postings by Mitu Gulati

The Woes of PDVSA Debt Holders

posted by Mitu Gulati

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Many things about the current situation in Venezuela bewilder us. Among them are parts of the new sanctions.  The one that especially puzzles us is the part that says that transfers of PDVSA debt claims by US persons are only permitted to non-U.S. persons.

What could possibly be the logic here?  To attempt to see that, our first question was: What is the likely effect of such a constraint. Answer: To kill the liquidity of the bonds and promissory notes and any other debt instruments, since US investors are likely 50% or more of this market.  And that in turn means that the price of these PDVSA instruments is going to drop precipitously.

But why hurt the market for PDVSA debt instruments so viciously?  Maybe the UST knows that there are large chunks of these instruments held by Maduro cronies who have been issuing these instruments to themselves (without paying fully for them) so that they have a nest egg in the event of a change in government.  But does that help get rid of Maduro and his cronies faster?  Not clear.  But maybe there is a story here. We'd love to know more.

Alternatively, and this is a bleaker story for the PDVSA holders, maybe the Trump administration knows that a future restructuring of Venezuelan debt under the new government is going to have to be particularly brutal.  And maybe they want to make sure that US holders have largely sold off their holdings to non US entities?  Maybe.  But if this is the case, then why are similar sale restrictions not being imposed on the bonds of the Republic?

Or maybe this bit of the new sanctions is just an error.  Maybe.

Mozambique’s Guarantees on the Tuna Bonds: Can They be Repudiated?

posted by Mitu Gulati

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

There have recently been headline articles in the press about three loans made to state-owned security companies in Mozambique (see here, here and here) and guaranteed by the government. The reason for the attention to these loans – made originally between 2013 and 2014 by Credit Suisse and the Russian bank VTB – is that US federal prosecutors are pursuing charges against a number of bankers from Credit Suisse and government officials from the Mozambique finance ministry. (Somehow the VTB folks seem to have escaped so far.) To simplify, these individuals were allegedly involved in siphoning off funds ostensibly intended to support Mozambique’s fishing industry and enhanced security in its territorial waters. Concretely, the loan was supposed to be used for new boats: some to catch fish (hence the moniker “tuna bonds”) and others to bolster the coast guard (“maritime surveillance”).

Instead, much of the money seems to have disappeared. The loans went into default; few tuna were caught. For contemporaneous reporting, see here, here, and here.

We have been thinking about debt repudiation of late. And Tracy Alloway of Bloomberg (and formerly of FT Alphaville) specifically got us thinking about the Mozambique tuna bonds on a recent podcast for Bloomberg’s Odd Lots (Tracy is a spectacular host).  Prompted in part by Tracy, we wondered--now that the corruption on the part of the agents for the banks and agents within the Mozambique finance ministry has been revealed—whether the government can repudiate the loans on the grounds that they were infused with illegality.

One of the three loans is worth treating separately from the others. This loan was made specifically for tuna boats. It involved an $850m bond for a company called Ematum—allegedly a sham—which has since been converted from a state-guaranteed bond to a sovereign Eurobond. For the other two loans, the repudiation question—since the borrower companies seem to have no assets—is whether the state can withdraw its guarantee on account of the corruption. There is a good argument that the answer is “yes.” Contract law in many key legal jurisdictions makes contracts infected by corruption and bribery voidable.

Some years ago, one of us analyzed this question in an article with Lee Buchheit, where we analyzed the question of “corrupt debts” (here – at pp 1234-39). We quoted this illustrative language from a 1960 New York Court of Appeals case: “Consistent with public morality and settled public policy, we hold that a party will be denied recovery even on a contract valid on its face, if it appears that he has resorted to gravely immoral and illegal conduct in accomplishing its performance.” Jeff King, in his new book on Odious Debts (here – at pp 119-23), has a section on sovereign obligations infected by corruption and makes much the same point under English and a number of other laws. And Jason Yackee tackles the corruption defense for sovereigns in the BIT context here. Bottom line: There is a pretty good defense here.

Continue reading "Mozambique’s Guarantees on the Tuna Bonds: Can They be Repudiated?" »

Congolese Elections and the Opportunity for the International Community to do the Right Thing

posted by Mitu Gulati

The Congo held elections yesterday; elections that the ruling party has kept finding excuses to postpone over the past two years.  International pressure though, forced them to be held (albeit in an incomplete fashion).  Now, the question is whether the vote counts will be done with some modicum or propriety and whether the current kleptocrats will nevertheless find some way to hold on to power in this resource rich nation with a tragic history.  The latest reports are telling us that there is already chaos and that the internet has been shut down (from the Washington Post, see here).

My interest in the Congo was spurred by a question about its sovereign debt (of course). My Duke colleague and frequent co author, Joseph Blocher, who has worked in Africa and knows my obsession with sovereign debt–and particularly the question of what is to be done about the sovereign debts incurred by despotic leaders (the “Odious Debts” problem)--got me hooked on the history of the Congo some years ago by telling me the story of the debt of the Congo Free State from the late 1800s. The debt was incurred by, and proceeds subsequently stolen by, one of the worst despots in history–King Leopold of Belgium.  He issued bonds in the millions of francs in the name of the Congo Free State and then, in 1908, when the international community forced him out because of the genocide he had engineered, the debts he had incurred in the name of his vassal state were put by the international community on to the backs of the Congolese people. When it comes to the Congo, the rest of the world has so much to be ashamed about (there is a super episode from the BBC’s The Foreign Desk here). But maybe we will do the right thing this time?

Drawing from work that Joseph and I have been doing on the Congo and the infamous 1908 forced transfer of sovereignty (here), here are some thoughts on the parallels between the events of today and of a century ago.

The scene in the Congo today is, sadly, is familiar. An unaccountable leader treats Congo as personal property, enriching himself as untold millions of Congolese labor to extract resources needed for the world’s latest technological boom. What will the international community do?

Today, the despot holding power is Joseph Kabila, the resource is coltan (used in cell phones), and the international response remains uncertain. Kabila has agreed to hold elections and step down, but he and his henchmen seem to keep finding excuses to postpone the transfer of power. 

In 1908, the leader was King Leopold, the resource was rubber (made valuable by the development of vulcanization), and the international response was extraordinary: On November 15, 1908, in response to intense pressure, Belgium bought the Congo Free State from its own king.

Today, as the world is understandably focused on the present and the future of the Congo, we should not forget the lessons of its past.

Continue reading "Congolese Elections and the Opportunity for the International Community to do the Right Thing" »

A Contract Lawyer's X-mas Greeting

posted by Mitu Gulati

This arrived this morning from a dear friend, who knows what makes me laugh.  I hope it makes you chuckle, if not laugh out loud, as it did me:

Dear Mitu (a term deemed to include your assigns, heirs and successors),

We (including our officers, directors, agents and employees) send (for the avoidance of doubt, "send" shall mean authorize, execute and deliver) our warmest (measured on the Fahrenheit scale) best (understood to mean the wishes we extend on an unsecured basis to our most creditworthy correspondents) wishes (with no warranty of any kind, express or implied, as to outcome) to you and your family (including those to the second degree of consanguinity) for a Merry Christmas (without limiting the generality of the foregoing, this extension of best wishes shall be understood to include, on a pari passu basis, a Happy Christmas).

Contractual Lunacies

posted by Mitu Gulati

My friend, Glenn West, who knows my obsession with boilerplate contract terms whose meaning the parties themselves don’t seem to know, sent me a lovely present today:  A link to an article in the ABA Journal by legal writing guru Bryan Garner on “Trying to Decipher Provisions that Literally Make No Sense”.  I realize that my sense of humor is warped, but I was laughing out loud at reading this.

Here is my favorite bit:

The lunacies [of contract drafting] involve using pastiche forms riddled with wildly inconsistent ways of expressing simple duties, absurd archaisms whose purpose few lawyers can explain, and repellent typographic practices that still today make many if not most contracts grotesque to read.

What I’d like to explore in this column is the curiosity of “busts”—the prevalence of contractual provisions, sometimes perpetuated in deal after deal, that make no literal sense at all. That they exist at all is something of a marvel. After all, you’d think that transactional lawyers would adopt a protocol of reading and rereading each contract that goes out the door. Given that critical thinking and close reading are prized habits for lawyers, contradictory or outright nonsensical provisions should be exceedingly rare. Alas, they’re not.

Most experienced lawyers can recall anecdotes of contractual monstrosities. One involves a malpractice claim against a law firm: A mortgage had somehow been prepared in the early 1980s with a crucial line dropped. The sentence made no sense. The firm had prepared dozens if not hundreds of mortgages with the same language missing, resulting in an incomplete sentence that made little sense—and the sense it did seem to make resulted in a disposition that no sane drafter could have wanted. It seems that a typist had simply skipped a line and continued typing. Nobody caught the error—until a problem erupted in the early 2000s.

By that time, the faulty contract had long since become entrenched as the “firm form.” A secretarial error from a generation before had become permanently ensconced in the form.

Continue reading "Contractual Lunacies" »

Aurelius v. Puerto Rican Control Board (and "What Possibly Could be the Logic Behind Puerto Rico Being in the First Circuit?")

posted by Mitu Gulati

Last Monday, December 3, the First Circuit heard an oral argument that I have been looking forward to for ages.  The case involves an infamously aggressive hedge fund making an audacious challenge to the constitutionality of the Puerto Rican Control Board—an argument that is framed (hilariously, I think) as rescuing the Puerto Rican people from tyranny.  The events that followed did not disappoint in terms of drama. 

Though complex to answer, question in the case is easily put: Did the process by which the Puerto Rican Control Board was put in place violate the Appointments Clause of the US constitution? 

The lawyering was superb, which was not surprising, given that two legendary former SGs, Ted Olson and Don Verrilli, were at the lectern. But the First Circuit judges were ready and raring to go, and it barely took a minute before they launched into tough questions.  Judge Juan Torruella was especially on target; he knows the intricacies of the history and case law relating to Puerto Rico’s status better than almost anyone else and it was a treat to listen to his exchanges with the superstar lawyers.  (There were other lawyers making arguments as well, but the First Circuit panel was primarily interested in the Olson-Verrilli positions.)The audio file is available here, and is well worth a listen.

Continue reading "Aurelius v. Puerto Rican Control Board (and "What Possibly Could be the Logic Behind Puerto Rico Being in the First Circuit?")" »

Venezuelan Bonds: The Game is Afoot

posted by Mitu Gulati

Venezuela began defaulting on its bonds about fifteen months ago and is now in default on almost all of its outstanding bonds (except one that is backed by collateral).  The creditors, for these many months, have shown remarkable forbearance in refraining from accelerating the bonds and seeking judgments. 

The restraint on the part of the creditors for these past many months, I suspect, was not out of any especially benevolent feelings the creditors have towards the Venezuelan government.  Part of the explanation has to do with the different interest rates that applies to unpaid claims if one has an ordinary unpaid claim versus one that has been converted into a judgment (the latter is significantly lower).  On the flip side, the legal protections that apply to a judgment are much stronger (no need to worry about CACs or Exit Consents, and one can grab assets before anyone who has refrained from judgement).  Plus, the reality of most sovereign debt restructurings is that unpaid claims on interest usually don’t get paid out to anyone anyway (since the sovereign can’t even pay the base claims).  For those who want to know more about this, Mark and I talked about these matters here and here, when we were teaching our class on the Venezuelan sovereign debt some months ago.

Once one set of creditors accelerates though, then that puts everyone else who has not done so at a disadvantage because these first guys have an advantage in the litigation/attachment game.  And before today, only a few arbitration claim holders and one Promissory Note had begun the litigation game.  This had been causing anxiety among the bondholders I’ve been chatting with, but they had not made the move to coordinate into blocks of sufficient size to demand acceleration (most of the bonds have a requirement for acceleration of 25% of the holders in principal amount).

Today’s news from Reuters is big though. A group of hedge funds has put together the necessary number of bonds in the Venezuelan bond due 2034.  This is a rather special bond, if memory serves, because an attempt by the sovereign to force a restructuring can be blocked by 15% of the holders (in principal amount) rather than the typical requirement of 25%.  Bottom line: this bond is more litigation friendly.

Continue reading "Venezuelan Bonds: The Game is Afoot" »

Almost Citizens -- by Sam Erman

posted by Mitu Gulati

For those of you, who like me have been following the Puerto Rican debt drama, this wonderful new book by Sam Erman of USC might be of interest.  There are many wonderful and insightful stories in this book that I was altogether unaware of, despite having spent a lot of time reading about Puerto Rico's bizarre constitutional status.  Ultimately though, the most intriguing and insightful aspect of the book, to me, was the connection that Sam draws between the strange "foreign in a domestic sense" status of Puerto Rico and the events surrounding Reconstruction from the same period of time.

Sam was supposed to come to Duke last year to present this to the seminar that I run on Race, Law & Politics with Guy Charles, but we got hit by a snow storm on the day of his talk.  My initial thought had been to cancel the discussion and move on to the next paper.  But the students in the seminar (and Guy) had liked the draft of the book so much that they asked whether we might have a session to discuss it despite the fact that Sam was not going to be able to make it to Durham any longer.  We ended up having a fun discussion with my two wonderful con law colleagues, Walter Dellinger and Joseph Blocher. Indeed, that was perhaps our best session of the term (notwithstanding my general distaste for con law discussions). 

Next week, I hope to -- after talking to Walter and Joseph more -- do a little post on the recent oral argument in the first circuit about the constitutionality of the Puerto Rican Control Board.  That case, if it comes out the way I think it might, could turn the apple cart upside down.  But I need to listen to that oral argument tape again.

Here is the official book blurb for Sam's book:

"Almost Citizens lays out the tragic story of how the United States denied Puerto Ricans full citizenship following annexation of the island in 1898. As America became an overseas empire, a handful of remarkable Puerto Ricans debated with U.S. legislators, presidents, judges, and others over who was a citizen and what citizenship meant. This struggle caused a fundamental shift in constitutional jurisprudence: away from the post-Civil War regime of citizenship, rights, and statehood and toward doctrines that accommodated racist imperial governance. Erman’s gripping account shows how, in the wake of the Spanish–American War, administrators, lawmakers, and presidents, together with judges, deployed creativity and ambiguity to transform constitutional law and interpretation over a quarter century of debate and litigation. The result is a history in which the United States and Latin America, Reconstruction and empire, and law and bureaucracy intertwine."

My Favorite Two Sentences From a Recent Case . . .

posted by Mitu Gulati

Over the past few days, I've been struggling with trying to understand a new NY case involving secured debt. The fact that I had to struggle to understand the transaction made me feel insecure enough (on occasion,  I purport to teach corporate debt), but then when I tried to delve deeper into the case by looking at the underlying contracts (the "Collateral Pledge" Agreement - yuck), I got even more confused and insecure because I found the darn thing utterly incomprehensible.  Indeed, a whole half of that document seemed like it had been drafted for an entirely different type of transaction and the crucial provision that I was looking for didn't even seem to be there. But since I couldn't understand it, I couldn't be sure.  Maybe that provision was buried in some other provision that I couldn't figure out . . .

Then, while wallowing in insecurity, I came across this from a recent bankruptcy case out of the Third Circuit (thank you. Third Circuit blog for making me feel better):

The Third Circuit affirmed a ruling leaving in place a tenant’s favorable lease terms after the landlord declared bankruptcy and was purchased free and clear. Best line: “The Lease is long and neither simple nor direct. Indeed, it is an almost impenetrable web of formulas, defined terms, and cross-references–a ‘bloated morass,’ in the words of the Bankruptcy Court.”

I'm turning now to reading the briefs for the Aurelius v. Puerto Rican Control Board/Commonwealth of Puerto Rico case (oral argument on Monday).  As compared to that Collateral Pledge Agreement, these briefs read like a beautiful novel.  The briefs on both sides are beautifully written, in clear, short and comprehensible sentences.  Maybe litigators should be the ones drafting contracts?

Holiday Reading Recommendation and a Research Question on the 1MDB Case

posted by Mitu Gulati

The 1MDB case has been on the front pages of the financial papers on a number of occasions recently. The reason: The US justice system is investigating the scam and senior executives from everyone’s favorite ethical investment back, Goldman Sachs, including Lloyd Blankfein, have been caught up in it. And this leads me to my recommendation for holiday reading, if you like reading financial fraud books. The book is The Billion Dollar Whale, by Bradley Hope and Tom Wright of the WSJ. At first, I thought that the book was about the London Whale, but it turns out to be about the rise and fall of a Wharton educated Malaysian named Jho Low – a fascinating character who appears to have engineered one of the biggest financial frauds of the century, while also throwing the most ostentatious parties ever. If you want more background, there is a fun discussion of the book on my favorite financial podcast, Slate Money (Emily Peck, Anna Szymanski and Felix Salmon are a brilliant, and often hilarious, combination). Indeed, I picked up the book after listening to their podcast on it.  There is also a short, but on the money, review in the New Yorker by Sheelah Kolhatkar. Among the many colorful characters involved in the version of the story told in The Billion Dollar Whale are Gary Cohn (of Goldman and the Trump’s economic advisory team), Leo DiCaprio, and the Wolf of Wall Street (both the movie and the main character, Jordan Belfort).

Continue reading "Holiday Reading Recommendation and a Research Question on the 1MDB Case" »

Savings Plans and Chapter 13

posted by Mitu Gulati

David Jones, Chief US Bankruptcy Judge of the Southern District of Texas, has just posted a nifty empirical study of the effects of savings plans on the success of Chapter 13 filings. And, yes, part of the cool study is figuring out how to measure what counts as success in a bankruptcy filing.  The study takes advantage of a natural experiment in the Texas courts and has a bunch of fascinating findings, including about the impact of lawyers and legal culture on the choices that end up being made by the subjects of the bankruptcy proceedings.

Part of the reason I know about this study is that David was doing a graduate degree at Duke (in the judicial masters program) and I got to see the project at its inception stage in the thesis workshop that I run with Jack Knight. All of the credit goes to David though (and his wonderful advisor, John de Figueiredo) -- a fact that will be obvious to my fellow slipsters who know that I don't know squat about Chapter 13. But this is a fun study in terms of the design and findings regardless of whether you love Chapter 13 (okay, I realize that everyone else who reads this blog probably does in fact like or love Chapter 13).  It takes a basic fact about the inevitable fluctuations in expenses that almost everyone has to deal with, and tests what happens when these provision is made for these fluctuations ahead of time (versus when it is not).  Savings plans do indeed seem to make a difference; but a bunch of other factors also appear to matter - some of them quite surprising.  Clearly, as David emphasizes at the end of the paper, there is a lot here that is worthy of further investigation (and maybe legislative change).

The abstract for the draft on ssrn (that is forthcoming in the American Bankruptcy Institute's journal) reads:

This paper examines the effects of debtor savings on the viability of chapter 13 bankruptcy plans. The paper further examines the impact of lawyer culture, debtor participation in the bankruptcy process, and judicial activism in the use of the savings program by chapter 13 debtors. Using a data set of randomly selected chapter 13 bankruptcy cases filed in the Southern District of Texas, the analysis demonstrates that while savings has a direct positive impact on the success of chapter 13 plans, the degree of that success is significantly influenced by the views held by debtors' lawyers, chapter 13 trustees, and judges.

 

Catch Veinte Dos

posted by Mitu Gulati

A few days ago, Mark and I put up a post on the possibilities of using Chapter 15 bankruptcy for Venezuela's state-owned company, PDVSA.  In response, we received a number of terrific comments, both via email and in the comments section.

One of the particularly interesting points that was made to us (both in email and in one of the comments), that we had not raised was the following: 

PDVSA is not just a Venezuelan company; it is the Venezuelan company -- the company responsible for generating 95% of the foreign currency earnings of the entire country.  Placing the fate of PDVSA into the hands of a bankruptcy judge poses an existential risk to the economy and to the government as the sole owner of the company unless, of course, the government can control the outcome of the insolvency proceeding.  But insolvency proceedings in which the equity owner of the bankrupt enterprise can control the outcome are not proceedings likely to be recognized or enforced by foreign courts.

Catch Veinte Dos?

The foregoing also brings up a slightly different question that Bob Rasmussen asked when he was visiting us last week, which was whether the bankruptcy proceeding could be conducted in a manner such that the 100% equity holder (who would normally have to turn over control to the debt holders in an insolvency) could retain all or almost all of the equity.  After all, it does seem clear that Venezuela is not going to accept giving up full control of PDVSA.  Bob did have some very interesting thoughts as to how this might be done in a purely domestic context.  The question that remained though was whether something similar could be engineered for the foreign state-owned company context that wasn't going to give up any control of the process.  But more on this later

 

Trump’s “Draining the Swamp” Scorecard: One Year In

posted by Mitu Gulati

Donald Trump came into office promising, among other things, to “drain the swamp” and get rid of all that corruption.  One year in, how are things looking in terms of swamp draining? 

The following is based on work with my super co author, Stephen Choi, of NYU Law School.

To answer (at least partially) the question posed at the start, we have analyzed data on Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) enforcement actions under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act – the primary U.S. statute that gets at, among other things, bribes to influence foreign officials with payments or rewards. 

We report data that compares SEC enforcement actions against public companies and subsidiaries of public companies under the FCPA from both the final year of the Obama administration and the first year of the Trump administration. We focus on public companies and subsidiaries of public companies because these are the larger economic actors that affect the economy. The Department of Justice also has authority to bring actions, but there were 0 actions brought by the DOJ against public companies and subsidiaries of public companies during the period we examined (although the DOJ has brought several actions against non-U.S. reporting issuers including a number of prominent foreign companies).

Image1

Figure I, we think, speaks for itself. On the graph, actions brought during the Trump months (from January 20, 2017 to January 31, 2018—roughly Trump’s first year) are in red, those during the Obama months (January 1, 2016 to January 19, 2017) are in blue. As compared to SEC enforcement activity under the Obama administration, the SEC under the Trump administration, appears to have taken a pause from FCPA swamp cleaning activities. For those who saw our report on partial year information (up to the end of September 2017) here, some months ago – the story has only become clearer with the passage of more time).  

The data is from the Securities Enforcement Empirical Database (SEED),a collaboration between NYU and Cornerstone Research.  It tracks SEC FCPA actions from January 1, 2016 to January 31, 2018. SEED defines a public company as a company with stock that trades on the NYSE, NYSE MKT LLC, NASDAQ, or NYSE Arca stock exchanges at the start date of the SEC enforcement action (note that this includes both U.S. incorporated and foreign incorporated companies). 

There, of course, are caveats as to what else might be going on.

Continue reading "Trump’s “Draining the Swamp” Scorecard: One Year In" »

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