postings by Dalié Jiménez

Aurelius v. Puerto Rican Control Board (or "Do Activist Hedgies Add Value?")

posted by Mitu Gulati

This post draws considerably from research on Puerto Rico and its current constitutional status with Joseph Blocher (see here).

Tuesday was oral argument day at the Supreme Court in the battle between the Puerto Rican Control Board and a big bad hedge fund, Aurelius.  Aurelius, zealous defender of the constitution that it is, had brought a challenge to the constitutionality of the Control Board. The claim being that the failure of President Obama and the then Congress to follow the strictures of the Constitution for the appointment of principal officers of the federal government (nomination by the President, followed by Senate confirmation) made the Board and all its actions invalid.

I am not a constitutional scholar and don’t have any desire to be one.  Still, the basic issue here seems fairly simple:  Are the members of the Control Board principal federal officers?

Continue reading "Aurelius v. Puerto Rican Control Board (or "Do Activist Hedgies Add Value?")" »

Congratulations to Pamela Foohey!

posted by Adam Levitin

Congratulations to Pamela Foohey on being named to the American Bankruptcy Institute's 40 Under 40 list for 2019!  Pamela joins Credit Slips own Dalié Jiménez (class of 2018) as an honoree

And it's been a great news day for our former co-blogger Katie Porter, who was not only the subject of an American Banker article, but was put on a SCOTUS short list

A Mini Q&A on Venezuela’s Possible Defense to Foreclosure on the PDVSA 2020

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Along with Ugo Panizza of the Graduate Institute in Geneva, we’ve put up a couple of posts in recent days asking whether Venezuela might have a legal basis for challenging its obligations on the PDVSA 2020 bond (here and here). A large payment of close to a billion dollars is due in a few weeks and there is no money to pay it.  Most important, the bond is collateralized by a pledge of a majority stake in CITGO Holding.

The possible basis for the legal defense is that the bonds, and especially the pledge of collateral, were not properly authorized under Article 150 of the Venezuelan constitution. (This matter has also received press attention over the past few days—e.g., here and here).

As background, provisions in the Venezuelan constitution (Art. 312) and related Venezuelan laws require the passage of a “special law” (our translation) to authorize public indebtedness, but exempt PDVSA from the requirement. However, a separate constitutional provision, Article 150, requires “approval” from the National Assembly for contracts of national interest. We don’t know of situations in which the provision has been invoked. With apologies for possible mistranslations here and elsewhere in this post, here is the text:

Article 150. The entering into of national public interest contracts will require the approval of the National Assembly in the cases determined by law. 

No municipal, state, or national public interest contract can be entered into with States or foreign official entities or with companies not domiciled in Venezuela, not being assigned to them without the approval of the National Assembly.

The law may require in public interest contracts certain conditions of nationality, domicile or any other kind, or require special guarantees

For a Caracas Chronicles piece on this, see here.

We have gotten numerous questions in response to our two pieces, one at Project Syndicate and one here. There were many excellent questions. And since we find this topic fascinating (we are working on an empirical paper on governing law provisions in sovereign debt contracts), we decided to go down the rabbit hole of trying to answer them. 

The caveat here is that while we know a good bit about sovereign bond contracts, we have no expertise in Venezuelan constitutional law. Here goes:

Continue reading "A Mini Q&A on Venezuela’s Possible Defense to Foreclosure on the PDVSA 2020 " »

Can Creditors Seize CITGO? Enforcing the PDVSA 2020 Bond Collateral

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Writing with Ugo Panizza, we have a piece out today on Project Syndicate (Should Creditors Pay the Price for Dubious Bonds?) discussing the collateralized bond issued by Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA (the PDVSA 2020 bond). We have written here previously about the bond as well. In 2016, when PDVSA was near default, it conducted a debt swap in which investors exchanged short-maturity bonds for the longer-maturity PDVSA 2020. To sweeten the deal, the PDVSA 2020 bond was backed by collateral in the form of a 50.1% interest in CITGO Holding, the immediate parent company of U.S. oil refiner CITGO Petroleum.

A payment of nearly $1 billion is coming due in the next few weeks on the PDVSA 2020 bond. The Maduro regime—no longer recognized as the legitimate government of Venezuela—can’t pay it. And the government-in-exile led by Juan Guaidó—though it desperately wants to retain control of CITGO—presumably can’t afford to pay. If there is a default, and bondholders seize the collateral, the loss of CITGO may significantly disrupt Venezuela’s ability to recover from its current economic and humanitarian catastrophe. To be sure, the prospects of recovery are dim while Mr. Maduro remains in power, but if he leaves, the loss of CITGO will be a major blow.

The Project Syndicate article describes how, under Venezuelan law, the National Assembly must approve contracts of national interest. That didn’t happen here. Venezuela might therefore challenge the issuance of the PDVSA 2020 bond, and the grant of collateral, as lacking proper authorization under Venezuelan law. Ugo and we examine the potential justification for such a challenge at Project Syndicate.

Here, we focus on a more wonky question: Is the validity of the PDVSA 2020 bond and the pledge of collateral to be judged under Venezuelan law or New York law? And would the outcome change depending on which law governs? The answers turn out to be more complicated than one might think. But, given the court battle that we expect, rather important.

Continue reading "Can Creditors Seize CITGO? Enforcing the PDVSA 2020 Bond Collateral" »

The Puzzling Pricing of Venezuelan Sovereign Bonds

posted by Mitu Gulati

by Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Venezuela’s sovereign bonds differ in ways that should, in theory, be reflected in market prices. For example, depending on the bond, the vote required to modify payment terms through the collective action clause (CACs) varies from 100% (requiring each holder to assent), to 85%, to 75%. Bonds with higher voting thresholds are harder to restructure and one would think prices would reflect this. Two bonds issued by state oil company PDVSA also have legal features that one might expect to have pricing implications. One bond benefits from a pledge of collateral (the PDVSA 2020) and, in consequence, should be priced higher than otherwise-comparable bonds. A second was issued at a particularly large original issue discount (OID); this is a potential legal defect that should lower its price. This is the so-called “Hunger bond” (PDVSA 2022 —see here, here and here for more)).

Although these differences seem like they should matter, reports from the European markets (where the bonds can still be traded) indicate that bid prices for Venezuelan sovereign bonds range from around 13.0 to 13.5 cents on the dollar, while ask prices range from about 14.5 to 15.5. Moreover, prices on the bonds with different voting thresholds are identical. That is, the bonds that cannot be restructured except with each creditor’s assent are trading the same as bonds that allow a creditor majority of 85% or 75% to force restructuring terms on dissenters. But why? Venezuela is in full-fledged default, when legal protections should matter the most.  Shouldn’t these non-US investors (US investors can’t buy, given OFAC sanctions) be offering higher prices for bonds with better terms?

Continue reading "The Puzzling Pricing of Venezuelan Sovereign Bonds" »

Badawi & de Fontenay Paper on EBITDA Definitions

posted by Mitu Gulati

I confess that, on its face, this did not strike me as the most exciting topic to read about (and that comes from someone who writes about the incredibly obscure world of sovereign debt contracts).  After all, who even knows what EBITDA definitions are?  Sounds like something from the tax or bankruptcy code.  But don’t let the topic be off putting.  This is a wonderfully interesting project; and elegantly executed (here).  By the way, EBITDA stands for earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation blah blah. Turns out it is especially important for young companies, where potential investors want to know about the cash flow being generated (Matt Levine has been writing about it recently in the context of the WeWork debacle - here). It is also very important because it generally ties into the covenants in the debt instrument and can impact whether or not the covenants are violated.

Using machine learning techniques, Adam and Elisabeth look at the EBITDA definitions in thousands of supposedly boilerplate debt contracts.  And they find a huge amount of variation in this supposedly boilerplate term; variation that can end up making a big difference to the parties involved. (For those interested, there is a nice prior study by Mark Weidemaier in the on how supposedly boilerplate dispute resolution terms in sovereign bonds are often not really all that close (here); and John Coyle’s recent work on choice-of-law provisions in corporate bonds is also along these lines (here))

The question that naturally arises here is whether the variation in these EBITDA definitions is the product of conscious and smart lawyering or just random variation that arises as contracts are copied and pasted over generations. (for more on this, see here (Anderson & Manns) and here (Anderson)). My understanding of the results is that these definitions are definitely not the product of random variation; instead, there seems to be a lot of sneaky lawyering to inflate the supposedly standard EBITDA measure.

Continue reading "Badawi & de Fontenay Paper on EBITDA Definitions " »

The Clock Is Ticking for the Sacklers

posted by Adam Levitin

It's funny how what goes on in one bankruptcy case can sometimes point to looming issues in another. The PG&E plan exclusivity fight suggests an interesting dynamic looming in Purdue:  Purdue's own plan exclusivity could expire, which would completely upend the dynamic of negotiations with the Sackler family for a plan contribution in exchange for a non-consensual release of creditors' claims against them.  

As I see it, the Sacklers have no more than 18 months (and perhaps as few as 4 months) to cut their deal. If the Sacklers fail to reach a deal before plan exclusivity lapses, a state AG (or anyone else) could easily propose a plan that assigns all of the bankruptcy estate's litigation claims against the Sacklers to a trust for opioid victims or sells off the claims to a litigation vehicle.  The trust (or litigation vehicle) will then go and litigate against the Sacklers, and any recoveries will go to opioid victims. Critically, if this happens, the Sacklers will not be able to get a third-party release from Purdue's creditors.  They can still settle the fraudulent transfer claims of the bankruptcy estate, but they won't be shielded from creditors' direct claims.  

Now, I'm not sure how strong those direct claims really are, and thus how important a third-party release is for the Sacklers. They might decide that the asking price isn't worth paying. And the AGs might prefer to get half a loaf, rather than nothing; if so, they don't want plan exclusivity to lapse either--it's a great threat until it actually has to be played. Again we see the standard bankruptcy dynamic of one party threatening to push the other out the window, and the other party threatening to jump. Mutual defenestration.   

More generally, though, I wonder if Purdue will be able to get a pro forma extension of exclusivity given the enormous conflict of interest of its Sackler-controlled management. This seems like exactly the sort of case where plan exclusivity should not be extended because its main effect is to give the conflicted equity owners time to play for a lower settlement figure for their own liability.  In other words, plan exclusivity is benefitting the Sacklers personally, not necessarily the estate. That's akin to letting out-of-the-money equity sit around in bankruptcy and gamble on resurrection while burning up estate assets on administrative expenses. Yes, it's a mess of a case, but letting Purdue maintain plan exclusivity hardly seems like the right way to deal with that problem. A better outcome might require letting someone else be in the drivers' seat.

[Update: It seems that there actually is someone else in the drivers' seat already. Purdue's board of directors has been transformed over the past year. It now has a majority of independent directors and they seem to have some degree of insulation from the Sacklers, who continue to be the majority shareholders. There's not a lot of visibility on this because it is a private company, but the "informational brief" filed by Purdue explains some of this--the two branches of the Sackler family each appoint up to two Class A or Class B directors, but that there are also four other directors chosen by jointly by Sackler family members. Critically, there is a Special Committee of the board (comprised of a star-studded cast of restructuring professionals). The Special Committee has no Class A or Class B directors on it, and the Special Committee handles all matters relating to the Sacklers. It seems from a Shareholder Agreement (which I do not believe is public) that the Sacklers lack the ability to get rid of the Special Committee or do things like bylaw amendments, etc. to keep control.

That said, what I cannot tell from the public documents is what sort of board vote would be needed to proceed with a bankruptcy plan. Is it a simple majority? Unanimous? Is it even a vote of the full board, or just the Special Committee? The Informational Brief does not indicate whether matters encompassing more than to the Sacklers are solely the purview of the Special Committee. All of which is to say that from the public documents I have seen, I can't tell if the Sacklers have been totally pushed out of any management influence or if it is just that their influence has been substantially diminished. In any event, to the extent there's new management in charge, the case for terminating exclusivity is much weaker. Additionally, the case for a creditors' committee bringing fraudulent transfer actions derivatively looks a lot weaker.]

Speaking of which, why haven't we seen a motion to dismiss for cause filed at this point?  My guess is because it doesn't obviously help any one.  

Puerto Rico (A Quick Take, Part II)

posted by Stephen Lubben

Coen, Andrew. The Bond Buyer; New York, N.Y., 30 Sep 2019:

Assured Guaranty, which insures a large amount of Puerto Rico debt, came out against the plan.

“Assured Guaranty does not support this plan of adjustment as it is premised on a number of terms that violate Puerto Rico law, its constitution and PROMESA," said Assured spokesperson Ashweeta Durani.

Are we sure the first and second "violations" are relevant for these purposes?

Puerto Rico (A Quick Take)

posted by Stephen Lubben

So the debt restructuring plan is out. The New York Times indicates that the Oversight Board aimed to put the Commonwealth's debt at "less than" the average of the ten most indebted states. Not exactly a "fresh start" there, is it? Why not peg the debt to that of the average state?

Nonetheless, we can expect the bondholders to complain about even the relatively modest haircut they are slated to take, and they will surely note that the pensioners are taking less of a cut. Of course, the pensioners are in some sense funding the bondholder's recovery, since they are a key factor in keeping the Commonwealth's economy alive.

Normally we say that the liquidation baseline does not work in chapter 9 cases, because there is no real way to "liquidate" a municipality. But if the bondholders push too hard, they may test that assumption with regard to Puerto Rico. Lightly populated Caribbean islands do not support large debt loads, or even 63% recoveries to bondholders.

Matt Levine, Insider Trading and Mr. Potato Chip

posted by Mitu Gulati

Matt Levine is my favorite financial journalist to read on a regular basis because he is so darn funny (yes, there is lots of substance too, but I'm shallow and want to be entertained). Today's piece though, especially to someone who used to teach the law on insider trading, was priceless.

I want to cut and paste the entire piece here, because it made me smile and laugh out loud at the same time.  But I worry that Bloomberg might get annoyed and chase after me for stealing their content.  The link is here -- hope you find it as funny I did.

 

Student Loan Crisis Driving Racial Wealth Gap

posted by Alan White

Twenty years after taking out student loans, white borrowers have paid 94% of their debt (at the median.)  Black borrowers, on the other hand, have paid 5%. While a disturbing 20% of white borrowers defaulted on student loans at some point during twenty years, a catastrophic 50% of Black borrowers defaulted.

Screen Shot 2019-09-26 at 2.23.21 PM
Inst. on Assets & Soc. Policy

 A new report from the Institute on Assets and Social Policy at Brandeis collates NCES and other data on student borrowers beginning college in 1995-96 to paint a grim picture of student debt burden as a key contributor to the racial wealth gap. As today's students take on far greater debt than the 1990s cohorts, this pernicious effect can only magnify. Cancelling student loan debt could play an important role in closing the gap. Debt cancellation should be judged not by the dollar amounts of debt forgiven for various borrowers, but by the degree of debt burden relieved for borrowers at various income and asset levels, as explained by progressive economist Marshall Steinbaum.

Small Biz Reorg Act Sleeper Innovations

posted by Jason Kilborn

Two aspects of the Small Business Reorganization Act of 2019 intrigued me as I looked more closely at this important new twist on Chapter 11 for the other 99%.

First, I thought the new SBRA procedure might be a fairly snooze-worthy Chapter 13 on protein supplements (i.e., not even steroids) because the current Chapter 13 debt limit (aggregate) is $1,677,125, while the new SBRA aggregate debt limit is less than double this, at $2,725,625 [note to the ABI: please update the figures in your online Code for the April 2019 indexation]. A couple of obvious and another non-obvious point cut in opposite directions here, it seems to me. First, Chapter 13 is not available to entities (e.g., LLCs), and for individuals, the Chapter 13 debt limits are broken out into secured and unsecured, while the SBRA figure is not. So the SBRA is significantly more hospitable to any small business debtor with only $500,000 in unsecured debt or, say, $1.5 million in secured debt. Flexibility is a virtue, so maybe the SBRA is just a meaningfully more flexible Chapter 13? No, as Bob's post reminded me. In the "conforming amendments" section at the end of the new law is hidden an important modification to the definition of "small business debtor" in section 101(51D), which will now require that "not less than 50 percent of [the debt] arose from the commercial or business activities of the debtor." So no using the SBRA provisions to deal more flexibly with an individual debtor's $500,000 in unsecured debt or a $1.5 million mortgage or HELOC if it's not related to business activity.

Second, this last point is the really intriguing aspect of SBRA for me. For the first time in recent memory, we see a crack in the wall that has insulated home mortgages from modification in bankruptcy. Sections 1322(b)(2) and 1123(b)(5) still prohibit the modification of claims secured by the debtor's principal residence, but the SBRA at last provides an exception to this latter provision: An SBRA plan may modify the debtor's home mortgage (including bifurcation into secured and unsecured portions?!) if "the new value received in connection with the granting of the security interest" was not used to acquire the home, but was "used primarily in connection with the small business of the debtor." A small crack it may be, but this sleeper provision strikes me as an important opening for serious discussion of modification of other non-acquisition home mortgage modifications in Chapter 13, for example. This would be a game changer after the HEL and HELOC craze of the earlier 2000s. It will doubtless provide further evidence that the HELOC market will not evaporate or even change appreciably as small business debtors begin to modify their home-secured business loans. Of course, that depends on a robust uptake of the new procedure. We shall see in 2020.

The Purdue Pharma Bankruptcy

posted by Melissa Jacoby

By filing a bankruptcy petition last week, Purdue Pharma is automatically protected against many types of collection and litigation by operation of federal law. Seeking to turn this already-potent shield into something more formidable, the company has asked a bankruptcy judge to enjoin state and local government actions that might qualify as police and regulatory, and to shield members of the Sackler family and other third parties from both government and private suits. The number of actions affected is long - the first request would affect 435 actions and the second 560 actions (see exhibits A and B to the law suit) - as is the proposed duration, 270 days. Purdue Pharma also has asked the court to impose a "voluntary injunction" on the company regarding its marketing practices and that the court waive the security requirement. The preliminary injunction hearing is scheduled for October 11, 2019, in White Plains, New York. The statutory authority for the requests is generic: section 105 of the Bankruptcy Code. The provision does not say they can do this for sure - it only opens the door for parties to ask for all sorts of things.

Although I am a generalist when it comes to federal courts/jurisdiction/civil procedure relative to colleagues like Elizabeth Gibson, Ralph Brubaker, Susan Block-Lieb, and Troy McKenzie, I am also a "senator" at an upcoming mock senate hearing on the equitable powers of the bankruptcy court at the annual meeting of the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges.* Thus, I offer miscellaneous observations on the injunction questions below. The devastating subtext, the opioid crisis, already is well known.

Continue reading "The Purdue Pharma Bankruptcy" »

There's Still Time to Register for NCBJ 2019

posted by Pamela Foohey

The National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges' annual conference is happening soon – Wednesday, October 30 through Saturday, November 2. I'm delighted to be part of this year's education committee. The 2019 conference features some panels that include Slipsters and touch on Slipsters' research. (If you're thinking of attending, "semi early bird" registration, with its lower costs, ends at the end of September.)

Particularly noteworthy is the American Bankruptcy Law Journal symposium, "Equitable Powers of the Bankruptcy Court 40 Years After the Enactment of the Bankruptcy Code," which will be framed as a mock-Senate Judiciary Committee hearing during which a panel of experts will discuss and debate bankruptcy courts' equitable powers. The symposium features Slipsters Jay Westbrook and Melissa Jacoby.

Also worthy of mention are two panels that deal with consumer bankruptcy hot topics, both of which happen to touch on issues that recent papers analyzing Consumer Bankruptcy Project data have considered in depth. First is a panel titled, "Porsches and Clunkers – A Road Trip Through Car Issues." The description for the panel asserts, "many consumers file chapter 13 petition to save their cars, which are essential to maintaining their jobs." In our latest article, Driven to Bankruptcy, Slipster Bob Lawless, past Slipster Debb Thorne, and I rely on Consumer Bankruptcy Project data to assess the veracity of that assertion (among other questions related to cars, car loans, and bankruptcy). As detailed in my recent post about that article, we find a subset of bankruptcy cases that may be labeled "car bankruptcies," in which the debtor owns a car (or cars) and little else. In these cases particularly, debtors may find themselves in chapter 13 to save their cars.

Continue reading "There's Still Time to Register for NCBJ 2019" »

Amicus Brief on Valid-When-Made

posted by Adam Levitin

I have filed an amicus brief regarding "valid-when-made" in Rent-Rite Super Kegs West, Ltd. v. World Business Lenders, LLC. The brief shows pretty conclusively that there was no such doctrine discernible in the law when either the National Bank Act of 1864 or the Depository Institutions Deregulation and Monetary Control Act of 1980 were enacted, and that subsequent cases consistent with the doctrine are based on a misreading of older law. 

The Sky Is Falling: Securitization, Chicken Little Edition

posted by Adam Levitin

It's been quite a week for "valid-when-made (up)".  Not only did FDIC and OCC race to court to defend the doctrine in the context of a 120.86% small business loan, but there's a Bloomberg story out about a set of class action usury law suits (here and here) against the credit card securitization trusts used by Capital One and Chase. The story suggests that these suits threaten the $563 billion asset-securitization market and also the $11 trillion mortgage securitization market. That claim is so readily disprovable, it's laughable. 

Here's the background. New York has a 16% usury cap under Gen. Oblig. Law 5-501. The National Bank Act § 85 provides that that cap does not apply to national banks that are based in other states (such as Delaware), but the National Bank Act only covers banks. The securitization trusts are not banks, but are common law or Delaware statutory trusts. The class action suits argue that under the 2d Circuit's Madden v. Midland Funding, LLC precedent, it is clear that New York usury law applies to the trusts; they cannot shelter in National Bank Act preemption because they are not national banks. 

Obviously, the banks see it the other way, and have invoked valid-when-made as part of their defense. They're wrong, but what irks me is that financial services industry lawyers and trade associations are claiming that if these class action suits succeed the sky will fall for securitization and that the Bloomberg article didn't really question this claim: Bloomberg's headline is that the entire $563 billion ABS securitization market is at risk, and bank attorneys suggest in the article that the $11 trillion mortgage securitization market is at risk too. 

Let's be clear. This is utter nonsense on a Chicken Little scale. These class action law suits affect only part of the $123 billion credit card securitization and the very small $30 billion unsecured consumer loan securitization markets. Even then they do not threaten to kill off these markets, but merely limit what loans can be securitized to those that comply with the applicable state's usury laws. They do not affect mortgage securitization at all and are unlikely to have much, if any impact on auto loan securitization or student loan securitization. To suggest, as the Bloomberg article does, that these class action suits affect the securitization markets for cellphone receivables or time shares (where is there a usury claim even possible in those markets?) is embarrassingly ridiculous. The sky isn't falling, Turkey Lurkey. Full stop. 

Continue reading "The Sky Is Falling: Securitization, Chicken Little Edition" »

FDIC and OCC Race to Court to Defend 120.86% Interest Rate Small Business Loan

posted by Adam Levitin

FDIC and OCC filed an amicus brief in the district court in an obscure small business bankruptcy case to which a bank was not even a party in order to defend the validity of a 120.86% loan that was made by a tiny community bank in Wisconsin (with its own history of consumer protection compliance issues) and then transferred to a predatory small business lending outfit. Stay classy federal bank regulators. 

[Update: based on additional information--not in the record unfortunately--this is clearly a rent-a-bank case, with the loan purchaser having been involved in the loan from the get-go.]

FDIC and OCC filed the amicus to defend the valid-when-made doctrine that the bankruptcy court invoked in its opinion. FDIC and OCC claim it is "well-settled" law, but if so, what the heck are they doing filing an amicus in the district court in this case? They doth protest too much.

What really seems to be going on is that FDIC/OCC would like to get a circuit split with the Second Circuit's opinion in Madden v. Midland Funding in order to get the Supreme Court to grant certiorari on the valid-when-made question in order to reverse Madden. The lesson that should be learned here is that while Congress seriously chastised OCC for its aggressive preemption campaign by amending the preemption standards in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, that hasn't been enough, and going forward additional legislative changes to the National Bank Act are necessary. Indeed, the FDIC and OCC action underscores why FDIC and OCC cannot be trusted with a consumer protection mission, even for small banks (currently they enforce consumer protection laws for banks with less than $10 billion in assets). The FDIC and OCC are simply too conflicted with their interest in protecting bank solvency and profitability, even if it comes at the expense of consumer protection. Moving rulemaking and large bank enforcement to CFPB was an important improvement, but what we are seeing here is evidence that it simply wasn't enough. 

More on the background to the story from Ballard Spahr. Needless to say, I completely disagree with the historical claim by FDIC/OCC (and echoed by Ballard Spahr) about "valid-when-made". Valid-when-made-up is more like it.  

Purdue and the Sacklers and the Limits of Fraudulent Transfer Law

posted by Adam Levitin

One of the major issues in the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy is how much the Sackler family, which (indirectly) controls Purdue will contribute in order to get releases from opioid liability. (Relatedly, are such non-debtor releases allowed outside of the asbestos context, where they are specifically authorized by statute? Second Circuit law says "sometimes.") 

The question I have is why the Sacklers would contribute anything? Do the Sacklers themselves really have any opioid liability?  As far as I'm aware, the only suits filed so far against the Sacklers or their non-Purdue entities are for fraudulent transfers or unjust enrichment.  

The former claim allege that the Sacklers received assets that were transferred from Purdue with actual intent to hinder, delay, or defraud creditors. It is not a "fraud" claim involving a misrepresentation, but a claim based on intentional evasion of creditors. It's sometimes also called fraudulent conveyance or voidable transfer.  (There are also constructive fraudulent transfer allegations, but that's just a bunch of valuation questions.) The later claim is really a Hail Mary sort of claim, but the fraudulent transfer suits have some legs, and given that they are alleging actual fraudulent transfers, the crime/fraud exception to attorney-client privilege shouldn't apply under the Supreme Court's recent Husky Electronics ruling. (Also some states have criminal fraudulent transfer statutes, although none of have used them vis-à-vis the Sacklers...the statutes are pretty weak.  Maybe there's an argument for a federal bankruptcy criminal under 18 USC 152(7) as well, but a lot more facts would need to be known.) Without attorney-client privilege, the actual fraudulent transfer case gets a lot easier. But what it does mean practically?  

It means that the Sacklers will probably keep some, but not all of the funds they received from Purdue during the statute of limitations period (and everything they got outside of the limitations period). The situation underscores two problems with  fraudulent transfer statutes and the need for legislative fixes.

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A Drafting Error in Small Business Reorganization Act?

posted by Bob Lawless

Is there a drafting error in the Small Business Reorganization Act? The other day I posted my estimate that 42% of chapter 11's would qualify, but my sharp-eyed colleague, Ralph Brubaker, noticed something wonky (in all senses of the word) in the new definition of a "small business debtor." (He also tells me that the next issue of the always-excellent Bankruptcy Law Letter will provide an in-depth look at the new law.)

Specifically, the problem is in the exclusionary clause. After defining a small-business debtor as a debtor with less than $2,725,625 in debts, at least 50% of which arose from business activities, the definition then excludes (among other things):

(ii) any debtor that is a corporation subject to the reporting requirements under section 13 or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (15 U.S.C. 78m, 78o(d)); or
(iii) any corporation that—

(I) is subject to the reporting requirements under section 13 or 15(d) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (15 U.S.C. 78m, 78o(d)); and
(II) is an affiliate of a debtor.

Clause (iii)(I) excludes the same thing as subparagraph (ii) with only slightly different words. Obviously, an extra condition in clause (iii)(II) does not make paragraph (iii) exclude anything that clause (ii) does not already exclude.

Read literally, the definition would allow a small subsidiary of a public-traded company to take advantage of the new small-business debtor rules. The ABI Commission to Study the Reform of Chapter 11 recommended they be excluded. My guess is that the drafters of the new law intended to exclude them, but the language used did not quite get the job done. Is there a reason for this language that I have missed? If not, it would seem to be a prime candidate for a technical correction fix.

Driven to Bankruptcy — New Research from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project

posted by Pamela Foohey

In America, people drive — to work, to the doctor, to the grocery store, to their kids' daycare, to see their aging parents. Research shows that car ownership increases the probability of employment and number of hours worked; households without cars have lower incomes and are more likely to be in poverty. In short, cars are essential. Household financial distress can threaten people's cars, and with them, the day-to-day stability that car ownership brings. People thus may file bankruptcy, in part, to save their cars.

Although there is a substantial literature on financial distress and home ownership, the literature on car ownership, financial distress, and bankruptcy is thin. In Driven to Bankruptcy (available via SSRN, forthcoming in the Wake Forest Law Review), Slipster Bob Lawless, past Slipster Debb Thorne, and I document what happens to car owners and their car loans when they enter bankruptcy.

In brief, we find that people who file bankruptcy own automobiles at the same rate as the general population. This means that over the last ten years, 15.1 million people filed for bankruptcy owning 16.4 million cars. The majority of these cars, particularly a household's most valuable car, entered bankruptcy encumbered with a hefty loan. And most debtors want to keep their cars, particularly their most valuable and second most valuable cars.

Continue reading "Driven to Bankruptcy — New Research from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project" »

How Many New Small Business Chapter 11s?

posted by Bob Lawless

The Small Business Reorganization Act of 2019 adds a new subchapter V to chapter 11 for small businesses. The new subchapter gives small businesses the option of choosing a more streamlined -- and hence cheaper and quicker -- procedure than they would find in a regular chapter 11. Perhaps most significantly, the absolute priority rule, which requires creditors to be paid in full before owners retain their interests, does not apply. For those interested in more detail, the Bradley law firm has a good blog post summarizing the key points of the new law, which takes effect in February 2020 (and if I have the math correct -- February 19 to be exact).

A point of discussion has been how many cases will qualify to be a small-business chapter 11. Using the Federal Judicial Center's Integrated Bankruptcy Petition Database, my calculation is that around 42% of cases filed since October 1, 2007, would have qualified. The rest of this post will explain how I came to that estimate as well as discuss year-to-year variations and chapter 11 filings by individuals.

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Two New Podcasts: Succession/Slate Money and The Business Scholarship Podcast

posted by Mitu Gulati

I loved the first season of HBO’s Succession.  Superb acting, great sets, and a story about a totally dysfunctional family (that makes me think that my own dysfunctional one is relatively functional).  Plus, the really really rich and despicable people in the show (modeled on actual really really rich people – see here) are miserable – and I can’t help but be entertained by that. All of that said, I did not realize, until I heard the wonderful and brilliant combination of Felix Salmon, Emily Peck and Anna Szymanski discuss the show on their Slate Money podcast a few weeks ago, how much of the show connected to interesting corporate law questions. Long story short, for those of you who love Succession and teach business law stuff, I think you will enjoy the combination of watching the show and listening to the special Slate Money podcasts about the show (this is just a season 2 thing).  Actually, you don’t need to give a rat’s ass about corporate law to enjoy the combination of watching Succession in the late evening and listening to Slate Money the next morning.  In fact, there have been occasions where I’ve enjoyed the podcast more than the particular episode of Succession.

And, while on the subject of podcasts, I recently came across an excellent podcast that discusses new financial law papers. It is run by Andrew Jennings at Stanford Law (here). Andrew is unfailingly polite, but he clearly has thought about the papers in question and asks tough questions.  I’ve only listened to a couple of episodes so far, but I plan to try and listen to them all.  I especially liked the podcast about Cathy Hwang’s 2019 paper on “Faux Contracts” and the roles that contracts can play even when there is no enforcement possibility (podcast is here; paper is here). I’m especially intrigued by Cathy’s concept of intra-deal reputation that constrains parties from acting opportunistically – something that she documents with detailed interviews. This intra-deal effect (it isn’t quite reputation; but something in the vein of reciprocal fairness) seems to operate on parties in individual deals even though the parties are not trying to preserve any sort of longer-term repeat-player reputation. Clearly a paper, I need to read.

Enough With the Old Chinese Debt Already

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

We may be partly to blame for the fact that stories keep surfacing about whether the U.S. government might help holders of pre-revolutionary, defaulted Chinese debt monetize their claims. Here’s Tracy Alloway of Bloomberg, with a good assessment of the political and legal basis for this kind of intervention. The bonds have been in default since the 1930s. China won’t pay these pre-PRC debts. Taiwan sends its regrets. But a vocal contingent of American bondholders is lobbying for the U.S. government to intervene. The precise manner of intervention is not clearly defined, but the basic idea is that the bondholders could assign their rights to the U.S. government, which could then use the bonds to offset U.S. debts to China. As Alloway quotes the President of the American Bondholders Foundation (a bondholder group): “What’s wrong with paying China with their own paper?”

Look, we’re torn here. Expressed like that, the idea is bonkers. No, it’s worse. If you’ll forgive an obscure theater reference: compared to a bonkers idea, this idea is lying “in the gutter looking up in wide-eyed admiration.” Sure, the US government could try to “pay” China with defaulted Chinese bonds. It could also try to pay with toilet paper or chewing gum.* We have to assume this would be a credit event triggering CDS contracts issued on the U.S. And to be fair, from a certain armchair perspective, that would be…entertaining?

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Small Borrowers Continue to Struggle Without Relief

posted by Jason Kilborn

Several recent stories remind us that many, many ordinary people around the world continue to struggle with crushing debt with no access to legal relief, and when relief is introduced, it is vehemently opposed by lenders and often limited to the most destitute of debtors.  These stories also reveal the dark underside of the much-heralded micro-finance industry.

In Cambodia, micro-finance debt has driven millions of borrowers to the the brink of family disaster, as micro-lenders have commonly taken homes and land as collateral for loans averaging only US$3370. When many of these loans inevitably tip into default, borrowers face deprivation of family land, at best, and homelessness at worst. Actually, in the absence of a personal bankruptcy law (which Cambodia still lacks), things can get much worse. If a firesale of the collateral leaves a deficiency, borrowers might be coerced into selling their children's labor or even migrating away to try to escape lender pursuit. In the past decade, the MFI loan portfolio in Cambodia has grown from US$300 million to US$8 billion, about one-third of the entire Cambodian GDP! People around the world have turned to micro-finance to sustain their lifestyles (or just to survive) in an era of increasing government austerity, with disastrous results for many borrowers.

In India, the government continues to delay the introduction of effective personal insolvency relief, and it seems concerned with the interests of only the lending sector in formulating a path to relief for "small distressed borrowers." In a story that fills only half a page, consideration of individual or national economic concerns is not mentioned, but it is noted four times that discussion/negotiation with the "microfinance industry" has occurred, whose satisfaction seems paramount to law reformers. Among the "safeguards" put in place to prevent "abuse" of this new relief are (1) the debtor's gross annual income must not exceed about US$450 ($70 per month), (2) the debtor's total debt must not exceed about US$500, and (3) the debtor's total assets must not exceed US$280. While this may well encompass many poor Indian borrowers in serious distress, it offers no relief to what are doubtless many, many "middle-class" Indians similarly pressed to the brink and straining to cope in a volatile economy.

In South Africa, a decades-long fight to implement effective discharge relief for individual debtors has culminated in a half-hearted revision of the National Credit Act (Bloomberg subscription likely required). The long-awaited revision still promises relief only to a small subset of severely distressed borrowers. The bill offers debt discharge only to "critically indebted" debtors with monthly income below US$500 and unsecured debts below US$3400. A step to be applauded, this still leaves many, many South Africans to contend with a complex web of insolvency-related laws that offers little or no relief to many if not most debtors. And still, banks engaged in the typical gnashing of teeth and shedding of crocodile tears, terribly worried that this new dispensation will "drive up the cost of loans for low-income earners, restrict lending and encourage bad behavior from borrowers." Where have we heard this before? To their credit, South African policymakers apparently "made no attempt to interact with the [lending] industry," though the compromise solution here still leaves much to be desired.

On a brighter note, the country of Georgia is on the verge of adopting major reforms to its laws on enforcement and business insolvency (story available only in the really neat Georgian language, check it out!). In an address to parliamentary committees, the Minister of Justice remarked that a new system of personal insolvency is also in development. Georgia suffers from many of the same problems of micro-finance as Cambodia, so perhaps Cambodia and other similarly situated countries will be able to learn from Georgia's example. We'll see what they come up with.

The Weinstein Company Bankruptcy: What She Said

posted by Melissa Jacoby

Nearly a year has passed since my last Credit Slips post on The Weinstein Company bankruptcy. The case, filed March 2018, remains open. Contract disputes have dominated many if not most bankruptcy court hearings this past year. The issues have been interesting, the amounts at stake substantial, and, in litigated disputes, the buyer of TWC's assets typically has prevailed (some appeals are pending). Other contract disputes have settled, but often with key terms redacted, further complicating efforts to evaluate this bankruptcy on even the most accepted of metrics. In May 2019, parties informed the court they were still negotiating a deal with misconduct survivors, although TWC acknowledged that it had not conducted an investigation that would enable its board to sign off on any such deal, and its existing legal team was neither equipped nor priced to handle that work. That this acknowledgement should be astonishing is the subject for another day. In any event, updates on negotiations have yet to materialize in the form of a court hearing or status conference. In the past few months, the TWC docket has grown mainly with the reliable beat of monthly professional fee applications.

Tomorrow, Sept. 10, 2019, is the official release date of She Said, by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, on their investigation of Harvey Weinstein leading up to their October 2017 reporting. I doubt She Said will contain new information about TWC's bankruptcy per se. In all likelihood, though, She Said will drive home just how much Harvey Weinstein's alleged predatory acts were intertwined with the operation and management of TWC. 

Trump, Denmark and Greenland:  What Next?

posted by Mitu Gulati

(This post draws directly from ideas from co authored work with Joseph Blocher; and particularly the numerous discussions we have had about the incentives that a market for sovereign control might create for nations to take better care of their minority populations in outlying areas (e.g., the US and Puerto Rico).  Mistakes in the discussion below, however, are solely mine).

It seems like forever ago, but it has only been a few weeks since the news came out that our esteemed chief executive wanted the US to purchase Greenland.  The notion was widely ridiculed in the press and provided wonderful fodder for comics around the globe.  But as people looked beneath the surface, it quickly became apparent that there was nothing in international law that prohibited the purchase and sale of sovereign control over a territory.  Where Trump was wrong was in his assumption that he needed to purchase Greenland from the Danes.  Under post World War II international law, however, a former colony such as Greenland has the right of self determination.  To quote the Danish prime minister, responding to Trump, “Greenland is not Danish. Greenland belongs to Greenland.”

The Danish PM also said “I strongly hope that this is not meant seriously.”  And, from her perspective of apparently wanting to keep the status quo of Greenland being part of Denmark, it makes sense that that’s what she hopes.  But let us focus on the words “Greenland is not Danish. Greenland belongs to Greenland.” If one thinks about those words just a little, they mean that Trump’s purchase (and maybe he should start calling this a “merger”, since that seems more polite) is perhaps a lot easier to execute than he initially thought.

Trump and any other suitors that Greenland might have (Canada, China, Iceland, Russia, etc.) need to only focus their attention on making the Greenlanders happy; they don’t need to worry about the Danes. No need for Trump to do diplomatic trips to Copenhagen. Trips should be to Nuuk instead. After all, it is the approval of the 55,000 Greenlanders that he needs.

How many Greenlander votes, specifically? (assuming that there would need to be a referendum first). International law doesn’t clearly say; but surely more than a majority – and ideally with a voting mechanism designed in such a way that the rights of the minority that might not want to be part of the merger being appropriately protected.

The point is that if DJT and his supporters remain committed to the Greenland strategy – and it appears they do (see here) – the next step is will be to persuade the people of Greenland that this merger is in their interest. That way, the next time Trump offers a merger deal to the roughly 55,000 Greenlanders, they will react with enthusiasm rather than horror.  One would expect, therefore, to see the US taking steps to mount the charm offensive in Greenland. And, as it turns out, preliminary steps in this direction have already been announced with the US planning to open a consulate in Greenland and engage in various outreach programs as part of its broader arctic charm strategy (here).

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Anderson and Nyarko's Cool New Papers on Contract Evolution

posted by Mitu Gulati

Two of the contracts papers I’ve been most looking forward to this fall have just been posted on ssrn. They are are Rob Anderson’s “An Evolutionary Perspective on Contracting: Evidence From Poison Pills” (here) and Julian Nyarko’s “Stickiness and Incomplete Contracts” (here).

Both papers aim at deepening our understanding of how contracts evolve and, in particular, why they evolve in ways so very different from the standard model used in law schools where parties are assumed to negotiate for an optimal set of terms for their relationships.

One would predict a very different set of contract terms for parties if one takes the contract production process seriously and thinks of contract provisions as products (ala Barak Richman, here) or product attributes (ala Doug Baird, here).  Specifically, Rob and Julian both use models of contract production where new contracts are constructed by building on pre-existing templates.

In this world, one should expect a high degree of path dependence in the data.  And that is precisely what Rob and Julian demonstrate, looking at two very different areas of commercial contracting – poison pill and choice-of-forum provisions. The implications of their papers, both of which are studying the most sophisticated and well-heeled of all contracting parties, for the one of the core exercises in contract law – how should judges interpret contracts – are considerable.  That said – and this is not meant to take away from the two papers at all -- these papers are more about empirically documenting and understanding the phenomena than normative questions of what judges should be doing.

There is an enormous amount of new material in both papers and I will not do more than scratch the surface in terms of their respective contributions.  Here, however, are a couple of things about each of the papers that stood out to me.

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Do Judges Do Contract Interpretation Differently During Crisis Times?

posted by Mitu Gulati

Scholars of constitutional law and judicial behavior have long conjectured that judges behave differently during times of crisis. In particular, the frequently made claim is that judges “rally around the flag”.  The classic example is that of judges being less willing to recognize civil rights during times of war (for discussions of this literature, see here, from Oren Gross and Fionnuala Aolain; and here, for an empirical analysis of the topic from Lee Epstein and co authors).

But what about financial crises?  Are judges affected enough by big financial crises to change their behavior and, for example, rule more leniently for debtors who unexpectedly find themselves being foreclosed on? In a paper from a few years ago, Georg Vanberg and I hypothesized that a concern with needing to help save the US economy from the depression of the 1930s may have been part of the dynamic explaining the Supreme Court’s puzzling decision in the Gold Clause cases (here).

A fascinating new paper from my colleague, Emily Strauss (here), analyzes this question in the context of the 2007-08 financial crisis.  Emily finds that lower courts judges, in a series of mortgage portfolio contracts cases during the crisis and in the half dozen years after, made decisions squarely at odds with the explicit language of the contracts in question.  From a pragmatic perspective, it is arguable that they had to; the contracts were basically unworkable otherwise.  But, as mentioned, this conflicted with the explicit language of the contracts. And judges, especially in New York, like to follow the strict language of the contracts (or so they say).   Then, and I think this is the most interesting bit of the story, Emily finds that, starting in roughly 2015 (and after the crisis looked to have passed), the judges change their tune and go back to their strict reading of the contract language.

Here is Emily’s abstract that explains what happened better than I can:

Why might judges interpret a boilerplate contractual clause to reach a result clearly at odds with its plain language? Though courts don’t acknowledge it, one reason might be economic crisis. Boilerplate provisions are pervasive, and enforcing some clauses as written might cause additional upheaval during a panic. Under such circumstances, particularly where other government interventions to shore up the market are exhausted, one can make a compelling argument that courts should interpret an agreement to help stabilize a situation threatening to spin out of control.  

This Article argues that courts have in fact done this by engaging in “crisis construction.” Crisis construction refers to the act of interpreting contractual language in light of concurrent economic turmoil. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, trustees holding residential mortgage backed securities sued securities sponsors en masse on contracts warranting the quality of the mortgages sold to the trusts. These contracts almost universally contained provisions requiring sponsors to repurchase individual noncompliant loans on an individual basis. Nevertheless, court after court permitted trustees to prove their cases by sampling rather than forcing them to proceed on a loan by loan basis.

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Ditech, Reverse Mortgages, Consumer Concerns, and Section 363(o)

posted by Pamela Foohey

A couple days ago, Judge Garrity Jr. of the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York issued a 132 page opinion denying confirmation of Ditech's proposed plan. Ditech, of course, is an originator and servicer of mortgages, including reverse mortgages. Its plan contemplated sales of both its forward and reverse mortgage businesses--free and clear of customers' claims and defenses. As reported at various times since Ditech filed in February 2019, homeowners have claims that Ditech did not credit mortgage payments properly, levied improper fees, failed to recognize tax payment plans, and wrongly foreclosed on homes.

Beyond its sheer length, the opinion is noteworthy for a couple reasons. First, the sales of mortgage businesses in the context of a plan raised the question of whether § 363(o) applied. Section 363(o) deals with consumer credit transactions subject to the Truth in Lending Act and provides that if any "interest" in such a transaction is purchased through a sale, then the buyer must take all the claims and defenses related to the consumer credit transaction. Ditech, of course, wanted to sell free and clear of those claims, through the plan. In holding that § 363(o) does not apply in the plan context, Judge Garrity Jr. provides a detailed analysis of the section's legislative history. This history includes removal of language about application to reorganization plans by an amendment proposed by Senator Phil Gramm (which was approved), and Senator Gramm's continued opposition to the addition of § 363(o) in its entirety because he claimed it would, among other things, encourage people to make up grievances against mortgage originators and servicers. (As many readers likely know, Senator Gramm spearheaded the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.)

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My Favorite Contract Metaphors: Skeuomorphs, Sea Squirts, Barnacles and Black Holes

posted by Mitu Gulati

I love contract metaphors. I’m especially fond of metaphors for the phenomenon of antiquated and useless contract provisions that find a way to persist over the decades in boilerplate contracts.  Philip Wood, the legendary English lawyer, uses the metaphor of barnacles on a ship’s hull to describe how more and more of these useless provisions can accumulate over the years, eventually severely impacting the efficiency of the ship. If you like boats and hate barnacles (perhaps because one of your most hated chores in the summers was for you to attempt to scrape barnacles off the hull of your uncle’s fishing boat), this metaphor may work especially well for you (sorry, Uncle Marvin). Another favorite of mine, that does not bring up memories of unpleasant chores, is Doug Baird’s skeuomorph.  To quote Douglas, who in the course of his explaining why we should not be surprised that suboptimal contract terms both emerge and then persist, has some wonderful examples:

To take a[n] . . .  example, maple syrup is often sold in a glass bottle with a small handle that serves no discernable utilitarian purpose. This is a relic of the time when maple syrup came in jugs and the handles were large enough to be useful. This phenomenon—of a product feature persisting when incorporated in a new environment in which it no longer serves a function—is well known and has a name: skeuomorph.

Douglas goes on to explain that these skeuomorphs can bizarrely become desired features of the product in question (and remember he is drawing an analogy to contract drafting). He writes, while continuing with the maple syrup bottle example:

Buyers of maple syrup want to see a small handle on the bottle. It serves no purpose, but it is what consumers have come to expect. Blue jeans are no longer made for working men who carry pocket watches, but buyers of blue jeans want a watch pocket all the same, even though they have no idea of the purpose it serves and have no use for it. Everyone expects Worcestershire Sauce bottles to come wrapped in paper even though the reason for doing this has long disappeared. Tagines took a particular shape for functional reasons when they were made of clay, and they retained this shape when made of aluminum even though there was no longer a functional reason for doing so. Skeuomorphs can be found everywhere on the “desktops” of personal computers

In short, the idea that a clause could be added to a contract and remain there merely because everyone expected it to be there suggests nothing special about either pari passu clauses in particular or contract terms more generally. The same forces are at work as with ordinary product attributes. Crafting legal prose is hard, and few contracts are ever written from scratch. Lawyers almost always start with a template taken from someplace else. For this reason, those who draft contracts are likely to import features from earlier contracting environments, even when they serve no purpose, merely because they are familiar. To give another example involving financial instruments, the first railway bonds were based on real estate mortgages. They still bear some of the attributes of real estate mortgages, and not always for the better.

If you like this topic, I recommend Douglas’ piece “Pari Passu Clauses and the Skeuomorph Problem in Contract Law” (you should of course ignore all the bits of this brilliant piece that are critical of my paper with Bob Scott and Steve Choi on Contractual Black Holes (yes, another metaphor I’m very fond of) that Douglas’ piece was a comment on).

Last but not least is the Sea Squirt, a close cousin of the barnacle.  This one comes from M&A guru, Glenn West who was speaking on a panel at UT in 2018 on M&A Contracting.  The title of his presentation was: “Have Sea Squirts Invaded Your Contract?—Avoiding Mindless Use of So Called ‘Market’ Terms You May or May Not Understand”.  Below I’ve excerpted some priceless language from an August 2017 blog post by Glenn on MAC clauses in M&A agreements.  And yes, Glenn is talking about M&A contracts containing brainless bits of language; the contracts drafted by the most elite among all transactional lawyers.

As an aside, there are a number of excellent recent papers arguing over how brainless M&A contracts are; see here (Anderson & Manns) and here (Coates, Palia & Wu).

From Glenn’s blog post, here goes:

The sea squirt is an animal that begins life with a brain and a tail.  Immediately after it is born, it uses its brain and tail to propel itself through the water until it finds some rockto attach itself.  Once it attaches itself to that rock it consumes its brain, absorbs its tail, and thereafter never moves again; it lives out its remaining life as a brainless water filter.

Many of the standard terms of M&A agreements also began their existence with a brain—the brain of a smart lawyer who perceived an issue that needed to be addressed and drafted a clause to address it.  And then other smart lawyers recognized the value of that newly drafted clause, and adapted and improved it until it became a standard part of most M&A agreements.  But once that clause became attached to the “market” it became divorced from the brain or brains that created it, and soon everyone was using it regardless of whether they truly understood all the reasons that prompted its draftingEven worse, market attachment is so strong that even after a standard clause has been repeatedly interpreted by courts to have a meaning that differs from the meaning ascribed to that clause by those who purport to know but do not actual know its meaning (mindlessly using the now brainless clause), it continues to be used without modification.  Such is the case for many with the ubiquitous Material Adverse Change (“MAC”) or Material Adverse Effect (“MAE”) clause.

My friend at UNC Chapel Hill, John Coyle, has an article coming out soon on “Contract as Swag”.  I’m eager to see how that metaphor will work. I like swag and I want learn how to get more of it.

Private Equity's Abuse of Limited Liability

posted by Adam Levitin

One of the central features of the Stop Wall Street Looting Act that was introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren and a number of co-sponsors is a targeted rollback of limited liability.

This provision, more than any other, has gotten some commentators’ hackles up, even those who are willing to admit that there are real problems in the private equity industry and welcome some of the other reforms in the bill. (See also here and here, for example.)

The idea that limited liability is a sine qua non of the modern economy is practically Gospel to most business commentators.  These commentators assume that without limited liability, no one will ever assume risks, such that any curtailment of limited liability is a death sentence for the private equity industry.

They're wrong. Limited liability is a substantial, regressive cross-subsidy to capital at the expense of tort creditors, tax authorities, and small businesses. Limited liability is a relic of the underdeveloped financial markets of the Gilded Age and operates as an implicit form of leverage provided by law. But it’s hardly either economically efficient or necessary for modern business activity. It's a fairly recent development in the western world, there are numerous exceptions to it, and a number of notable firms have prospered without it (JPMorgan & Co., Lloyds of London, American Express, and many leading law law firms).

In any event the Stop Wall Street Looting Act rolls back limited liability solely for private equity general partners in a surgical manner such that doesn’t affect limited liability more broadly. All the Stop Wall Street Looting Act will do is reveal which private equity firms have real managerial expertise, and are thus able to thrive without limited liability, and those that don’t and require the legal subsidy to be profitable. Far from undermining the private equity industry, it is a restoration of a central tenet of honest American capitalism: reward should be commensurate with risk.

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Alix v. McKinsey Update

posted by Stephen Lubben

Judge Furman has dismissed the federal RICO charges, and the case may be headed to state court. Our chances of actually finding out if McKinsey flouted rule 2014 (and § 327) are looking increasingly dim:

OPINION AND ORDER re: 88 JOINT MOTION to Dismiss by all defendants. filed by McKinsey Holdings, Inc., Kevin Carmody, Alison Proshan, McKinsey Recovery & Transformation Services U.S., LLC, Jon Garcia, Seth Goldstrom, Robert Sternfels, McKinsey & Company Inc. United States, Dominic Barton, McKinsey & Co., Inc. If Alix's allegations in this case are true (as the Court has assumed they are for purposes of this motion), they are certainly troubling. Moreover, Alix and AlixPartners may well have good reason to be upset about Defendants' alleged misconduct and may indeed have genuinely public-spirited reasons for seeking to deter it going forward. But that is not enough to state a claim for relief, much less a claim under the civil RICO statute, which provides a remedy only to those whose injuries directly resulted from a defendant's scheme. Defendants' motion to dismiss is accordingly GRANTED as to Alix's federal claims and those claims the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Causes of Action are dismissed with prejudice. The Court defers ruling on Defendants' motion to dismiss Alix's state-law claims until it confirms, following the parties' supplemental briefing in accordance with the schedule set forth above, that it has diversity jurisdiction over those claims. The Clerk of Court is directed to terminate the Individual Defendants Dominic Barton, Kevin Carmody, Jon Garcia, Seth Goldstrom, Alison Proshan, Robert Sternfels, and Jared D. Yerian as parties and to terminate ECF No. 88. SO ORDERED., (Jon Garcia, Seth Goldstrom, Alison Proshan, Robert Sternfels, Jared D. Yerian, Dominic Barton and Kevin Carmody terminated.) (Signed by Judge Jesse M. Furman on 8/19/19) (yv) (Entered: 08/19/2019)

Trump Wants to Buy Greenland for the U.S. – But Who Is the Relevant Seller?

posted by Mitu Gulati

(This post draws from my prior work with Joseph Blocher and the many conversations we have had about this topic over the years; he bears no responsibility for errors and sarcasm)

According to a flurry of news reports from the WSJ, CNN, Bloomberg, the NYT and many more, our eminent chief executive has an interest in the possibility of buying Greenland.  Most reactions to this news of DJT’s latest whim have boiled down to incredulity, while also generating a fair amount of mirth (see here, here and here).  What has interested us the most, though, are the articles that have concluded that the U.S. cannot buy Greenland. Bloomberg’s Quick Take ran the title – “Can Trump Actually Buy Greenland – The Short Answer is No”. 

But is that really the case? The relevant international law seems to present no explicit barrier to nations buying and selling territory (here). Indeed, much of today’s United States was acquired through the purchase of territory.  The barrier that most commentators see as insurmountable is not legal, but rather the lack of a willing seller.  Maybe so.  But a handful of quotes from government officials and politicians in Denmark and a few from politicians in Greenland (see here and here) is not necessarily enough to conclude that this trade could never work.

Before jumping to the foregoing conclusion, one needs to first ask how such a sale would work.

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Coyle on Studying the History of a Contract Provision

posted by Mitu Gulati

The way many of us teach interpretation in Contract Law, there is little role for history (admittedly, this is just based on casual observation). The meaning of a clause is a function of the words that make up that clause.  The parties to the transaction are assumed to have drafted it to document the key aspects of their transaction, to balance risks and rewards blah blah.  If a dispute arises, we might have an argument as to whether a strict textualist reading of the words accurately represent what the parties really meant by them or whether we need to also examine the context of the relationship. What we do not ever do, however, is to delve into the history of the clause from before these parties contemplated using it – that is, of what prior drafters of the original versions of this clause might have meant in using it.

The foregoing makes sense in a world in which the contracts for each deal are drafted from scratch. But does anyone draft contracts from scratch?  What if we live in a world where 99.9% of contracts are made up of provisions cut and paste from prior deals; provisions that are assumed to cover all the key contingencies, but not necessarily understood (or even read)? In this latter world, where there are lots of provisions that the parties to the transaction never fully focused on (let alone understood), might there be an argument – in cases where there are interpretive disputes -- for the use of a contract provision’s history? Might that history not sometimes be more relevant than the non-understandings of the parties as to what they did or did not understand they were contracting for? (Among the few pieces that wrestle with this question are these two gems: Lee Buchheit's Contract Paleontology here and Mark Weidemaier's Indiana Jones: Contract Originalist here)

I’m not sure what the answer to the foregoing question is. But it intrigues me.  And it connects to a wonderfully fresh new body of research in Contract Law where a number of scholars have been studying the production process for modern contracts.  The list of papers and scholars here is too long to do justice to and I’ll just end up making mistakes if I try to do a list.  But what unites this group of contract scholars is that for them it isn’t enough to assume that contracts show up fully formed at the time of a deal, purely the product of the brilliant minds of the deal makers who anticipate nearly every possible contingency at the start.  Instead, understanding what provisions show up in a contract, and in what formulation, requires understanding the contract production process. (Barak Richman's delightful "Contracts Meet Henry Ford" (here) is, to my mind, foundational).

It is perhaps too early to tell whether this research will catch on and revolutionize contract law. I hope it does, but I’m biased.

One of my favorite papers in this new body of contract scholarship showed up recently on ssrn. It is John Coyle’s “A History of the Choice-of-Law Clause” (here). I have rarely found a piece of legal scholarship so compelling.  The paper is not only a model of clarity in terms of the writing, but it is brave. It is completely unapologetic in not only taking on an entirely new mode of research (a painstaking documentation of the historical evolution of the most important terms in any and every contract), but in coming up with a cool and innovative research technique for unpacking that history (this project would have been impossible to do without that innovation).

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The Fifth Circuit Finds a Way to Make It Even Harder to Discharge Student Loans in Bankruptcy

posted by Bob Lawless

On Tuesday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit released an opinion that, if anything, makes it even more difficult to discharge student loans in bankruptcy. Writing for a three-judge panel in a case called In re Thomas, Judge Edith Jones reaffirmed the court's commitment to the existing case law and added yet another judicial gloss to the words of the statute. The opinion was a missed opportunity to return to a reasonable standard that allows debtors to discharge student debt in appropriate cases while still protecting the public fisc.

The debtor was over 60 years old, part of the trend of older filers in bankruptcy court. She had taken out $7,000 in student loans for two semesters of community college. Within a year after leaving community college, the debtor developed diabetic neuropathy, which left her unable to work at any job that required standing for any period of time. The debtor had to leave a retail job, a restaurant job, and a job at UPS. She lost a previous job at a call center after it was acquired by another company who then fired her within three months for wearing headphone and listening to music during her lunch break, a determination that probably not so coincidentally meant the debt was ineligible for unemployment insurance.

Continue reading "The Fifth Circuit Finds a Way to Make It Even Harder to Discharge Student Loans in Bankruptcy" »

How NOT to Regulate ISAs

posted by Adam Levitin

Income-sharing agreements or ISAs are becoming an increasingly popular way to finance higher education. The key problem that ISAs face as a product is uncertainty about their regulatory status. Are ISAs “credit” for various statutory purposes? Or are they something else? Into the regulatory void comes a bipartisan bill, introduced by Senators Mark Warner, Marco Rubio, and Chris Coons, that would set forth a regulatory framework for ISAs. The problem is that the regulatory framework proposed is shamefully bad: it would give a green light to discriminatory financing terms and tie the CFPB’s hands from further regulating ISAs.

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Playing with Fire: The CFPB's Proposed Repeal of the "GSE Patch"

posted by Adam Levitin
CFPB recently put out an advance notice of proposed rulemaking to amend the Qualified Mortgage (QM) Rule by letting the "GSE Patch" expire.  What the Bureau is proposing is potentially very dangerous.  While I haven’t liked some of the Bureau's other proposed rules (including under the Cordray Directorship), none of them were an all-out ideological gamble with the economy. This one, in contrast, is really playing with fire.  

Continue reading "Playing with Fire: The CFPB's Proposed Repeal of the "GSE Patch"" »

Biden's Involvement in the Detroit Bankruptcy?

posted by Adam Levitin

In the Democratic Primary debate last night, former Vice-President Joe Biden claimed to have been deeply involved in the Detroit bankruptcy: 

Q (Tapper): What do you say to progressives who worry that your proposals are not ambitious enough to energize the progressive wing of your party, which you will need to beat Donald Trump?

A (Biden): ... Number three, number three, I also was asked, as the mayor of Detroit can tell you, by the president of the United States to help Detroit get out of bankruptcy and get back on its feet. I spent better part of two years out here working to make sure that it did exactly that.

What on earth is Joe Biden talking about? I followed the Detroit bankruptcy case fairly closely and never once heard of any involvement from Biden. A google search for "Biden Detroit bankruptcy" shows an involvement consisting of all of one lunch with the Mayor of Detroit.  Maybe Biden was deeply involved behind the scenes, but I doubt it, as the federal government simply didn’t do anything to help out Detroit. Perhaps he was referring to the GM/Chrysler bankruptcies? If so, there was important federal involvement as a lender, but Joe Biden was not an important player in those cases either as far as I know.

If others know more, it would be interesting to hear, but as far as I can tell, Biden is claiming credit for things that he had no involvement in.  

Third Circuit Affirms Crystallex Attachment Order

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the order allowing jilted Canadian mining company Crystallex to attach PDVSA's equity stake in PDV-Holding (the corporate parent of CITGO). Here's the unanimous opinion. (For prior coverage of the attachment ruling see here.) It's possible proceedings in the District Court might be delayed further if Venezuela seeks Supreme Court review, while the district judge resolves outstanding procedural questions (see here), or because of lingering uncertainty about whether the U.S. sanctions now in place will prevent an actual execution sale. So it's not exactly over. But on the core question--whether Venezuela's control over PDVSA was so extensive as to make the entity the government's alter ego--the Court of Appeals resoundingly rejected Venezuela's argument: "Indeed, if the relationship between Venezuela and PDVSA cannot satisfy the Supreme Court’s extensive-control requirement, we know nothing that can."

India to Issue its First Foreign Currency Sovereign Bond?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati & Mark Weidemaier

The two of us are beginning a project to build a dataset of foreign currency sovereign bonds and their contract terms. The dataset of bond issuances has a conspicuous absence: India.

Turns out India has never issued a foreign currency sovereign bond. Some state-owned enterprises have ventured onto the foreign markets in search of investors, but not the sovereign. This is a bit puzzling because India certainly has the economic growth and financial prospects to attract foreign investors. Countries like the Philippines, Turkey, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Russia, and China regularly tap the international markets. Indeed, closer to home, many of India’s smaller neighbors, such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan and even little Maldives, have tapped the foreign currency sovereign markets. We also know from our research that there is considerable appetite for Indian sovereign issuances from big investors in places like Singapore and Canada. The interest is such that foreign funds buy Indian domestic currency issuances despite the inflation risks they pose. Presumably, these funds would jump at the opportunity to buy a foreign currency issuance.

So, why not India?  Or, perhaps we should ask: Why now India? There are conflicting reports, but the government appears to be considering issuing an international, foreign-currency bond, likely yen- or euro-denominated. In a recent budget speech, the Finance Minister of India announced the plan (see here, for a recent Bloomberg story). Other reports, however, indicate that the office of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has developed cold feet about the plan (see Bloomberg here). The Economic Times of India (here; and also this Money Control article) also describes how the senior bureaucrat who was in charge of the issuance has been transferred from the Finance Ministry to a less prominent position and is seeking to retire early.

Continue reading "India to Issue its First Foreign Currency Sovereign Bond?" »

Pre-Revolutionary Chinese Debt: An Investment for the Truly Stable Genius

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

About a year ago, an unusual securities action was brought against a pastor at one of the largest Protestant churches in the country and a financial planner. The accusation was that the two, Kirbyjon Caldwell and Gregory Smith, had duped elderly investors into buying participation rights in bonds issued by the pre-revolutionary Chinese government. The bonds have been in default since 1939. Here is the SEC’s press release; Matt Levine at Bloomberg talked about the case here. Among other things, the SEC accused Caldwell and Smith of violating the registration requirements of the federal securities laws and of committing fraud.

This case got a fair amount of attention because Mr. Caldwell is no ordinary pastor. He leads one of the largest congregations in the country, with roughly 14,000 members, and was a spiritual adviser to George W. Bush and Barack Obama (see here).

The core of the fraud case seems to be that Caldwell and Smith promised investors safe, quick returns. Allegedly, the plan was to sell the bonds for a profit or to get the Chinese government to pay up. From the SEC’s perspective, this was like promising to squeeze water from a stone; since the communist takeover in 1949, Chinese governments have steadfastly refused to pay the bonds.

It all sounds rather daffy. Also, weirdly specific. It can’t be easy to persuade people to open their pocketbooks for antique Chinese sovereign bonds. Still, we were struck by the SEC’s characterization of the bonds, in both the press release and the complaint, as “defunct” and as “collectible memorabilia with no meaningful investment value” (here and here). The characterization presumes the answer to a question that has long fascinated us, which is whether a sufficiently motivated claimant could enforce these bonds against China.

Continue reading "Pre-Revolutionary Chinese Debt: An Investment for the Truly Stable Genius" »

Ramming Bow Contracts

posted by Mitu Gulati

Have you heard of Ramming Bows? Or did you know that they describe a category of boilerplate contract provisions?  Until a couple of weeks ago, I had not either.  That was when I came across Glenn West’s two delightful blog posts at the Weil Gotshal & Manges site (here and here). Glenn is a senior partner in the Private Equity/M&A practice at Weil. And in his spare time, he writes wonderfully witty blog posts and articles about wide range of legal issues; many of which are about the bizarre world of sophisticated boilerplate contracting.  Even if you have no interest in contract law, let alone boilerplate contracts, I suspect that you will enjoy his writing.  It is insightful about the way in which contracts get produced and evolve in the real world and, even better, is funny.

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What Is "Credit"? AfterPay, Earnin', and ISAs

posted by Adam Levitin
A major issue in consumer finance regulation in mid-20th century was what counted as “credit” and was therefore subject to state usury laws and (after 1968) to the federal Truth in Lending Act. Many states had a time-price differential doctrine that held that when a retailer sold goods for future payment, the differential between the price of a cash sale and that of credit sale was not interest for usury law purposes. State retail installment loan acts began to override the time-price doctrine, however, and the federal Truth in Lending Act and regulations thereunder eventually made clear that for its purposes the difference was a “finance charge” that had to be disclosed in a certain way. 
 
Today, we seem to be coming back full circle to the question of what constitutes “credit.” We’re seeing this is three different product contexts: buy-now-pay-later products like Afterpay; and payday advance products like Bridgit, Dave, and Earnin’; and Income-Sharing Agreements or ISAs (used primarily for education financing). Each of these three product types has a business model that is based on it not being subject to some or all “credit” regulation. Whether those business models are well-founded legally is another matter.
 
Let me briefly recap what is “credit” for different regulatory purposes and then turn to its application to the types of products.

Continue reading "What Is "Credit"? AfterPay, Earnin', and ISAs" »

Elizabeth Warren & the Dow Corning Bankruptcy: Nothing to See

posted by Adam Levitin

The Washington Post has a story about Senator Elizabeth Warren’s involvement in the Dow Corning bankruptcy that implies that Senator Warren was somehow working against the interests of personal injury victims. That’s rubbish, and it’s frankly irresponsible reporting that fundamentally fails to understand the bankruptcy process and leaves out a critical fact.

Bankruptcies are complicated, so let me relate the Dow Corning story and then what we know of Senator Warren’s minimal involvement. Bottom line is that this is a complete nothing burger, much like the previous Washington Post story with the shocking headline (much mocked, and now amended) that then-Professor Warren had billed [a below-market] rate of $675/hr for her legal work

Here's the properly related story in a nutshell: Senator Warren did some minimal work in support of a deal to ensure compensation for tort victims that was supported by the overwhelming majority (94%) of those tort victims and that was approved by a federal court. That’s a good thing that deserves praise, not some implicit shade.  Alas, the Post doesn't bother to mention the tort victim support for the plan. 

Continue reading "Elizabeth Warren & the Dow Corning Bankruptcy: Nothing to See" »

Venezuelan Debt: Soft Power Matters

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

Last week, we did a post about a set of creative but long shot defenses that Venezuela’s Interim Government has invoked to defend against lawsuits by creditors holding defaulted debt. Basically, the government wants a stay of creditor enforcement efforts. The plaintiffs want summary judgment—i.e., a relatively quick entry of judgment, without a trial or significant fact-finding. The Interim Government’s defenses have equitable appeal but questionable (although not zero) legal merit. The defenses included the contract law defense of Impossibility and the customary international law defenses of Necessity and Comity. Impossibility rarely works, especially when the defendant’s argument boils down to, “I’m out of money and need time to work out a deal with my creditors.” Necessity and Comity may not even apply in cases arising from a sovereign’s default. However, the Interim Government’s legal team persuasively emphasized their client’s impossible situation—recognized as the legitimate representative of the country but unable to access its resources.

Judges have power, and much of this power is of the “soft” variety that comes, not from the ability to resolve substantive disputes, but from professional status and authority and from the ability to control process. Here, the judge has given the Interim Government a bit of the relief it wanted, in the form of a relatively favorable scheduling order.

Continue reading "Venezuelan Debt: Soft Power Matters " »

Equal Treatment in Sovereign Restructurings

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati & Mark Weidemaier

Last Friday, the Venezuelan government (at least, the representatives of that government recognized by the U.S.) issued a set of broad principles it intended to follow when it conducted the debt restructuring that is going to be necessary as soon as Mr. Maduro is given the proverbial boot from office.  One of those principles is going to be “equal treatment” of the various claims denominated in foreign currency – PDVSA bonds, promissory notes, Venezuelan sovereign bonds, arbitral awards and so on.  For those who are familiar with sovereign restructurings, the use of this broad equal treatment principle is going to be familiar (for example, Greece used it in 2012 when faced with an array of different types of debt instruments).

Our question is why.  The different debt instruments that Venezuela has – PDVSA bonds, sovereign bonds, Prom Notes, etc. – have different legal terms.  Some have stronger creditor rights and others have weaker ones. And that probably means that the current investors paid different amounts to buy them.  If investors paid different amounts for stronger versus weaker legal rights, doesn’t it stand to reason that the ones with the stronger rights should be offered a higher payout in a restructuring? And if they are not paid different amounts, isn’t that an invitation to the ones with stronger rights to engage in holdout behavior?

In Greece, for example, both the local-law governed Greek sovereign bonds and the foreign-law ones were offered the same deal.  Almost of the local-law bondholders took the deal, but relatively few of the foreign ones did. End result: Greece paid out the foreign-law bonds that refused the offer in full.  The same was true for a bunch of the Greek guaranteed debt. 

In Barbados, in the restructuring that is ongoing, the domestic-law bonds have taken the offer made by the government. But that same offer has been turned down the foreign-law bondholders; presumably because they think their instruments are worth more because of their stronger legal rights.  Wouldn’t it be efficient to offer the foreign holders more rather than getting mired in years of litigation?

There is undoubtedly a logic to the equal treatment principle.  We are wondering what it is. Efficiency? Maybe the logic is that if, for example, Venezuela were to offer the sovereign bonds requiring 100% of the creditors to approve of the restructuring a few cents more on the dollar than the ones requiring 75%, the whole process would get mired in disputes over whose bonds had stronger or weaker legal rights? Or maybe the logic is that investors will either hold out or not. Put differently, maybe there really is no marginal investor (i.e., one who, in exchange for a few extra pennies, might choose not to hold out and sue). Investors either have an appetite for litigation (in which case they aren’t interested in accepting restructuring terms) or they don’t (in which case there is no need to compensate them for rights they don’t have the appetite to assert). But again, we are speculating.

As a final puzzle, why are some bonds exempt from the equal treatment principle? The restructuring guidelines say that bonds backed by collateral will receive different treatment. But why? Why is a right to collateral different from a 100% voting right? Perhaps it is because some collateral pledges are relatively easy to enforce, such as the pledge of shares in U.S. entities. The PDVSA 2020 bonds are the primary example here. By contrast, a 100% voting right ensures the right to sue but doesn’t do much to help an investor enforce the judgment. However, the guidelines released by the Guaido team may have in mind something more than just the 2020s.

Yannis Manuelides Paper on the Limits of the "Local Law Advantage" in Eurozone Sovereign Bonds

posted by Mitu Gulati

Sovereign debt guru and Allen & Overy partner, Yannis Manuelides has a new paper (here) out on the “local law advantage” in Euro area sovereign bonds.  This paper, along with Mark Weidemaier’s paper from the beginning of the summer (here – and a prior creditslips discussion about it here), helps shed light the thorny question of which European local-law sovereign bonds should be valued more by investors: Ones with CACs or ones without them.  Given that there are billions of euros worth of these bonds with and without CACs being traded every day, one might have thought that there would be clear answers to these questions from the issuing authorities themselves.  There are not.  Further, some of the folks at the various government debt offices take the bizarre (to me) view that answering this question might somehow scare the market.

Continue reading "Yannis Manuelides Paper on the Limits of the "Local Law Advantage" in Eurozone Sovereign Bonds" »

Evaluating Venezuela’s Guidelines for Debt Restructuring

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

As reported in the Financial Times, Reuters, and elsewhere, Juan Guaido’s economic and legal team has released a report setting out guidelines for a restructuring of Venezuelan debt. The report, attached here, describes a process that can only happen if/when Maduro loses power and the U.S. government lifts the current sanctions regime, which effectively forbids most transactions in Venezuelan debt. The report is a brief three pages, but it offers intriguing clues about what a restructuring might look like.

Proposals to restructure the Venezuelan debt must accommodate certain basic realities:

- The country is experiencing a dire humanitarian crisis, which demands immediate attention.

- The debt stock is utterly, needlessly complex. Venezuela has somewhere in the range of $200 billion in external liabilities. Virtually all creditors are unsecured, and every creditor’s repayment prospects are tied directly to the government’s ability to monetize one asset: oil. For all practical purposes, every creditor is in the same position. Yet the debt is spread across multiple obligors (the government, PDVSA, etc.) and a bewildering array of obligations (bonds, promissory notes, trade credits, arbitration awards, and who knows what else).

- The government therefore needs time—time to focus on humanitarian needs, time to rehabilitate the oil sector, time to stabilize the political situation, time to determine the full scope of its debts, time for a new government to come up with a credible economic plan for recovery, time to persuade key foreign companies that they won’t be expropriated again if they come back and help in the recovery, and time to come to terms with its creditors. But…

- It may not have much time. Many creditors have been patient. But a few have already reduced claims to judgment and initiated attachment proceedings against crucial government assets, including U.S. oil operations. It is surprising that the litigation floodgates have not opened, but that could happen any day now.

- The next government is going to be highly vulnerable to creditor lawsuits, and particularly so in the United States. It cannot right its economy without selling oil abroad (and sales in the U.S. are typically the cheapest, given refineries and distances). But these sales generate assets in foreign jurisdictions, where creditors will try to seize them. This vulnerability, paired with the complexity of its debt stock, makes Venezuela more akin to Iraq than to more recent crises.

- Finally, the U.S. government may prove a fickle ally. The most effective way to buy time for a Venezuelan restructuring would be for the U.S. and other key jurisdictions to block creditors from attaching Venezuelan assets while the government was engaged in good faith restructuring negotiations. This is what happened for Iraq, but will the Trump administration be able to collaborate with other key nations (China, Russia) to produce a solution similar to that designed for Iraq?  We don’t know.

These facts make for a very messy debt restructuring scenario. But that doesn’t mean the restructuring plan must be complicated. To the contrary, the proposal released by Mr. Guaido’s team attempts to simplify. (Note that the plan does not address debts owed to other nations, presumably including state-owned companies):

Timing and credibility: As noted, Venezuela needs time to address pressing humanitarian needs and, more broadly, to get its house in order. It also needs to persuade its creditors that it has accurately estimated its liabilities and repayment capacity. But the byzantine debt stock created by the Maduro regime, combined with the government’s long-standing refusal to engage with the IMF, means that creditors have little reason to accept the government’s estimates. Not surprisingly, then, the proposal envisions that the IMF will both provide emergency humanitarian assistance and play its usual role in assessing the country’s growth and repayment prospects.

Continue reading "Evaluating Venezuela’s Guidelines for Debt Restructuring" »

Venezuelan Debt Restructuring: Making Impossibility Possible?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

There have been relatively few recent developments regarding Venezuela’s debt, as Maduro hangs on to power and U.S. government sanctions bar trading or restructuring of Venezuelan debt by U.S. persons. However, at least one important development has mostly escaped attention. Venezuela-watchers know that the U.S. government, along with many others, has recognized Juan Guaido’s team as the legitimate government of Venezuela. This had immediate implications for creditor lawsuits against Venezuela in U.S. courts. The first involved disputes over which legal team—the lawyers selected by Maduro or those selected by Guaido—had the dubious honor of representing the Venezuelan government. The answer (sensibly enough) seems to be that Guaido’s legal team calls the shots. But Mr. Guaido and his team represent a government in exile, without meaningful resources or real levers of power. Plus, no one denies that Venezuela has failed to pay its creditors. Normally, those facts lead courts to enter judgments in creditors’ favor and to let creditors attach government assets. What legal basis could a Guaido-led government have for resisting these lawsuits?

Court papers defending against the two latest creditor lawsuits reveal an intriguing and innovative strategy. The two cases are Pharo Gaia Fund Ltd et al. v. Venezuela & Casa Express Corp. v. Venezuela.  Both are pending before Judge Analisa Torres in federal court in the Southern District of New York. In filings made a couple of weeks ago (June 21, 2019), the lawyers for Venezuela (Arnold & Porter) raised three doctrines that one rarely sees in modern sovereign debt litigation for the simple reason that these ordinarily have little chance of success: impossibility, necessity and comity.

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Libra and Financial Inclusion

posted by Adam Levitin

Facebook’s proposed Libra cryptocurrency project has truly stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy.  Critics have generally focused on Libra as a currency and the power of Facebook in society and its appropriation of users’ privacy.  

I think that discussion misses a key point.  Libra will be, first and foremost, a payment system.  It will be a payment system that happens to operate using a currency index, rather than a single country’s currency, and clear using blockchain rather than other clearing software, but it’s still a payment system, that is a system for moving value between parties.  The payment system aspect is what both makes me incredibly skeptical about Libra’s financial inclusion claims and about Libra’s prospects for success. 

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