postings by Dalié Jiménez

"Middle Class Faux"?

posted by Adam Levitin

I did some digging into Joe Biden's previously unexplored roll call vote on floor amendments to BAPCPA. They were ugly then and have not improved with age. My full take is in The American Prospect

Consumer Bankruptcy, Done Correctly, To Help Struggling Americans

posted by Pamela Foohey

Today, Senator Elizabeth Warren unveiled her new plan to reform the consumer bankruptcy system. The plan is simple, yet elegant. It is based on actual data and research (including some of my own with Consumer Bankruptcy Project co-investigators Slipster Bob Lawless, former Slipster, now Congresswoman Katie Porter, and former Slipster Debb Thorne). Most importantly, I believe it will make the consumer bankruptcy system work for American families. And, as a bonus, it will tackle the bad behavior that big banks and corporations currently engage in once people file, like trying to collect already discharged debts, and some non-bankruptcy financial issues, such as "zombie" mortgages.

In short, the plan provides for one chapter that everyone files, combined with a menu of options to respond to each families' particular needs. It undoes some of the most detrimental amendments that came with the 2005 bankruptcy law, including the means test. In doing so, it sets new, undoubtedly more effective rules for the discharge of student loan debt, for modification of home mortgages, and for keeping cars. It also undoes "smaller" amendments that likely went unnoticed, but may have deleterious effects on people's lives. Warren's plan gets rid of the current prohibition on continuing to pay union dues, the payment of which may be critical to allowing people who file bankruptcy to keep their jobs and keep on their feet. Similarly, the plan eliminates problems debtors face paying rent during their bankruptcy cases, which can lead to eviction.

One chapter that everyone files means that the continued racial disparities in chapter choice my co-authors and I have documented will disappear. No means test, combined with less documentation, as provided by Warren's plan, means that the most time-consuming attorney tasks will go away. Attorney's fees should decrease. Warren's plan also provides for the payment of fees over time. People will not have to put off filing for bankruptcy for years while they struggle in the "sweatbox." Costly "no money down" bankruptcy options should disappear. People will have the chance to enter the bankruptcy system in time to save what little they have, which research has shown is key to people surviving and thriving post-bankruptcy.

Continue reading "Consumer Bankruptcy, Done Correctly, To Help Struggling Americans" »

A Cautionary Tale: Argentina’s Pari Passu Debt Debacle

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Tim Harford of the Financial Times has a brilliant new podcast, Cautionary Tales (here). A recent episode, “Danger, Rocks Ahead!,” centers on the wreck of the Torrey Canyon, an enormous oil tanker manned by an experienced crew and captain. Sailing under clear skies, but under a deadline, the ship ran aground on an infamous reef, The Seven Stones, off the southwest coast of the U.K. Harford recounts the series of decisions leading to the disaster, each small misjudgment slowly reducing the margin of error, until none was left. The lesson for Harford is about path dependence. Having committed to a course of action, people often don’t react and adapt when new information reveals flaws in the plan. Thus the experienced Torrey Canyon crew drove their ship onto the rocks when it should have been trivially easy to recognize and avoid the looming catastrophe.

Okay – so this is perhaps not the only metaphor for Argentina, but it fits, and we wanted to mention the Cautionary Tales podcast to Credit Slips readers. Harford’s story about the Torrey Canyon also made us wonder whether Argentina’s debt debacle of 2001-2016 might offer a cautionary tale for the country’s current crisis. We think it does. In fact, one might understand the legal disaster that unfolded over 2001-2016 as the product of a series of misjudgments by Argentine officials. These misjudgments slowly reduced the country’s margin for error and gradually persuaded the U.S. federal judges overseeing litigation against the country that Argentina no longer warranted their sympathy.

We won’t recount the details of Argentina’s decade-long, and ultimately disastrous, battle with holdout creditors. The FT’s Joseph Cotterill recounted the entire saga at FT Alphaville, see, e.g., here), and Bloomberg’s Matt Levine wrote about the 2016 settlement (see here, here and here). We’ll focus instead on the mistakes made along the way.

A simple explanation for Argentina’s legal disaster is that a few U.S. federal judges interpreted an obscure term in Argentina’s bond contracts (the pari passu clause) in an unexpected way and fashioned a novel and unprecedented equitable remedy that ultimately forced Argentina to settle. There’s some truth to this story, but it focuses attention on the outcome—the ship hitting the reef—rather than on the series of missteps that turned that outcome from a remote possibility to a near certainty.

A more complete story needs to highlight the failure of various actors on the Argentine side to take some simple, cheap steps that might have avoided disaster. There were plenty of warning signs along the way. But Argentine officials repeatedly failed to take note and adapt.

Continue reading "A Cautionary Tale: Argentina’s Pari Passu Debt Debacle " »

600,000 student loan borrowers getting nowhere

posted by Alan White
Student loan borrowers who plan to apply for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)  after ten years of income-based payments are simply not getting their
Screen Shot 2019-12-24 at 11.15.17 AM
https://fsaconferences.ed.gov/conferences/library/2019/2019FSAConfSession18.pdf
payments counted. Between January 2012 and August 2018 nearly one million borrowers submitted an approved public service employer certification. As of August 2019 there are 600,000 of these approved borrowers with ZERO "qualifying" payments towards the required 120.  
 
In the same presentation USED asserts that most (80%) of borrowers who already applied for forgiveness believing they had completed the required ten years of payments had actually entered repayment less than ten years before applying. This explanation suggests that all is well except that borrowers simply need to wait a few more months to apply. The zero qualifying payments problem proves that the PSLF failure goes much deeper, for the reasons I described in a prior post.

Hinrichsen on Iraq’s Debt Restructuring

posted by Mitu Gulati

Iraq’s debt restructuring a decade and a half ago was one of the few things that went right with the US incursion into that country in 2003.  Thanks to a combination of an expensive war with Iran, mismanagement and corruption on the part of Saddam and his henchmen, and the debilitating effect of international sanctions on the economy, Iraq in 2003 found itself with one of the largest sovereign defaulted debt stocks in history.  Worse, thanks to the sanctions regime, much of the unpaid debt had, by the time of Saddam’s removal, matured into judgements and attachment orders.  That makes a debt restructurer's job much more difficult than in a normal sovereign restructuring.  And unlike other defaulting sovereigns in the past, who had precious few assets available for creditors in foreign jurisdictions to seize, the new Iraq had oil revenues that it desperately needed to use in order to try and get back to some semblance of normalcy and growth.

The fascinating story of how the debt was accumulated and then restructured has been told in bits and pieces.  But economic historian Simon Hinrichsen is the first, to my knowledge, to attempt to tell the full story. His draft article, “Tracing Iraqi Debt Through Defaults and Restructurings”, hot off the presses, is available on the LSE Econ History website here.  Among the most interesting aspects of the story are the use of UN Security Council Resolutions and US Executive Orders to immunize Iraqi oil assets (hence, neutralizing the risk of attacks by holdout creditors) and the attempted resuscitation of the ancient doctrine of Odious Debts. The former succeeded and the latter failed.  Many of these same issues are going to come up again when Venezuela embarks on its post-Maduro restructuring (see here and here).  I wonder how they will play out.

Simon's abstract is as follows:

In 1979 Iraq was a net creditor to the world, due to its large oil reserves and lack of external debt. Fifteen years later, its government debt-to-GDP was over 1,000%. At the time of the U.S. invasion in 2003, Iraq was saddled with around $130 billion in external debt that needed to be restructured. How does a country incur so much debt, so fast, and how does it get out of it? In answering this question, the paper makes two key contributions. First, I reconstruct the build-up of Iraqi debt through the 1980s and 1990s using mainly secondary sources. This paper is the first to create a debt series going back to 1979. The rise in Iraqi indebtedness was a consequence of global geopolitical trends in the 1980s where political lending trumped solvency concerns. Second, through primary sources and interviews with key actors involved, I use oral history to tell the story the Iraqi restructuring. It was one of the largest in history, yet no clear and detailed historical account exists. The restructuring was permeated by politics to inflict harsh terms on creditors at the Paris Club, at a time when creditor-friendly restructurings were the norm. In going for a politically expedient deal, however, the restructuring missed an opportunity to enshrine a doctrine of odious debt in international law

 

Yadav on Dodgy Debt Buybacks

posted by Mitu Gulati

I’ve long been fascinated by debt buybacks by issuers, in large part because they seemed to occupy a loophole in the securities disclosure laws.  A company could do a buyback of bonds and, because bondholders are not owed fiduciary duties by the company, there was no requirement for disclosure. That means that the company, to the extent it was in possession of secret information (the discovery of a gold mine, for example), could screw over the bondholders by buying back their securities before the news got out and the price went up.  Of course, the gold mine situation doesn’t occur all that often. But in the area that I do most of my research in, sovereign bonds, there are often large asymmetries of information between issuers and creditors. And yet, one rarely sees large scale buybacks of debt. (for the classic piece on sovereign buybacks, by Bulow and Rogoff, see here).

For years though, I’ve thought that this topic was of interest to no more than the three or four people in the legal academy who found bonds interesting (Marcel Kahan, Bill Bratton and a couple of others).  But just a few days ago I came across a wonderful new article by Yesha Yadav on precisely this topic. The draft article, “Debt Buybacks and the Myth of Creditor Power” is available here.  Yesha argues that the dramatic increase in corporate debt buybacks in recent years (apparently in the trillions of dollars) should be concerning not just because of the aforementioned disclosure loophole, but because these buybacks undermine corporate governance (when they are done in order to strip covenants) and allow shady behavior by banks seeking to increase the value of their loans at the expense of bondholders.

The story Yesha tells is more than plausible and she gives lots of vivid examples that support her arguments.  Since my particular interest is in flaws in the bond contract drafting process, the questions that her article raised for me have to do with why private contracting has not fixed the problem she identifies.  After all, the parties involved in these deals are super rich and sophisticated (with the fanciest of Wall Street law firms at their beck and call).

Continue reading "Yadav on Dodgy Debt Buybacks" »

Perhaps Preferential Transfer Litigation is Not Worth the Cost- two tiny adjustments in that direction.

posted by david lander

Although the primary thrust of the Small Business Reorganization Act of 2019 which was signed by the President on August 23 is to provide relief to reorganizing small businesses, the act has two provisions that are intended to provide  some relief from the threat of questionable and small dollar bankruptcy preference claims. One of the preference aspects of this new law requires bankruptcy trustees and post confirmation trustees and debtors in possession and others who initiate preference actions to: consider, before commencing suit, an alleged preference recipient’s statutory defenses based on “reasonable diligence in the circumstances; and taking into account a party’s known or reasonably knowable affirmative defenses.” (punctuation added) The second preference aspect of the new law amends a bankruptcy venue provision that, if applied to preference suits, may reduce the number of small (under $25,000) preference cases filed.

Although the avoidance of preferences has been part of US Bankruptcy law for over two hundred years and has generated considerable litigation, there is virtually no empirical research into the actual operation and impact of American preference law. 

Continue reading "Perhaps Preferential Transfer Litigation is Not Worth the Cost- two tiny adjustments in that direction." »

Bankruptcy and Mindfulness

posted by david lander

The practice of mindfulness and other types of meditation are growing on the coasts and within the law school and lawyer communities. Perhaps these practices can provide meaningful benefits to bankruptcy clients, bankruptcy lawyers and bankruptcy professors and judges. The essence of "mindfulness for lawyers" efforts begins with the notion that the adversary system can take a toll on home life, friendships and our own notions of who we want to be. A meditation practice can help us concentrate and be the best lawyers we can be and also the best friends and family members we want to be; and perhaps even help us to be the kind of persons we want to be. It is a mix of focusing more fully on the present, mixing that with lovingkindness to ourselves and others, and observing what is going on in our minds, all without judgment.

Consumer bankruptcy debtors, creditors, practitioners and judges are constantly faced with problems for which the legal system is at best a partial solution. In most cases there are a few true winners and a host of partial winners, partial losers and complete losers. Mindfulness can help us keep a focus on the matter in front of us and also help us maintain our passion for life and practice.  On the business bankruptcy side, our duty of loyalty combined with the zealous representation ethic can allow the day-to-day fighting to change our character and perhaps even our values. In every community there are a host of ways of starting such a practice.  The book 10% Happier by Dan Harris is an easy entry point and in most communities there is a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course available.  More and more law schools and bar associations are providing such opportunities. Mindfulnessinlawsociety.com and themindfullawstudent.com are excellent resources.  I am enjoying teaching mindfulness to law students as well as faculty and staff at Saint Louis University Law School. 

 

 

Supreme Court Grants Cert To Decide Fate of Repossessed Cars in Bankruptcy

posted by Pamela Foohey

Yesterday, the SCOTUS granted certiorari in City of Chicago v. Fulton, 19-357, to resolve a circuit split about whether a creditor's inaction in not returning property repossessed pre-petition can violate the automatic stay. The split arises predominately from chapter 13 cases in which, pre-petition, creditors repossessed or cities impounded debtors' cars. As the petition for cert stated, this issue is of significant practical importance. As Slipster Bob Lawless, former Slipster Debb Thorne, and I set forth in our new paper based on Consumer Bankruptcy Project data, Driven to Bankruptcy (Wake Forest Law Review, forthcoming 2020), bankruptcy courts deal with more than a million cars in every year. Creditors will have repossessed, but not disposed of some of those cars, and cities (for instance, Chicago) and municipalities will have impounded some of those cars.

In our new paper, we note that bankruptcy seems to be an important tool for some people to keep their cars, including getting their cars back from creditors and impound yards. As will be decided by the Supreme Court in addressing the issues regarding the automatic stay raised by the circuit split, if debtors need to request that bankruptcy courts order creditors or cities to return their cars after they file bankruptcy, the usefulness of filing bankruptcy will decrease, potentially significantly. Stated differently, people need their cars now -- to get to work, to get food, to get their kids to daycare, to get to the doctor. For some households, one of the biggest benefits of filing bankruptcy seems to be that their creditors must turn over repossessed and impounded cars as soon as the debtor files . The question now is -- is that actually what the Code provides? 

The Community in Which Consumer Debtor Lawyers Reside 

posted by david lander

Just as tax and estate planning lawyers are part of a network of helpers that includes accountants and financial planners, consumer debtor attorneys should ideally be part of a network of able and responsible helpers. Sadly, since prospective consumer debtors lack financial resources, the availability and quality of their non lawyer helpers is suspect.  There is a network of credit counseling agencies but critics have long attacked the effectiveness and loyalty of their services. Many CDFI's and some neighborhood centers provide quality help, but they are very limited in number.  One of several reasons for these weaknesses is the "chicken and egg" dilemma, that the career line for these potential helpers is very limited and thus the training system for their preparation is likewise very limited.  

Continue reading "The Community in Which Consumer Debtor Lawyers Reside " »

Hope for Helping the Prospective Payday Loan Customer

posted by david lander

Short term (payday) loans and high interest consumer installment loans continue to deplete low income households of micro dollars and their communities of macro dollars. Although the CFPB seems intent on supporting the depletions, a good number of states have provided some relief.  Even in states without interest rate limitations there are a couple of ideas that can help.

Continue reading "Hope for Helping the Prospective Payday Loan Customer" »

Who Teaches Bankruptcy Law?

posted by david lander

A survey some years ago showed that bankruptcy was one of the law school courses most often taught by adjuncts rather than full time teachers. This has several impacts on the teaching of bankruptcy law. Full time teachers often have contact with one another and may meet at AALS or other professional meetings but  the adjuncts who teach bankruptcy may not have much interaction with other bankruptcy teachers. In addition,  although some of the adjuncts are judges, more of the lawyer- adjuncts are likely to be business bankruptcy lawyers and fewer to be consumer lawyers. Another survey years ago indicated that there were a number of chapter 11 courses being taught, but almost no advanced courses in consumer bankruptcy. At one time there was a sub-committee of the ABA Business Bankruptcy Committee focused on the teaching of bankruptcy in which full time and adjunct teachers met to talk about these topics. Recently the ABA created a new committee to study the role of adjuncts in legal education.

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David Lander Is Back!

posted by Bob Lawless

Welcome to occasional guest blogger, David Lander, currently a professor of practice at Saint Louis University School of Law. In addition to his current and past academic postings, David has practiced consumer bankruptcy law with legal services organizations as well as business bankruptcy law at the Greensfelder Law Firm. Long-time readers will know that this mix of experience gives David a perspective that few others have. Welcome back, David!

Elizabeth Warren's Work in the CMC Heartland Case

posted by Adam Levitin

Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy work continues to be in the news, now with a Washington Post article on her work in the CMC Heartland case. Unfortunately, the Washington Post completely misses the point about why Elizabeth decided to work on this case. Let me correct the record about Elizabeth’s (very limited) role in the CMC Heartland case.

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The end of the UFCA?

posted by Stephen Lubben

Governor Cuomo has signed into law New York's version of the Uniform Voidable Transactions Act (UVTA). Does this mean I don't have to talk about the UFCA in my bankruptcy classes anymore?

It also means that both California and NY are on the UVTA, which may be the beginning of the end for the UFTA.

Sovereign Gold Bonds in 2019: Really?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

For a while now, we have been meaning to write about “sovereign gold bonds,” or “SGBs,” which the Indian government has been marketing under domestic law to residents of the country since November 2015. Gold bonds were supposed to have been a thing of the past. We’ve written previously about the U.S. government’s abrogation of gold clauses in both public and private debt in the 1930s. Last seen (to our knowledge) in government and corporate debt around that time, these clauses obliged the borrower to repay in either gold or currency at the option of the holder. (For detailed treatments, see here, here and here.) The point was to protect investors against currency devaluation. Thus, the famous case of Perry v. United States concerned U.S. government bonds that provided for payment of principal and interest “in United States gold coin of the present standard of value.” As the U.S. Supreme Court recognized, the promise sought “to assure one who lent his money to the government and took its bond that he would not suffer loss through depreciation in the medium of payment.” (An investor also would not benefit from an appreciation in the value of the currency, for payment was tied to gold coin of the “present standard of value.”)

The bonds in Perry were “Liberty” bonds issued to finance the 1st World War. The government therefore marketed the bonds as patriotic investments, although then, as now, marketers favored subtlety over heavy-handed appeals to emotion.

Liberty Bond photo

Regrettably for investors, it also turned out to be their patriotic duty to accept less than full payment.

Continue reading "Sovereign Gold Bonds in 2019: Really?" »

Dysfunctional Sovereign Debt Politics in Lebanon, Italy, and [Your Country Here]

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Debt, like the full moon, is known to make politicians act strangely. There have been some good examples over the last few weeks, most recently in Lebanon and Italy.

Let’s begin with Lebanon. The country has a huge foreign currency debt stock, dwindling capital reserves, and one of the highest debt/GDP ratios in the world (here, here and here). Investors are concerned, and this is reflected in yields on Lebanese bonds and in the prices of CDS contracts, which reflect an estimated 5-year default risk of around 80%. Last week, Lebanon made a large principal payment on a $1.5 billion bond that had matured, and then turned around and borrowed more, issuing two new dollar bonds with a total principal amount of around $3 billion. These moves bought time, but at the cost of further straining the country’s scarce foreign currency reserves and adding to its debt burden. Why not instead simply ask for an extension of maturities on the existing bonds, buying time to devote resources to something other than debt service?

This head-in-the-sand approach is pretty typical. Politicians often delay debt restructuring far longer than they should. No award goes to the politician who recognizes and addresses a debt problem early, when it is still manageable. A politician who utters the word “default” is likely to get tossed out of office before the benefits of timely action become clear. And while in an ideal world, international financial institutions like the IMF might help produce better decisions, that rarely happens.

But it’s not just that the Lebanese government won’t acknowledge the problem. For some years, the government has delayed obvious reforms to its bond contracts that would have made a restructuring easier to manage.

Continue reading "Dysfunctional Sovereign Debt Politics in Lebanon, Italy, and [Your Country Here]" »

Stupid Public Debt Tricks—The Alleged Seniority of Public Debt in Italy, the U.S., and Beyond

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Earlier this year, we wrote an article with Ugo Panizza and Grace Willingham about an unusual type of promise made by some sovereign nations, including Spain and Greece. The promise—sometimes enshrined in the constitution, other times in basic law—is that the state will pay holders of its public debt ahead of any other claimant. It is an unusual promise to make, in part because it doesn’t seem credible. (For separate discussion, by Buchheit, Gousgounis and Gulati, see here.)

Neither logic nor history suggests that a country in debt crisis will really treat public debt claims as senior to basic social obligations such as salaries for government doctors, police, and firefighters. When push comes to shove, responsible state actors have reason to favor the needs of the populace over the claims of financial creditors. And if this happens, it is not clear that local courts will step in to ensure that the government prioritizes debt payments.

On the other hand, perhaps these promises have some value? Even if financial creditors don’t get paid in full and ahead of other claimants, perhaps these promises lead them to anticipate slightly higher payouts in the event of a debt crisis and restructuring. Our article with Ugo and Gracie tries to test this hypothesis by asking whether governments that make such promises lower their borrowing costs. We find no evidence that they do. So why make the promise in the first place? There seems to be little upside, and the downside risk is that disappointed financial creditors will assert claims that could delay resolution of a debt crisis.

Speaking of which, we were going to talk about Italy, with its public debt of roughly 2.7 trillion euros. Here’s Article 8 of the Consolidated Act governing the public debt, in English translation available on the Department of the Treasury’s website:

The payments of public debt are not reduced, paid late or subject to any special levy, not even in case of public necessity.

Oh right, sure. If there is a dire need to restructure the public debt, Italian officials will calmly explain to the populace that public services will be slashed to the bone because the claims of financial creditors simply “are not reduced.”

Continue reading "Stupid Public Debt Tricks—The Alleged Seniority of Public Debt in Italy, the U.S., and Beyond" »

Juno?

posted by Stephen Lubben

IMG_7564On Friday night I landed at JFK, after a very nice international insolvency conference at the University of Miami, and took a "Juno" home. Little did I know it would be my last time using the app. 

On Monday Juno announced it was shutting down, and on Tuesday it (and several affiliates) filed chapter 11 petitions. It blamed its demise on "burdensome local regulations and escalating litigation defense costs." The company has been marketing itself for several months, and its parent (Gett) intends to continue in the US as a business only ride service, operating in partnership with Lyft.

Now here's a question. The company notes that it "operated in New York, New York, where its headquarters are located." Where did it file its case?  Delaware.  Why?

Comments are open.

In the meantime, I guess I'm stuck with Lyft. And their drivers who insist on picking me up across the street from my apartment building.

 

Trump Administration Declares Open Season on Consumers for Subprime Lenders

posted by Adam Levitin
The Trump administration has just proposed a rule that declares open season on consumers for subprime lenders. The Office of Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (on whose board the CFPB Director serves) have released parallel proposed rulemakings that will effectively allowing subprime consumer lending that is not subject to any interest rate regulation, including by unlicensed lenders.

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The Rigged Game of Private Equity

posted by Adam Levitin
The Stop Wall Street Looting Act introduced by Senator Warren has the private equity industry's hackles up. They're going to get a chance to say their piece at a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Tuesday. The bill is a well-developed, major piece of legislation that takes a comprehensive belt-suspenders-and-elastic waist band to limit private equity abuses: it's got provisions on private equity firm liability for their portfolio company obligations, limitations on immediate looting capital distributions, protections for workers and consumers in bankruptcy, protections for investors in private equity funds, and of course a reform of private equity's favorable tax treatment. The bill shows that Senator Warren truly has the number of the private equity industry.
 
In this post I want to address the provision in the bill that seems to truly scare parts of the private equity industry: a targeted curtailment of limited liability for the general partners of private equity funds and their control persons. This provision terrifies some private equity firms because it requires private equity to put its money where its mouth is. The provision is essentially a challenge to private equity firms to show that they can make money off of the management expertise they claim, rather than by playing rigged game with loaded dice. 
 
Private equity claims to make money by buying bloated public companies, putting them on diets to make them lean and mean, and then selling the spiffed up company back to the public. The whole conceit is that private equity can recognize bloated firms and then has the management expertise to make them trim and competitive. If true, that's great. But as things currently stand, it's near impossible for a private equity general partner—that is the private equity firms themselves like Bain and KKR—to lose money, even if they have zero management expertise. That's because they're playing a rigged game. The game is rigged because there is a structural risk-reward imbalance in private equity investment. That's what the limited liability curtailment in the Stop Wall Street Looting Act corrects. Here's how the private equity game is rigged:  

Continue reading "The Rigged Game of Private Equity" »

Private Equity’s Chicken Little Dance

posted by Adam Levitin
The private equity industry is lashing out at Senator Warren’s Stop Wall Street Looting Act with some pretty outlandish claims that rise to Chicken Little level. According to an analysis by the US Chamber of Commerce's Center for Capital Market Competitiveness, the bill will result in the $3.4 trillion of investment provided through private equity over the past five years entirely disappearing from the economy, along with as much as 15% of the jobs in the US economy disappearing.    
 
I cannot sufficiently underscore how laughably amateurish this claim is. I’ve seen some risible financial services industry anti-regulatory claims before, but this one really takes the cake for extreme hand-waving. I expected better from the Masters-of-the-Universe.
 
Here’s why the private equity industry’s claims are utter bunkum.

Continue reading "Private Equity’s Chicken Little Dance" »

Bankruptcy Filing Rate Remains Flat

posted by Bob Lawless

Annual Filings Oct 2019Every month I see stories about the bankruptcy rate moving up and down. The truth is that the U.S. bankruptcy filing rate has remained flat over about the past four years.

The table to the right shows the total number of bankruptcy filings, consumer and business, using data from Epiq. For 2019, the figure is an estimate. For each of the past two years, 85.3% of the yearly bankruptcy filings had occurred by October 31. Extrapolating from the 648,000 bankruptcy filings through October 31 of this year, the total number of bankruptcy filings by year end will be about 760,000. That is not much different than the 767,000 in 2017 or the 755,000 in 2018.

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Call for Papers -- 2020 Boulder Conference on Consumer Financial Decision Making

posted by Bob Lawless

The inimitable John Lynch emailed to let me know that the call for papers is open for the 2020 Boulder Conference on Consumer Financial Decision Making, to be held from May 17-19, 2020. Much more information, including how to submit an abstract for consideration, appears on their web site.

If you are interested in the sort of content we have at Credit Slips, this conference is for you. Several of the Credit Slips bloggers, including myself, have presented at the conference. The papers and discussions are high quality. The setting at the St. Julien Hotel is fantastic. And, after a day of conference discussions or when the conference is over, you are in Boulder, Colorado, in the spring. If you have a paper that fits, I highly recommend submitting.

What a Local Traffic Snafu Teaches About Artificial Intelligence in Underwriting

posted by Adam Levitin

The DC suburbs are a case study in NIMBYism. Lots of communities try to limit through-traffic via all sorts of means:  speed bumps, one-way streets, speed cameras, red-light cameras, etc.  The interaction of one of these NIMBYist devices with GPS systems is a great lesson about the perils of artificial intelligence and machine learning in all sorts of contexts.  Bear with the local details because I think there's a really valuable lesson here.

Continue reading "What a Local Traffic Snafu Teaches About Artificial Intelligence in Underwriting" »

Coercive "Consent" to Paperless Statements

posted by Adam Levitin

If you've logged on to any sort of on-line financial account in the past few years, there's a very good chance that you've been asked to consent to receive your periodic statements electronically, rather than on paper. Financial institutions often pitch this to consumers as a matter of being eco-friendly (less paper, less transportation) or of convenience (for what Millennial wants to deal with paper other than hipsters with their Moleskines). While there is something to this, what's really motivating financial institutions first and foremost is of course the cost-savings of electronic statements. Electronic statements avoid the cost of paper, printing, and postage. If we figure a cost of $1 per statement and 12 statements per year, that's a lot of expense for an account that might only have a balance of $3,500—roughly 34 basis points annually.

I'm personally not comfortable with electronic statements for two reasons. First, I worry about the integrity of electronic records. I have no way of verifying the strength of a bank's data security, and I assume that no institution is hack proof. Indeed, messing around with our financial ownership record system would arguably be more disruptive to the United States than interference with our elections. FDIC insurance isn't very useful if there aren't records on which to base an insurance claim. Of course, the usefulness of a bank statement from two weeks ago for determining the balance in my account today is limited too, but if I can prove a balance at time X, perhaps the burden of proof is on the bank (or FDIC) to prove that it has changed subsequently. 

Now, I recognize that not everyone is this paranoid about data integrity. Even if you aren't, however, paper can play an important role in forcing one to pay attention to one's financial accounts, and I think that's valuable.  I am much more likely to ignore an email than I am a paper letter in part because I know that the chance the paper letter is junk is lower because it costs more to send than the spam.  As a result, I look at my snail mail, but often let my e-mail pile up unread. And even when I read, I don't always click on the link, which is what would be in an electronic bank statement.  Getting the paper bank statement effectively forces me to look at my accounts periodically, whereas an emailed link to a statement wouldn't. And monitoring one's accounts is just generally a good thing--it helps with fraud detection and helps one know one's financial status.  

So here's where this is going:  I've got no issue if a consumer wants to freely opt-in to electronic statements.  But the way my financial institutions communicate with me when I go on-line involves really coercive choice architecture. One bank presents me with a pre-checked list of accounts to be taken paperless, such that to not go paperless I have to uncheck several boxes.  I am essentially opted-in to paperless. Another bank has a prominent "I agree" button without an equivalent "I decline" button-the only way to decline paperless is to find the small link labeled "close" to close the pop-up window. "Consent" in this circumstances strikes me as iffy. This strikes me as an area in which regulators (I'm looking at you CFPB) really ought to exercise some supervisory muscle and tell banks to cut it out. If folks want to go paperless, that's fine, but don't try and coerce them. Doing so is contrary to the spirit of the E-SIGN Act at the very least and might enter into UDAAP territory.

Continue reading "Coercive "Consent" to Paperless Statements" »

Bankruptcy Future Claims—Elizabeth Warren Edition

posted by Adam Levitin

Welcome to Credit Slips, the rarified world of “self-described bankruptcy nerds.” Today we’re looking at Future Claims—Elizabeth Warren Edition.

Now, it’s not every day that our humble group blog gets discussed in the New York Times. But as our former-co-blogger Elizabeth Warren continues to rise in the polls, the media and her opponents are taking a renewed interest in the bankruptcy consulting work she did when she was a law professor. Just recently, the New York Times ran a lengthy article on her past consulting workthat even referred our little “bankruptcy nerd” blog. (You might note that we now also offer sovereign debt, financial regulation, and side salads. Come for the bankruptcy, stay for the pie.)

The NY Times piece discussed several cases that Elizabeth worked on, but it failed to clearly articulate the core bankruptcy principle that Elizabeth was fighting for that runs throughout most of the cases highlighted in the article and how Elizabeth’s work was consistently about making the economy and the bankruptcy system work for employees of companies in distress, retirees, and folks injured by a company’s product. To suggest otherwise is ridiculous and fundamentally misunderstands how the bankruptcy system is supposed to work.  

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Purdue Pharma Examiner?

posted by Adam Levitin

The US Trustee should move for the appointment of an examiner in Purdue Pharma's bankruptcy. That's what Jonathan Lipson, Stephen Lubben, and I wrote in a letter to the US Trustee for Region 2 this week.

Purdue is a case that seems to cry out for an examiner.  There is unique public interest in the case because it is so central to the story of the opioid crisis—the major domestic public health challenge of the last decade. In particular, there are real questions about exactly what Purdue and its owners knew about the problems with opioids and when.  Was Purdue was deliberately pushing a product it knew to be harmful? Did its owners, the Sackler family, siphon off substantial funds that could go to remediate opioid harms through fraudulent transfers, as alleged? And can Purdue's current management or the Official Creditors Committee be relied upon to get to the bottom of these questions?  

An examiner--particularly one wielding subpoena power and the power to administer oaths--could go a long way to establishing just what went on at Purdue, and that will help set the stage for a resolution that will be more broadly accepted as legitimate because everyone will be operating on a common factual basis from the examiner's findings. Moreover, an examiner's report is in effect a public accounting of what happened at Purdue. Absent such a public accounting, bankruptcy can become a whitewash:  no trial, no public introduction of evidence, no finding of guilty or not guilty, just claims estimation, a plan and a vote, and then some cash being paid out. That's fine for your run-of-the-mill bankruptcy case. There's really no public interest in why Shloyme's 7th Avenue Garmento Emporium ended up in the chapter. But when a case involves a major public health issue like Purdue, it's reasonable to demand more from the bankruptcy system. Purdue (and possibly other constituencies) will surely object to an examiner motion, be it from the Trustee or from other parties in interest, but I have trouble thinking of a case for which an examiner would be more appropriate.  

 

Interpreting Argentina’s “Uniformly Applicable” Provision and Other Boilerplate

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Over the past week, we’ve discussed various uncertainties over how to interpret the new “uniformly applicable” standard added to aggregated Collective Action Clauses starting in 2014 (here and here). Anna Gelpern’s recent post neatly clarifies some of the issues and provides crucial background on the “uniformly applicable” provision. Oversimplifying, the “uniformly applicable” standard was an attempt to assuage creditor fears that sovereigns would exploit aggregated voting to discriminate among bondholder groups. The intent of the clause was to ensure bondholders got roughly—but as Anna points out, not literally—the same treatment. Our prior posts have focused on how the text of the standard might be stretched to forbid certain unanticipated restructuring scenarios, especially when courts perceive the sovereign to be acting irresponsibly or vindictively. That’s precisely the situation in which courts are willing to stretch the meaning of contract text. It’s what happened to Argentina in the pari passu litigation.

In this post, we focus on the broader question of how courts should approach the interpretation of bond clauses like this one. When presented with disputed but plausible interpretations of a text, courts normally try to uncover the intent of the contracting parties and interpret the contract consistently with that intent. (This is a generalization, but accurate enough for our purposes.) But bonds and other (largely) standardized contracts are different. For the most part, the point of standard language is to ensure standard meaning. That goal isn’t served, and can be undermined, when courts inquire into the subjective intentions of the parties to any particular contract. But if their intent isn’t relevant, whose is? Greg Klass, in a new article “Boilerplate and Party Intent,” offers an insightful way of thinking about these problems.

Argentina’s “uniformly applicable” standard offers a good example of the difficulty. The government officials responsible for negotiating sovereign bond deals generally want to adhere to a set of “market standard” non-financial terms. They have only a vague sense of the specific language of most contract terms. Likewise, many investors have told us that they paid little attention to the “uniformly applicable” language in Argentina’s bonds until Argentina went into crisis. They knew the bonds had CACs and, more concretely, that the clauses featured aggregation provisions. But, beyond that, they didn’t know the details. So a search for the intent of the parties—defined as the bondholder and the government—won’t turn up much of value. (In theory, underwriters are part of the equation, but their incentives are to get the deal done – and using standard forms helps get deals done.)

Continue reading "Interpreting Argentina’s “Uniformly Applicable” Provision and Other Boilerplate" »

Imagine Riding the Ceteris Pari-bus into the Sunset ... in Argentina

posted by Anna Gelpern

Imagine sovereign debt without Argentina -- no Paris Club, no pari passu, no CACs, no SDRM ... even sovereign immunity might look totally different. History teaches that whatever happens in Argentina's imminent bond restructuring (revisiting, reprofiling, rejiggering, revamping --the difference is overblown) is likely to have consequences beyond the long-suffering Republic. The fact that Argentina has an actual government with authority over the economy and some capacity to execute a restructuring (unlike, say, Venezuela) justifies wading into the small print of its bond disclosure--as Mark and Mitu have done. Their able interventions free me to focus on two under-covered points. Methinks that (1) the single-minded focus on voting thresholds is misguided, and that (2) it helps to think of "uniformly applicable" as the latest incarnation of pari passu, which goes to show that inter-creditor equity remains a perennial problem in sovereign debt.

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What's Wrong with PSLF and How to Fix It

posted by Alan White

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program has so far rejected roughly 99,000 out of 100,000 student loan borrower applicants. Poor Education Department oversight, poor contract design and implementation, and widespread servicing contractor failures are as much to blame as problems in the legislative and regulatory program design. Making this program work to provide loan relief for potentially millions of public servants requires a comprehensive set of fixes. US Ed. could start by enforcing its contracts and compensating its contractors properly, and by relaxing its needlessly strict 15-day on-time payment rule, while Congress could give borrowers credit for all payments made under any repayment plan. In our new white paper summarizing federal agency reports, attorney general and borrower lawsuits, consumer complaints, and contract documents, my research assistant and I survey the various reasons nearly all applications have been denied, and we propose contractual, regulatory and legislative reforms needed to fix PSLF.

Can Argentina Discriminate Against Bonds Issued Under Macri?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

We hope readers will forgive our trafficking in rumors, but this one is interesting and raises some fun and wonky questions about the relationship between Argentina’s different bonds. We talked about those differences in our last post. Basically, bonds issued 2016 or later are easier to restructure than bonds issued in the country’s 2005 and 2010 debt exchanges. This Bloomberg article explains the differences. Interestingly—and here’s the underlying driver of the rumor—the exchange bonds were issued during the presidencies of Cristina Kirchner and Nestor Kirchner, while Mr. Macri was in office when the 2016 and later bonds were issued. The rumor—relayed to us by some of our friends in the investor community—is that the new government has signaled that it might restructure the Macri bonds, or perhaps just default on them, while leaving the Kirchner bonds untouched.

We’re skeptical that the government really intends to do this, for two reasons. First, the plan sounds insane. That’s not exactly proof that the new Kirchner government won’t do it. But maybe some officials just believe that the government can improve its negotiating position if it seems willing to consider crazy stuff. That might not be sound negotiation theory or whatever, but maybe some in the new government take this view.

The second reason for our skepticism is that we’re not sure Argentina’s bond contracts give it a practical way to engage in this type of discrimination. But this question is actually quite complicated and highlights some ambiguities in Argentina’s bonds. Contractual ambiguities are our caviar and champagne, so that’s what we want to talk about here.

Could the government simply default on the Macri bonds while continuing to pay the Kirchner bonds? Sure, but doing so would eventually trigger the cross-default provisions of the Kirchner bonds. Here is a summary of the relevant provisions, which we extract from the 2010 prospectus. The discussion is simplified, but includes the key details:

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USED could have seen PSLF Fail coming

posted by Alan White

The Department of Education (USED) knew by 2016 that hundreds of thousands of student loan borrowers planning to apply for public loan service forgiveness (PSLF) were headed for rejection as they started applying in late 2017. The Department conducted a review of servicing contractor PHEAA’s administration of PSLF on October 25, 2016, about a year before the first cohort of borrowers would become eligible for loan cancellation. At the time of the review, 449,860 borrowers were designated as PSLF participants, presumably because they had at least one approved public service employer certification form (ECF). The reviewers audited a sample of 34 borrower loan files, and found that 53% had ZERO qualifying payments. Of those, about 40% were in a non-qualifying payment plan and 60% had ECFs with employment periods ending more than one year prior to the review date, in other words, no current evidence of qualifying employment. Given that all of these borrowers submitted at least one ECF, it is reasonable to assume that most if not all of them were unaware that they were making no progress towards the required 10 years of repayment.

Instead of faulting PHEAA for a situation in which half of borrowers were in danger of not getting PSLF credit for their payments, USED delved into the minutiae of PSLF payment counting, and found two instances of payment-counting errors resulting from servicing transfers. In their recommendations, the USED reviewers stress “it is imperative that Fedloan Servicing and FSA partner to ensure only those truly eligible for forgiveness receive this benefit.” No mention is made of any need to get in touch with the 53% of borrowers who are in the wrong payment plan or do not have up-to-date employer certifications.

The authors of the October 25, 2016 review (Debbe Johnson, Larry Porter, and Christian Lee Odom of SFA) note on the first page that it is for internal USED use only and is a policy deliberation document, presumably to shield it from FOIA release. It became public when the House Education and Labor Committee released the review as an exhibit to the committee’s October 2019 report on the PSLF fiasco.

Argentina’s [Insert Adjective Here] Debt Crisis

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Okay, everybody ready? Argentina? Check. Debt crisis? Check. Cristina Kirchner and crew back in office to, um, right the ship of state? Check. Last time round, their plan involved hurling insults at a U.S. federal judge. Like Spider Man: Far From Home, it was briefly amusing, lasted far too long, and ended badly. Argentina eventually caved in 2016, paying handsome sums to creditors who had sued it in U.S. courts. We won’t rehash the details, but there is great coverage by Joseph Cotterill, Matt Levine, Felix Salmon, Robin Wigglesworth and others. We also covered it extensively here on Credit Slips.

Yes, sure, it would be nice to have a break of more than three years between the formal end of an Argentine debt crisis and the start of a new one. But here we are. Argentina has again borrowed many billions USD under New York law. This time, the legal issues will be a bit different, because Argentina’s debt stock has different legal characteristics. Below, we offer a few preliminary thoughts.

Voluntary Reprofiling

On August 28, Argentina announced a plan to conduct a “voluntary reprofiling” of debt (here). Reprofiling is a fancy term for maturity extension. That sounds gentle—just a flesh wound!—but a long maturity extension can impose a significant NPV cut. Plus, reprofiling might be just the first step on a path that leads to a brutal debt restructuring. Creditors will distrust rosy predictions that a reprofiling will fix the problem. Many will refuse to participate. What happens then? 

Last time around, after its 2001 default, Argentina’s NY-law bonds required the unanimous approval of all the creditors before any alterations to the payment terms could be made. That requirement, of course, magnifies the risk of holdouts. And in fact, Argentina spent the next 15 years engaged in various legal battles (e.g., here).

This time, Argentina’s bonds have collective action clauses, or CACs, which let a super-majority of creditors bind a dissenting minority. If Argentina gets the requisite proportion of creditors to agree, it can impose a reprofiling on the entire group. Of course, the devil is in the fine print.

Continue reading "Argentina’s [Insert Adjective Here] Debt Crisis" »

Christine Chabot on "Is the Federal Reserve Constitutional?"

posted by Mitu Gulati

I hate to admit that I'm beginning to find constitutional law interesting. First, there was the Puerto Rico v. Aurelius case that was argued at the Court a few weeks ago.  And then, a few days ago, I came across Christine Chabot's “Is the Federal Reserve Constitutional? An Originalist Argument for Independent Agencies” (here).

The background here is that a number of scholars have, in recent years, raised the question of whether the manner in which some FOMC members are appointed conflicts with the dictates of Article II's Appointments Clause (yes, the same clause that is central to the Puerto Rico v. Aurelius battle). Chabot's wonderful article unpacks the history of the obscure Sinking Fund Commission to show that, even under an originalist perspective, the current structure of the FOMC holds up.

Even if you have no interest in the constitutional debate, the historical and institutional origins of the open markets purchasing authority are fascinating -- I did not know that Alexander Hamilton had set up the federal open market committee to support the price of US debt. This first FOMC had Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and John Jay conducting independent monetary policy. Wow.

Here is the abstract:

The President’s inability to control the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy decisions raises significant constitutional concerns. The Federal Reserve’s Federal Open Market Committee executes critical statutory mandates when it buys or sells U.S. securities in order to expand or contract the money supply, and yet the Committee’s twelve voting members check one another instead of answering directly to the President. The President cannot remove Committee members who refuse to carry out his monetary policy directives. Seven of the Committee’s twelve voting members are Federal Reserve governors who enjoy for-cause protections from removal by the President. Congress delegated power to supervise and remove the remaining five voting members, who are presidents of regional Federal Reserve banks, to the governors rather than the President. Further, the President has no say in the appointment of regional bank presidents to the Committee. While the Committee’s independence and appointments process would likely pass muster under current precedent, a growing chorus of originalists have argued that the Constitution requires greater executive control and a more expansive application of Article II’s Appointments Clause requirements.

This paper demonstrates that existing originalist accounts are incomplete. They do not account for the structural independence of an obscure agency known as the Sinking Fund Commission. This Commission was proposed by Alexander Hamilton, passed into law by the First Congress, and signed into law by President George Washington. One would expect all of these actors to have a clear grasp on the original public meaning of the Constitution, as well as a strong dedication to the structural commitments established therein. Their decisions to form a Sinking Fund Commission with multiple members to check one another — and to include the Vice President and Chief Justice as Commissioners who cannot be replaced or removed by the President — belie the notion that an independent agency structure violates the newly minted Constitution. The Sinking Fund Commission directed open market purchases of U.S. securities pursuant to a statutory mandate. It provides a direct historical analogue to the Federal Open Market Committee’s independent purchases of U.S. securities pursuant to a statutory mandate. This analysis shows that the structure of the Open Market Committee is not a novel invention of the twentieth century. Rather, the independence stemming from the Committee’s multi-headed structure and protections from removal has an impeccable originalist provenance which dates all the way back to Alexander Hamilton and the First Congress.

How to Deal with a $3 Trillion Bully

posted by Adam Levitin

I don't like bullies.  And I just ran into a $3 trillion one.  JPMorgan Chase Bank, armed with six partners at two AmLaw 100 firms (Wilmer Hale and McGuire Woods) took the truly unusual step of filing an objection to an amicus curiae brief I filed in a 9th Circuit case called McShannock v. JPMorgan Chase Bank N.A. in support of neither partyChase objects because the brief is late (which it is) and supposedly irrelevant to the disposition of the case. So why is Chase spending thousands of dollars on attorneys fees to object to an irrelevant brief, particularly when it claims no prejudice from the late filing?

Continue reading "How to Deal with a $3 Trillion Bully" »

$5 to forgive public servant student loans

posted by Alan White

Five dollars is the contract payment the US Education Department makes to its servicer FedLoan for a borrower's first approved Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) employment certification. FedLoan is supposed to review employer certifications, track PSLF borrower payments for ten years, and then process a loan forgiveness application, all for five dollars (plus the servicing fee paid for all loan accounts.) FedLoan must verify that the borrower made each payment on time, in the right payment plan, for the right loan(s), while working for the right employer full time. US Ed. has made FedLoan's task far more difficult than the statute requires, with its 15-day on-time payment regulation and various employer exclusions. The Department needs to seriously rethink its contract design before renewing its 10-year servicing contracts early next year.

The process of matching each payment with a qualifying employment period appears to account for more than half of the astounding 99% denial rate. The Congressional proposals to fix PSLF have largely missed this point, although the House bill calls for one obvious fix by requiring US Ed. to give FedLoan a list or database of qualifying employers. FedLoan's task would be far easier if the on-time payment rule were scrapped, and replaced with a rule that any borrower who made a total of 120 payments in any payment plan without going into default qualifies, so long as they can submit employment verification for the relevant 10 years. Because borrowers submit IRS information to the servicer each year to set an income-based payment amount, another tech fix would have the servicer store the IRS employer identification number (EIN) and match it with a list of approved public service employers, rather than having the student and employer fill out a 10-page employment certification form every year.

US Ed.'s public stance (apart from Secretary DeVos' desire to kill PSLF) is to blame Congress for bad program design, while Congressional overseers can't seem to recognize that PSLF can only work with a comprehensive set of legislative, regulatory, and contractual fixes. Meanwhile the count of student loan borrowers with at least one approved ECF, i.e. future PSLF applicants, is 1.1 million.

 

It makes a fine Halloween gift!

posted by Stephen Lubben

image from www.e-elgar.comOn sale now, my latest book:  American Business Bankruptcy, A Primer. Suitable for use as supplemental reading in all sorts of bankruptcy classes, and even some corporate finance classes that cover financial distress (especially those using a certain textbook).

I also think it would be a good read for junior attorneys who (shockingly) neglected to take bankruptcy in law school. And don't forget the international attorneys who want a quick way to learn about American law. It also stabilizes wobbly tables and kills flies.

In short, it makes a great gift for everyone on your shopping list! Buy several copies today. And tomorrow too.

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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  • As a public service, the University of Illinois College of Law operates Bankr-L, an e-mail list on which bankruptcy professionals can exchange information. Bankr-L is administered by one of the Credit Slips bloggers, Professor Robert M. Lawless of the University of Illinois. Although Bankr-L is a free service, membership is limited only to persons with a professional connection to the bankruptcy field (e.g., lawyer, accountant, academic, judge). To request a subscription on Bankr-L, click here to visit the page for the list and then click on the link for "Subscribe." After completing the information there, please also send an e-mail to Professor Lawless (rlawless@illinois.edu) with a short description of your professional connection to bankruptcy. A link to a URL with a professional bio or other identifying information would be great.

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