer’s liability?


As basic as these questions sound, they have managed to escape rigorous analysis in the sovereign bonds literature. One can hardly find a comprehensive analysis of remedial issues within this vast body of scholarship. What, then, is the correct measure of damages for the breach of a government bond? By closely inspecting this deceptively simple question, this Article highlights the availability, under the general law of contract damages, of no less than four different methods for measuring a bondholder’s expectation damages. The Article presents to the reader each of these alternative measures and illustrates how to implement each of them in a hypothetical case described at the outset of the Article. Then, the Article addresses two analytical challenges facing a court (or an arbitrator) wishing to reach the correct decision on the damages issue. The first involves a choice between two ways of conceptualizing the bondholder’s loss; namely, the loss of the promised performance of the indenture on the one hand, and the market value of the bond on the other hand. The next challenge is that of applying the mitigation of damages doctrine. Considering the normative and practical considerations pertinent to each of these challenges, the Article ultimately concludes that in most cases courts will tend to implement the ‘Gross Lost Profit’ measure of damages, which is the most generous of the four expectation damage measures. Surprisingly or not (depending on one’s intuitions), this measure coincides with the wisdom of the crowd.

 

 

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