postings by Mitu Gulati

The $900 Million Back Office Error

posted by Mitu Gulati

I love this story -- a bank erroneously sends money to a bunch of lenders who are angry with the bank and the debtor for other reasons. The bank discovers the computer error and asks for its money back. The angry lenders refuse to give back what was clearly an erroneous deposit. There is litigation. And the court says to the lenders who received the erroneous deposit: You can keep the money.  

I remember telling my students in Contracts about it when the news was first reported, and the matter had not been to court yet. I told them that this was an easy case and that the lenders would have to give the money back.  If memory serves, I told them something along the lines of: "If a bank erroneously deposits money in your account, you don't get to keep it. You have to give back what is not yours. Finders are not automatically keepers." I was wrong, to put it mildly.

Elisabeth de Fontenay has a delightful piece on this that is coming out soon in the Capital Markets Law Journal (here). Among other things, Elisabeth asks the deeper question of why it is that lenders and borrowers these days seem to be asserting what look to be highly opportunistic claims on a much more frequent basis than in the past. It used to be -- or so the veteran lawyers in this business tell me --  that reputation and norms constrained these repeat players from misbehaving. Not these days.

Of course, there is more to the story, like why the judge (Jesse Furman) ruled the way he did. Turns out that there was a wormy precedent directing him and he was not willing to turn the usual judicial cartwheels to produce the "fair" outcome. Or maybe, in terms of weighing bad behavior on the two sides, he found shenanigans on both sides and decided to just follow precedent? Or maybe Judge Furman hates the big banks? I'm kidding (I think very highly of Judge Furman), but he has decided a number of big commercial cases recently that have caused drama (e.g., here (Windstream) and here (Cash America)).

The abstract for Elisabeth's paper is here:

The Citibank case dealt with a $900 million payment sent in error to the lenders of Revlon, Inc., in the midst of a fraught dispute over the loan restructuring. Surprising most market participants, the court ruled that the lenders who refused to return the funds to the administrative agent were entitled to keep the money. The case (currently on appeal) attracted commentary primarily due to the sheer size of the payment error, and the corresponding risks posed by “back-office” functions at financial institutions. But Citibank also highlights the widening gap in leveraged finance between the wishes and expectations of market participants and the actual outcomes they achieve under either (1) common-law default rules or (2) heavily negotiated contracts. In particular, the case raises questions such as (1) whether New York law remains an appropriate default choice for financing transactions; (2) whether the common-law of contracts does or should continue to have relevance for financing transactions among sophisticated parties; and (3) whether parties truly can contract for their desired outcomes when opportunistic behavior is prevalent in the market.

For more, Matt Levine of Bloomberg has a hilarious piece, here. It talks about the back office disaster in India and how this goof actually happened (as an aside, the firm involved on the Indian side is a highly respected one -- this was no fly by night operation).  Matt also talks about the wonderfully named Banque Worms case.  One could not make this stuff up even if one wanted to.

I'm hoping that my favorite business law podcaster, Andrew Jennings (here), will do an episode on this soon.

The Argentine 2020 Restructuring Drama: An Insider's Perspective

posted by Mitu Gulati

There has been much discussion of the recent (2020) Argentine restructuring on creditslips, including by Anna Gelpern (here) and Mark Weidemaier (here), two people who know more about these matters than pretty much anyone else anywhere.  And significant portions of that discussion have been critical (or at least questioning) of the wisdom of two of the strategies that Argentina attempted to utilize during its recent restructuring: Pac Man and Re-designation.  These criticisms also showed up in the financial press, in articles by Anna Szymanski (here) and Colby Smith (here), among others.

Yesterday, two of the key players on the Argentine restructuring team, Andres de la Cruz and Ignacio Lagos (both of Cleary Gottlieb) put out on ssrn a spirited defense of the Pac Man and Re-designation strategies.  The article, “CACs at Work: What Next?” is available here (and should be forthcoming in the Capital Markets Law Journal soon).  To cut to the chase, Andres and Ignacio argue that their strategies were misunderstood by commentators and, in the end, were actually embraced by investors.

Continue reading "The Argentine 2020 Restructuring Drama: An Insider's Perspective" »

The New Thing in Contract Research - The Contract Production Process

posted by Mitu Gulati

Cathy Hwang and Matt Jennejohn, two of the brightest young stars of the contract world, just put up a paper summarizing their view of one of the exciting new directions that contract research is taking. They describe it as the study of contractual complexity ("The New Research on Contractual Complexity", is their title). But I don't like the term "contractual complexity" at all, since I simply cannot take seriously the idea that anything that lawyers do is all that complex.  Convoluted, confused and obscure, yes.  But complex? Hell no.  What I see their wonderful paper as being about is the new research on the production of contracts.  As they point out, it all starts from the foundations laid in a set of important papers by the brilliant Barak Richman.  Barak has long been puzzled as to why contract scholars have generally had little interest in how contracts are produced -- even though key assumptions about the production process form the backbone for theories and doctrines of contract interpretation (something that contract scholars, old and new, do care deeply about).

And now we have an entire cool new set of papers by folks like Rob Anderson, Jeff Manns, Dave Hoffman, Tess-Wilkinson Ryan, Michelle Boardman, Julian Nyarko, John Coyle, Mark Weidemaier, Adam Badawi, Elisabeth de Fontenay, Anna Gelpern and, of course, Cathy and Matt (and more).  Some using fancy empirical techniques well beyond my capacity (yes, those are complex), others use cool experiments (again, complex and beyond my skill level) and still others use interviews (yup, complex).

Three cheers for the study of how contracts are produced -- complex ones, confused ones and all the rest.

The ssrn link to Cathy and Matt's paper from the Capital Markets Law Journal is here

Their abstract reads:

In the last few years, the academic literature has begun catching up with private practice. In this essay, we review the growing literature on contractual complexity and outline its key insights for contract design and enforcement. Our purview is broad, capturing new theories and new empirical tools that have recently been developed to understand contractual complexity. We also propose avenues for future research, which we extend as an invitation to academics and practitioners as an opportunity to further the collective knowledge in this field. 

Argentina-Inspired Reforms to Sovereign Debt Contract Terms (Yes, Again)

posted by Mitu Gulati

In terms of innovations in the boilerplate of sovereign debt contract terms, Argentina is the gift that keeps on giving (and giving and giving).  At least within my lifetime, its behavior has inspired more contract innovation than any other country (even Ecuador, that probably comes a close second).

Here is the abstract of a wonderful new paper by two sovereign debt legal experts from White & Case (London), Ian Clark and Dimitrios Lyratzakis (White & Case has a long history of innovation in sovereign debt contracts; it was one of the firms at the forefront of Collective Action Clause innovations way back in the 1980s):

The Collective Action Clauses published by the International Capital Markets Association in 2014/2015 aim to facilitate orderly and consensual sovereign debt restructurings. The clauses were designed to give sovereigns flexibility in structuring and consummating a transaction that would be capable of attracting broad creditor support, while safeguarding the integrity of the process and the rights of creditor minorities. The recent restructurings of Argentina and Ecuador presented the first opportunities for the ICMA CACs to be tested in practice, but the “re-designation” and “PAC-man” strategies first seen in the Argentine restructuring revealed shortcomings in the ICMA contractual architecture.

Argentina’s and Ecuador’s creditors responded by negotiating tailored refinements to the standard CACs that would mitigate the risk that a sovereign could compel a restructuring that is not supported by the requisite creditor supermajorities. The qualified restrictions on “re-designation” and “PAC-man” adopted by Ecuador and Argentina enhance the ICMA architecture and provide strong incentives for a sovereign to engage constructively with its private creditors in a consensus-building process that results in a restructuring proposal capable of achieving supermajority support.

The paper, "Toward a More Robust Sovereign Debt Architecture: Innovations from Ecuador and Argentina" (forthcoming in Capital Markets Law Journal) is particularly interesting because Ian and Dimitrios are two of the creditor-side lawyers who were involved in creating the innovations that they discuss. (Much of the writing in this area has tended to be from the debtor side). Now, it remains to be seen how the market responds to these innovations. In particular, will other deals embrace the changes that have been made in the Ecuador and Argentine restructuring documents or will there be yet more experimentation?

I'm particularly intrigued by some rather crucial differences in deal documents that seem to correlate to the governing laws (NY v. England).  Informally, there has been much chatter about whether those differences were the product of drafting goofs in the model clauses on one or the other sides of the Atlantic or intentional (Each side asserts that the other has goofed -- albeit in a very polite and passive aggressive fashion). Given that debate, and the unwillingness of anyone to openly talk about the issues, I wonder whether those differences will continue out of a sheer unwillingness to admit error. (Of course, this is a topic that Dimitrios and Ian diplomatically and cleverly avoid).

J. Screwed - A Paper

posted by Mitu Gulati

A number of months ago now, I listened to a fun podcast episode on Planet Money titled "J. Screwed" about contract shenanigans by J.Crew, as it was making its way into deep financial distress.  I'm fascinated by the exploitation of contract loopholes in debt contracts. So, of course, I wanted to know more. I went digging into the world of Google.  But I couldn't find anything good in the literature that explained to me the details of what was going on (the contract term in question, how widespread this problem was, how the market had reacted, etc., etc.). The best I found was a blog post that fellow slipster, Adam Levitin, kindly pointed to me.

But now there is a wonderful article up on ssrn by the author of that post (a former student of Adam at Georgetown Law, I believe).  The appropriately titled article, "The Development of Collateral Stripping By Distressed Borrowers" by Mitchell Mengden, is here.

The abstract reads as follows:

In the past decade, private equity sponsors have taken a more aggressive stance against creditors of their portfolio companies, the most recent iteration of which has come in the form of collateral stripping. Sponsors have been using creative lawyering to transfer valuable collateral out of the reach of creditors. This Article delves deeper into the issue by examining the contract terms and litigation claims raised by these transactions.

The lack of protective covenants and ease of manipulating EBITDA and asset valuations are key conditions that permit collateral stripping. Each of these conditions were present in the past decade, primarily due to the protracted expansionary stage of the credit cycle. Lenders, however, can protect themselves from collateral stripping by negotiating stricter covenants and tighter EBITDA definitions, as well as pursuing ex post litigation for fraudulent transfers, illegal distributions, and claims for breach of fiduciary duty.

Contractual opportunism and creative lawyering will almost certainly continue to pervade credit markets. This Article provides a roadmap of ways that lenders can protect themselves from opportunism during contracting and throughout the course of the loan. As this Article concludes, ex post litigation claims are often an inadequate remedy, so lenders should seek to tighten EBITDA definitions and broaden protective covenants—even if to do so requires other concessions—to avoid litigation.

Brilliant Contracts Podcast From Hoffman & Wilkinson-Ryan

posted by Mitu Gulati

I suspect that slipsters already know about this podcast.  But, just in case any of you have not, I wanted to flag Promises, Promises by Dave Hoffman and Tess Wilkinson-Ryan.  This is especially wonderful if you are teaching contract law via zoom this term and need additional content to add to what you are doing already. The podcast has been my savior in that it brightens my mood so much to hear these two brilliant scholars have fun talking through the classic cases while I'm on long walks. (Indeed, today I discussed their discussion of Hamer v. Sidway with Anna Gelpern for over an hour while I was walking).

Listening to the conversations between Tess and Dave makes me remember why I wanted to be an academic in the first place -- and it was not to write boring law review articles with ridiculous numbers of footnotes. It was at least in part to have conversations like the ones Tess and Dave have on their podcast (ideally, with some good scotch at hand).  I imagine that it is a special treat to be a student in their classes (or to be their colleague).

Bravo, my friends. Bravo.

The podcast is available on iTunes, Spotify and a bunch of other places.  

p.s. I wonder whether I might be able to persuade them to do an episode on the Gold Clause cases.  Hmmm.

Back to the Future (Again): Horatio Gadfly and Those Imperial Chinese Bonds

posted by Mitu Gulati

FT Alphaville has had a long line of quirky and brilliant reporters over the years, something that I've always enjoyed (Joseph Cotterill, Tracy Alloway, Colby Smith, Cardiff Garcia and more). And I've especially liked the pieces that do deep dives into obscure and arcane sovereign debt matters.

The latest such piece is from Izabella Kaminska, on the the topic of antique imperial Chinese bonds and the possibilities for recovery (from about ten hours ago, here).  The likelihood of using purely legal methods and recovering on these today is near zero.  But near zero is not zero and periodically, as a means to get students engaged on the thorny questions of statutes of limitations and sovereign immunity, Mark Weidemaier and I will assign them the task of figuring out which of the defaulted imperial sovereign bonds have the best chance of recovery. The assignment is usually framed in terms of a set of bonds that Mr. Horatio Gadfly inherited (here) (Joseph Cotterill's hilarious piece on Mr. Gadfly's adventures is here)).

This past semester, a group of our students -- Michael Chen, Charlie Fendrych, and Andres Paciuc, dug deep and found a small subset of bonds that maybe, just maybe, had a long shot. Their fun paper, "The Emperor's Old Bonds" (soon to appear in print in the Duke Journal of Comparative and International Law) is here.

Izabella's article today makes a deeper point, which is that these legal claims -- while implausible if viewed in purely legal terms -- can acquire muscle as a function of political context.  Is this such a time?  Maybe.  Coronavirus, trade talks, election rhetoric, Taiwan, and given that some of Trump's supporters have lots of these old Chinese bonds and Trump is . . . well, Trump may have changed the equation from what it has been for the past century.  Steve Bannon, of all people, has talked about imperial Chinese bonds on his War Room show multiple times (e.g., this War Room episode at about 40:50. . . Aiyiyiyi . . . here).  

If you are intrigued and want to go down the rabbit hole, this question of politics and antique Chinese bonds has come up before -- see Tracy Alloway's piece on Bloomberg (here), Cardiff Garcia on NPR (here) and Mark Weidemaier on creditslips (here and here). 

Izabella is (I hope) not done with her writing on this topic and there might be more on Alphaville soon (today's teaser was in the main paper).  This topic connects to so many other fun topics relating to historic wrongs too -- like the fact that the British museum holds the Elgin Marbles and the British crown holds the Koh-i-Noor diamond (US museums undoubtedly have lots of these sorts of items as well). If Chinese imperial bonds need to get paid, maybe it is time to give the Elgin Marbles and the Koh-i-Noor back? Come to think of it, maybe it is time to give them back regardless of the bonds? Sovereigns are infinitely lived, which means that their obligations are too -- if someone can figure out a way to get around the statutes of limitations.

Brazilian 5 Year Sovereign Bonds at a 2.875% Yield: Aiyiyiyi

posted by Mitu Gulati

Paul Krugman had a piece in yesterday’s NYT about the lunacy in the stock market, where a bankrupt company like Hertz is merrily issuing new stock (here).  Matt Levine of Bloomberg has similarly, and hilariously, discussed the Hertz case and other recent examples of this bizarre pandemic bubble (here). Why the rush to buy overpriced rubbish?

I have no answer to the question posed by Krugman. But it is not just the stock market. A similar lunacy is occurring in the sovereign bond markets (here). Exhibit number one: Brazil. Reading the press, it seems clear that Brazil is in deep crisis thanks to the disastrous manner in which it has handled the covid-19 pandemic so far (see here and here, for discussions of how Brazil’s response to the pandemic has been among the worst in the world).  Yet, on June 3, it issued over 3 billion dollars in five- and ten-year bonds.  The five-year bonds had a coupon of 2.875%.  (the ten-year bonds were at 3.875%). I cannot understand this yield. What sane investor could possibly look at the current state of Brazil’s response to the pandemic, the fact that its leadership seems to show no signs of reversing course, and the resulting economic forecasts, and think that Brazil is such a safe bet to repay its borrowing in just five years that it should receive funding at 2.875%. Of course, from Brazil’s perspective, why not issue even more debt, if the response of the market to worsening conditions is to offer even more and cheaper money.

It is worth, however, thinking about what will happen if and when countries like Brazil cannot repay these bonds when they mature. I suspect that investors will not remember that they deliberately anesthetized their risk instincts when they bought the bonds. Some of those investors will loudly demand payment in full -- in other words, it's Brazil's fault for having offered the bonds, not the investors' fault for ignoring the risks when they bought them. Along those lines, I wonder why official sector institutions like the IMF – who know how bleak the latest economic forecasts are -- are not urging sovereigns to take advantage of the market lunacy to put in pandemic clauses. These are clauses that would give the countries like Brazil relief in the future if it turns out that covid-19 causes so much harm to the Brazilian economy that it cannot pay back the debt. After all, if investors are willing to buy any rubbish that is put out there, why not ask for better contract terms for when the party ends?

Continue reading "Brazilian 5 Year Sovereign Bonds at a 2.875% Yield: Aiyiyiyi" »

Italian Sovereign Debt: Time to Worry or Party?

posted by Mitu Gulati

Italian sovereign borrowing is increasing, as the costs of dealing with a stalled economy and the pandemic build.  A recipe for disaster?  Turns out that Italian yields (and spreads with the risk free benchmark rate) are actually going down; down in the vicinity of zero. (for the WSJ's treatment of this last week, see here). And at least some Italian economist friends of mine are beginning to talk about how debt/GDP levels around 180% or maybe even 200% could be sustainable.  Aiyiyiyi. That sounds loony; given that the economic fundamentals -- thanks especially to the horror of covid-19 -- are going in the opposite direction. That said, I'm no economist and I definitely do not understand the current market patterns. As further evidence of this lunacy, Brazil was able to borrow $3.5 billion a few weeks ago at lower rates than it was having to pay before the pandemic; a pandemic to which its response has been spectacularly Trumpian. (And yes, I have economist friends of mine who insist that Brazilian debt is safe and will remain sustainable because of factors such as Fed swap lines and Trump's friendship with Bolsonaro. I'll readily admit that I don't understand the swap line theory of debt sustainability. But on that other point . . . . Really dudes? You are going to bet on Trump bailing out Bolsonaro because of their special relationship?).

Not everyone, fortunately, thinks that the markets are going to continue to adequately and fully fund this covid-19 recovery.  Below is the abstract of Tyler Zelinger's new paper on preparations Italy could make in anticipation of the need to do a debt restructuring someday soon (and he is only using them as an exemplar, since they seem to be on the precipice -- despite their current borrowing costs). If things begin to tank -- as I worry they will sooner rather than later -- papers like this that do the advance preparation that governments are refusing to do, will be invaluable. Tyler even finds a silver lining in all of this for the hypothetical Italian debt restructurer.

The abstract of the paper (just posted on ssrn) is below:

As the global economy has become more integrated and increasingly complex, the need for a system that administers government default has become more and more apparent. The body of "sovereign debt law" that has emerged to fill this need in the context of the Eurozone is an amalgamation of treaty obligations, domestic law constitutional principles, and tensions between state government and supranational government actors. Using a hypothetical Italian restructuring, this paper seeks to explore how these different bodies of law operate together to create a system that protects government function as opposed to guaranteeing creditor recovery. Further, this paper explores how an exogenous shock as the COVID-19 pandemic effects the analyses undertaken at various points in the sovereign debt legal framework.

This analysis reveals a silver lining: although Italy has suffered horrible losses as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of the pandemic will help mitigate the legal challenges faced by Italy in the course of a local-law restructuring effort and thus smooth the path to a successful post-COVID recovery.

The Drama Over the Windstream Case: Boiled Down

posted by Mitu Gulati

One the most discussed and debated corporate finance/contracts cases of 2019 was Windsteam LLC v. Aurelius (SDNY 2019) (Stephen L posted on this here).  A couple of days ago, Elisabeth de Fontenay put up her article "Windstream and Contract Opportunism" on ssrn (here) that is one of first deep dives into the implications of what happened in the case.

I find this case especially interesting because it is about contract arbitrage. Cribbing from Elisabeth's superb narrative, the saga starts when the company in question, Windstream, does a sale-leaseback transaction in violation of its bond covenants (it claims it is not actually violating the covenant because it did the transaction through a subsidiary blah blah -- but as the judge points out, its attempt to elevate form over substance falls flat). As it turns out though, none of the bondholders seem to have either noticed or cared about the violation at the time it happened. The violation only bubbles to the surface when Aurelius, a notorious hedge fund, shows up two years later and demands that the trustee declare a default. At this point, I'd have expected that Windstream would have paid Aurelius greenmail to get them to disappear and everyone would have lived happily after.  But that doesn't happen.  Instead, Windstream officials and Aurelius fund managers get into a nasty battle of words in the press and (I'm guessing) both sides decide that they will fight this to the death.

At this point, Windstream tries to retroactively cure its covenant violation by getting the non-Aurelius creditors to say that they were okay with the transaction and do not want to call the company to the carpet. In theory this should have been doable via exit consents and other familiar corporate moves.  But, in a comedy of errors, Windstream manages to screw up the retroactive cure (and the judge wasn't willing to elevate substance over form on this side of the equation).  End result: Windstream loses and goes into bankruptcy.  That is, everyone loses, including the bondholders, because the value of their bonds goes into the toilet.

Continue reading "The Drama Over the Windstream Case: Boiled Down" »

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