postings by Adam Levitin

SEC Coinbase Suit

posted by Adam Levitin

The SEC has finally brought its long-anticipated lawsuit against Coinbase. The suit alleges that Coinbase has operated as an unregistered securities broker, an unregistered securities exchange, and an unregistered securities clearing agency, and that it has made unregistered sales of securities, namely of its staking-as-a-service products. The litigation hinges entirely on one key question: are any of several tokens listed or products offered by Coinbase “securities.” If the tokens and products are not securities, then Coinbase has no problem. And if they are securities, Coinbase almost assuredly loses.

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The Debt Limit Is Unconstitutional—But It's Not What You Think!

posted by Adam Levitin

Anna Gelpern, Stephen Lubben and I have an article in The American Prospect entitled The Debt Limit Is Unconstitutional—but Not for the Reason You Think. Various commentators—and members of Congress—have suggested that the President “invoke the 14th Amendment” to declare the debt limit unconstitutional. They're right to argue that the debt limit is unconstitutional, but the constitutional problem isn't the 14th Amendment. Instead, it's Article I of the Constitution, namely Congress's power to enter into contracts. The tl;dr version is that Congress has a power to make binding commitments for the United States and the President is constitutionally obligated to perform those commitments. If the Treasury lacks the funds, then the President must borrow. No specific authorization is needed. Instead, it is implicit every time Congress appropriates funds to perform a binding commitment.

Relocating the constitutional problem with the debt limit isn't merely an academic exercise. It has two implications.

First, it changes the nature of the legal debate and puts the administration on much, much firmer legal footing. The 14th Amendment argument is weak because it simply is not a prohibition on defaulting. It's a prohibition on repudiation, and a default is not a repudiation. An Article I argument reframes the issue as being about the validity of the debt ceiling, rather than the ability to default. In other words, it goes to question of whether the House GOP has holdup power, rather than whether the administration is under some cryptic constitutional limitation that it must affirmatively "invoke."

Second, it means that the President not only can, but must disregard the debt limit in order to fulfill his own constitutional duty to "Take Care" that the laws are faithfully executed. In other words, breaching the debt limit is not merely an option, but a legal requirement if Treasury is short of funds. Once Congress has appropriated funds, the President must carry out the authorized spending.

Debunking Debt Ceiling Myths

posted by Adam Levitin

The commentary on the debt ceiling standoff has featured a bunch of mistaken conceptions from across the political spectrum. Let's address them. 

Myth #1:  The 14th Amendment Prohibits a Default

A variety of commentators claim that the 14th Amendment prohibits the United States from defaulting. It does nothing of the sort. Read the text of the Public Debt Clause: 

The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.

The Public Debt Clause is a prohibition on disputing the validity of US debt obligations--that is disputing whether they are legitimately owed. There's not a word in the 14th Amendment about default. The drafters of the Public Debt Clause included some very experienced commercial lawyers. They understood the difference between defaulting on an obligation and disputing or repudiating an obligation.  For example, I might acknowledge that I owe a loan, but just not be able to pay it. That's different than saying "I don't owe the money."

The Public Debt Clause is a prohibition on Congress, the Executive, and the Courts from disavowing US debt obligations. It's not a prohibition on defaulting because such a prohibition would be meaningless. If a country is unable to pay its obligations, no constitutional commitment device can change that. A constitution cannot fill a bare cupboard. And if a country is simply unwilling to pay its obligations (but admits to them), then its creditors are left with whatever legal recourse they might have. But prohibiting default doesn't get creditors anything. Prohibiting disavowal does because it means that creditors retain their right to be paid.

What all this means is that "invoking the 14th Amendment" is meaningless, unless it is shorthand for "treating the debt limit as unconstitutional." Now it just so happens that the debt limit is unconstitutional—but not because of the 14th Amendment!

 

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Community Financial Services of America v. CFPB Amicus Brief

posted by Adam Levitin

This fall the Supreme Court will be hear a case captioned Community Financial Services of America v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, dealing with the constitutionality of the CFPB's funding mechanism. I'm pleased to announce that Patricia McCoy and I filed an amicus brief today in support of the CFPB. We were very capably represented by Greg Lipper of LeGrand Law.

The tl;dr version: if the 5th Circuit's opinion is upheld it will result in market chaos--all of the CFPB's existing regulations will be void, and that includes things on which market actors rely, such as TILA disclosure safe harbors and ability-to-repay rule safeharbors. Moreover, there's no way to cabin the 5th Circuit's opinion to the CFPB--if the Bureau's funding is unconstitutional, so too is that of every federal banking regulator, including the Federal Reserve Board. There's simply no credible way to do a surgical strike on the Bureau's funding without collateral damage of economic havoc.

Calculation of Secured Claims

posted by Adam Levitin

When I was a law student the rule I learned about secured claims was that they accrue post-petition interest and attorneys' fees (if provided for by contract or statute) up to the amount of the value of the collateral that exceeds their claims, but then nothing further once they are fully secured.  That was an easy enough rule to apply.

But then the Supreme Court's ruled in Travelers v. PG&E (2007) that the standard basis for disallowing the excess attorneys' fees—the Fobian rule—was no longer valid. SCOTUS expressly left open the possibility of other arguments for limiting attorneys' fees, but none have been successful in the courts of appeals so far. 

So this brings up a question:  If post-petition interest is capped by the collateral cushion, but post-petition attorneys' fees are not so capped and can therefore spillover into an unsecured claim, what is the order in which the collateral cushion is applied?  That is, what is the correct order of operations?  Is the collateral cushion applied first to post-petition interest and then to attorneys' fees or vice-versa or are they applied as they accrue? 

I'm curious for readers' thoughts on the right answer to this problem, or at least how it is handled in practice.  I'm also curious for thoughts on why the issue hasn't arisen in any reported decision. The problem seems akin to that of how adequate protection payments are applied to reduce a claim and collateral value, where there is a little bit of caselaw.  

LTL 2.0: The Largest Fraudulent Transfer in History

posted by Adam Levitin

[Updated 4.12.23 to reflect the transcript of the first day hearing with much more detailed analysis of LTL's arguments regarding fraudulent transfer allegations.]

Today was the first day hearing for LTL 2.0. An ad hoc committee of talc claimants (most of the members of the Official Committee from LTL 1.0) weighed in with an informational brief that blasted the bankruptcy filing as being in bad faith and premised on what is, without hyperbole, the largest fraudulent transfer in history, weighing in a jaw-dropping $52.6 billion.

Continue reading "LTL 2.0: The Largest Fraudulent Transfer in History" »

LTL, Part Deux (now with even more fraudulent transfers!)

posted by Adam Levitin

This post is a joint post by Hon. Judith K. Fitzgerald (ret.)[*] and Adam Levitin

Here we go again. Precisely one hour and thirty-nine minutes after the dismissal of the bankruptcy filing of LTL, Johnson & Johnson’s artificially created talc-liability subsidiary, the company was right back at it again with the filing of a new chapter 11 case in New Jersey, again assigned to Judge Kaplan.

It took some fast work from our friends at Jones Day to get a second complex chapter 11 case out the door, albeit without any schedules! With the filing came, inter alia, a declaration, a statement by the Debtor regarding its second filing, and a new Adversary Proceeding that seeks the same preliminary injunctive relief for the benefit of some 700 J&J affiliates and favored customers that was achieved in the first LTL case.

The new case is supposedly engineered to comply with the strictures of the Third Circuit’s decision dismissing the original filing for not being in good faith on account of the debtor not being in financial distress. To recall, LTL found itself hoist on its own petard before the Third Circuit, which noted that its assets included a $62 billion funding agreement, vitiating any claim of financial distress.

To this end, what has changed in LTL 2.0 is the design of the funding agreement. The funding agreement in LTL 1.0 was for up to $62 billion, and the funding was to come from both LTL’s HoldCo (New JJCI) and J&J. Now in LTL 2.0, the funding agreement is just from HoldCo, and it is for only $8.9 billion. There is a proposed backstop from J&J, but that will require bankruptcy court approval, so LTL claims that it is not part of the good faith analysis. LTL’s thinking is that Judge Kaplan previously found that the HoldCo (or at least its predecessor) was in financial distress, so it must be so now, particularly because in January of this year it transferred most of its assets—the entire J&J consumer business!—to the J&J parent. The idea is that the new funding agreemen tisn’t really so valuable, so LTL must be in financial distress.

There are (at least) three flies in J&J's ointment.

Continue reading "LTL, Part Deux (now with even more fraudulent transfers!)" »

It's Not Just an SVB Problem: the Systemic Nature of the Bank Regulation Failure

posted by Adam Levitin

A mid-sized regional bank specializing in lending to tech start-ups, crypto companies, or law firms hardly seems of systemic importance, even if its failure would have caused disruption in some industries regionally and might have triggered a cascade of corporate bankruptcies because of large uninsured deposit balances. That sort of collateral damage from a bank failure is unfortunate and painful for those involved, but that's the nature of market discipline.

If that's where things ended with Silicon Valley Bank, I suspect regulators would have said too bad, so sad, as they were initially prepared to do. Yet the problem with Silicon Valley Bank's failure was that it had the potential spark for a banking-industry-wide panic, in which depositors pull their funds from smaller banks and move them either to big banks or to money market funds. That sort of panic could have been devastating to small and medium banks, as they would have faced a liquidity crunch that many could not meet...for the very same reason that SVB got into trouble, namely that they are sitting on large unrealized losses on their bond portfolios because they failed to manage interest rate risk appropriately. And if we had a correlated failure of lots of small and medium-sized banks, it would have resulted in serious economic disruption in small business and agricultural lending and a lot more spillover insolvencies of firms that had large uninsured deposits at those banks. That's the systemic risk scenario with SVB, and I suspect that as the weekend after the SVB failure advanced, that's what scared federal bank regulators into guarantying all deposits at SVB and SBNY.

But notice the nature of the problem: it wasn't just SVB that mismanaged its interest rate risk. It was lots and lots of other banks. Mismanaging rate risk is a Banking 101 screw-up, but it's also a Bank Regulation 101 screw-up. Rate risk is hardly a novel problem, and it's an easy one to address through derivatives like interest rate swaps, but those eat into profitability. Why bank regulators let rate risk get out of control almost across the board is something Congress needs to understand—I suspect that the story is much like consumer protection violations, which historically were tolerated because they were profitable. This much is clear, however:  if regulators had done their job generally, SVB's bank would not have posed systemic risk because there wouldn't have been the possibility of a panic. It would have been a one-off bank failure and nothing more. Regulators should have been on SVB's problems much sooner, but the real regulatory failure was an across-the-board failure to ensure that banks managed their rate risk because that's what set up the panic scenario.

Put another way, this isn't just a problem that can be hung on the neck of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. The problem here implicates every federal bank regulator.

FDIC's Poor Track Record in Holdco Bankruptcies

posted by Adam Levitin

Last week I did a post about how the FDIC as receiver for Silicon Valley Bank probably doesn't have a claim against SVB Financial Group, the holdco of the bank. I got some pushback on that (including from a former student!), but I'm sticking to my guns here. It's a result that seems wrong and surprising, but if you look at the three most recent big bank holdco bankruptcies (this takes some digging in old bankruptcy court dockets), the FDIC has ended up with little or no claim.

Continue reading "FDIC's Poor Track Record in Holdco Bankruptcies" »

SVB Financial Group's Manhattan Venue

posted by Adam Levitin

As I have previously blogged, SVB Financial Group seems to be trying to do venue by declaration. Consider the grounds for venue under 28 USC 1408 and how they apply to SVBFG:  

  • Location of principal place of business for majority of past 180 days.  All of SVBFG's regulatory filings in the last 180 days said its address—principal place of business—is in Santa Clara, CA.
  • Location of principal assets for majority of past 180 day. The majority of its assets for the last 180 days—Silicon Valley Bank—were in Santa Clara.
  • Location of domicile for majority of past 180 day.  SVBFG is incorporated in Delaware and always has been. 
  • Location of pending affiliate's case's venue for majority of past 180 day. SVBFG does not have any affiliate cases pending, much less in SDNY.

SVBFG's claim to SDNY venue seems to be based on the location of its principal assets. Those principal assets are as of today the equity of two of its non-debtor subsidiaries. But for almost all of the past 180 days, the principal assets were the equity in the bank. Not only is SVBFG trying to ignore the 180 days rule (which exists precisely to prevent this sort of gaming), but its argument that its assets are located in NY is simply wrong.  

Both of the SVBFG subsidiaries are Delaware entities according to SVBFG's last annual report. The subsidiaries might have their principal offices in Manhattan, but that's irrelevant. The corporate stock is not located in Manhattan (I really hope they aren't suggesting that the DTC's holding of stock certificates does the trick--if so, everyone can file in Manhattan). When a parent owns a subsidiary's stock, the stock either has no location as an intangible or is located where the subsidiary is domiciled.  Nothing else makes sense.

To see why, consider the following: suppose a car is my principal asset. It's titled in Delaware, but currently illegally double-parked in Manhattan. In that case SDNY venue would be proper. There's direct ownership of a physical asset that has a location and that's enough for the venue statute. It's no different than owning a building in Manhattan. But now imagine that my principal asset is not the car, but stock in a Delaware corporation, and the corporation's sole asset is a car that's illegally double-parked in Manhattan. In this scenario, I do not directly own the asset that is in Manhattan. To impute it to me would render the venue statute meaningless.  Congress knows how to talk about indirect ownership when it wants. It didn't in the venue statute. The statute is about the principal assets of the debtor, not the debtor's non-debtor subsidiaries. Trying to bootstrap in this way is akin to LTL trying to bootstrap on non-debtor J&J's "distress." Bankruptcy law has clear boundaries—debtor vs. non-debtor—but if it's going to be ignored, then what are the "rules"? 

While I'm thumping on the venue issue, what of the "no harm, no foul" argument? I don't know what the harm is of SDNY venue at this point. This isn't an obvious issue like Boy Scouts going to Delaware to avoid 5th Circuit law on non-debtor releases. But I can say this with confidence: Sullivan & Cromwell clearly thought there was some benefit to their client in having SDNY venue, rather than Delaware or California venue. It's not that these other venues are somehow not equipped to handle a case like this (and notice how insulting that argument is to most of the 375 bankruptcy judges in the country...). Delaware and (Central District) of California have both done large bank holding company bankruptcies:  WaMu and IndyMac. Perhaps S&C simply doesn't want to take the Acela to Wilmington and stay at the Hotel Dupont, just as the California-based creditors don't want to fly out to LaGuardia. But it's also possible that there's some substantive legal issue S&C is concerned about that led it to file the case in SDNY. The very fact that the debtor ordered "off-menu" when there were two good, legitimate, alternative venue choices should set everyone's spidey sense tingling. I was pleased that the court has not put in "venue is proper" language in its orders so far; we'll have to see if there's an objection. That might turn on whether other parties can suss out a potential disadvantage to being in SDNY and want to risk the possibility that the judge takes umbrage with a venue motion, even if it's about governing law, rather than a question of getting a fair shake. 

The Death of Dodd-Frank: Banking Law's Dobbs Moment

posted by Adam Levitin

Last year, I savored a bit of schadenfreude watching my con law scholar colleagues despair about their field after cases like Dobbs v. Women's Health Organization or West Virginia v. EPA. Con law scholars see themselves as the royalty of the legal academy, far above those folks who do blue collar law like bankruptcy and commercial law or grubby stuff like banking and money. And that's fine--we always laughed at them as slightly clueless toffs, not realizing (or wanting to admit) that their field is largely a battle of normative opinions, without any quasi-objective touchstone or clearly right or wrong answers. In contrast, we can point to things like express deadlines and numerical ratios that must be maintained and efficiency principles like "least cost avoider". That's what's made the Supreme Court's recent jurisprudence so delicious--it shows what every non-con law scholar has long known--that con law is as much politics as it is law. There was a certain joy in watching the con law field realize that the emperor had no clothes.  

But there's karma in the universe, and Silicon Valley Bank is sticking it right back the banking law scholars. I don't usually teach the core prudential regulation banking law class, but I really feel for colleagues who do. The response to Silicon Valley Bank is banking law's Dobbs moment. In 2010, in the wake of the 2008 crisis, Congress erected an enormous legal edifice to govern financial institutions--the Dodd-Frank Act. And we saw in the course of a weekend that it was all an expensive and wasteful Potemkin village. What good does it do to have a massive set of regulations...if they aren't enforced? To have deposit insurance limits...if they are disregarded? Dodd-Frank is still on the books, but its prudential provisions are as good as dead. Why should anyone follow its requirements now, given that they'll be disregarded as soon as they're inconvenient? And why should the public have any confidence that they are protected if the rules aren't followed? Indeed, did anyone even look at SVB's resolution plan or was it all a show? 

I really don't know how one can teach prudential banking regulation after SVB. How can you teach the students the formal rules—supervision, exposure and concentration limits, prompt corrective action, deposit insurance caps—when you know that the rules aren't followed? This is going to be a real challenge for folks who teach banking regulation. So, I invite our con law colleagues to snicker back at us. 

P.S. Anna Gelpern will say that I'm being naive--as she noted in a great 2009 article, the rules always get tossed out the window in financial crises and then there's a lot of finger wagging and new rules that are followed until the next crisis, when they aren't. And she's right. But the cycle of rules-crisis disregard-new rules had its own internal credibility:  this time I mean it! That internal credibility required there to be a certain time lag between crises, enough that a new king would arise over Egypt, who did not know Joseph, that is a new crew of regulators who could not be counted on to act the same way as in the past. When it's the same crew as from the last crisis, the internal credibility of "this time I mean it!" doesn't fly. 

SDNY: EFTA Applies to Crypto

posted by Adam Levitin

I'm teaching cryptocurrency today in my Payment Systems class, and I'd been puzzling about why no one has applied the Electronic Fund Transfers Act and Reg E thereunder to crypto: after all, if you have a crypto account with an exchange, it would seem to be an "account" at a "financial institution" that is primarily for personal, family, or household purposes and is used for electronic transfers of "funds." In fact, I had just emailed Bob Lawless for a sanity check on this, when I came across a very recent SDNY decision that held that the EFTA applies to crypto. That's a huge consumer protection win. Reg E has important consumer protections regarding unauthorized transactions, error resolution, and provision of receipts and periodic statements. It also creates huge compliance headaches for crypto exchanges, which are not set up for dealing with any of those problems. All of the Zelle scam error resolution issues are now going to become crypto scam error resolution issues. And the ruling also indicates that consumer protection at cryptocurrency exchanges is now squarely within the existing regulatory authority of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. This could get interesting. 

The Regressive Cross-Subsidy of Uncapping Deposit Insurance

posted by Adam Levitin

There's talk about removing the FDIC deposit insurance caps in response to the "Panic of 2023"®.  There's a refreshing realism about such a move. But let's also be clear about the distributional impact of such a move:  it's a huge cross-subsidy from average Joes to wealthy individuals and businesses.>

If FDIC insurance coverage caps are removed, banks will pay more in insurance premiums. They will pass those premiums through to customers because the market for banking services is less competitive than the market for capital. In particular, the higher costs for increased insurance premiums are likely to flow to the least price-sensitive and most “sticky” customers:  less wealthy individuals.  So average Joes are going to be facing things like higher account fees or lower APYs, without gaining any benefit. Instead, the benefit of removing the cap would flow entirely to wealthy individuals and businesses. This is one massive, regressive cross-subsidy. It's not determinative of whether raising the cap is the right policy move in the end, but this is something that should be considered.

The Financial Regulatory Credibility Problem

posted by Adam Levitin

Financial regulation has a credibility problem. Actually, it's got two credibility problems.

It's not credible any more to think that financial regulators will shut down troubled institutions until they are forced to do so. And it's no longer credible that financial regulators will allow depositors to incur losses. Both are really problematic.

Continue reading "The Financial Regulatory Credibility Problem" »

Oops. How the FDIC Guaranteed the Deposits of SVB Financial Group

posted by Adam Levitin

When President Biden announced the rescue of Silicon Valley Bank depositors, he emphasized that "investors in the banks will not be protected.  They knowingly took a risk and when the risk didn’t pay off, investors lose their money.  That’s how capitalism works." Unfortunately, that's not how US law works. 

There seems to be a gap in the Federal Deposit Insurance Act that is going to protect some investors in Silicon Valley Bank’s holding company, SVB Financial Group. The holdco’s equity in the bank will be wiped out in the FDIC receivership, but the FDIC doesn’t have any automatic claim on the holdco. This is basic structural priority/limited liability:  creditors of a subsidiary have no claim on the assets of a parent.

What's worse is that the holdco, which filed for bankruptcy today, has substantial assets including around $2 billion on deposit with SVB. Almost all of that $2 billion deposit at SVB would have been uninsured, but by guarantying all the deposits, FDIC accidentally ensured that the holdco’s bondholders would be able to recover that from that full $2 billion deposit.

There isn't any provision in the Federal Deposit Insurance Act that subordinates the claims of insiders—like corporate affiliates or executives—that exceed the insured deposit limit to other creditors. So once FDIC guaranteed all deposits, it necessarily guaranteed the deposits of the holdco and other insiders. 

Continue reading "Oops. How the FDIC Guaranteed the Deposits of SVB Financial Group" »

Who Knew Silicon Valley Was in Manhattan?

posted by Adam Levitin

Silicon Valley Bank's holding company, SVB Financial Group, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy this morning...in the Southern District of New York. Who knew that Park Avenue South was in the heart of Silicon Valley?

Seriously, the venue here looks problematic. SVB Financial Group's petition lists its principal place of business as 387 Park Avenue South, Manhattan. There's a SVB location there with about 20,000 square foot of space. That's sure doesn't seem like a corporate headquarters for the 16th largest bank holding company in the US. Instead, it seems to be more of a bank branch. But the petition does bear the signatures, under penalty of perjury, of SVB Financial Group's CRO and, not so clearly under penalty of perjury, of SVB Financial Group's attorney at Sullivan & Cromwell. 

Curiously, SVB Financial Group has been telling federal bank regulators a different story about where it's located. On its Bank Holding Company Report, Systemic Risk Report, Consolidated Financial Statement, and Parent Company Only Financial Statement for Large Bank Holding Companies—documents filed with the Federal Reserve Board—SVB Financial Group said its address is 3003 Tasman Drive, Santa Clara, California. Hmmm.

Continue reading "Who Knew Silicon Valley Was in Manhattan?" »

What's Going on with First Republic Bank?

posted by Adam Levitin

Following the failure of Silicon Valley Bank, a lot of other regionals have experienced depositor runs and serious pressure on their stock prices. But there's actually a lot of variation among regionals, and the solutions to SVB's problems don't necessarily fit the other regionals' problems, as the case of First Republic Bank shows.

Continue reading "What's Going on with First Republic Bank?" »

Why Weren't Silicon Valley Bank Depositors Using CDARS?

posted by Adam Levitin

Silicon Valley Bank seems to have had large amounts of uninsured deposits from businesses and high net worth individuals. And those uninsured deposits are likely to be impaired in the receivership, meaning that they will not get paid 100 cents on the dollar whenever they do get paid.

But here's the thing:  there are turnkey products that enable depositors to insure much, much larger amounts than the FDIC-insurance cap of $250k/depositor/account type. For years and years there's been deposit brokerage services that spread out deposits at multiple banks, all in amounts under the FDIC insured cap. The best known service is called CDARS-Certificat of Deposit Account Registry Service. It's offered by IntraFi (formerly Promontory). I don't know if SVB participated in CDARS, but it's a pretty straightforward solution to the deposit insurance cap.

Continue reading "Why Weren't Silicon Valley Bank Depositors Using CDARS? " »

What Could Go Wrong When a DIP Maintains a Large, Uninsured Deposit Account at Silicon Valley Bank?

posted by Adam Levitin

You gotta feel for BlockFi customers. First, they find themselves creditors in BlockFi's bankruptcy. And now they've found out that BlockFi had a large, uninsured deposit...at Silicon Valley Bank. Yup, it seems that BlockFi had $227 million in a money market deposit account at SVB. (The UST refers to it as a "money market mutual fund," but that cannot be right, or it wouldn't be at SVB or have any insurance. [See "Another update" below regarding possibility that it was a money market mutual fund sweep account, in which case the money would in fact be protected.]) That would mean there's a $226.75 million uninsured deposit. Given what we know about SVB, part of that $226.75 million in uninsured funds is likely lost if it's still at SVB.  

The US Trustee filed a motion today to force BlockFi to put the funds in insured accounts, but it sure looks as if the cow's out of the barn already. If the money's lost, then the question is who's going to pay for this screw up, and it's especially juicy because it's all tied up with venue competition. 

Continue reading "What Could Go Wrong When a DIP Maintains a Large, Uninsured Deposit Account at Silicon Valley Bank?" »

The Texas Two-Step's New Key

posted by Adam Levitin

In the wake of the Third Circuit's LTL Management decision many commentators wrote off the Texas Two-Step as dead. Turns out it's not, it's just playing out in a different key with a new filing in SDTX.

Continue reading "The Texas Two-Step's New Key" »

The New Usury

posted by Adam Levitin

I have a new paper up on SSRN. It's called The New Usury: The Ability-to-Repay Revolution in Consumer Finance. It's a paper that's been percolating a while--some folks might remember seeing me present it (virtually) at the 2020 Consumer Law Scholars Conference, right as the pandemic was breaking out. Here's the abstract:

Consumer credit regulation is in the midst of a doctrinal revolution. Usury laws, for centuries the mainstay of consumer credit regulation, have been repealed, preempted, or otherwise undermined. At the same time, changes in the structure of the consumer credit marketplace have weakened the traditional alignment of lender and borrower interests. As a result, lenders cannot be relied upon not to make excessively risky loans out of their own self-interest.

Two new doctrinal approaches have emerged piecemeal to fill the regulatory gap created by the erosion of usury laws and lenders’ self-interested restraint: a revived unconscionability doctrine and ability-to-repay requirements. Some courts have held loan contracts unconscionable based on excessive price terms, even if the loan does not violate the applicable usury law. Separately, for many types of credit products, lenders are now required to evaluate the borrower’s repayment capacity and to lend only within such capacity. The nature of these ability-to-repay requirements varies considerably, however, by product and jurisdiction. This Article collectively terms these doctrinal developments the “New Usury.”

The New Usury represents a shift from traditional usury law’s bright-line rules to fuzzier standards like unconscionability and ability-to-repay. While there are benefits to this approach, it has developed in a fragmented and haphazard manner. Drawing on the lessons from the New Usury, this Article calls for a more comprehensive and coherent approach to consumer credit price regulation through a federal ability-to-repay requirement for all consumer credit products coupled with product-specific regulatory safe harbors, a combination that offers the greatest functional consumer protection and business certainty.

Impact of the Illinois Predatory Loan Prevention Act

posted by Adam Levitin

In 2021 Illinois passed its Predatory Loan Prevention Act (PLPA), which imposes a 36% military APR (MAPR) cap on all loans made by non-bank or credit union or insurance company lenders. Not surprisingly, the law has not been popular with higher cost lenders who either have to change their offerings, cease doing business in Illinois, or figure out some way to team up with a bank that won't run afoul of the law's anti-evasion provision. 

Recently, opponents of the PLPA have been making some noise, pointing to a study by a trio of economists—J. Brandon Bollen, Gregory Elliehausen, and Thomas Miller—about the impact of the PLPA. (The latter two are familiar scholars whose work consistently takes a dour view of consumer finance regulations: readers might recall my debunking of another recent study by Professor Miller, co-authored with Todd Zywicki, that was fundamentally flawed because of the miscalculation of loan caps in various states.)

Using credit bureau data, the Bollen et al. paper finds that the PLPA resulted in a 30% decrease in the number of unsecured installment loans to Illinois subprime borrowers and a 37% increase in the average installment loan size to Illinois subprime borrowers, which they attribute to the difficulty in making smaller loans profitable at 36% MAPR. Additionally, based on a lender-administered survey of 699 online borrowers (not necessarily of installment loans), the Bolen paper also reports a decline in borrower financial well-being following passage of the PLPA. 

Unfortunately, the Bollen paper suffers from serious data and methodological problems such that it does not tell us anything meaningful about the wisdom of the PLPA. Here's why. 

Continue reading "Impact of the Illinois Predatory Loan Prevention Act" »

The Texas Two-Step's Liquidation Problem

posted by Adam Levitin

This post is a joint post by Hon. Judith K. Fitzgerald (ret.)[*] and Adam Levitin

The Texas Two-Step has been the latest fad in mass tort bankruptcies, used, among others, by Johnson & Johnson, Georgia-Pacific, and, in a variation, 3M. The essential elements of the Texas Two-Step are the segregation of the debtor's mass tort liabilities in a non-operating subsidiary, which then enters into a funding agreement with the parent company to cover the mass tort liabilities up to some level. The subsidiary then files for bankruptcy and seeks to have the court stay the mass tort litigation against the non-debtor parent. If this maneuver is successful, the non-debtor parent goes about its normal business,[1] as do all of its creditors ... other than the mass tort victims. Meanwhile, the non-operating debtor subsidiary—whose sole creditors are mass tort victims—just sits in bankruptcy indefinitely.

The basic strategy behind a Texas Two-Step is “delay to discount”: the extended delay of the bankruptcy process pressures tort victims and their counsel to accept discounted settlement offers. The non-debtor parent feels no urgency for the bankruptcy to end because litigation is stayed against it. Moreover, the parent is able to continue its normal operations without being subject to bankruptcy court oversight or even to the regular expenses of defending the mass tort litigation. And because the debtor is a non-operating entity, it is under no pressure to emerge from bankruptcy. The debtor and its parent are both happy to let the bankruptcy drag on as long as necessary. In other words, the Texas Two-Step is an underwater breath-holding contest where the debtor has a snorkel. 

The ultimate end-game in a Texas Two-Step bankruptcy, however, is obtaining releases for the non-debtor parent (and other affiliates), bolstered by a channeling injunction that precludes tort victims from bringing suit against the parent and affiliates after the bankruptcy. There’s a fly in the ointment, however. A channeling injunction under section 524(g) requires that the debtor receive a discharge, and the debtor entity in the traditional Texas Two-Step case is not eligible for a discharge because it is a non-operating corporate entity that will be liquidating.

Continue reading "The Texas Two-Step's Liquidation Problem" »

The Financial Inclusion Trilemma

posted by Adam Levitin

I have a new draft article up on SSRN. It's called The Financial Inclusion Trilemma. The abstract is below. 

The challenge of financial inclusion is among the most intractable policy problems in banking. Despite being the world’s wealthiest economy, many Americans are shut out of the financial system. Five percent of households lack a bank account, and an additional thirteen percent rely on expensive or predatory fringe financial services, such as check cashers or payday lenders.

Financial inclusion presents a policy trilemma. It is possible to simultaneously achieve only two of three goals: widespread availability of services to low-income consumers; fair terms of service; and profitability of service. It is possible to provide fair and profitable services, but only to a small, cherry-picked population of low-income consumers. Conversely, it is possible to provide profitable service to a large population, but only on exploitative terms. Or it is possible to provide fair services to a large population, but not at a profit.

The financial inclusion trilemma is not a market failure. Rather it is the result of the market working. The market result, however, does not accord with policy preferences. Rather than addressing that tension, American financial inclusion policy still leads with market-based solutions and soft government nudges and the vain hope that technology will somehow transform the fundamental economics of financial services for small balance deposit accounts and small dollar loans.

This Article argues that it is time to recognize the policy failure in financial inclusion and give more serious consideration to a menu of stronger regulatory interventions: hard service mandates that impose cross-subsidization among consumers; taxpayer subsidies; and public provision of financial services. In particular, this Article argues for following the approach taken in Canada, the EU, and the UK, namely the adoption of a mandate for the provision of free or low-cost basic banking services to all qualified applicants, as the simplest solution to the problem of the unbanked. Addressing small-dollar credit, however, remains an intractable problem, largely beyond the scope of financial regulation.

Karens for Hire

posted by Adam Levitin

The Washington Post has an article about a new business, "Karens for Hire," that is basically a way to hire a customer service advocate. Having spent way too much time with customer service of late, the article really hit a nerve. It gets at the central problem of consumer law, namely that the dollar amounts at issue in almost every dispute are way too small to litigate. Instead, consumers have to work through customer service and hope that they receive some sort of resolution, but that's a process that imposes substantial transaction costs (wait times, e.g.) and in which the consumer has no guaranty of a positive resolution, even if the consumer is in the right. 

There's some level of reputational discipline on companies with bad customers service, but it's pretty weak and indirect: when was the last time you investigated a company's customer service reputation before making a purchase? 

There are a few attempts to regulate customer service of which I am aware—TILA/EFTA error resolution procedures and RESPA loss mitigation procedures—but there's no general system of public regulation. Figuring out exactly what, if anything, would work as a more general solution to ensuring fair and efficient resolution of customer service calls remains one of consumer law's great challenges. 

Alex Jones's Bankruptcy

posted by Adam Levitin

Alex Jones filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy himself today. So what is Mr. Jones hoping to accomplish with the bankruptcy filing? I see three possible goals, but I'm skeptical that he'll achieve more than one of them.

First, by filing for bankruptcy, Jones buys himself a bit of time and breathing space. The automatic stay stops all litigation and collection activity against him. It's not indefinite, but it takes the heat off for a bit. That might help him avoid any collection activities by the Sandy Hook victims' families while his motions for a new trial and remittur are pending.  (As far as I can tell, the Connecticut 20-day post-judgment window for appeal has run, but I guess these are not "appeals" since they are motions to the same court?)

Second, the bankruptcy filing moves the action from Connecticut to a Texas bankruptcy court. Jones might be hoping he finds the bankruptcy court more favorably inclined. I'm skeptical. If his behavior in the bankruptcy court matches how he's behaved in other courtrooms, he's not going to find the judge very sympathetic.

Third, Jones will be looking to get a discharge of his debts—including the Sandy Hook defamation judgment. If a debt is discharged, it cannot be collected after the bankruptcy; the creditor gets only what it is able to collect as part of the bankruptcy process. That would mean that Jones's future income would be free from the creditor's claim; only his present, non-exempt assets would be available for repaying creditors. While those present assets include (I presume) all of the IP of the Jones empire (by virtue of his ownership of the companies that hold them), Jones might have concluded that salvaging his current assets are a lost cause and that he'd do best to focus on freeing up his future income. 

The hitch here is that there is an exception to the bankruptcy discharge for "willful and malicious injury by the debtor to another or the property of another." If the behavior that produced the Sandy Hook judgment was "willful and malicious," then Jones will not be able to protect his future income through bankruptcy.  While the Sandy Hook judgment was for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and unfair trade practices—things that sound willful and malicious—it was a default judgment, meaning that there was never any actual hearing of the merits of the case; Jones just didn't respond to the suit. If there is a discharge objection raised (as there surely will be), then Jones will have a chance to litigate not the actual judgment, but the "willful and malicious" issue, but that effectively means he has an opportunity to litigate the case he previously forfeited. I'm skeptical that he'll prevail (he certainly loses on willful, but maybe he's got a shot at malicious?), but he at least gets another roll of the dice.

Now this extra dice roll isn't risk free. By filing for bankruptcy, Jones will have to come clean about all of his current assets. If he fails to do so, he risks federal prosecution for bankruptcy crimes.  Additionally, while Jones has filed for Chapter 11, where the default setting is that the debtor retains control of his assets as a debtor in possession, there is the possibility of the appointment of a trustee to take over his assets. There will surely be a motion made for the appointment of a trustee given allegations of Jones hiding assets. Jones will get to fight the motion, but I think a trustee being appointed is a real likelihood. If a trustee is appointed, the trustee will act to avoid various pre-bankruptcy transfers made by Jones in an attempt to shield his assets (and if there is no trustee appointed, then a creditors' committee will seek authorization to do so). Either way, I cannot imagine that Jones will be able to retain effective control of the case for very long. 

Bankruptcy offers Jones a glimmer of hope--maybe he can get a discharge for the Sandy Hook verdict, if the court finds his behavior wasn't willful and malicious--but if I were a betting man, I wouldn't put my money on Jones. Yet as long as he comes clean to the bankruptcy court about his assets, etc., there's little downside to him for trying this last Hail Mary move to stave off the Sandy Hook creditors.

Binance's Custodial Arrangements: Whose Keys? Whose Coins?

posted by Adam Levitin

For months, cryptocurrency FTX (and its majority owner, Sam Bankman-Fried) have been the lender of last resort in crypto markets and pretty much the only distressed acquirer around. Now we learn that FTX has itself failed and is getting scooped up in a distressed acquisition by Binance. Does this remind anyone of Bank of America's purchase of Merrill Lynch and Countrywide in 2008? We'll see if the transaction closes, but at the very least it poses the question of whether Binance stands on any stronger ground than FTX? Binance's revenue has been way down this year, but who really knows its financial condition? It's not a public company, so there's limited visibility into its financial condition.

Here's what I do know about Binance, however, and it gives me real pause: Binance.us's Terms of Use disclose absolutely nothing about its custodial arrangement for crypto holdings. From the documents on Binance.us's website, it is impossible to determine the legal relationship between Binance.us and its customers and hence the type of counterparty risk they have from dealing with the exchange. That's scary.

Continue reading "Binance's Custodial Arrangements: Whose Keys? Whose Coins? " »

The Texas Two-Step as Fraudulent Transfer

posted by Adam Levitin

Judge Judith Fitzgerald (ret.) and I have a post about the Texas Two-Step bankruptcy process up at the Harvard Bankruptcy Law Blog, which has been running a series on the phenomenon.  And the Slips' own John A.E. Pottow has a capstone post on the same topic.    

The tl;dr read version of my post with Judge Fitzgerald is that the real fraudulent transfer vulnerability of the Texas Two-Step is the incurrence of an obligation by the BadCo in the divisive merger, not the transfer of assets to the GoodCo. Focusing on the the incurrence of an obligation not only avoids the problem of the Texas divisive merger statute deeming the merger not to be a transfer of assets (as there is a separate provision in the statute about liabilities that doesn't parallel the asset provision), but it also avoids the problem that there is no longer a transferor entity in existence.  If we're right (and we are), then it means that the liabilities follow normal state law successor liability principles, which should put the liability on GoodCo, which is continuing OldCo's enterprise.

Dual Insulation? The Fifth Circuit's Factual Misunderstanding of CFPB Funding

posted by Adam Levitin

I know I’m carrying around some extra weight.  But I don’t think it’s quite double insulation.  That sounds like something you need if you’re going on a polar expedition or are really concerned about the heating bill.  But the concept of "dual insulation" plays a big role in the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Community Financial Services Association of America, Ltd. v. CFPB, which held the CFPB’s funding mechanism to be unconstitutional because it is not an annual appropriation from Treasury.   

In this post, I’ll discuss some of the background on the case, the poorly understood nature of the CFPB’s funding (factual mistakes about which loomed large in the Fifth Circuit’s decision), and the challenge the Fifth Circuit faced in trying to differentiate the CFPB’s funding from that of a host of other federal regulatory agencies (that’s where dual insulation comes in).

Continue reading "Dual Insulation? The Fifth Circuit's Factual Misunderstanding of CFPB Funding" »

US Chamber of Commerce vs CFPB

posted by Adam Levitin

One would have thought that after a dozen years the challenges to the CFPB’s constitutionality would have been over and that the Supreme Court’s decision in Seila Law would have put the matter to rest. But there are still a trio of suits pending that bring constitutional challenges to the Bureau, including one recently filed in the Eastern District of Texas by the US Chamber of Commerce and some banking and business associations. That’s the suit I’m going to focus on. 

The Chamber’s suit alleges that a recent change in the CFPB’s examination manual—guidance for CFPB examiners that the Bureau happens to make public as a courtesy—that indicates that examiners are to consider discrimination in non-credit services to be an unfair, deceptive, or abusive act or practice is a “legislative rule.” A legislative rule must comply with the Administrative Procedure Act, including adequate notice-and-comment, being based in law, and not being arbitrary and capricious. As a kicker, however, the Chamber’s suit adds in a count that the Bureau’s funding is unconstitutional. What's likely to happen?

 

Continue reading "US Chamber of Commerce vs CFPB" »

Chase's 50% Venmo Transaction Fee

posted by Adam Levitin

I teach about the $40 latte--a $5 latte with a $35 overdraft fee--and think I know how to avoid that. But I was pretty shocked when I looked at my Chase credit card statement today and saw the card card equivalent of an outrageous overdraft fee:  $20 in cash advance fees and $0.25 in cash advance interest for two credit-card funded Venmo transactions totaling $40. A 50% fee?  WTF.

What made this even more shocking was that Chase has never previously charged me fees or interest for Venmo transactions. As recently as July, I have Venmo'd without paying anything more than Venmo's 3% fee for credit-card funded transactions, and my card issuer has not sent me any change of terms notices in the interim. Puzzled, I decided to figure out what was going on. 

Continue reading "Chase's 50% Venmo Transaction Fee" »

3M's Aearo Technologies' Bankruptcy: the Hoosier Hop

posted by Adam Levitin

3M's earphone subsidiary, Aearo Technologies, filed for bankruptcy today in the Southern District of Indiana. This is looking like a really interesting case: it looks like a new generation of the Texas Two-Step strategy. Let's call it the Hoosier Hop. Here's the story.

Continue reading "3M's Aearo Technologies' Bankruptcy: the Hoosier Hop" »

Venmo's Unfair and Abusive Arbitration Opt-Out Provision

posted by Adam Levitin

Venmo's changing the terms of its arbitration agreement, and the manner in which it is doing so is unfair and abusive to consumers. The CFPB and state attorneys general need to take action here to protect consumers.

Here's the story.  Last night I got an email from Venmo entitled "Upcoming Changes to Venmo." Nothing in the email's title (which is all I see on my devices) signals that there is a change in contractual terms, and I would have just deleted it without reading but for seeing consumer finance list-serv traffic light up about it.  So I looked at the email, and in the body it does explain that there are changes to the Venmo arbitration clause. It also tells me that I can opt-out of the Agreement to Arbitrate "by following the directions in the Venmo User Agreement by June 22, 2022".  The Venmo User Agreement is hyperlinked.  It is a 95 page document. The hyperlink takes me to the very top of the agreement, but the arbitration agreement starts on page 70.  It takes a lot of scrolling to get there, and nothing is particularly prominent about the arbitration agreement's text.

The arbitration agreement itself has a summary at the top that includes a few bullet points, one of which is "Requires you to follow the Opt-Out Procedure to opt-out of the Agreement to Arbitrate by mailing us a written notice." The term Opt-Out Procedure is a hyperlink to a form that can be printed (but not completed on-line).

What's so ridiculous about requiring a hand-written form to be sent through the mail is that Venmo will surely digitize the form. That means someone's gotta open the mail and do the data entry. Why not have the customer do that himself? Or for that matter, just have a check box on my Venmo account for opting out of the arbitration agreement? The only reason to use the paper form and posts is to make it harder for consumers to opt-out of the arbitration provision.

What Venmo's doing is unfair and abusive and therefore illegal under the Consumer Financial Protection Act. It's perfectly legal for Venmo to have an arbitration clause, and there is no requirement that consumers have a right to opt-out of arbitration, although a change in terms on an existing contract is a bit more complicated. Be that as it may, Venmo is the master of its offer, and by giving consumers a right to opt-out, but raising barriers to the exercise of that right, Venmo is engaging in an unfair or abusive act or practice. Venmo is trying to have its cake and eat it too, but pretending that consumers have a choice about arbitration, but not actually giving them one.

That's "unfair" under the Consumer Financial Protection Act because the practice makes it likely that consumers will lose their right to proceed as part of a class action. That is a substantial injury to consumers in aggregate. The ridiculous opt-out procedure makes this injury "not reasonably avoidable by consumers." The consumer would have to click on no less than two hypertext links, starting with an email the title of which gives no indication what is at stake, and then navigating through a 95 page agreement to find the second link. After that, the consumer must print, fill out, and mail a form. Whatever one thinks of the benefits of arbitration, there's no benefit to consumers or competition from making the opt-out difficult. To my mind, this is a very clearly unfair act or practice. It's also an "abusive" act or practice under the Consumer Financial Protection Act. Because the terms of the opt-out make it so difficult for a consumer to actually exercise the opt-out, the terms of the opt-out "take unreasonable advantage of —the inability of the consumer to protect the interests of the consumer in...using a consumer financial product or service."  (One might also even be able to argue that it is a deceptive practice--the opt-out right has been buried in fine print and hypertext links.) 

Both the CFPB and state attorneys general have the ability to enforce the UDAAP provisions of the CFPA against nonbanks like Venmo. I hope the CFPB and state AGs get on Venmo about this. It presents a good opportunity for the Bureau to make clear what it expects in terms of fairness for contract term modification and opt-out rights.

What Happens If a Cryptocurrency Exchange Files for Bankruptcy?

posted by Adam Levitin

Exchanges play a key role in the cryptocurrency ecosystem, but no one seems to have given any consideration to so far is what happens when a cryptocurrency exchange that provides custodial services for its customers ends up in bankruptcy. We’ve never had such a crypto-exchange bankruptcy in the US—Mt. Gox, for example, filed in Japan—but it’s certainly a possibility.  These exchanges are not banks, so they are eligible for Chapter 11 if they have any US assets or incorporation, and they face substantial risks from hacking and their own proprietary trading in extreme volatile assets.

So what happens to a customer if an exchange files for bankruptcy?  I think it ends very badly for the customers, as explained below the break. I do not think customers understand the legal nature of the custodial relationships, and exchanges have no incentive to make the legal treatment clear to customers. In fact, the exchanges are lulling the consumers with language claiming that the consumer "owns" the coins, when in fact the legal treatment is quite likely to be different in bankruptcy. In bankruptcy, it is likely to be treated as a debtor-creditor relationship, not a custodial (bailment) relationship. That means that customers are taking on real credit risk with the exchanges, which is a particular problem because of the opacity of the exchanges and their lack of regulation.

Continue reading "What Happens If a Cryptocurrency Exchange Files for Bankruptcy?" »

The Miscalculations Underlying Miller & Zywicki's Payday Loan Paper

posted by Adam Levitin

Earlier this month Professors Todd Zywicki and Thomas Miller, Jr. wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing against payday loan regulation, based on their new empirical paper. Miller & Zywicki wrote:

Our findings will startle the rule writers at the CFPB. Contrary to the research cited in the CFPB’s 2017 rule, which claimed that “loans are almost always made at the maximum rate permitted,” we found that neither fees paid nor loan amounts inexorably rose to maximum allowable levels when those allowable levels were reasonable.

The implication is that there must be price competition among payday lenders with supply and demand setting prices, vitiating the need for regulation.

The problem is that Miller and Zywicki have incorrectly calculated the maximum fees permitted in numerous states. They wrongly assume that the effective rate charged for the first $100 of credit also applies to higher amounts. In fact, in many states, there is either a tiered, decreasing rate or a rate plus a flat fee included in any loan. As a result, Miller & Zywicki calculate the maximum permitted fees as being substantially higher than they in fact are in every state in which they find lenders are not pricing up to the legal limit.

Once this error is corrected, Miller and Zywicki’s figures actually confirm a truth that has long been obvious to anyone who has ever looked at payday loan pricing: there is no price competition, as lenders virtually always price up to the legal limit.

If my (lengthy) analysis below the break is correct, Professors Miller and Zywicki ought to retract both their op-ed and their paper. This is the sort of error for which op-eds and research papers are properly retracted. While Professors Miller and Zywicki might be opposed to payday regulation on ideological grounds, they surely do not want to base their claims on erroneous calculations of state fee caps.

Continue reading "The Miscalculations Underlying Miller & Zywicki's Payday Loan Paper" »

The Blurring of Tech and Finance

posted by Adam Levitin

I have an op-ed in ProMarkets about how Apple leverages control of the iPhone's NFC chip to push the dominance of its platform into new areas that let it hoover up more consumer data. The NFC (near field communication) chip is what lets the iPhone do contactless payments for ApplePay.  Apple strictly controls access to the NFC chip--it doesn't let AndroidPay use it, for example. But the NFC chip's uses extend beyond payments.  Apple is now using it to let the iPhone operate as a car key and a hotel room key. The catch? If you're a car manufacturer or hotel and you want this cool technology to work with your product, you're going to need to share some of the consumer data with Apple. 

What we're seeing here is an example of the increased blurring between tech companies and financial services companies, tied together by troves of consumer data.  This is a development that ultimately challenges the traditional regulatory boundaries of FTC and CFPB and is going to raise all sorts of issues for antitrust, consumer protection, and data privacy for years to come.

A Better Way to Deal with Student Loan Debt

posted by Adam Levitin

My Georgetown colleague Jake Brooks and I have an op-ed in Politico about the best way to address the student loan debt problem. We argue that existing proposals for outright student debt relief, whether $10k, $50k, or everything, are problematic, at least standing on their own, particularly because they fail to address the student loan problem going forward. Instead, we see income-driven repayment (IDR) plans as a key part of addressing the problem. 

Continue reading "A Better Way to Deal with Student Loan Debt" »

FDIC Power Struggle

posted by Adam Levitin

Remember when there were two dueling claimants for the title of CFPB Director? Well, we're now seeing a repeat of that conflict play out with the FDIC.

The FDIC is governed by a five member board, consisting of the FDIC Chair, a Vice-Chair, the CFPB Director, the Comptroller of the Currency, and at-large director. By statute, no more than three of the board members may be from the same political party. The Chair, Jelena McWilliams, is a Trump appointee. The vice-chair position is vacant. The other three directors are all Democratic appointees. That means that three of the four directors on the board are Democrats, but the chair is a Republican. So who is calling the shots at the FDIC?

The issue just came up because the three Democratic appointees voted to direct the FDIC's Executive Secretary to transmit a Request for Information for publication in the Federal Register (which provides the notice required under administrative law of a proposed action). That vote and instruction only appear in a statement released on the CFPB's website. The FDIC's website (presumably controlled by Chair McWilliams) states that no such action was approved by the FDIC.

What's going on here?

Continue reading "FDIC Power Struggle" »

Non-Debtor Releases

posted by Adam Levitin

I have an op-ed in Bloomberg Law about the abuse of non-debtor releases. Many chapter 11 attorneys argue that non-debtor releases are an essential all-purpose deal lubricant and that the excesses of a few cases—Purdue Pharma, Boy Scouts—shouldn't result in throwing out the baby with the bath water. I disagree. There's no question that non-debtor releases can grease a deal (and let's put aside the questionable practice of attorneys negotiating plans that give them releases as well). But so what? There's also a little thing called due process. It's only within the tunnel vision of chapter 11 that reorganization trumps all. Hopefully the Nondebtor Release Prohibition Act, which passed out of the House Judiciary Committee last month will become law and clarify the matter. 

Indeed, are non-debtor releases actually so important for practice? Chapter 11 lived with them for years before Mansville and even after Mansville it was years before they started being used in non-asbestos cases. Indeed, can anyone actually point to a case where a debtor would have had to liquidate and jobs would have been lost but for non-debtor releases? Perhaps there is such a case, but if so, it's the exception.

Take Purdue Pharma. What would have been the alternative to boughten releases for the Sacklers?  Perhaps a liquidating plan, but I'm not sure that it would have resulted in any job loss, just a going-concern sale. And the estate could have sold its own litigation claims against the Sacklers or put them into a litigation trust. To be sure, one might argue that the boughten releases for the Sacklers are a better deal economically for the estate, and that's the proper measure when considering a settlement of estate claims, but I do not see how the estate—or any bankruptcy judge—can constitutionally impose a settlement of creditors' direct claims against non-debtors. It doesn't comport with due process and it's pretty clearly an uncompensated taking.

I'm sure some readers will disagree, and comments are welcome. Further affiant sayeth not. 

Scholars' Letter in Support of Saule Omarova

posted by Adam Levitin

President Biden has nominated Cornell Law Professor Saule Omarova to be the next Comptroller of the Currency. While the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is not a well-known government agency outside of bank regulation circles, it is among the most important in financial regulation because it is the prudential regulator of national banks—the largest banks in the United States. The OCC is also the primary consumer protection regulator of all national banks with less than $10 billion in net assets, and the Comptroller is a member of the FDIC board. In short, this is a position with substantial influence over the banking industry. 

This week, numerous scholars of financial regulation (including me) sent a letter in support of the nomination to the Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Banking Committee. We believe that Professor Omarova would make an outstanding Comptroller, and we hope that she will receive a fair hearing even from those who might disagree with her on policy questions. Professor Omarova is a lawyer's lawyer with impeccable credentials for the job. After completing a PhD and JD, she worked at the leading banking law firm and then in the GWBush Treasury Special Advisor to then Under Secretary Randal Quarles, now the Fed's Vice-Chair for Supervision. Her scholarship is careful, restrained, and masterful, and her co-authors include the top banking attorney in the US.  Not only is Professor Omarova's knowledge of banking regulation unsurpassed within the academy, but she would bring a welcome change to the OCC as the first Comptroller who wasn't a either a banker, bank lawyer, or bank lobbyist when nominated. Her independence is much needed at an agency that has often seen banks as its customers, rather than as its regulatory charges. 

Unfortunately, some of the financial services industry opposition to Professor Omarova has veered into xenophobic and McCarthyite dog whistling based on Professor Omarova having grown up in the former Soviet Union. The hypocrisy in this anti-immigrant prejudice is astounding given the way that the same folks who are claiming that Professor Omarova is suspect because of her childhood in the Soviet Union have celebrated another former Soviet bloc immigrant-turned-bank regulator. The dog-whistling has gotten so bad that in a remarkable press release Senate Banking Committee Chair Sherrod Brown (D-Oh) threw down the gauntlet at the "Red Scare" character assassination coming not just from bank lobbyists, but from the Committee's Ranking Member, Senator Pat Toomey (R-Pa). 

The banking industry's decision to proceed through dog whistling suggests that it is reluctant to have it out over the substantive policy positions supported by Professor Omarova. But if you want to see a more sober and measured take on Professor Omarova from a law firm with numerous financial services industry clients, see Gibson Dunn's take here. What the law firm's take for its clients—rather than for political theater—suggests is that the sky won't fall with Comptroller Omarova, but that she will take a more skeptical view of bank activities outside of traditional core activity areas. In other words, it won't be business as usual. And that's the banking industry's real concern here. 

Further Thoughts on Coinbase: Two Mysteries

posted by Adam Levitin

I've been puzzling over two mysteries in the Coinbase saga:  first, why does Coinbase care so much if Lend is deemed a security, and second, why did the SEC want the list of Coinbase customers who had signed up in advance for Lend. I don't know that I've got all of this sussed out, but I figure I'll put my thinking out into the Internets and see if others have thoughts.

Continue reading "Further Thoughts on Coinbase: Two Mysteries" »

Coinbase and the SEC

posted by Adam Levitin

"All fintech is regulatory arbitrage, to some degree," Felix Salmon writes at Axios. And he's right. In the last couple of days we've seen two striking examples. First, the CFPB entered into a consent order with the provider of Income Share Agreements, a type of education financing. The consent order makes clear that the CFPB will be treating ISAs as student loans--that is credit--and therefore subject to the Truth in Lending Act and Equal Credit Opportunity Act.

And then we saw crypto-Twitter blow up over Coinbase's spat with the SEC regarding what is a security. Coinbase is the largest crypto exchange in the United States. It wants to offer a cryptocurrency lending product called Lend. According to Coinbase, the SEC told Coinbase that it thinks the product is a security and that it will sue if Coinbase offers the product without first registering it. After Coinbase got a Wells Notice from the SEC, Coinbase got huffy and decided to take its case to Twitter with a thread by it's CEO calling the SEC's behavior "sketchy".

There's a lot of confusion about the Coinbase matter, so I'm going to spell out what the stakes are, how I think the product works, and then why (assuming that I have the product's operation correct) Lend is obviously a security.

Continue reading "Coinbase and the SEC " »

Massachusetts Throws in the Towel with Credit Acceptance Corporation

posted by Adam Levitin

In 2020 the Massachusetts Attorney General brought one of the most significant consumer finance cases in years, a suit against subprime auto lender Credit Acceptance Corporation.  If you haven’t heard of CAC, it’s a one of the largest subprime auto lenders, and its stock has been one of the hottest growth stocks in recent years.  CAC is an indirect lender, meaning that it doesn't make the loan directly to the consumer, but instead purchases the loan from the dealer (who will not make the loan until the purchase is lined up).  

The suit contained a couple of really revolutionary claims, and Massachusetts was initially successfully, winning summary judgment on one count this spring and defeating the motion to dismiss on all challenged counts. The suit recently settled and for a surprisingly low amount and with virtually no meaningful prospective relief. CAC certainly had some possible defenses, but Massachusetts really seemed to be in a strong position, so it's a bit of a head scratcher what happened. 

Continue reading "Massachusetts Throws in the Towel with Credit Acceptance Corporation" »

Now Is the Time for Bankruptcy Venue Reform

posted by Adam Levitin

Judges Joan Feeney and Steven Rhodes and Professor Jay Westbrook and I have an op-ed supporting bankruptcy venue reform running in The Hill. Forum shopping has long been a problem in chapter 11, but with mass tort cases like Purdue and Boy Scouts of America, we're seeing it have effects on an previously unprecedented scale. It's time to do something about for the good of the system. 

Does Purdue Have a 203 N. LaSalle Problem?

posted by Adam Levitin

I was really struck by a line in the Purdue Pharma plan objection of the Distributors, Manufacturers and Pharmacies (DMP). They called the Sacklers mere "out-of-the-money shareholders."  That's 100% accurate. And it has important implications, one of which is in their objection, and one of which is not.  The point the DMP were making is that the release of the Sacklers has no reorganizational benefit to Purdue—it does nothing for Purdue's business.  This isn't like a release of litigation against folks who will remain officers and directors of a reorganized company and will be distracted by on-going litigation.  It's a good point.  But I think there's actually a stronger one. 

If one thinks of the Sacklers as out-of-the-money shareholders, then their release creates a 203 N. LaSalle Street P'Ship problem. 

Continue reading "Does Purdue Have a 203 N. LaSalle Problem? " »

Purdue Continues to Peddle Malarkey About Why It's in White Plains

posted by Adam Levitin

Purdue Pharma continues to peddle some malarkey about why it filed for bankruptcy in White Plains, New York.  In response to my House Judiciary testimony yesterday, Purdue told the Stamford Advocate:

Purdue Pharma Inc., the general partner of Purdue Pharma LP, has been a N.Y. corporation since its incorporation on Oct. 1, 1990. White Plains is about 15 miles from our corporate headquarters and is the closest federal bankruptcy courthouse. Thus it was the most appropriate place for us to file.

Let’s get real. Purdue—and that really means the Sacklers, who were still in control when Purdue's bankruptcy filing strategy was worked out—filed in White Plains because it wanted its case to be heard by Judge Robert Drain. If Judge Michael Wiles—who has held that bankruptcy courts do not have the power to issue third-party releases—had been the judge sitting in White Plains, there’s no chance Purdue would have gone anywhere near White Plains. On top of that, Purdue’s claim about convenience doesn’t pass the smell test. Convenience to corporate headquarters is never a real consideration in bankruptcy filings. If it were, would GM and Chrysler have filed in NY? Would Nieman Marcus or Belk have filed in Houston? Would anybody ever file in Delaware?

Continue reading "Purdue Continues to Peddle Malarkey About Why It's in White Plains" »

Nondischargeability and the Sacklers

posted by Adam Levitin

In the wake of today's House Judiciary Committee hearing, I got a text from an attorney who pointed out that if the Sacklers themselves filed for bankruptcy, creditors could raise non-dischargeability challenges under section 523, including for "willful and malicious injury by the debtor to another entity or to the property of another entity" or, or under section 1141(d)(6) for false claims acts violations. But with a non-debtor release, there's no opportunity or process to raise non-dischargeability challenges.

In other words, the Sacklers will be able to get greater a type of relief by piggybacking on Purdue's case that they could if they were debtors themselves.  Bruh. 

If that isn't a strong indication that the Bankruptcy Code does not contemplate non-debtor releases outside of the asbestos context, I'm not sure what is.

Is DOJ Supporting the Purdue Pharma Plan? Or Not?

posted by Adam Levitin

The Department of Justice appears to be mumbling out of both sides of its mouth in the Purdue Pharma bankruptcy.  On July 19, DOJ filed a "statement" regarding the release of the Sacklers. Not an "objection," but a statement that sure reads a lot like an objection.  Then today we learn that DOJ did not bother to vote its multi-billion dollar claim. The plan deems a vote not cast to be an acceptance. 

So which one is it?  Is DOJ for the plan or against it?  Or trying to keep its head down and avoid political heat while not really derailing anything?  Whatever position DOJ wants to take, this approach is not exactly a profile in courage.  (And failing to vote is not exactly in keeping with DOJ's brand... And failing to exercise governance rights on a multi-billion dollar asset? Bruh.)

I'll be very curious to see if DOJ actually argues anything at the confirmation hearing or joins in any appeal. The appellate point is key--there's a long-shot chance that the district court or 2nd Circuit might stay the effective date of the plan--but I think the odds of that are close to zero unless DOJ is among the parties making such a motion. If DOJ fails to seek a stay of the plan going into effect, it will be hard to see DOJ's "statement" as anything more than political posturing.

House Judiciary Testimony on Chapter 11 Abuses

posted by Adam Levitin

I'm testifying before the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday at a hearing entitled "Confronting Abuses of the Chapter 11 System."  My written testimony can be found here. It touches on six topics:

  1. Non-debtor releases
  2. Judge-picking
  3. Lack of appellate review (especially equitable mootness)
  4. Increased use of sub rosa plans
  5. Increasingly brazen fraudulent transfers
  6. Payday before mayday executive bonuses

By the way, since my draft article on Purdue has been public, I've heard from a number of attorneys, including folks I had not previously known, confirming various insights in the paper and wanting to tell me their own stories.  I have really appreciated that and learned a lot from it.  I have not seen this scale of a reaction to a paper previously. So if you've got your own tale of aggressive restructuring transactions being blessed by a hand-picked judge and then evading appellate review, I'm eager to hear them (and won't attribute them to you). 

The Texas Two-Step: The New Fad in Fraudulent Transfers

posted by Adam Levitin

There's a new fad in fraudulent transfers. It's called the Texas Two-Step. Here's how it goes. A company has a lot of tort liabilities (e.g., asbestos, talc, benzene, Roundup). The company transforms into a Texas corporate entity (the particular type doesn't matter). The new Texas entity then undertakes a "divisive merger" that splits the company into two companies, and it allocates the assets and liabilities as it pleases among the successor entities.

The result is that one successor entity ends up saddled with the tort liabilities (BadCo) and the other with the assets (GoodCo).  The companies then convert to whatever type of entity the want to be going forward for corporate governance (or venue) purposes, and the BadCo files for bankruptcy, while GoodCo keeps chugging away. The tort victims find themselves creditors in the bankruptcy of BadCo and get bupkes, while the bankruptcy plan inevitably includes a release of all claims against GoodCo. Pretty nifty way to hinder, delay, or defraud creditors if it works, right?

Well, that's the question:  does this work?  We've only seen two Texas Two-Steps to date. There have been a few Texas Two-Steps to date (and one might be a Wilmington Waltz). First was BestWall's asbestos bankruptcy. BestWall (formerly part of Georgia Pacific) is a subsidiary of Koch Industries, and its bankruptcy is pending in the Western District of North Carolina. No plan has been confirmed, but the case has been dragging on since 2017, and the asbestos victims have been enjoined from suing any of the non-bankrupt Koch entities. Plan exclusivity has long-lapsed, but the court won't dismiss the case and doesn't seem willing to consider any alternatives. Even if the Two-Step isn't completely successful in the end, it will surely reduce whatever settlement the Koch entities have to pay.

Then there's DBMP (CertainTeed), another asbestos case, again in the Western District of North Carolina. Same story going on there; there's an adversary proceeding pending about the preliminary injunction. Also in WDNC, before the same judge is Aldrich Pump. Same judge as DBMP, and again a preliminary injunction. And then pending in Delaware is Paddock Enterprises, LLC, the rump of Owens-Illinois. The UST filed an examiner motion over the divisive merger transaction. Denied.

In any case, the Two-Step looks promising enough that Johnson & Johnson is supposedly considering using it for its talc liabilities.

Continue reading "The Texas Two-Step: The New Fad in Fraudulent Transfers" »

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