postings by Jason Kilborn

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.

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.

New Guide to Money Judgment Collection/Defense

posted by Jason Kilborn

EyesonthePrizecoverI excitedly tore into a small box this morning containing the first printing of my new book, Eyes on the Prize: Procedures and Strategies for Collecting Money Judgments and Shielding Assets (Carolina Academic Press 2019). Since the advent of the Bankruptcy Code in 1979, the study of how one collects a money judgment (or arbitral award) in law schools has become as rare as an involuntary bankruptcy petition against an individual debtor. But my students (and local lawyers) clamored for treatment of the topic for years, so I decided to do what I could to revive the subject. I was surprised at the diversity of approaches I found among the states (whose enforcement law applies to federal judgments, too, as described in the book), but I think I fairly survey the key variants by concentrating on a detailed exposition of the laws in New York, California, and Illinois, with a smattering of other salient state laws thrown in here and there (Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Iowa, etc.). In the past, I've used my state's statutes and a series of hypothetical practice problems (both of which included in this book) for years in my Civil Procedure classes, and the students have voraciously devoured that material. More detailed comparative knowledge has also sharpened my appreciation for how the battle between judicial lienholders and secured creditors works. I tried to offer soup-to-nuts coverage here, from discovery to asset protection to bankruptcy, so I think a lot of readers will find something useful, especially new practitioners who likely learned none of this in law school. A bit more of a preview than appears in the "Look inside" link on CAP's website is available for free download on SSRN, as well. Check it out--and let me know what you think!

Seventh Circuit Smackdown of City of Chicago

posted by Jason Kilborn

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals this week released its opinion in In re Fulton, the highly anticipated consolidated appeal of four Chapter 13 cases involving debtors whose cars had been impounded. The City of Chicago had refused to release them to the debtors (exercising the rights of trustee under section 1303) after the petition filings, as clearly required by section 542 and Seventh Circuit precedent, Thompson v. GMAC, 566 F3d 699 (7th Cir. 2009). The Court rejected the City's arguments in favor of repealing Thompson or recognizing a stay/turnover exception for the City to maintain its possessory lien on impounded cars by keeping, well, possession.

The Court reached the right result here, in my view, and two things really jumped out at me. First, the Court explains several times that the case should be governed by "the purpose of bankruptcy - 'to allow the debtor to regain his financial foothold and repay his creditors.'" The Court's emphasis on the debtor-salutary purpose of bankruptcy is refreshing, even in cases where the repaying-creditors purpose is likely to be largely defeated.

More striking were the first lines of the portion of the opinion recounting the facts of Fulton's case. She used the car "to commute to work, transport  her young daughter to day care, and care for her elderly parents on weekends." You can already anticipate where the Court is heading in the case, but then it gets better: "On December 24, 2017, three weeks after she purchased a 2015 Kia Soul, the City towed and impounded the vehicle for a prior citation of driving on a suspended license." Really??!! The City towed and impounded her new car on Christmas Eve!!?? It probably still had a temporary plate indicating it was new. And it got towed for what? A prior citation having nothing to do with the car at all. Note to self, City of Chicago: When the Court opens the fact section with a smackdown recounting @$$hole behavior like this, you can just skip to the end. You lose. Three cheers for the Seventh Circuit again!

Reverse Mortgage Meltdown ... and Gov't Complicity?

posted by Jason Kilborn

USA Today just came out with an interesting expose about reverse mortgages and their negative impact, especially in low-income, African American, urban neighborhoods (highlighting a few in my backyard here in Chicago). I have long been interested in reverse mortgages, touted in TV ads by seemingly trustworthy spokespeople like Henry Winkler and Alex Trebek as sources of risk-free cash for folks enjoying their golden years, and I am always on the lookout for explanations of the pitfalls. Most of these breathless critiques strike me as overkill, but the USA Today story reveals fairly compelling real stories of a few of the ways in which a combination of financial illiteracy and sharp marketing tactics can lead to bad outcomes ranging from rude awakening (heirs having to buy back their childhood homes) to tragedy (simple missed paperwork deadlines leading to foreclosure and an abusive accumulation of default and attorney fee charges).

One line really jumped out at me. In defense of their seemingly hard-hearted and Emersonian-foolish-consistencies-being-the-hobgoblins-of-little-minds conduct, an industry spokesperson deflects, "lenders would prefer to extend the deadlines for older borrowers but fear violating HUD guidelines." Another bank official chimes in, “No matter how heinous or heartbreaking the case, it’s not our call. There’s no wiggle room,” adding that the stress of being unable to behave in a commercially and morally reasonable manner “takes a toll on employees.” [Yes, the unquoted characterization of the rigid lender behavior is mine, not the bank official's].

"Really??!!," I wondered. I wouldn't put any outrage past the Trump administration these days, but forcing banks to foreclose because an elderly surviving spouse overlooked a single piece of paperwork and is prepared to fix the problem a few days past the deadline strikes me as ... hard to believe. Is the government complicit in these reverse mortgage tragedies because it forces lenders to observe rules and deadlines rigidly? If so, how sad and frustrating, and yet another sign of the failures of our modern political stalemate between rational compromise and hysteria, where the latter seems to be winning on all sides.

St. Petersburg Int'l Legal Forum & Insolvency Forum

posted by Jason Kilborn

I've just returned from a really fantastic conference, the entire recorded proceedings of which are available online and might be of interest to Credit Slips readers. The St. Petersburg International Legal Forum takes place annually in the marvelous city of St. Petersburg, Russia, and nestled within the broader forum is a two-day International Insolvency Forum. The numerous panels for this forum were recorded, both in English with Russian simultaneous translation and in Russian with simultaneous English translation--it was a magnificently well-organized undertaking. The insolvency forum was held on Thursday and Friday (May 16 and 17) in the main auditorium, with an agenda including panels on implementation of a rescue culture in business reorganization (chaired by INSOL Europe), digital technology in insolvency proceedings, enforcement proceedings and involuntary bankruptcy petitions (which included a great introduction to Israel's new personal insolvency procedure by the Official Receiver of Israel, the always impressive David Hahn), consumer insolvency (chaired by a member of the State Duma, and including presentations by a Supreme Court justice and other impressive Russian and foreign experts--this was the panel on which I presented on the sticky issue of financing low-value personal insolvency cases), and asset tracing.

The hosts and attendees of the forum were very grateful for and receptive to the exchange of ideas and opinions from non-Russian experts, and they seem eager to recruit more of this kind of exchange in the coming years. If you're interested in participating and/or presenting in May of next year, please let me know, and I'll coordinate and pass on the info to the organizers. St. Petersburg is an absolutely gorgeous place, and it is a very European-ized Russian city (as was Peter the Great's goal in founding the new capital there in the early 1700s). It has changed dramatically since I lived and studied there in college in the early 1990s; today, it is safe, clean, and easy to navigate, there is English on all the signs, most shop and restaurant employees speak English, and the restaurant scene is accessible, varied, and delicious, to say nothing of the world-class cultural opportunities.  Consider it!

Consumer Bankruptcy Reform ... and American Xenophobia?

posted by Jason Kilborn

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

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

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

The Curious Persistence of Plan B (Bankruptcy Lite)

posted by Jason Kilborn

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

Continue reading "The Curious Persistence of Plan B (Bankruptcy Lite)" »

More Data, Please!

posted by Jason Kilborn

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

FDCPA Exclusion for Litigating Attorneys

posted by Jason Kilborn

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

International & Comparative Insolvency Law Symposium CFP

posted by Jason Kilborn

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

Developing Personal Insolvency Crises in China and India

posted by Jason Kilborn

What is it like to be desperately insolvent with no access to a relief system like the bankruptcy discharge? Many, many people are likely to find out in the coming months in China and India in light of recent developments in these mammoth markets. Neither country currently offers individuals effective relief from financial distress, though both have been actively but languidly considering the adoption of such relief for a long time. That relief can't come soon enough, though I'm not optimistic about its arrival anytime in the near future.

In China, the government is stepping up its efforts to all but eliminate P2P lending platforms, the only reliable source of finance for most individuals and small businesses. I'm afraid Bob Lawless's "paradox of consumer credit" will apply here: a rapid constriction in the supply of consumer/small business credit will lead to a spike in financial distress that can't be avoided by refinancing ... leading to even greater need for an individual bankruptcy remedy that China still lacks. To be sure, many of these P2P lending networks have been ponzi schemes, victimizing innocent investor-lenders and needing to be shut down, but I fear an over-correction here. Resolving 1.22 trillion RMB ($176 billion) in loans extended by 50 million investor-lenders to goodness knows how many small borrowers will be no small feat, especially with no formal insolvency framework to organize the effort. 

Meanwhile in India, the hot mess of corporate debt has begun to cool off, leaving debt buyers hungry for even riskier loans to purchase and pursue. So they're refocusing on defaulted consumer debt. The short-term target is debt secured by homes and cars, likely to produce greater returns from the collateral, but what of the inevitable deficiencies? Unsecured personal liability for deficiency judgments will certainly be on the to-do list of these buyers in the near term, and they are already making plans for the longer term to expand to unsecured education and credit card loans.

While India and China have both made admirable progress in reforming their business insolvency systems, the tragedy unfolding in the consumer and small business sectors cries out for serious attention. These debtors are not deadbeats whom authorities can be content to leave to their chosen fates; they are the victims of global economic volatility, the lifeblood of developing economies, and the center of harmonious societies. China and India would advance and humanize their development in a massive way by finally addressing the gaping hole in their insolvency frameworks to add proper treatment for individual debtors.

World Bank Group's Proposals on Small Business Insolvency

posted by Jason Kilborn

At long last, the World Bank Group's insolvency and debt resolution team has finally released to the public its report on the treatment of the insolvency of micro-, small-, and medium-sized enterprises, Saving Entrepreneurs, Saving Enterprises : Proposals on the Treatment of MSME Insolvency. The team worked for over a year on this report, concluding with a meeting of its Insolvency & Creditor/Debtor Regimes Task Force in May in Washington, D.C., where the report and its proposals were vetted. There was a surprising degree of consensus on the proposals developed here, and the final version reflects a fairly widely shared viewpoint on three key points.

Continue reading "World Bank Group's Proposals on Small Business Insolvency" »

Tripling Down on Plain Meaning: Bankruptcy and the Kavanaugh Appointment

posted by Jason Kilborn

It seems fairly clear that, if Trump's latest nominee to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, is sworn in, the Court's trend of resolving virtually all statutory disputes on the basis of "plain meaning" will be cemented in place. An analysis of Kavanaugh's bankruptcy-specific jurisprudence seems unnecessary in light of his fairly clear comments, nicely summarized by Anthony Gaughan over at the Faculty Lounge blog. His rejection of legislative history and search for intent/purpose does not bode well for bankruptcy and consumer-protection disputes, such as Obduskey v. McCarthy & Holthus LLP, the FDCPA case on the Court's docket for next year. Perhaps the words in these statutes are less clear and meaningful than those in the Constitution, but it seems likely that a Justice Kavanaugh would retreat to the comfortable confines of statutory language as frequently as possible to maintain his vision of a passive and unthreatening judiciary. Dust off your Webster's and probably also your Garner!

File This Under Calling BS on Bankruptcy Fearmongering

posted by Jason Kilborn

As anyone familiar with bankruptcy would have predicted, the dire predictions of disaster for municipalities seeking bankruptcy protection have proven to be ... let's just say exaggerated. Bloomberg is out with a notable story this morning on Jefferson County's healthy return to the bond market, carrying an investment-grade rating of AA-  within five years of emerging from municipal bankruptcy. This squares with similar accounts of consumers rehabilitating their credit within two to four years of a chapter 7 liquidation-and-discharge (see, for example, here and here). Let's all file this in our "lying liars and their bankruptcy impact lies" file and be prepared to continue to counter this, among the many, many other, bankruptcy scare myths to be debunked.

Combatting Fear of Abuse--A Sisyphean Task?

posted by Jason Kilborn

Over the past few weeks, at conferences with judges and policymakers in Varna (Bulgaria), Seoul, and Beijing, I've been confronted with a surprising degree of skepticism about personal insolvency systems and fear of opportunistic individuals abusing the ability to evade their debts (especially while hiding assets). I've pointed out the interesting progression identifiable in Europe in recent years of a marked relaxation of such fear of abuse, especially in places like France and most recently Slovakia, which have gone all the way to adopting a very US-like open-access system to immediate discharge. For the real skeptics--and they are numerous in Bulgaria and China, both of whom are considering adopting their first personal insolvency laws--these arguments seem to fall on more or less deaf ears. Detractors put me in a no-win situation by offering one of two rejoinders: (1) the incidence of discovered abuse is low in these systems because debtors are crafty or anti-abuse institutions are weak, or (2) anti-abuse institutions like the means test and restrictive access hurdles are successfully dissuading abusers from seeking access, so we need more--not less--of this kind of effort (which I've criticized as wasteful, unnecessary, and counterproductive). A common third response is the classic "we're different" position--that is, any comparative empirical evidence from elsewhere is irrelevant to the new, entirely unique context of [insert skeptical country's name here].

Continue reading "Combatting Fear of Abuse--A Sisyphean Task?" »

Please support empirical study of decision making in business insolvency

posted by Jason Kilborn

Leiden University in the Netherlands has established an impressive strength in insolvency law studies. For example, following his retirement, the eminent Bob Wessels left his massive collection of literature on the subject to a foundation, which permanently lent the collection to the school as the Bob Wessels Insolvency Law Collection. Credit Slips readers can support the efforts of Leiden researchers without parting with their libraries by simply responding to a 15-minute online questionnaire. Niek Strohmaier is a Ph.D. candidate at Leiden conducting a study on judgment and decision making within the areas of business rescue and insolvency law. As he puts it, "We offer a novel perspective on these fields by utilizing the interdisciplinary nature of our research team and by adopting a social sciences approach with empirical research methods." If there's one thing that Credit Slips can rally around, it's empirical research! So I'm hoping we can show Niek our community spirit by responding to his survey at this link (http://leidenuniv.eu.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_51GewBINfBAyfzv). The survey has received a good response from the professional membership of INSOL Europe, but I hope we can supercharge this qualitative data collection with responses from North America and elsewhere, as well. Thanks for your help!

Orwellian Debt Collection in China

posted by Jason Kilborn

Trying to get a handle on the potential for a workable personal bankruptcy procedure in China, I've repeatedly encountered evidence that the most important element might be lacking: attitude. Successful personal insolvency systems around the world differ in design and operation, but the system architects and operators generally share a sense that default is an inevitable aspect of consumer/entrepreneurial risk, and mitigating the long-term effects of such defaults is good for debtors, creditors, and society. I don't get the sense, based on my admittedly superficial outsider perspective, that this foundation is ready in China. Indeed, quite the opposite. 

For example, for the past few years, the Supreme People's Court has run a "judgment defaulter's list" of individuals who have failed (been unable?) to satisfy judgments against them. More than 3 million names were on this list already by the end of 2015, and getting on this list means more than just public shaming; it's also a "no-fly" list, preventing defaulters from buying airplane tickets, in addition to a "no-high-speed-train" and "no-hotel-stay" list, and also a "no-sending-your-kids-to-paid-schools" list. By mid-2016, about 5 million people had been preventing from buying these services in China as a result of being on the list. This initiative is just the start of a planned "Social Credit System," which will aggregate electronic data (including not only payment history, but also buying habits, treatment of one's parents, and who one's associates are) to produce a "social credit score" for all individuals. This score will affect all manner of life events, such as access not only to loans, but also to housing access, work promotions, honors, and other social benefits. The potential problems with data integrity (including inaccurate data), among many other challenges, are discussed in this fascinating paper by Yongxi Chen and Anne Sy Cheung of the Univ. of Hong Kong

Continue reading "Orwellian Debt Collection in China" »

Seventh Circuit Victorious Again in Merit Mgmt

posted by Jason Kilborn

If you're challenging a Seventh Circuit ruling in a bankruptcy case on appeal to the Supreme Court, especially if (retired) Judge Posner was in the majority, you've got a challenge ahead. The Court's announcement this morning of its judgment in Merit Management Group v. FTI Consulting demonstrates this yet again. Long story short: paying for stock via a bank transfer (rather than a bag of money) is still a transfer from the buyer to the seller, not the buyer's and seller's banks, and therefore not "by or to ... a financial institution." That is, such transfers are not protected by the securities safe harbor provision in section 546(e) and are subject to avoidance as constructive fraudulent conveyances and/or preferences. The seeming silver-bullet arguments to the contrary in this battle of "plain meanings" apparently remained unarticulated and unavailing (see footnote 2 in the Court's opinion, suggesting someone up there might be reading CreditSlips!). Other big winners in addition to the Illinois-based Seventh Circuit are University of Illinois College of Law professors Charles Tabb and Ralph Brubaker, both of whom are cited prominently and approvingly in the opinion. Congratulations, Illinois!

New Saudi Bankruptcy Law ... A Boon for SMEs?!

posted by Jason Kilborn

Saudi Arabia's King Salman has approved a new bankruptcy law. {Download Saudi BK final 2-2018} Commentators have heralded this new law as a boost to economic reforms, in particular to the SME sector, but I have some serious doubts about this. A member of the Shura Council, the King's advisory body, is quoted in one report as explaining "[t]he idea is to simplify and institutionalise the process of going out of business so new organisations can come in." That latter part--new businesses coming in--requires individual entrepreneurs, either the one whose business just failed or new ones, to embrace the major risks of starting a new venture. In either event, a crucial aspect of an effective SME insolvency law, and I would argue THE most crucial aspect, is a fresh start for the failed entrepreneur (and a promise of such a fresh start for potential entrepreneurs). This fresh start is promised and delivered most effectively by provision conferring a discharge of unpaid debt. The new Saudi law all but lacks this key provision. Article 125 on the bottom of page 50 is quite clear about this: "The debtor's liability is not discharged ... for remaining debts other than by a special or general release from the creditors." It seems highly unlikely to me that creditors will offer such releases with any frequency. Yes, the new law provides a useful framework for negotiating restructuring plans, and the Kingdom deserves praise and respect for finally adopting such a measure. But the lack of a law- imposed discharge following liquidation when creditors are not willing to agree is not a foundation for a thriving SME recovery (though I understand and respect the reason why the Saudi law lacks an imposed discharge). Most SMEs are not enterprises--they are entrepreneurs; they are people, not businesses. Leaving these people to bear the continuing burden of unpaid debt does not, in my mind, reinvigorate failed entrepreneurship or entice others to join the movement. I'm afraid the effects on the SME sector of this law will be muted at best. I hope I'm wrong. 

Jayfest and Bankruptcy Cases in the Supreme Court

posted by Jason Kilborn

Most of us Credit Slipsters enjoyed an absolutely fabulous symposium over the weekend celebrating the illustrious career of one of our own, Jay Westbrook. The Texas Law Review will publish a selection of several of the papers presented at the symposium (and TLR editors pulled off an amazing feat of organization in coordinating the travel and other logistics for this major event--kudos to them). All of the presentations were cutting-edge and extremely impressive, and many are available on the SSRN profiles of the authors listed in the symposium program. I want to highlight just one that I thought would be of particularly broad interest to Credit Slips readers.

The always impressive Ronald Mann described his recently released book, Bankruptcy and the U.S. Supreme Court. In his characteristically insightful and probing way, Mann looks into the private papers of the Justices for evidence of how and why they decide bankruptcy cases as they do. In his fascinating presentation at the symposium, he challenged conventional explanations of why the Court has construed the law to provide generally narrow relief (not only because of their boredom with the subject matter and/or a supposed adherence to narrow construction of statutory language) and offered provocative explanations based on, among other things, the presence (or absence) of a federal agency to advance a case for broader relief. The introduction of this new book immediately brought to my mind another recent and impressive analysis of Supreme Court bankruptcy jurisprudence, Ken Klee's Bankruptcy and the Supreme Court: 1801-2014. But Mann's latest contribution really seems to add something valuable, illuminating, and entertaining. Readers of this great new book will not find themselves, as Mann described one Justice's reaction to an oral argument, "in sleepy distress." Check it out, and watch for what will be a value-packed Texas Law Review symposium issue.

Comparative Insolvency Conferences of Note

posted by Jason Kilborn

I thought Credit Slips readers might be interested in using some holiday down-time to catch up on a couple of recent comparative insolvency conferences with particularly cutting-edge presentations, some of which are or will be available for viewing online (and many of the papers are available on SSRN or elsewhere).

First, on Nov. 23-24, the Notary College of Madrid offered its spectacular hall to host an international conference on consumer credit information privacy and regulation (day one) and the treatment of insolvency for SMEs and consumers (day two). The second day offered a particularly interesting presentation by one of the leaders of the EU Commission's initiative for a Directive on harmonization of European laws on preventive restructuring and second chance discharge relief (followed by a bit of constructively critical commentary by an American who fancies he knows something about European personal insolvency). Recordings of the entire conference were just posted to YouTube--most of the recordings are in Spanish, but the EU Directive and critical commentary presentations are in English after a short Spanish intro (nos. 8 and 9 of the 10 recordings). Congratulations to the architects of this fabulous event, who also made impressive presentations: Matilde Cuena Casas (Univ. Complutense de Madrid), Ignacio Tirado Martí (Univ. Autónoma de Madrid), and David Ramos Muñoz (Univ. Carlos III de Madrid).

Second, the following week offered a special, rare treat with the conference, Comparative and Cross-Border Issues in Bankruptcy and Insolvency Law, hosted by the Law Review of the Chicago-Kent College of Law. The line-up of panels on both comparative and cross-border issues was particularly impressive, and we were treated to a keynote by Jay Westbrook refining his latest thinking about cross-border coordination. The conference was live streamed, and the recordings are promised in the near future, but for now, the livestream page still has (scroll down to Day 1) the recoding of Adrian Walters's terrific paper on restrictive English interpretation of the notion of international cooperation. Again congratulations to the organizers of this fabulous event (who, again, gave very impressive presentations of their own): Adrian Walters, Chicago-Kent College of Law, and Christoph Henkel, Mississippi College School of Law.

Merit v. FTI and the Missing Silver Bullet Argument?

posted by Jason Kilborn

On November 6, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case only a lawyer--and probably only a commercial or bankruptcy lawyer--could love, Merit Management Group v. FTI Consulting. Simplifying quite a bit, the issue is whether a payment by wire transfer (or presumably a check) is "made by" the bank who implements the funds transfer, or the customer who initiates the transfer. The issue arises from the safe harbor for securities contract-related settlement payments, insulating such transfers from avoidance (clawback) by a bankruptcy trustee, and the question whether a money transfer made by wire from the buyer of stock to the purchaser(s) was "made by or to ... a financial institution." 11 USC § 546(e). Several circuit courts have held the safe harbor applies even if the bank-transferor is a simple conduit, performing nothing more than the ministerial task of moving the money (so to speak) from buyer's account to seller's bank. The 7th Circuit held to the contrary in this case, noting that a letter might be said to be "sent by" either the sender or the Postal Service, but the former interpretation is more sensible and consonant with likely congressional intent in this context (again, vastly simplifying to prevent boring readers to death). 

Ordinarily I would leave it to those smarter than I to blog about these kinds of big-money cases, but after I was asked to write a little squib for the ABA about it, the extremely perceptive Henry Kevane of the famous insolvency firm Pachulski Stang in San Francisco saw my little piece and called me to ask about an argument relevant to the case. Did anyone point out, Henry asked me, that the definition of "financial institution" in section 101(22)(A) includes the bank's customer within the ambit of "financial institution" in cases where the bank is "acting as agent or custodian for a customer ... in connection with a securities contract"? Well, no, no one appears to have made this seemingly dispositive observation! A transferor bank implementing a wire transfer would certainly be acting as the customer's (account holder's) agent, and the whole point of the case is that the payment was made "in connection with a securities contract" (the same language in section 546(e)). If the Bankruptcy Code oddly defines the customer and the bank as both being a "financial institution" in this context, then regardless of who made the payment, it was made "by" and "to" a financial institution, since the same logic would apply on the recipient side, too. Hmmmmmmmm.

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A Quiet Revolution in Pension Reform

posted by Jason Kilborn

A historic vote was announced overnight that signals a new era for large pension reform. As is often the case, "reform" here means that ordinary, hard-working folks will suffer a significant amount of pain as big companies are relieved of some liabilities, but the hope is it will be less painful than the alternative. The revolution began in 2014, when Congress adopted the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act (MPRA).  The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation guarantees a portion of the benefits due to participants in pension plans that have become insolvent, but as a result, it is also facing a nearly $100 million shortfall in its ability to cover the projected volume of its existing guarantees. Congress attempted to avert disaster by allowing particularly large and especially distressed pension funds to slash benefits themselves in order to maintain solvency. Ordinarily, this extraordinary action would, if possible at all, require an insolvency filing and court oversight of some kind, but the MPRA allows plans who aggregate benefits for many companies (multiemployer plans) to apply to the Treasury Department for administrative permission to abrogate their pension agreements and cut benefits with no court filing or general reorganization proceeding. There are, of course, restrictions on the level of distress required for such a move and the degree of proposed cuts, but the MPRA allows large pension funds to reduce the pension benefits of thousands of beneficiaries with simple administrative approval. The plan participants get a vote on such proposals, but the law builds in a presumption: Treasury-approved cuts go into effect unless a majority of plan beneficiaries votes to reject the cuts.

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Old-Fashioned Insolvency Policy in India

posted by Jason Kilborn

It seems to me a sign of serious regulatory dysfunction when a government expressly uses bankruptcy law as a means of collection, rather than rescue or at least collective redress, with an aim to treating economic stagnation. I've seen several stories recently like this one, touting the new Indian insolvency law and government regulators' strategy of putting pressure on banks to use involuntary insolvency (creditors' petitions) to clean up the NPL problems of a series of major industrial firms. The notion that insolvency law is about collecting NPLs seems at best anachronistic, and likely at least a sign of major dysfunction in other law or policy.

The right way for one lender (including the government tax collector) to collect one defaulted loan is to engage an ordinary collections process (judgment enforcement)--which itself might well result in the sale of the company, as envisioned in the story linked above. Creditor-initiated bankruptcy/insolvency proceedings should be the nuclear option, engaged only when creditors are worried that the debtor's assets will be dissipated by other enforcing creditors before the later-in-time ones can reach the ordinary enforcement stage. Such cases should be rare. The primary users of modern insolvency law should be debtors responding to positive incentives to seek an orderly opportunity for a global renegotiation of their debts, or an orderly way for the governors of those companies to liquidate and redeploy the assets of their companies more effectively--avoiding in the process a protracted battle about their own liabilities as personal guarantors and/or as directors liable for "insolvent trading." 

The subtext of the stories I've seen about the new Indian insolvency law seem to be (1) it does not provide an adequate incentive for debtor-companies to seek either rehabilitation or orderly liquidation when they realize they're in obvious financial distress, (2) the ordinary collections apparatus in India must be totally dysfunctional if banks have no incentive to engage it to deal with their NPLs, (3) the new insolvency law also provides an inadequate incentive for creditors to engage it to seek collective redress, since the government has to put pressure on banks to do so, and (4) all of the work on proper, modern insolvency policy in recent years by UNCITRAL, the IMF and World Bank, and many, many others has been lost on Indian regulators. Especially in developing nations like India and South Africa, the battle over the appropriate, modern role of insolvency law as debtor-initiated rescue or exit, as opposed to old-fashioned creditor-initiated collections, continues to rage.

 

Dana Gas and an Existential Crisis for Islamic Finance

posted by Jason Kilborn

IslamicartThe very foundations of the Islamic finance world were shaken a few weeks ago when Dana Gas declared that $700 million of its Islamic bonds (sukuk) were invalid and obtained a preliminary injunction against creditor enforcement from a court in the UAE emirate of Sharjah. Like Marblegate on steriods, Dana made this announcement as a prelude to an exchange offer, proposing that creditors accept new, compliant bonds with a return less than half that offered by the earlier issuance.

Dana shockingly claimed that evolving standards of Islamic finance had rendered its earlier bonds unlawful under current interpretation of the Islamic prohibition on interest and the techniques Dana had used to issue bonds carrying an interest-like investment return. I had expected to read that Dana had used an aggressive structure like tawarruq (sometimes called commodity murabahah) that pushed the boundaries of what the Islamic finance world generally countenanced, but no. The structure Dana had used was totally mainstream, a partnership structure called mudarabah. Dana asserted that the mudarabah structure had been superseded by other structures, such as a leasing arrangement called ijarah, though in Islamic law as in other legal families, there are often multiple permissible ways of achieving a goal, not just one. And when an issuer prepares an Islamic finance structure like this, it invariably gets a sign-off from a shariah-compliance board of respected Islamic law experts (sometimes several such boards). For Dana Gas to suggest that its earlier board was wrong to the tune of $700 million, or worse yet that Islamic law had somehow changed in a few years through an abrupt alteration of opinion by the world of respected Islamic scholars is ... troubling.

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Plain Meaning Rolls On in Gorsuch's First [Credit Related] Opinion

posted by Jason Kilborn

It was not at all surprising that, for his first (traditionally unanimous) opinion, in Henson v. Santander, the new Justice Gorsuch took on the relatively simple and low-key issue of the definition of "debt collector" in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. It was also not surprising that he hewed quite closely to the approach of his predecessor in basing his decision on the "plain meaning" of the words in the statute, complete with grammatical analysis of past participles and participial adjectives (the example adduced, "burnt toast," might describe how the consumer protection industry will view this latest ruling). The FDCPA is as simple as it appears, the Court confirmed:  if you're collecting a (consumer) debt owed to someone else, then you're a debt collector; if you're collecting on a debt owed to you, for your own account, you're not a debt collector, even if, as in Santander's case, you bought the debt from the original creditor with the intention of collecting it for an arbitrage profit later. The notion that Congress did not foresee the debt buying industry and its explosive growth when it wrote the FDCPA in the 1960s, and it certainly would have wanted to constrain abusive collections practices by debt buyers as much as by debt collectors was ... wait for it ... a matter for the present Congress to clarify. You can almost see Scalia whispering in Gorsuch's (or his clerk's) ear as the opinion is drafted. Well, at least there's something to be said for predictability.

New Museum of Failure

posted by Jason Kilborn

A new Museum of Failure in Sweden stands as a tribute to the notion that failure is just an opportunity for learning, powering growth and future innovation. I thought no group could appreciate that as much as Credit Slips readers. Europe is still in the process of shaking off its ages old stigma with respect to failure, especially in the context of individual entrepreneurialism. It's amazing how difficult real reform of both business and personal insolvency law has been and continues to be there (and elsewhere outside the Anglo-American world). I've long thought that shaking off these hangups, embracing failure, and facilitating fresh innovation are among the core attitudes that have made America great. Three cheers for failure!

New ABI Commission on Consumer Bankruptcy

posted by Jason Kilborn

The American Bankruptcy Institute announced this morning that it has convened a commission to study and propose reforms of the US consumer bankruptcy system. In light of the success of ABI's Chapter 11 commission, we can expect big things from this commission on Chapters 7 and 13. Some major names in consumer bankruptcy are among the 15 members of the commission, and Credit Slips is well represented, with Bob Lawless as Reporter and Katie Porter on the membership roster, along with one more super-prominent academic, professor-cum-judge-cum-professor Bruce Markell, now of Northwestern. I wish the commission had consulted Bob about its name. He would have pointed to his empirical work on small business debtors to suggest that this be called a personal bankruptcy commission, rather than consumer, but perhaps the inclusion of a good deal of small business debtors and business-related debts is taken as a given. Anyway, best wishes to the commission--we'll eagerly await its first reports and calls for comments!

What to Expect From Justice-To-Be Gorsuch on Bankruptcy

posted by Jason Kilborn

When I heard that the President had nominated 10th Circuit Judge Neil Gorsuch for the Supreme Court, I wondered what his bankruptcy-related opinions might tell us about him. Bill Rochelle beat me to it, with his characteristically insightful analysis of a few salient Gorsuch opinions. But I found three more that I thought worth highlighting, as well. A simple takeaway from all of these cases is that Gorsuch is not at all what one might call “debtor-friendly.” In fact, I don’t think one of the dozen-or-so opinions I found ruled in favor of the debtor(s). But a more nuanced takeaway is that Gorsuch is a careful and serious jurist who will apply the letter of the law in tight and cleverly written opinions. At least he should be fairly predictable, a virtue that the person who nominated Judge Gorsuch does not share.

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What's Wrong with the Bankruptcy Courts?

posted by Jason Kilborn

The Judiciary Data and Analysis Office of the Administrative Office of the US Courts has launched a new feature called "Just the Facts," highlighting statistical trends in the US judiciary. Table 2 and Chart 3 of the inaugural report reflect a curious spike in the appellate reversal rate in bankruptcy cases in 2015. While the reversal rate for both ordinary civil cases and bankruptcy cases in the Courts of Appeals had hovered steadily around 10-12% from 2011 to 2014, the reversal rate in bankruptcy cases suddenly shot up to double that, 24% (!), in 2015. It is not entirely clear to me whether this is reversal of the Bankruptcy Courts' rulings or the District Courts' rulings (it may be a bit of both, taking into account direct appeals, etc.), but in either case, whoa! Anyone have any idea what happened here? Why did the appellate courts get so mad at the lower courts in bankruptcy cases all of a sudden the year before last? I wonder if this continued in 2016. Lots of Stern reversals? Something else? Curious.

UPDATE 1/31/17: Bankruptcy statistics guru, Ed Flynn (whose fabulous work you've probably seen in the ABI Journal), helped me to understand that (1) the statistics referenced here (from Tables B-1 and B-5)  are for appeals from District Courts to Courts of Appeals, as BAP cases and District Court bankruptcy appeals are reported elsewhere (Tables BAP-1 and -2 and C-7, none of which indicates the numbers of reversals at these intermediate appeal levels), (2) the 110 merits reversals in 2015 come predominantly from the 11th Circuit and involve mostly one appellant, (3) we can probably now guess who it was and therefore what happened: Bank of America's appeals of wholly underwater second mortgage stripdown in Ch. 7  had to be granted (lower courts reversed) after the Supreme Court reversed the aberrant 11th Circuit position on allowing such stripdowns in Caulkett in mid-2015. Mystery most likely solved. Thanks, Ed!

Marblegate and a Dose of Reality for the Trust Indenture Act

posted by Jason Kilborn

The Second Circuit on Tuesday released its long-awaited opinion on the Trust Indenture Act, Marblegate v. EDMC. Several of us Slipsters have been discussing the case behind the scenes, and others will have (more intelligent) things to say about the opinion than I, but I thought I'd introduce the blockbuster case to get us rolling.

Long story short, the TIA essentially prohibits out-of-court workouts over the objection of any noteholder whose notes (debt securities) are part of the issuance qualified under the TIA. Section 316(b) says "the right of any holder of an indenture security to receive payment ... or to institute suit for the enforcement of any such payment ... shall not be impaired or affected without the consent of such holder." (emphasis added). The case was about what it means to "impair or affect" the "right" to get paid under indentured notes. The creative argument advanced by Marblegate was that lots of activities having nothing to do with changing the notes or their terms can "impair or affect" its right to get paid, and EDMC crossed the line. EDMC had done a creative end-run around the TIA by suffering its secured creditors to foreclose their (undisputed) security interests in all of its assets and then resell those assets to a newly created subsidiary of EDMC, scrubbing the former unsecured claims from those assets and leaving Marblegate and other noteholders with a claim against an empty shell. This was the second option in a Hobson's choice presented to noteholders; the first was to accept a 67% haircut and participate in a global workout with the secured creditors. Nearly 100% of the noteholders chose this option; Marblegate chose to play chicken and see if the courts would allow EDMC and its secured creditors to wipe out Marblegate's practical ability to enforce its claim by leaving an empty shell as the only obligor on Marblegate's unsecured debt after senior secured claimants exercised their superior rights in every scrap of available value. The contractual terms of Marblegate's right to collect were unchanged, but the practical ability of Marblegate to make anything of this right was clearly "impaired and affected," Marblegate argued.

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Recommended Reading: Empire of the Fund

posted by Jason Kilborn

EmpireofthefundimageIt's that time of year again! Time to revisit and perhaps rebalance the investments in your retirement portfolio. While it is a sad fact that many people lack significant retirement savings, it is nonetheless useful for those interested in consumer finance (and investment companies, pensions, etc.) to think about how retirement savings plans work and to be able to offer some advice, for example, to debtors emerging from bankruptcy with their clean slate. William Birdthistle, of Chicago-Kent law school, has recently released Empire of the Fund, a magnificent new work on the most common vehicle that carries individuals' retirement savings in the US: mutual funds.

I have heard that Birdthistle, who teaches across town from me, is legendary in the classroom. Having read his new book, I'm not at all surprised. While his fairly esoteric subject matter made me hesitate to nominate his book in response to Katie's post, Birdthistle has really pulled one off here by managing to make a book about the structure and pitfalls of mutual funds and retirement savings ... extremely entertaining! It is masterfully written, with both erudite references to relevant comments by literary and historical figures, along with laugh-out-loud allusions to modern culture ("OMG! Friends, right! Mutual funds are lame!"). This book is an absolutely brilliant example of how to make a work on an otherwise dry financial subject not only accessible to the general public, but a real pleasure to read. It is no wonder the New York Times calls this "a lively new book."

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Proposed New EU Insolvency Directive

posted by Jason Kilborn

The European Commission has just released its proposal for another Insolvency Directive, finally tackling the very sticky issue of substantive harmonization. I had hoped the Directive would push Member States toward greater harmonization of their consumer insolvency regimes, and I even made some proposals for principles and rules for such a move, but because cross-border lending to individuals for personal consumption remains quite limited in Europe (only about 5% of total household lending), the Commission concluded that "the problem of consumers' over-indebtedness should be tackled first at national level." (p. 15)  Nonetheless, the Commission's explanatory memo heartily endorses applying the principles on discharge in this new Directive (principally, providing a full and automatic discharge after a maximum 3-year process) to all natural persons, both entrepreneurs and consumers.

As to the former, though, the proposed Directive virtually shoves European national insolvency law in the direction of US law--for better or worse. The primary thrust is to encourage a rescue climate through more robust "preventive restructuring frameworks." Read: Chapter 11. The characteristics of such frameworks include leaving the debtor in possession of its assets and affairs, staying enforcement proceedings that might interfere with restructuring negotiations, mandating disclosures for proposed restructuring plans, facilitating plan adoption by creditors in classes, including a cram-down option and an explicit absolute priority rule (pp. 30, 38, not mentioning a new value corollary ... though not using the troublesome phrase "on account of its claim" in the definition of the absolute priority rule), and protecting new (DIP) financing. The importance of institutions is highlighted, with mandates concerning the expertise and training of judges, administrators, and practitioners. A few Credit Slips contributors in particular might be interested in the Commission's comment that "It is important to gather reliable data on the performance of restructuring, insolvency and discharge procedures in order to monitor the implementation and application of this Directive." The proposal thus includes detailed rules on data to be collected using standardized templates for easy comparison of empirical results across countries.

My sense is that this proposal will face some substantial political opposition, but the Commission has an impressive track record on getting its proposals adopted by the Parliament and Council. If and when this thing is adopted, I'm sure European authorities will have no trouble finding US restructuring professionals eager to volunteer to visit Europe to provide the type of training to judges, administrators, and practitioners mandated by this Directive. Put my name on the list!

Slow start for personal bankruptcy in Russia

posted by Jason Kilborn

After focusing on the substance of personal bankruptcy laws around the world for years, I'm now convinced that I should instead have been focusing on institutions and procedure. Reports of the first year of the Russian personal bankruptcy process convince me further. In a paper anticipating the new law, I predicted potential process hangups, but I badly underestimated the degree to which procedural complications would waste time and resources and undermine the system's new effectiveness. I plan to look more closely at this in the future, but for now, one statistic reported in the press tells it all: In the first full year of the new Russian law's effectiveness, of the 33,000 individual bankruptcy petitions filed, only about 15,000 have been admitted into the procedure, and of these, only about 500 have been fully processed. Debtors' errors in filling out the new paperwork doubtless contributed to this slow start, but I suspect the courts are just not embracing the new process yet, and admitted cases are being drowned in a swamp of pointless procedural formalities. A simplified procedure for these individual cases is being discussed already, but why couldn't this lesson have been learned at the outset? There is simply no need in the personal bankruptcy context for complex procedures designed for high-asset business cases. Decades of experience elsewhere have proven this time and again. And once again we see, as Margaret Howard observed in one of my favorite articles years ago, lighthouse still no good.

New Emirates Personal Bankruptcy Law to Exclude Consumers

posted by Jason Kilborn

The government of the United Arab Emirates has announced that it is working on a personal insolvency law (to accompany an imminently forthcoming business restructuring law). That's the good news. The bad news is that the personal insolvency law is to be designed exclusively for the benefit of small business people and others (shareholders, directors, employees?) with debt distress related to business. As a news report incisively observes: "So while an owner of a small business whose company cheque bounces because of lost business will receive protection under the new law, an individual whose rent cheque bounced because of short-term cash flow problems, will not."

This is a disappointing and short-sighted approach. While small business absolutely contributes to the economy and warrants insolvency relief legislation, so do consumers with non-business debt. I am afraid this discrimination between business and non-business debt in insolvency legislation will be a trend in the developing world. This will set back efforts to revitalize non-fossil fuel sectors of the economy, and it will entrench great human suffering. Sad.

Harmonizing Consumer Insolvency Law

posted by Jason Kilborn

HarmonyIn contrast to the cacophony created by Brexit, EU authorities have been working for several years on a project to move toward greater harmony among the discordant insolvency laws of the Member States. Though the project is focused on business rescue and restructuring, the Commission Recommendation "on a new approach to business failure and insolvency" makes specific reference to non-business cases, as well, as "Member States are invited to explore the possibility of applying these recommendations also to consumers" (para. 15).

A fantastic conference at Brunel University London this May explored the question whether there was a need for comprehensive EU intervention in the historically national-law arena of consumer debt relief. The conference presented several instructional vignettes on the varying situations in the UK, Germany, Italy, and Greece, as well as some reflections on the very limited degree of EU involvement in ensuring "fair" consumer credit markets as a supposed bulwark against overindebtedness. The presentations at the conference vividly illustrated the weakness of this supply-side-only approach, as well as the extreme divergence among exisiting European personal insolvency relief regimes. A fascinating book published in connection with this conference's greater project nicely illustrates the messy state of overindebtedness regulation in the EU today.

All of which has me thinking about a topic that recurs in the academic debate in the US from time to time:

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The New Reality of Small Debt Collection

posted by Jason Kilborn

Debt collectorsAbout 10 years ago, Rich Hynes wrote an intriguing paper on consumer debt collection, asking "where are all the garnishments?"  Today, Pro Publica's Paul Kiel is out with an answer: Nebraska and Missouri ... and in the future. Kiel's story challenges the longstanding conventional wisdom that debtors are unlikely to face lawsuits and collection action for small debts. That might have been true before the mid-2000s, when Hynes wrote his paper, and in Virginia and Illinois, which Hynes studied, but it's certainly not true after the financial crisis, Kiel reports, especially in certain high-volume-low-dollar-collection-heavy states. I can hardly do justice to Kiel's revealing data collection and analysis, but here are a few highlights to whet your appetite: (1) debt buyers are among the primary drivers of this trend, not collection agencies, and their industry has consolidated and matured recently, (2) the number of lawsuits against consumers on small debts has absolutely exploded starting in about 2006, the year Hynes's article was published (again, thanks almost entirely to debt buyers, "In 1996, there were around 500 court judgments in New Jersey from suits filed by debt buyers. By 2008, that number had reached 140,000."), (3) these buyers repeatedly clean out consumer bank accounts with garnishments seizing an average of only $350, "Plaintiffs in Missouri tried to garnish debtors’ bank accounts at least 59,000 times in 2012." There's more of interest in Kiel's report--a must-read for those (like myself) who have for years downplayed the threat of enforcement of small debts. It really depends where the debtor lives and whether the debt is acquired by a buyer. 

Debt collector image courtesy of Shutterstock

Further Debate About Debt Collection Reform and Credit Availability

posted by Jason Kilborn

The Center for Responsible Lending has produced a nice, new empirical paper reflecting on and refuting the notion that certain debt collection reforms restrict the flow of consumer credit. The analysis is careful and impressive, and the natural laboratory experiment they found is fun and intriguing. In a nutshell, North Carolina in 2009 and Maryland in 2012 imposed new restrictions on debt buyers suing consumer debtors on purchased accounts (both states now require actual documentation of the debts and their ownership to support such suits). On cue, in the period leading to these reforms, the credit lobby predicted gloom and doom in terms of restricted access to credit, especially to sub-prime borrowers, if such liberal nanny-laws were adopted. Several years later, the CRL decided to look back and test this. Comparing the change in the number and dollar volume of new credit lines in North Carolina and Maryland in the two years before and after each of the reforms (coincidentally, periods of general economic contraction and recovery, respectively), and comparing these differences with comparable data for selected peer states and the nation as a whole, did the reforms seem to have a noticeable effect of reduced access to credit in these states?  The simple answer, of course, is no (i.e., less contraction in North Carolina than elsewhere during a recession, and more expansion in Maryland than elsewhere during recovery). The more nuanced answer means the debate will rage on.

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Tribune Co. Creditors' Fraudulent Conveyance Claims Preempted by 546(e) ... or Not Reverted?

posted by Jason Kilborn

After a delay of nearly 15 months, the Second Circuit this past Friday finally released its opinion in the Tribune Co. Fraudulent Conveyance Litigation. Briefly, the case concerned attempts by creditors to claw back payments to former shareholders in the Tribune Company's ill-fated LBO, which led to its 2008 bankruptcy. The theory of recovery was that buyout payments to former shareholders were made for less than reasonably equivalent value (to the company) while the company was insolvent (or thus rendered insolvent), so contemporaneous creditors could sue the former shareholders for return of the value they received as constructively fraudulent transfers. While the bankruptcy trustee (in this case, the Creditors Committee, by delegation) had the power to pursue these claims (under section 544(b)), it chose not to, most likely because section 546(e) prohibited it from doing so. But when the two-year statute of limitations for pursuing those actions passed, the claims supposedly reverted to the individual creditors (more on this below), who took up those claims with the explicit permission of the bankruptcy court. Fast-forward to last week ... I am not surprised that the Second Circuit stuck to its historically broad construction of the "settlement payment" safe harbor in section 546(e) and held that state law fraudulent conveyance actions by creditors are barred by that provision just as a similar action by a "trustee" would be. More interesting, in my view, is the "why are we even talking about this" discussion of whether those creditors had any right to be pursuing those claims in the first place.

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Lessons for Puerto Rico from ... Arkansas?

posted by Jason Kilborn

I did not realize that a US state had defaulted on its bonds, offering a historical comparative example of the difficulties facing Puerto Rico, its creditors, and mostly its citizens if the mess there is not subjected to an orderly, judicially supervised debt cleanup process of some kind. In a new working paper from the Cleveland Fed, O. Emre Ergungor tells the interesting story of the Depression-era default by Arkansas on various road construction bonds and its messy and politically charged path to a workout. A couple of apparent lessons are troubling. First, reaffirming the aphorism that $#!@ rolls downhill, most of the pain was suffered by Arkansas citizens and ordinary creditors, with bondholders pulling every available lever to ensure a soft landing for themselves. Ergungor sums up this lesson nicely: "in the absence of a dedicated judicial process for preserving the governmental functions of a state in debt renegotiations, sovereignty offers meager protections for the interests of the general public." Second, in a prophetic warning about bailouts, Ergungor describes the intervention of the federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation to provide liquidity for a refinancing of the workout bonds years later. As one would expect, a Chicago Tribune article took the feds to task for helping Arkansas in this way, insisting that the RFC chief "ought to be willing to to do as much for Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, and all the rest of the states." I know Illinois would surely appreciate some federal support for its current behemoth pension burden. If the Executive intervenes in the Puerto Rico situation today, will we see another Tribune article like the one that criticized selective federal intervention for Arkansas? Does it matter that, technically, it is Puerto Rico's sub-units that are in distress, not the Territory itself? I struggle to understand even what all the issues are in the Puerto Rico debate, but Ergungor's paper helps me to put at least the financial problems in some useful context.

Truthiness, Or the Shenanigans of Executoriness

posted by Jason Kilborn

For the first time in nearly two decades of wrestling with section 365 of the Bankruptcy Code, I feel like I really understand the practical problems with the notion of "executoriness," as well as a constructive way forward. This enlightenment arrived via a great new paper by Jay Westbrook and his former student, Kelsi Stayart (who passed the July bar and was admitted in November--yay!), entitled "The Abolition of Dysfunctional Contracts in Bankruptcy Reorganizations." This paper lays out with razor sharpness the problems that courts have encountered with using "executoriness" as a gateway to applying section 365 to important contracts like options, IP licenses, LLC operating agreements, and non-compete covenants. The ABI's Chapter 11 Reform Commission does not come out of this looking very good, at least in its appraisal of the case law on executory contracts. The only well-settled rule, as Westbrook and Stayart reveal, is that "executoriness functions only as a saboteur." The argument is persuasive, the analysis of the current (sad, chaotic, and frequently contradictory) state of affairs is lucid and entertaining, and the proposed solution (refocusing on state law and hard policy compromises) is compelling. This paper is a must-read for professors preparing to teach a class on section 365 in the coming weeks, as well as for the ABI Commission members, who seem to have really dropped the ball on this one.

Fabulous New Paper: Random Justice in Bankruptcy Trial Courts

posted by Jason Kilborn

JusticedieI just read a terrific new paper by Gary Neustadter of Santa Clara University Law School, called "Randomly Distributed Trial Court Justice: A Case Study and Siren from the Consumer Bankruptcy World." It presents a monumental empirical study of a debt buyer's litigation campaign to pursue essentially identical contract and fraud claims against hundreds of secondary mortgagors in state courts, federal District Courts, and federal Bankruptcy Courts. The paths and outcomes of these materially identical cases are so different in so many surprising (and often disturbing) ways, the paper offers a really stunning look behind the curtain of our often arbitrary trial-level justice system. And Neustadter's telling of the story is gripping--I read the paper and most of its footnotes from beginning to end in one sitting, unable to put it down. The revelations in this paper are a gold mine for civil proceduralists generally and bankruptcy practitioners in particular. It offers a cautionary tale and useful playbook for lawyers (and perhaps judges) in how to make many aspects of our system more effective. Get it while it's hot!

Justice die image courtesy of Shutterstock

Fifth Circuit Runs Completely Off the Rails in Husky Int’l v. Ritz?

posted by Jason Kilborn

Derailed trainThe question presented to the Supreme Court in Husky Int’l v. Ritz is so bizarre, I just had to dig deeper. The question is whether the exception to discharge in section 523(a)(2)(A) for debts arising from “actual fraud” requires a showing that the debtor’s fraud involved a false representation. Note immediately that section 523(a)(2)(A) excepts from discharge debts arising from “false pretenses, a false representation, OR actual fraud” (emphasis added). This seems like such a simple statutory interpretation exercise (do you see the “OR” sitting there?!), I figured I must be missing something in thinking that the whole dispute is one step shy of contrived. After looking more closely, I still think the Fifth Circuit has run completely off the rails with this one … unless I’m totally missing something here. I’d be grateful if anyone can disabuse me of my ignorance; otherwise, it seems the Supreme Court must have granted certiorari simply to fix an obvious and egregious error that no one but the Supreme Court can fix.

Continue reading "Fifth Circuit Runs Completely Off the Rails in Husky Int’l v. Ritz?" »

Chicago Public Schools Bankruptcy?

posted by Jason Kilborn

SchoolbankruptThe local press has been abuzz the last two days with talk of Illinois Republicans' plans to take over Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and allow/force it to file for municipal bankruptcy. I immediately wondered whether this was just political rhetoric, part of Governor Rauner's quite clear plan to undermine public union power, especially in the school system, or if bankruptcy was the right tool for what ails CPS. As my image here suggests, it seems to me ... not so much; that is, CPS isn't quite "bankrupt" in the sense that Chapter 9 might help.  Not yet, and maybe not ever.

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New Saudi Restructuring Law in 2016?

posted by Jason Kilborn

SaudimoneyA pair of Squire Patton Boggs attorneys have reported that a new restructuring law may appear in Saudi Arabia next year. Their description of the current law is very lucid--one of the only such descriptions in English I've found in years of research--and their account of the proposed law is intriguing. The current Saudi law is totally creditor-oriented and limited to encouraging creditor-by-creditor settlement. This limited approach is likely driven by religious doctrinal reasons described in the sparse English language literature on Islamic bankruptcy (see, for example, my own piece on debt forgiveness in Islamic law, and a great piece by Abed Awad and Robert Michael on the contrast between Chapter 11 and the Saudi-Hanbali approach to Islamic bankruptcy). The new law will apparently change nothing with respect to individual insolvency, unfortunately. As for business reorganization, however, I was very surprised to see the suggestions in the report that this new law would (1) allow majority votes of creditors to impose restructuring arrangements on dissenting creditors, including secured creditors, and (2) a rehabilitation process would provide for a discharge of debt. This seems inconsistent with the fundamentals of Islamic law, which are "the ultimate sources of reference for ... the other laws of the State." It will be very interesting to see how the Saudi state religious authorities reconcile the proposed "modern" business rescue approach with the quite conservative interpretation of Islamic law that prevails in the Kingdom.

Saudi Riyal image courtesy of Shutterstock

Wholesale Reform of Indian Insolvency Law

posted by Jason Kilborn

IndianpiggybankOn Wednesday of this week, the Indian Ministry of Finance released a draft of a watershed Insolvency and Bankruptcy Bill, 2015. The proposed reform covers all of Indian insolvency law, both corporate and personal. A summary of the key proposals is here. While reform efforts earlier in the year concentrated on business recovery, at least 50% of this latest bill concerns a total revamp of the personal debt relief process. These provisions are long overdue. In a fabulous case study a few years ago, Adam Feibelman described both the growth of the personal lending sector in India, as well as the serious structural deficiencies of the century-old Indian regime of personal debt relief (bankruptcy). Among the biggest problems: multi-year delays as cases wind through the civil judicial system, brought on in part by excessive judicial discretion with respect to case administration, including admission of debtor petitions, stays of enforcement, and ultimate debt discharge relief. The bill makes significant progress on several fronts, though it leaves much to be desired.

Continue reading "Wholesale Reform of Indian Insolvency Law" »

Pro Publica: Extraordinary Struggles of African American Debtors

posted by Jason Kilborn

PoorAAmanI understand what it's like to live in a low-income family. I can only begin to try to understand the extraordinary struggles facing low-income families who also happen to be black. Pro Publica has just released a story and accompanying study that helps a bit to bridge this empathy gap.

Along the way, the story raises a frustrating point about our legal system that impacts all lower-income communities, but black folks in particular: Most legal protections against the kinds of rapacious collections activities described in the Pro Publica story require the debtor to affirmatively invoke the protections. For example, the story notes a collector explaining "if Byrd had filed a claim in court stating that the funds were exempt, the garnishment would have been terminated." Does the tragic irony escape this commentator? Byrd doesn't have enough money to pay the $29 sewer bill--do we really expect her to hire and pay for a lawyer to "file a claim in court stating that the funds were exempt"?! Similarly, the story describes default judgments being entered on time-barred debts because the debtors failed to invoke the statute of limitations--why in the world would a rational system allow time-barred debt to be revived against an impecunious debtor for failure to pay for counsel to raise this defense?! It's a self-fulfilling prophesy. The clever and unscrupulous inevitably prevail in a system where "The law doesn’t require anyone to tell debtors like Winfield of the [head-of-household 10% garnishment] exemption, and the burden is on them to claim it."

The story also cites and links to a study (and comments from study contributor and Slipster, Bob Lawless) on racial disparities in Chapter 13 practice. I've witnessed the emotional fervor that this study can whip up in a crowd of bankruptcy attorneys ... but the Pro Publica story ought to prompt us to return to the provocative question of whether, intentionally or not, directly or indirectly, our debt collection and debt relief systems are disparately impacting our black neighbors. Fixing problems that fall more heavily on these debtors would improve the system for everyone.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

New personal insolvency laws cover (almost) all of Europe

posted by Jason Kilborn

This summer saw a flurry of legislative activity in Europe with respect to personal bankruptcy. New laws emerged in Cyprus, Romania, Hungary, and (though it is not an EU Member State) Russia. These laws differ substantially among each other and from earlier models, which will give me a lot to write about in the coming years, but it is notable that the list of non-adopters in Europe is rapidly dwindling. Only Bulgaria, Malta, and the newest EU Member State, Croatia, lack such a law, and at least in Croatia, the subject has been on the legislative docket recently. It will really be interesting to see what happens if the rest of the Balkans and Turkey are approved as the latest applicants to join the EU and fall under pressure to adopt personal insolvency regimes. Will Turkey give us the first Islamic consumer bankruptcy law? Interesting times.

Russian Bankruptcy ... and Unconstitutional Homestead Exemption?!

posted by Jason Kilborn

BankZapadnyiI've finally finished my paper on the new Russian personal bankruptcy law (comments welcome), which is slated to go into effect on October 1 of this year. One side story from that paper will give a real chuckle to lawyers from Texas, Florida, and the other states with unlimited homestead exemptions. It turns out that the Russian Constitutional Court has been battling for years with the legislature about the unlimited exemption in "residential premises"  that represent the debtor's single suitable place of permanent abode. The Court has held this unlimited exemption to be unconstitutional at least twice, in 2007 and then again in 2012, yet the legislature continues to ignore these rulings and leave the law as is.

In the context of a case involving a 900 square meter apartment, the Court in 2007 concluded that the unlimited homestead exemption "disproportionately limited the creditor's rights" and was an "unfair, inadequate, unacceptable limitation on constitutional rights" to protection from the courts (!). The Court was especially concerned that this exemption was subject to abuse by debtors who might run up debts and then invest their money in a high-value exempt home (who would do such a thing?). In the 2012 case, the Court expressed its frustration with the legislature's ignoring its multiple earlier rulings on the "arbitrary" homestead exemption. It seems to have concluded that protecting anything more than the debtor's absolute minimum subsistence living space (about 18 square meters, as I understand it) is a violation of creditors' rights.  Wow.

I seriously wonder if the Constitutional Court will strike down the new personal bankruptcy law as a violation of creditors' rights, especially because it demands (theoretically) less of debtors than most European personal insolvency regimes. Time will tell ...

Russian bank image courtesy of Marina Zezelina / Shutterstock.com

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