postings by Dalié Jiménez

The Second Circuit Got It Right in Madden v. Midland Funding

posted by Adam Levitin

Professor Peter Conti-Brown of the Wharton School has written a short article for Brookings decrying the Second Circuit’s 2015 Madden v. Midland Funding decision. Professor Conti-Brown doesn’t like the Madden decision for two reasons. First, he thinks its wrong on the law. Specifically, he thinks it is contrary to the National Bank Act because it "significantly interferes" with a power of national banks—the power to discount (that is sell) loans. Second, he's worried about Madden from a policy standpoint both because he fears that it is unduly cutting of access to credit for low-income households and because he thinks it is reinforcing the large bank’s dominance in the financial system and impairing the rise of non-bank “fintechs”. I disagree with Professor Conti-Brown on the law and think that attacking Madden is entirely the wrong way to address the serious policy question of what sort of limitations there ought to be on the provision of consumer credit. As for fintechs, well, I just don't see any particular reason to favor them over banks, and certainly not at the expense of consumers.  

Continue reading "The Second Circuit Got It Right in Madden v. Midland Funding" »

Plan Optionality: Extreme Edition (A Pick-Your-Own-Adventure Restructuring with Shopko)

posted by Adam Levitin

I've seen some Chapter 11 plans that include some optionality, such as allowing the debtor, based on subsequent market conditions or litigation outcomes to undertake a transaction or change the way a class is paid.  Such optionality has always troubled me because I don't think a disclosure statement can provide "adequate information" in the face of debtor optionality--a hypothetical investor might understand that the debtor has options A or B, but the uncertainty about which option will be selected makes it hard to make an "informed judgment about the plan":  the investor might like option A, but dislike option B--without knowing the likelihood of A or B, how can the investor make such an informed decision?  To be sure, it is possible to get two disclosure statements approved, one for option A and one for option B, but then creditors would be able to vote separately on each plan, rather than voting on a plan that gives the debtor optionality.  

A disclosure statement I looked at today, however, takes such optionality to an extreme I've never previously seen.  Specifically, Shopko's proposed disclosure statement is for a plan that "contemplates a restructuring of the Debtors through either (a) a sponsor-led Equitization Restructuring or (b) an orderly liquidation under the Asset Sale Restructuring."  As explained:  

The Plan includes a "toggle" feature which will determine whether the Debtors complete the Equitization Restructuring or the Asset Sale Restructuring. The Plan thus provides the Debtors with the necessary latitude to negotiate the precise terms of their ultimate emergence from chapter 11.  

In other words, what is being disclosed is "we might liquidate or we might reorganize, our pick."  The plan has, of course, two separate distributional schemes, depending on which restructuring path is chosen.   I really don't get how such a single disclosure statement for a single plan with optionality can be approved given the huge difference between these two paths.  A creditor can't know what outcome it is voting on and might like one, but not the other.  Maybe others have seen this move before, but I suspect this will be a first for the Bankruptcy Court for the District of Nebraska.  

Consumer Bankruptcy Reform ... and American Xenophobia?

posted by Jason Kilborn

I hope I'm not stepping on Bob's toes in announcing the public release of the long-awaited report of the ABI Commission on Consumer Bankruptcy. The Commission, with Credit Slips' own inimitable Bob Lawless as its reporter, was formed in December 2016 to explore revisions to the US consumer bankruptcy system that would improve the operation of its existing structure; that is, evolution, not revolution. With this explicitly limited charge, one would not necessarily expect to find much high-level discussion of how the US approach squares with or fits within the many recent global developments in consumer insolvency relief, and one would expect to see a concentration on local solutions for local stumbling blocks.

That being said ... and in no way to detract from the monumental amount and truly impressive nature of the work the Commission has done here ... one might have expected to see a bit of discussion, if not even a touch of inspiration, from comparative sources. In 1970, the Bankruptcy Commission rejected any consideration of foreign developments in consumer bankruptcy, in part because there were few such developments, and in part because so little was known about the operation of non-US bankruptcy law at the time (for those younger than I, note that neither home computers nor the public Internet existed in 1970 ...). Nearly 50 years later, we now have at our fingertips a mountain of comparative data and analysis on the development, operation, and revision of consumer insolvency systems around the world, much of it reported in English specifically to make it widely available to law reformers like the ABI Commission. Again, one would not have expected this comparative material to occupy center stage in a reform of largely US problems in the uniquely US consumer bankruptcy system. But in a bit part here and there, some comparative observations might have supported the Commission's already compelling recommendations.

Continue reading "Consumer Bankruptcy Reform ... and American Xenophobia?" »

DebtCon3: A Curtain Raiser and a Love Story

posted by Anna Gelpern

DebtCon3, the Third Interdisciplinary Sovereign Debt Research DebtconXand Management Conference, is starting in just a few hours at Georgetown Law. This year's DebtCon takes place in parallel with IMF and World Bank Spring Meetings. When we first launched the DebtCon project in the snowstorms of 2016, the idea was to have a giant party -- a sovereign debt Coachella -- channeling nerdy energy across different academic disciplines and institutional ecosystems, gathering everyone willing to obsess over public debt to help solve a handful of concrete problems. Mitu wanted to serve frozen pizza, but kind souls chipped in for dinner, and we had fish. The Argentina (!#@%*!) panel was snowed out. Nobody got the Sovereign Debt Research and Management joke ...but the temporary tattoos worked on key demographics, and we came back. In 2017,   Ugo Panizza and his colleagues at the Graduate Institute put on a fabulous DebtCon2 in Geneva, which set an impossibly (Swissly!) high bar for organization, and here we go again. At last count, the star-studded DebtCon3 program has some 120 speakers, plus over 200 registered guests from around the world -- a humongous number for what is often considered a narrow topic. So what is it about sovereign debt? ... and what is it about DebtCon?

Continue reading "DebtCon3: A Curtain Raiser and a Love Story" »

P2P Payments Fraud

posted by Adam Levitin

AARP has a nice piece (featuring yours truly) about the consumer fraud risks with peer-to-peer (p2p) payment systems like Zelle and Venmo.  

Both Zelle and Venmo expressly state in their terms of use that they are not for commercial use, yet there is certainly a healthy segment of their use that is commercial.  Some of it is sort of "relational" commercial--paying a music teacher or a barber--someone whom the payor knows, so there's a social mechanism for dealing with disputes and which protects against fraud.  But there is also some use for making commercial payments outside of a relational context--paying for goods purchased on the Internet--and that is very vulnerable to fraud.  

I wish p2p payments systems would do a bit more to highlight to consumers their prohibition on commercial use, including flagging the fraud risk, but I suspect that they have no interest in doing so--while the systems disclaim commercial use, they nonetheless benefit from it, and have little reason to discourage it.  

The Local Law Advantage in the Euro Area: How Much of a Constraint are the Existing CACs?

posted by Mitu Gulati

Collective Action Clauses for the Euro Area were mandated, starting in January 2013.  Yes, bizarrely, even though the introduction of Euro CACs was literally the single biggest innovation in sovereign bond contract terms in the history of this market, no one seems to have a clear idea of how these CACs (contractual restructuring mechanisms) are actually going to operate.  Specifically, if a Euro area country needs to restructure some day soon (e.g., Italy?), and it has a subset of bonds with these CACs (by next year, Italy will have something close to a super majority of its bonds with these Euro CACs), is it required to use the CACs to do the restructuring or can it use other mechanisms? That is, regardless of the presence of these CACs, can the sovereign still take advantage of the fact that almost all of its multi trillion dollar debt stock is governed by Italian local law to engineer the restructuring (the "local law advantage" in the words of sovereign debt guru Lee Buchheit - see here)?

Most people I know in the European sovereign debt world take the view that the CACs will have to be used if they are in the bonds (it is a different question altogether as to what can be done with the subset of bonds without CACs and also under local law).  And, indeed, that may be why there is currently a move to reform and improve the first-generation of Euro CACs (they appear, on their face, quite vulnerable to hold outs).  But do the Euro CACs have to be used to engineer the restructuring, if the bond that needs to be restructured has them?

As an aside, some of you may remember this question recently came up in the context of measuring redenomination risk in Euro area bonds, where because of the assumption that the bonds with CACs were protected against unilateral redenomination of the currency on the bonds by the sovereign, some were trying to use the CAC bond versus No CAC bond yield differential as a measure of redenomination risk.  (See here and here, for articles from the FT along; there are many  more) [This is not at all a crazy position, since the CAC bonds require a supermajority approval of creditors (roughly) for a change to the currency of the bond; and this is indeed the view that the market appears to have taken -- see the link/graph above from the FT - but has Mark Weidemaier demonstrated that the market was wrong in a big way?  If so, that's a big deal]

To cut to the chase, our fellow slipster, Mark Weidemaier, has a superb new paper, "Restructuring Italian (or Other Euro Area) Debt: Do Euro CACs Constrain or Expand the Options?", that suggests the foregoing thinking is misguided. Best I know, Mark's paper is the first one to address this central question about Euro CACs under local law head on (although I'm optimistic that some of our students will have good papers exploring this very question in greater depth soon).  My prediction is that there are many who will disagree strongly with Mark; particularly those who see the Euro CACs as representing some sort of holy European treaty promise.  But Mark makes a powerful argument that that view is more smoke than fire.  Euro CACs, according to him, are nothing but an option for the sovereign.  That's it, he tells us; they are nothing more. The sovereign can choose not to use this option and take an alternative (easier) route to doing its restructuring.

Continue reading "The Local Law Advantage in the Euro Area: How Much of a Constraint are the Existing CACs?" »

Nonpartisan Supreme Court Expansion

posted by Adam Levitin

My latest argument for a substantial nonpartisan expansion (i.e., not a partisan "packing") of the Supreme Court, which would require the Court to sit in randomly assigned panels, is up on Bloomberg Law.   Among other benefits, it would enable the court to hear more cases, so the bankruptcy world might finally rid itself of some of the lingering circuit splits (e.g., equitable mootness or actual vs. hypothetical test for assumption). 

Student Loan Fixes

posted by Alan White

While presidential candidates propose sweeping new policy initiatives, a few simple legislative fixes could go a long way to alleviate the student loan crisis. Three numbers set by Congress have a huge impact on the burden borne by millions of borrowers: the Stafford loan interest rate, the income-driven repayment plan income share, and the number of years to balance forgiveness. These three numbers (currently 5%/6.6%, 10%/15% and 20/25 years, respectively) essentially allocate the burden of funding postsecondary education between students and taxpayers. The interest rate, for example, has produced a net profit for the Treasury for many years, meaning that former students pay more than the cost of loan administration and loss recoveries, essentially paying a surtax. Some income-driven repayment plans require borrowers to pay 10% of disposable income, while others call for 15%, and of course several numbers go into defining disposable income. Finally, income-driven repayment plans call for debt balance cancellation at the end of 20 or 25 years. Reducing the interest rate, the income percentage and the repayment period are all means to shift the funding of an educated workforce from graduates (and noncompleters) to the broader taxpaying public. Student loan costs can be reduced incrementally; the choices are not limited to the status quo or free college for all.

While some Democrats propose to "refinance" student loans, Congress can reduce interest rates on existing loans at any time, saving borrowers and federal contractors lots of transaction costs. Loan defaults could be virtually eliminated by making income-driven repayment the default, automatically enrolling borrowers, and authorizing IRS income reporting. In lieu of creating new national service programs, the existing public service loan forgiveness program could be fixed to allow enrollment on graduation and automatic employer certification and payment progress reporting. The current 10-year PSLF repayment period could also be shortened. Finally, the Pell grant amount could be set to cover the full cost of attendance for low-income students at public 2-year or 4-year colleges in each state.

A New Proposal for Restructuring Venezuelan Debt

posted by Mitu Gulati

The Venezuelan debt crisis has dragged on for so very long now that there are literally dozens of proposals out in the public domain (aka ssrn.com) on how Venezuela should do its restructuring.  Given how quickly the situation on the ground is changing, the plausibility of these various proposals also has been moving with great speed. 

A new and interesting one just showed up today from Daniel Osorio of Andean Capital (available here).  Daniel is someone who knows the Venezuelan situation inside out and has a lot of experience distressed debt workouts.  I don't think we agree on the optimal way to peel this onion, but Daniel is super smart and I always take his views seriously.  His proposal, as I understand it, is to do an debt exchange where investors are given what he calls Patient Capital Bonds. Basically, investors are being asked to be patient and cooperate with the Venezuelan government by giving them a lot more time to repay them (much more than say the proposals for a Venezuelan reprofiling (which would just buy the time for the IMF to do an estimate of the economic situation) have been asking for). The benefit to investors, that Daniel is positing will attract them to his proposals, is that there is a big potential upside if Venezuela is able to get economically healthy.

A couple of questions though.  First, is Daniel being unduly optimistic in assuming that the holdout problem can be easily solved?  (after all the amount of litigation on the defaulted debt is increasing on a daily basis and specialist holdout firms are the opposite of "patient" capital). Second, can Venezuela get back to health in a reasonable amount of time without imposing significant cuts on the principal obligations on its debt stock? (maybe, if the stretch out of payments is long enough, but that then brings its own problems in terms of getting investors to be that patient).

I do agree with Daniel though that stretching out payments will ultimately have to be part of the equation and that whatever mechanism that is used will need to ensure that the majority of creditors come in voluntarily (that is, the non holdouts). I also agree with him that the post-Saddam restructuring of Iraqi debt has lessons to teach us.

Here is the abstract of Daniel's nice and short paper (six pages):

Regime change in Venezuela is imminent. The transition may take longer than what most Venezuelans would like, but when it occurs it will be faster than most expected. The challenges of the reconstruction of Venezuela and its economy will be more similar to those faced by a country after a vicious war or a violent natural disaster than the aftermath of an economic and/or political crisis. First and foremost, this reconstruction must start by addressing Venezuela’s urgent humanitarian needs. This initial phase of the normalization of Venezuela must be done in a collaborative fashion between the private and public sector as well as Venezuelans and the international community. However, this spirit of collaboration must not end there, but continue in order to meet the economic challenges that Venezuela will face.

He also talked about this on the telly, on Bloomberg News. 

Senate Banking Committee Testimony on Housing Finance

posted by Adam Levitin

I'll be testifying on Tuesday at a Senate Banking Committee hearing on housing finance that is focused on Chairman Crapo's reform outline.  My written testimony may be found here.  Suffice it to say, I'm skeptical.  I argue that a multi-guarantor system is a path to disaster and that the right approach is a single-guarantor system with back-end credit-risk transfers.  Oh wait, we already have that system in all but name.  The system has been totally reformed since 2008.  So why are we looking to do anything major with housing finance reform?  Hmmm.  

Restatement of Consumer Contracts—On-Line Symposium

posted by Adam Levitin

The Yale Journal on Regulation is holding an on-line symposium about the draft Restatement of the Law of Consumer Contracts, which is scheduled for a vote at the American Law Institute's annual meeting this May.  The launching point for the symposium are a pair of articles in JREG that take sharp issue with the empirical studies that underlie the draft Restatement.

The American Law Institute (ALI) is a self-appointed college of cardinals of the American legal profession.  It's a limited size membership organization that puts out various publications, most notably "Restatements" of the law, which are attempts to summarize, clarify, and occasionally improve the law.  Restatements aren't actually law, but they are tremendously influential.  Litigants and courts cite them and they are used to teach law students.  In other words, this stuff matters, even if its influence is indirect. 

The draft Restatement of Consumer Contracts is founded on a set of six quantitative empirical studies about consumer contracts.  This is a major and novel move for a Restatement; traditionally Restatements engaged in a qualitative distillation of the law.  Professor Gregory Klass of Georgetown has an article that attempts to replicate the Reporters' empirical study about the treatment of privacy policies as contracts.  He finds pervasive problems in the Reporters' coding, such as the inclusion of b2b cases in a consumer contracts restatement.  

A draft version of Professor Klass's study inspired me and a number of other advisors to the Restatement project to attempt our own replication study of the empirical studies of contract modification and clickwrap enforcement.  We found the same sort of pervasive problems as Professor Klass.  While the ALI Council completely ignored our findings, we wrote them up into a companion article to Professor Klass's.  

Some of the pieces posted to the symposium so far have been focused on replication study methodology (sort of beside the point given the very basic nature of the problems we identified) or defenses of the Reporters including mixed statutory-contract decisions in their data sets (which is no defense to inclusion of b2b cases or duplicate cases or vacated cases, etc.). But Mel Eisenberg has contributed an important piece that highlights some of the substantive problems with the draft Restatement, namely that it guts consumer protections.  For example, it would require findings of both procedural and substantive unconscionability for a contract to be unconscionable, while many states only require substantive unconscionability. Not surprisingly, I am unaware of any consumer law expert (other than the Reporters) who supports the project.  

But this thing that should really be a wake up call that something is very, very off with this Restatement project is the presence of outside opposition, which is virtually unheard of in the ALI process.  Every major consumer group (also here, here, and here), weighed in in opposition as well as 13 state attorneys general (and also here), and our former co-blogger (and also former ALI Vice-Chair), Senator Elizabeth Warren.  Nor has the opposition been solely from consumer-minded groups.  The US Chamber of Commerce and the major trade associations for banking, telecom, retailers, and insurers are also opposed (albeit with very different motivations).  Simply put, it's hard to find anyone other than the Reporters (and the ALI Council, which has a strong tradition of deference to Reporters) who actually likes the draft Restatement.  

So, if you're an ALI member, get informed.  If you know an ALI member, make sure that s/he is informed.  This is coming for a vote in May and if enacted would be bad policy, based on the legal equivalent of "junk science."  This isn't what the ALI should be doing.  

Puerto Rico, the Board, and the Appointments Clause

posted by Stephen Lubben

As many will have seen in the press, the First Circuit has said that PROMESA's Oversight Board was appointed in violation of the Appointments Clause. In short, while PROMESA allowed President Obama to appoint members of the Board without Senate confirmation, the Court says such confirmation was required.

The Board has decided to appeal to the Supreme Court, and the First Circuit's decision is on hold for 90 days. But what happens in 90 days?

In short, chaos. The title III "bankruptcy" cases for Puerto Rico and its affiliates are all run by the Board. Without the Board, the cases would seem to grind to a halt. If they remain that way for an extended period of time – and who really thinks this Congress and this President are going to get their act together in 90 days? – the District Court may have little choice but to dismiss the cases.

The appeal was brought by old-friend Aurelius. They presumably assume that they will get better treatment outside of title III.

But is that right? Maybe Congress will decide to enact a streamlined insolvency process for Puerto Rico, one that "cuts to the chase." After all, even the current President (hardly a friend to the Commonwealth) once suggested it might be necessary to simply cancel Puerto Rico's debt

Congress has a lot of power under the Bankruptcy Clause – and perhaps even more under the Territories Clause. Be careful what you wish for, and all that.

Pug Repossession

posted by Bob Lawless

If you missed it, Thursday's New York Times had a story about a debt collector who seized the family's dog over unpaid bills. The pet, a purebred pug, was sold for the equivalent of $800 on eBay which apparently meant it could be seized under German law which allows valuable pets to be seized in repayment of debts. Mutts are exempt.

In the United States, there are businesses who will give purchase-money loans for pets, which are often structured as financing leases. The consequence of nonpayment is the usual for nonpayment -- repossession of the collateral even if it is the family's beloved Fido or Fluffy. There is legislation in Nevada, California and New York that tries to ban the practice, although the statutes are far from a model of clarity about what they make illegal.

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The Curious Persistence of Plan B (Bankruptcy Lite)

posted by Jason Kilborn

I've come across a phenomenon numerous times over the years, again recently, that reveals the purpose of and resistance to discharge as the ultimate solution/relief for bankruptcy. In a discussion of the Chinese Supreme People's Court's struggles with "the enforcement difficulty" (执行难), the writers observe that, if a judgment debtor is found by the court enforcement division to have no available assets against which to collect a judgment, the enforcement action is terminated ... but "the court will automatically check every six months whether the involved judgment debtors have new property." On the one hand, the termination of fruitless enforcement actions sounds something like bankruptcy relief. Assuming the process actually works like this, and assuming the court enforcement division is not overly aggressive in pursuing "new property," this seems to me to take some of the pressure off of the Chinese system to adopt a proper bankruptcy discharge to alleviate the suffering of insolvent judgment debtors. On the other hand, without a discharge, the "checking for new property" part ensures that debtors' incentives to be productive will remain perpetually depressed, and official resources will be perpetually wasted in interminable pursuit of phantom new assets. These debtors' productivity and entrepreneurialism is forever lost to Chinese society in an era in which global competition continues to heat up.

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Deleveraging Is Over

posted by Alan White

An unsustainable run-up in consumer housing debt and other debt was a fundamental structural cause of the 2008 global financial cScreen Shot 2019-02-26 at 11.59.42 AMrisis. Following four years of painfully slow decline, total U.S. consumer debt has now risen back above its 2008 peak, with the growth led by student loan and auto loan debt. Mortgages outstanding are not quite at their 2008 levels, but student loan and auto loan growth more than makes up for the modest home loan deleveraging. Americans are back up to their eyeballs in debt, but now some of the debt burden has shifted from baby boomers to millennials. While the cost of health care may be a key electoral issue for the over-50 crowd, under-40s will be listening for policymakers to offer solutions on student loans.

CDS Strikes Again (Aurelius and Windstream)

posted by Stephen Lubben

Long ago I warned that the growth the of the CDS (credit default swap) market represented a threat to traditional understandings of how workouts and restructurings are supposed to happen. The recent Windstream decision from the SDNY shows that these basic issues are still around, notwithstanding an intervening financial crisis and resulting regulatory reform.

Windstream is a corporate group in the telecommunications sector. In 2013 it issued some senior unsecured notes due in 2023. Under the indenture for those notes, specific legal entities in the Windstream group agreed not to engage in any sale-leaseback transactions, presumably to maintain legal title to the groups’ assets available for the noteholders to collect against.

But the indenture did not prohibit the creation of new affiliated entities, nor did it bind such new entities to the prohibition on sale-leasebacks. Windstream did exactly that – popping up a new holding company to enter into the lease, and dropping down a new REIT subsidiary to be the owner of the leased assets. A clear end-run around the probable “intent” of the parties (whatever that means in the context of a bond indenture), but not against the express terms of the indenture, which legions of New York Court of Appeals decisions suggest is the only place to look for intent when reading an indenture.

Nonetheless, Aurelius Capital Master, Ltd., a fund managed by Aurelius Capital Management, LP and its affiliates, instructed the indenture trustee to bring suit against Windstream for breaching the terms of the indenture. As the holder of more than 25% of the notes, the Aurelius fund was entitled to give the trustee such instructions.

As many Slips readers will already appreciate, Aurelius is well-known in the restructuring community for its fondness for a robust sort of litigation. To put it mildly. And it is alleged that Aurelius has fully hedged its Windstream position with CDS, meaning that it can afford to be quite aggressive, because damage to Windstream will actually increase the value of the CDS position.

I’ll try to condense this as much as possible, but readers can see that we are headed into one of my longest posts in a while …

Continue reading "CDS Strikes Again (Aurelius and Windstream)" »

Alix-McKinsey Update

posted by Stephen Lubben

Lots of news in the restructuring area this week, and I hope to blog about Puerto Rico and Windstream before the week is out. But first, a quick update about everyone's favorite professional retention litigation.

As predicted, arbitration has proved to be somewhat less than satisfying in this matter. We still don't really know if McKinsey violated the Code/Rules on disclosure, and nobody has really addressed why it took the Wall Street Journal to notice that McKinsey's retention applications were extremely light on disclosures, relative to other bankruptcy professionals.

The U.S. Trustee is crowing about the $15 million dollars that McKinsey has agreed to pay – although at $5 million per chapter 11 case, that won't go very far will it?

And McKinsey's press release shows that it has an altogether different take on the settlement agreement:

Following a successful mediation overseen by Judge Marvin Isgur of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas, McKinsey & Company has reached an agreement with the United States Trustee Program regarding McKinsey’s prior disclosures in a set of bankruptcy cases from 2001 to 2018. The settlement does not opine in any way on the adequacy of McKinsey’s prior disclosures and, as Judge Isgur noted, the proposed settlement resolves “good faith disputes concerning the application of Bankruptcy Rule 2014.” McKinsey has agreed to this settlement in order to move forward and focus on serving its clients.

In reaching the agreement, McKinsey did not admit that any of its disclosures were insufficient or noncompliant, and the settlement does not in any way constitute an admission of liability or misconduct by McKinsey or any of its employees, officers, directors or agents.

McKinsey thanks Judge Isgur for his help in putting the historical disagreements regarding disclosures with the Trustee behind us. With Judge Isgur’s guidance, this process has also provided additional clarity for the filing of future disclosures. McKinsey will be filing additional disclosures in the Westmoreland case and looks forward to working with the bankruptcy courts to continue to deliver value to debtors and stakeholders.

A New Development on the CAC v. No-CAC Question in Euro Area Sovereign Bonds

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier

We have previously discussed how Euro area sovereign bonds with Collective Action Clauses or CACs (issued after Jan 1, 2013) and without CACs (issued prior to Jan 1, 2013) potentially differ in their vulnerability to debt restructuring. For anyone trying to draw up plans to tackle a future Euro area sovereign debt crisis (e.g., in Italy), it will be crucial to decide whether the CAC and no-CAC bonds are in fact different from a restructuring perspective. Conversely, for investors trying to predict which bonds to avoid and which to buy, the matter is equally important – and indeed, should be reflected in prices (for recent empirical papers, see here, here and here).

Last week, a research note by two Dutch researchers made its way to our desks (via reporters who found the claims intriguing). These researchers, looking into investment treaties entered into by the EU with Singapore, Canada and Vietnam, were concerned about two aspects relevant to future sovereign debt restructurings (among other things). To quote their abstract:

On the eve of the vote in the European parliament on the new investment treaty between Singapore and the European Union, SOMO publishes an analysis on the risks for managing government bonds and money flows. The analysis explains how the EU-Singapore Investment Protection Agreement (IPA) negatively impacts the policy space the EU, EU member states and Singapore have to manage financial instability and prevent financial crises.

(Note:  As per the Dutch research note, the EU-Singapore Investment Agreement has not been ratified by the EU parliamentary authorities yet). The issues of concern were:

First, the treaty seemed to include government bonds within its ambit (which is not the case in all such bilateral investment treaties).

Second, the treaty has specific vote requirements that differ from other treaties (e.g., 75% in the EU- Singapore agreement; 66.67% in the EU-Canada one) and that, if not followed, allow investors to bring treaty-based claims.

One concern raised by the report is that such treaties – perhaps inadvertently, perhaps intentionally – can make future restructurings of Euro area sovereign bonds harder by granting investors in certain countries additional rights that could enable them to block restructuring attempts.

Here are our preliminary thoughts, focusing on the EU-Singapore treaty:

Continue reading "A New Development on the CAC v. No-CAC Question in Euro Area Sovereign Bonds " »

Arbitration in Bankruptcy -- Discharge, the Easy Case

posted by Bob Lawless

Now that the major work of the ABI Commission on Consumer Bankruptcy is done, I seem to have this thing called "time" again. One of the topics that I have been wanting to post about is arbitration in bankruptcy. If I follow through on my intentions, this will be the first of a few posts on arbitration in bankruptcy.

Arbitration has come to the bankruptcy courts. In the coming years, how the Federal Arbitration Act intersects with the Bankruptcy Code will become an increasingly prominent issue. What I want to talk about in this post is arbitration of a violation of the discharge injunction itself. In the typical factual set-up, a debtor alleges a violation of the discharge injunction, and the creditor moves to send the question to an arbitrator under a predispute arbitration clause, almost always embedded in a form contract. Given the ubiquity of these form contracts in consumer transactions, the only thing at stake is the effectiveness of the consumer bankruptcy system.

We can first exclude one approach to the topic that I occasionally see. It goes something like this. The Supreme Court keeps sending disputes to arbitration and thus has signaled repeatedly it favors arbitration. Therefore, the Court would hold that bankruptcy disputes can be arbitrated. This is not how law works. The Court's tendencies are not "law." One of the Supreme Court justices has famously declared he favors a certain malted beverage, but that hardly makes it the drink of the land (although I also would not be against making it so).

Continue reading "Arbitration in Bankruptcy -- Discharge, the Easy Case" »

ABI Consumer Commission Report Is Nearly Finished

posted by Bob Lawless

For the past two years, the American Bankruptcy Institute's Commission on Consumer Bankruptcy has been hard at work. As the Commission's reporter, I am very happy to say that the work is nearly finished. All of the drafting is completed, and we are in the final stages of the editing process.

The report will be released on April 11. If you want to learn about the report, come to the ABI's Annual Spring Meeting where there will be a number of sessions about the report.

The Commission's charge was to recommend "improvements to the consumer bankruptcy system that can be implemented within its existing structure." The recommendations represent the work of a broad group of bankruptcy professionals across all types of roles and types of practice. The report will have forty-nine sections across five chapters, with multiple recommendations in many of the sections. Although the substance of the recommendations will not be released until April 11, the topic list is public. You can expect recommendations on student loans, attorney compensation, the means test, rights in repossessed collateral, chapter 13 plans as well as many other topics.

Student Loan Servicing Fail (continued)

posted by Alan White

The U.S. Education Department is doing a lousy job of overseeing the private companies servicing $1.1 TRILLION of federal student loans. That is the gist of the Inspector General's findings in a new report. Among other problems, the IG found that servicers were not telling borrowers about available repayment options, and were miscalculating income-based repayment amounts. When USED found these problems, they did not use contractual remedies to force servicers to improve their performance. To quote the report: "by not holding servicers accountable, [USED] could give its servicers the impression that it is not concerned with servicer noncompliance with Federal loan servicing requirements, including protecting borrowers' rights."

Meanwhile, borrowers with 49,669 loans have applied for Public Service Loan Forgiveness as of 9/30/2018. 206 borrowers with 423 loans have been approved. So, 99% denial rate.

More Data, Please!

posted by Jason Kilborn

Effective reform requires detailed knowledge of exactly what's being reformed. This is especially true of complex systems like corporate and individual insolvency regimes, with numerous inputs and outputs and carefully counterbalanced policy objectives. Two recent papers accentuate an acute weakness in global insolvency reform development--a lack of reliable and comprehensive data on the operation of existing systems, which will of course infect future planned procedures, as well. The global insolvency team at the IMF notes this problem in the context of its current advisory operations, and Adam Feibelman anticipates this problem with respect to India's developing insolvency and bankruptcy law. Both suggest a solution in more careful attention to data production and tracking. Both papers are interesting reading for those concerned with a more responsible approach to global insolvency policy-making, where for far too long it seems the old joke about empirical analysis has rung true: anecdote is not the singular of data.

New (From the Archives) Paper on Determinants of Personal Bankruptcy

posted by Melissa Jacoby

This working paper is a longitudinal empirical study of lower-income homeowners, including a subset of bankruptcy filers, produced with an interdisciplinary team of cross-campus colleagues, including Professor Roberto Quercia, director of UNC's Center for Community Capital. We just posted this version on SSRN for the first time yesterday in light of continued interest in its questions and findings. The abstract does not give too much detail (see the paper for that), but here it is:

Personal Bankruptcy Decisions Before and After Bankruptcy Reform

Abstract

We examine the personal bankruptcy decisions of lower-income homeowners before and after the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA). Econometric studies suggest that personal bankruptcy is explained by financial gain rather than adverse events, but data constraints have hindered tests of the adverse events hypothesis. Using household level panel data and controlling for the financial benefit of filing, we find that stressors related to cash flow, unexpected expenses, unemployment, health insurance coverage, medical bills, and mortgage delinquencies predict bankruptcy filings a year later. At the federal level, the 2005 Bankruptcy Reform explains a decrease in filings over time in counties that experienced lower filing rates.

New Paper: Consumer Protection After the Global Financial Crisis

posted by Melissa Jacoby

Historian Ed Balleisen and I have just posted a paper of interest to Credit Slips readers who are interested in consumer protection, financial crises, and inputs into post-crisis policymaking more generally. I will let the abstract speak for itself:

Consumer Protection After the Global Financial Crisis

Edward J. Balleisen & Melissa B. Jacoby

Abstract

Like other major events, the Global Financial Crisis generated a large and diffuse body of academic analysis. As part of a broader call for operationalizing the study of crises as policy shocks and resulting responses, which inevitably derail from elegant theories, we examine how regulatory protagonists approached consumer protection after the GFC, guided by six elements that should be considered in any policy shock context. After reviewing the introduction and philosophy of the Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, created as part of the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010, we consider four examples of how consumer protection unfolded in the crises’ aftermath that have received less attention. Our case studies investigate a common set of queries. We sought to identify the parties who cared sufficiently about a given issue to engage with it and try to shape policy, as well as the evolving nature of the relevant policy agenda. We also looked for key changes in policy, which could be reflected in various forms—whether establishing an entirely new regulatory agency, formulating novel enforcement strategies, or deflecting policy reforms.


The first of our case studies focuses on operations of the Federal Trade Commission in the GFC’s aftermath. Although the Dodd-Frank Act shifted some obligations toward the CFPB, we find that the FTC continued to worry about and seek to address fraud against consumers. But it tended to focus on shady practices that arose in response to the GFC rather than those that facilitated it. Our second case study examines the Congressional adoption of a carveout from CFPB authority for auto dealers, which resulted from strong lobbying by car companies worried about a cratering sales environment, and the aftermath of the policy. Here, we observe that this carveout allowed a significant amount of troubling auto lending activity to continue and expand, with potentially systemic consequences. Loan servicer misbehavior, particularly in the form of robosigning, is the focus of our third case study. Although Dodd-Frank did not explicitly address robosigning, the new agency it created, the CFPB, was able to draw on its broad authority to address this newly arising problem. And, because the CFPB had authority over student loan servicers, the agency could pivot relatively quickly from the mortgage context to the student loan context. Our fourth and final case study is the rise and fall of Operation Choke Point, an understandably controversial interagency program, convened by the U.S. Department of Justice, which, with the GFC fresh in mind, attempted to curtail fraudulent activities by cutting off access to online payment mechanisms. Here, we see an anti-fraud effort that was particularly vulnerable to a change in presidential administration and political climate because its designers had invested little effort in building public awareness and support for the program.

The Article concludes with an overall assessment and suggestions for other focal points for which our approach would be useful. The examples span a range of other domestic and global policy contexts.

 

 

 

Liked Evicted? -- Read Maid

posted by Pamela Foohey

MaidStephanie Land recently tweeted this depressing statistic: "a single parent would have to work 140 hours a week at minimum wage to pay for basic necessities." And Land would know. Her new memoir -- Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother's Will to Survive -- chronicles her time as a single mother working as a house cleaner and just scraping by on the combination of her paycheck and various forms of government assistance. In telling her story of ending up a single mother living in a homeless shelter with effectively no family or friends to turn to for help, of figuring out how to make a little money working insanely hard, and of dealing with the stigma of asking for government "handouts," Land weaves a narrative about life on the financial precipice that sticks with you. And embedded in her story are glimpses into the lives of her clients, through which Land creates portraits of the trials of (usually) better off families who nonetheless struggle in different ways.

In short, read her memoir. It's fantastic. And if you're not totally convinced that you must read it right now, there's more after the jump.

Continue reading "Liked Evicted? -- Read Maid" »

Republic and PDVSA Bonds: No Trades With Friends and Family

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

A few days ago, we wondered why the U.S. government had constrained U.S. holders of PDVSA debt instruments to sell only to non-U.S. parties. The constraint would likely kill liquidity for these bonds and impose losses on bondholders. But why? And why impose the constraint on PDVSA bonds but not the Republic’s bonds?

On Friday, the Treasury apparently amended the sanctions order to impose the same constraint on the Republic’s bonds. Now these too can only be sold to non-U.S. persons.

But again, why?  Venezuela hasn’t issued new bonds for a while, so why kill the secondary market for existing bonds? 

Here are four possible explanations; we’d be grateful to hear others from readers:

1.    Cut Off Oxygen: Venezuela has made a habit of issuing bonds and then parking them in domestic financial institutions, for later sale when the government is low on cash. Counterparties have been willing to accept these bonds in the hope that a future government will pay, even if the current one won’t. Perhaps the U.S. government believes Venezuela still has a stockpile of these parked bonds and is trying to eliminate this last source of oxygen for the Maduro government.

2.    What’s Coming is Brutal: Perhaps the U.S. government expects a brutal restructuring and wants to give U.S. holders an opportunity to escape by selling to non-U.S. parties. But query: If this is the story, why would anyone want to buy? (Ans: They wouldn’t, thereby reducing liquidity even further).

3.    Don’t Want Irate Bondholders Calling and Yelling at US Treasury Officials: This explanation is a version of the first one (Oxygen denial) and says that the U.S. wants to dramatically reduce the value of Venezuelan bonds in the short run, but not to zero, so that U.S. holders who really need to exit will still have a small escape window.

4.    Cut Venezuela Out of the Index: Nearly two years ago, Harvard economist Ricardo Hausmann urged JP Morgan to remove Venezuelan bonds from its index (see here, for Hausmann’s now-famous “Hunger Bonds” article). Venezuela needed to solve a humanitarian crisis, not pay coupons to foreign bondholders. Hausmann understood that many investors would view Venezuelan bonds less favorably if the bonds were removed from JP Morgan’s index. Indirectly, the U.S. government might be trying to bring about this result. To stay in the index, a bond must be traded to some minimal degree. If the sanctions prevent this, Venezuelan bonds may be removed from index. But why would this matter to the U.S. government? Hausmann was worried about coupon payments being made to foreign creditors in lieu of assistance to the people of Venezuela. But Venezuela is not paying any coupons these days (except on the one collateralized PDVSA bond).

Explanations one and three seem most plausible to us. Perhaps the U.S. government is hoping for regime change in the near future. If so, the pain bondholders feel will be temporary and offset by gains once a reasonable government is in place. But if Maduro retains power, then the pain for U.S. holders of these instruments will be significant.

Euro Area Sovereign Bonds: CACs or no-CACs?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier

Beginning January 1, 2013, Euro Area authorities required member countries to include “collective action clauses,” or “CACs,” in sovereign bonds with a maturity over one year. CACs are a voting mechanism by which a bondholder supermajority (e.g., 66.67% or 75%) can restructure bond terms in a vote that binds dissenters. Before 2013, the vast majority of sovereign bonds issued by Euro area countries not only lacked CACs; they essentially said nothing about restructuring. For much more on CACs, European and otherwise, see here, here and here.

Because of this policy change in 2013, almost every Euro Area sovereign has two sets of bonds outstanding: CAC bonds and no-CAC bonds. Is either type of bond safer for investors to hold in the event of a restructuring?

Continue reading "Euro Area Sovereign Bonds: CACs or no-CACs? " »

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.

On the Attachability of Blocked Venezuelan Assets

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

We gather that there is still activity in the U.S. government to think through the implications of the recent expansion of sanctions against Venezuela. Here’s the original version of the most relevant Executive Order. In brief, it provides: “All property and interests in property that are in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of any United States person of the following persons are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in…” The new sanctions add PDVSA to the blocked list.

One question is whether this stops the Crystallex attachment proceeding in its tracks. After all, shares in PDV-H are an interest in property owned by PDVSA, and an execution sale is nothing if not a transfer of assets. To spin this out even further, what about the shares in CITGO-H, which were pledged as security for the PDVSA 2020 bonds? If the sanctions extend to property owned by entities controlled by PDVSA, then the sanctions would also seem to block holders of the PDVSA 2020s from foreclosing (without first getting a special license). These complexities will require clarification; perhaps Treasury will provide it soon.

More broadly, let’s assume that the effect of the sanctions is to divert a significant pool of assets into some blocked accounts in the U.S. As we said in our prior post, we are skeptical that there is a big pool of assets, but we might be wrong. Let’s further assume that the U.S. administration eventually declares that Juan Guaidó and associates, as the officially-recognized leaders of Venezuela, have access to the funds. Are the funds now attachable by Venezuela’s creditors (like Crystallex)? At least as a formal matter, the answer would seem to be “yes.” The assets would no longer be blocked, and would also seem to belong to the government. Creditors with claims against the government would be entitled to assert claims (subject to the law of foreign sovereign immunity). Yet this can’t be the intended result—or so we hope. It would effectively divert government assets to a handful of creditors, enabling them to achieve disproportionate recoveries (compared to other creditors) at the expense of the Venezuelan people. We hope the administration will make clear this is not the intent.

What is the U.S. Government’s Strategy in Venezuela?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

Even by the eccentric standards of its ongoing debt crisis, weird things are afoot in Venezuela. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó has declared himself president and been recognized by the U.S. and other governments. That’s not especially weird. What’s odd is that the political convulsions in Venezuela are manifesting in part as a battle over control of the CITGO board. Guaidó has said he plans to appoint a new board. Rumors are circulating that this is part of a plan, assisted by the U.S. government, not just to cut off the flow of oil revenues to the Maduro regime but to redirect that flow towards opposition coffers. As the Wall Street Journal previously reported: “U.S. officials say they want to divert oil money--as well as control over other assets like gold reserves--away from Mr. Maduro to the new interim president without stopping crude exports from the country.” That’s also consistent with a recent statement recently put out by the U.S. Treasury. 

Since these reports, the U.S. administration announced new sanctions, which don’t direct funds to opposition coffers but which do appear intended to prevent CITGO from remitting oil-related payments to Venezuela. Instead, the funds must be held in blocked accounts in the U.S. Here’s Bloomberg on the sanctions, and the Wall Street Journal, and Reuters, and the New York Times.        

What’s going on here?

Continue reading "What is the U.S. Government’s Strategy in Venezuela?" »

The Commonwealth and the GOs, part 2

posted by Stephen Lubben

In my last post, I noted that the joint committee-Board objection to the 2012 and 2014 Puerto Rico GOs was at least plausible, and thus is likely headed for more extensive litigation. As Mark and Mitu have also noted, it also matters a good deal that the objectors also have arguments for why the claim on the bonds is not replaced by a similar claim for unjust enrichment or the like (although we might wonder if such a claim would enjoy the special constitutional priority the GOs do, if we think that priority really matters in a sovereign/muni bankruptcy process).

This past weekend, the FT's John Dizard quoted a hedge fund type as saying that the objectors' argument about the Building Authority's leases (see my prior post) was "nonsense." Not a lot of deep analysis there, but it does confirm there is a fight ahead. And we can assume that the Commonwealth's words will be used against it – after all, at the time of issuance, Puerto Rico and its agents undoubtedly said lots about how assuredly valid these bonds were.

The obvious conclusion is that the objectors have made this move as an opening shot in a broader play to negotiate a haircut with the GOs. After all, they look like they are almost done dealing with the COFINA debt, the other big chunk outstanding.

Sure. But what I find really interesting is the more subtle point that with this move, the objectors have also opened up some space between the GOs as a class. That is, presumably the non-challenged GOs will not have to take as severe of a haircut if $6 billion has already been knocked off the GO total. If I'm a holder of 2011 GOs (which I'm not, btw), I might then start to think that I don't really mind if the objectors win. And thus intra-GO warfare might break out.

Some asset managers are also going to face challenges if they have 2011 GOs in one fund, and 2014 GOs in another. And then there is Assured Guaranty Municipal Corp., which insured both the 2011 and 2012 (but not the 2014) ... 

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?" »

Puerto Rico’s Audacious Move: Can it Cut its Debt by $6 bn?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati & Mark Weidemaier

Last week, the Government of Puerto Rico, acting through the Financial Oversight and Management Board (and in conjunction with the creditors’ committee), filed a claims objection seeking to invalidate roughly $6 billion of its General Obligation debt. The reason is that the government allegedly borrowed in violation of the Debt Service Limit and the Balanced Budget Clause of the Puerto Rican constitution. Stephen’s recent post on this subject discusses the merits of this argument in some detail. In this post, we are especially interested in the question of restitution. The Commonwealth doesn’t get much benefit from invalidating loans unless it also avoids the obligation to pay restitution (i.e., return the purchase price). So the objectors make the additional argument that bondholders have no equitable right to restitution under a theory of unjust enrichment.

There is some precedent for the objectors’ arguments in similar contexts, although not a lot of it. Some of the important cases, such as Litchfield v. Ballou (1885), are also very old. However, at least one law review article—a student note in the North Carolina Banking Institute journal (here)—squarely addresses Puerto Rico’s argument, ultimately concluding:

How can Puerto Rico’s penalty for illegally borrowing above its means be that it is allowed to declare the debts void and keep the money for itself? Despite the manifest unfairness of such a result, the applicable law indicates that this is likely the proper legal result.

Continue reading "Puerto Rico’s Audacious Move: Can it Cut its Debt by $6 bn?" »

The Commonwealth and the GOs, part 1

posted by Stephen Lubben

While there has been some press coverage of the recent attempts to annul some $6 billion of Puerto Rican general obligation bonds – essentially all such debt issued starting in 2012 onward – the move has not received much deep coverage. Yesterday I took some time to read the claims objection filed in the Commonwealth's article III case, and in this post I'm going to consider the arguments against the bonds' validity. In a further post, I will consider what is going on here from a strategic perspective.

The objection was jointly filed by the creditors' committee and the Financial Oversight and Management Board for Puerto Rico, but the Board only joined in one of the two main arguments that are put forth. (There is a third argument in the objection – about OID and unmatured interest under section 502 fo the Code – that I'm not going to talk about because its rather pedestrian by comparison).

In sum, the committee argues that GO bonds issued in 2012 and 2014 violated two provisions of Puerto Rico's constitution, and thus the bonds should be deemed void. The Board joins in the objection with regard to the first constitutional provision, but not the second. If successful, this objection would eliminate $6 billion of the $13 billion in GO bonds currently outstanding.

More details after the break.

Continue reading "The Commonwealth and the GOs, part 1" »

Jay Alix, McKinsey Redux

posted by Stephen Lubben

A quick note on this ongoing issue, in which Jay Alix (the individual) claims that McKinsey has gained bankruptcy work and market share by flouting the requirements of the Code. Reports are out this morning that some judges have sent this matter to mediation. I don't get that.

The basic issue is that McKinsey, under the most charitable interpretation, was extremely aggressive in deciding what needed to be disclosed to the bankruptcy court. This is basically a legal or policy question as to how to interpret section 327 et al.  How is that a proper subject for mediation? Can the parties really agree on the scope of disclosure? 

I know mediation is all the rage these days in large chapter 11 cases, but there are some issues that simply need to be addressed by the court.

Is SB 901 Constitutional?

posted by Adam Levitin

PG&E filed a notice that it was preparing to file for bankruptcy in around 15 days.  Companies don't usually make this sort of announcement willingly; it's an invitation to a creditor run.  PG&E filed the notice because it's required to under a recently enacted California law, SB 901.  SB 901 requires public utilities to file notice of changes of control at least 15 days in advance, and "change of control" is defined to include filing a bankruptcy petition.  That strikes me as really problematic--it is a state law conditioning and interfering with the exercise of a federal right.  (Imagine how this would work with a financial institution bankruptcy process...)  I can't believe that the law would hold up if challenged.  Yet PG&E filed the notice.  Maybe there's just not a meaningful run possibility for a power utility.

Who Went to Caracas Last Week?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati & Mark Weidemaier

More and more creditors are filing lawsuits against Venezuela, and we had been planning to do a post on how the dominos were falling. 

But then we came across a piece by Ben Bartenstein of Bloomberg about how some investors appear to be pursuing an alternate strategy, allowing bondholders to be compensated from oil-related activities. One can understand why creditors would rather have a future claim to oil revenues than litigate over unpaid bond debt. After all, Venezuela has huge oil reserves, and the current Venezuelan government is sure to lose power eventually. Although it may take a while, a government will eventually be in place capable of resuming oil production, and in that event, investors could make a bundle.

Good for investors, but terrible for the future government and the people of Venezuela. Having finally rid themselves of Maduro, they would have to deal with the fact that he and his cronies had either stolen the country's assets or pledged them in exchange for a temporary reprieve from creditors. This is not a new issue. It implicates the problem of odious debts, for which Venezuela is quickly becoming a poster child. (Ugo Panizza and Ricardo Hausmann have a nice piece about the need for Odiousness Ratings in the Venezuelan context.)

Continue reading "Who Went to Caracas Last Week?" »

Credit Bidding and Sears

posted by Adam Levitin

The Sears' auction is a really valuable teaching moment, I think (and perfectly timed for the start of the semester)—does Sears have going concern value that merits a sale of substantially all assets as a going concern, or is an immediate liquidation the value maximizing move?  

I don't have an opinion on that issue, but something strikes me as rather strange about ESL's bid for a sale of substantially all assets.  Very little of the now $5B in consideration offered is cash, less than 20%.  Instead, a large chunk is in the form of debt assumption and another large chunk is in the form of a credit bid.  It's the credit bid that looks odd to me.  ESL seems to be trying to credit bid three different loan facilities, including a second lien facility.  Here's the thing--ESL should only be able to credit bid against its collateral and then only in the amount of its collateral. I don't know what exactly is covered by the liens on each of the facilities, but I suspect that the assets being sold include things that are not covered by the liens. That would seem to create a Free-Lance Star problem for ESL.  And then there's the problem of the valuation.  In order to know what ESL can credit bid, we need to know to what extent it is secured.  To wit, consider a second lien facility.  If the collateral is worth $100 and the first lien debt is for $80 and the second lien debt for $30, the second lien debt shouldn't be able to credit bid $30 because it would only recover $20 from the sale in foreclosure.  The second lien's credit bid should be capped at $20.

Continue reading "Credit Bidding and Sears" »

Federal Student Loans and the Shutdown

posted by Adam Levitin

Is the Department of Education doing anything to assist furloughed federal employees with federal student loan obligations?  Federal contractors with such obligations?  You'd think that ED might instruct its servicers to treat delinquencies for furloughed federal employees and contractors differently than regular delinquencies.  That would be the right thing to do.  

SCRA and the Coast Guard in the Shutdown

posted by Adam Levitin

The Coast Guard apparently briefly had some advice for furloughed guardsmen that included "Bankruptcy is a last option."  The leaped out at me as strange.  What about the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, a special act that provides protection for active duty military members and their dependents against collection actions?  Shouldn't SCRA hold creditors at bay, such that they don't need to consider bankruptcy for the foreseeable future?

Continue reading "SCRA and the Coast Guard in the Shutdown" »

FDCPA Exclusion for Litigating Attorneys

posted by Jason Kilborn

On the heels of oral arguments in the latest Supreme Court case concerning application of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act to lawyers, ABA President Bob Carlson has a comment in Bloomberg Law today {subscription maybe required} explaining succinctly why litigating lawyers should be excluded from the FDCPA. He carefully distinguishes lawyers collecting debts outside the litigation context (pre-filing)--whom the FDCPA might reasonably regulate--but he convincingly argues for exemption for those involved in active litigation (I would hope and presume this applies to both the pre-judgment and post-judgment stages, the latter being the subject of a little book on judgment enforcement I've just written, including a bit about the FDCPA). The courts provide adequate oversight and abuse prevention in this formal collection context, Carlson argues, and the "gotcha" pitfalls for otherwise innocuous behavior in the FDCPA (especially the required "mini-Miranda" and validation notices) are unjustifiable as applied to court-supervised litigating lawyers. We'll see how warm a reception HR 5082 receives in Congress. 

The Implication of Reasonable Consumers Not Reading Contracts of Adhesion

posted by Adam Levitin

A final installment to this evening's blog storm (you can tell that I'm procrastinating on exam grading...).

The Consumer Financial Protection Act prohibits "unfair" acts and practices.  "Unfair" is defined as an act or practice that causes or is likely to cause substantial injury to consumers, that is not reasonably avoidable by consumers, and the harm of which is not outweighed by benefits to consumers or competition.  

Now consider that the reasonable consumer does not read prolix contracts in detail.  The reasonable consumer might look at a top-level disclosure, say the Schumer Box for a credit card, or maybe the TRID for a mortgage, but I don't think it's controversial to say that the reasonable consumer isn't going to get into the fine print that follows.  The reasonable consumer isn't going to bother doing this because (1) the consumer might not understand the fine print, (2) the consumer can't negotiate the fine print, and (3) the consumer knows there's a good chance that all of the competitors have similar or worse fine print, so a search for better fine-print terms is might be futile (and might come at the expense of worse top-line terms).  Only a fanatic or a masochist reads every line of a cardholder agreement.

If I'm right that a reasonable consumer doesn't bother reading the details in contracts of adhesion, then notice what the "unfairness" prohibition is doing:  it is requiring that the terms of the contract be substantively fair.  Any hidden tricks or traps, like the double cycle grace period language I highlighted in my previous post, are going to be unfair.  Add in the prong of "abusive" that deals with taking unreasonable advantage of consumers' lack of understanding, and I think the Consumer Financial Protection Act is effectively requiring that consumer finance contracts must be "conscionable" or else have all of the tricks and traps made very clear to the consumer.

That's actually pretty remarkable. That's a light year beyond prohibiting "unconscionable" contracts.  It's an really affirmative fairness requirement for contract terms. It's also exactly what it should be.  Contracts should be a mechanism for mutual (subjective) welfare enhancement, not for one party to hoodwink the other. I wonder how many compliance lawyers are looking at consumer finance contracts in light of the fact that a reasonable consumer doesn't read fine print.  They should be.  

A final thought:  where does this leave arbitration agreements?  Arguably they fall into the problem unfair and abusive category (although there may be some argument about consumer benefit).  Yes, the CFPB's arbitration rulemaking was overturned by the Congressional Review Act.  But the rulemaking was undertaken under a specific power.  Query whether that prevents a rulemaking that is substantially the same under the UDAAP power.  No one really knows.  

UDAAP Violation in BofA Credit Cardholder Agreements?

posted by Adam Levitin

Heads up Kathy Kraninger:  you might want to look at whether Bank of America is engaged in an unfair or abusive act or practice in its credit cardholder agreements.  Here's the deal.  

The Credit CARD Act of 2009 prohibits so-called "double cycle billing" on credit cards:

Prohibition on double-cycle billing and penalties for on-time payments.  ...[A] creditor may not impose any finance charge on a credit card account under an open end consumer credit plan as a result of the loss of any time period provided by the creditor within which the obligor may repay any portion of the credit extended without incurring a finance charge, with respect to—

(A) any balances for days in billing cycles that precede the most recent billing cycle; or

(B) any balances or portions thereof in the current billing cycle that were repaid within such time period.

The prohibition in clause (A) is on calculating the average daily balance to which the APR is applied based on balances other than in the current billing cycle.  That was the practice of double cycle billing:  the average daily balance was the average of not just the current billing cycle but of the current and previous billing cycles.  So even if you had no charges this billing cycle and had paid off the balance, you'd still have a positive average daily balance because of the previous month and thus pay interest.  

The prohibition in clause (B) is supposed to get at "trailing interest"—no interest should accrue on balances to the extent they are paid off on time.  If you charged $100, but repaid $90 on time, you should only be paying interest on $10, not on $100.  But notice how it's drafted. It only applies if there is a loss of a grace period; there is no grace period required.   If there is no grace period, you can be charged interest on the $100, even if you repaid $90 on time.  

So consider, then, this term from Bank of America's current credit card holder agreements:

We will not charge you any interest on Purchases if you always pay your entire New Balance Total by the Payment Due Date. Specifically, you will not pay interest for an entire billing cycle on Purchases if you Paid in Full the two previous New Balance Totals on your account by their respective Payment Due Dates; otherwise, each Purchase begins to accrue interest on its transaction date or the first day of the billing cycle, whichever date is later.

Did you get that?  You only have a grace period allowing for interest-free repayment if you have paid in full the two previous billing cycles.  Otherwise, you're going to be charged interest even if you pay the current cycle's balance in full.

Continue reading "UDAAP Violation in BofA Credit Cardholder Agreements?" »

Are Convenience Check Loans Underwritten to Ability-to-Repay?

posted by Adam Levitin

In my previous post, I complained that convenience check loans weren't underwritten based on ability-to-repay.  That's not to say that there's no underwriting whatsoever.  But it's important to recognize that prescreening for direct mailing for convenience check loans is not the same as underwriting the loans based on ability-to-repay.  For example, Regional Management, on the companies that offers convenience check loans says in its 10-K that:

Each individual we solicit for a convenience check loan has been pre-screened through a major credit bureau or data aggregator against our underwriting criteria. In addition to screening each potential convenience check recipient’s credit score and bankruptcy history, we also use a proprietary model that assesses approximately 25 to 30 different attributes of potential recipients.

That's dandy, but a credit score is a retrospective measure of credit worthiness. It doesn't say anything about whether a borrower has current employment or income, and it doesn't generally capture material obligations like rent or health insurance.

Continue reading "Are Convenience Check Loans Underwritten to Ability-to-Repay?" »

Usury 2.0: Toward a Universal Ability-to-Repay Requirement

posted by Adam Levitin

There's bi-partisan legislation pending that would prohibit the practice of installment lenders sending out unsolicited live convenience check loan:  you get an unsolicited check in the mail.  If you cash it, you've entered into a loan agreement.  

The debate about check loans has turned on whether consumers understand what they're getting into.  The legislation's sponsors say consumers don't understand all the terms and conditions, while the installment lender trade association, the American Financial Services Association, argues that there's no problem with live check loans because all the terms are clearly disclosed in large type font.  

This debate about consumer understanding and clarity of disclosure totally misses the point.  The key problem with check loans is that they are being offered without regard for the consumer's ability to repay.  For some consumers, check loans might be beneficial.  But for other they're poison.  The problem is that check loans are not underwritten for ability-to-repay, which is a problem for a product that is potentially quite harmful.  Ability to repay is the issue that should be discussed regarding check loans, not questions about borrower understanding.  Indeed, this is not an issue limited to check loans.  Instead, it is an issue that cuts across all of consumer credit.  Rather than focus narrowly on check loans, Congress should consider adopting a national ability-to-repay requirement for all consumer credit (excluding federal student loans).  

Continue reading "Usury 2.0: Toward a Universal Ability-to-Repay Requirement" »

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" »

International & Comparative Insolvency Law Symposium CFP

posted by Jason Kilborn

If you're wondering what to do with your New Year's downtime, you might consider submitting a paper proposal for an International & Comparative Insolvency Law Symposium, this year to be held at the beautiful University of Miami (in Coral Gables) on November 14-15, 2019. The hosts are Drew Dawson (Miami), Laura Napoli Coordes (Arizona State), Adrian Walters (Chicago-Kent) and Christoph Henkel (Mississippi College). This is the second (annual?) such event, and if last year's symposium is any indication, it should be great. Proposal submissions are due January 31, 2019. See you there? 

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?")" »

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