postings by Stephen Lubben

Puerto Rico, the Board, and the Appointments Clause

posted by Stephen Lubben

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

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

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

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

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

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

CDS Strikes Again (Aurelius and Windstream)

posted by Stephen Lubben

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alix-McKinsey Update

posted by Stephen Lubben

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Commonwealth and the GOs, part 2

posted by Stephen Lubben

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

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

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

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

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

The Commonwealth and the GOs, part 1

posted by Stephen Lubben

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

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

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

More details after the break.

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

Jay Alix, McKinsey Redux

posted by Stephen Lubben

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

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

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

Maybe it's not a new problem after all

posted by Stephen Lubben

Consider:

Seldom are business bankruptcy cases initiated under Chapters I to VII, inclusive, as well as under Chapters X and XI, where all or substantially all of the assets have not been pledged as collateral for the payment of debts. This pledging of assets tends to create serious questions in connection with the administration of the estates. In cases where the debtor is engaged in business, the receiver or trustee is quite often without free assets with which to carry on operations. There is no money in hand and no means of raising funds necessary to take care of fixed and direct charges essential for the maintenance of the business, without impinging upon the rights of the secured creditors. Debtors who might otherwise be reorganized in the public interest are unable to continue in business long enough to develop alternate means of financing and negotiate accommodations with their creditors.

Charles Seligson, Major Problems for Consideration by the Commission on the Bankruptcy Laws of the United States, 45 Am. Bankr. L.J. 73, 87-88 (1971).

No comment

posted by Stephen Lubben

In this morning's email:

Moody's Investors Service downgraded its Probability of Default Rating (PDR) for American Tire Distributors, Inc. ... following the company's announcement that it had initiated Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings...

ISDA Promotes a Race to the Bottom

posted by Stephen Lubben

Frustrated that Congress did not decide to collapse the CFTC and SEC as part of Dodd-Frank, and facing the reality that the SEC is still working on its rules under Title VII of Dodd-Frank, ISDA, the swaps industry trade group, is out with a white paper that urges the adoption of a "safe harbor."

This is not the infamous bankruptcy safe harbors, but rather a rule that would be adopted by both regulators. The basic idea is that compliance with one regulator's rule is "good enough." That is, swaps traders could choose which regulator they want.

What could possibly go wrong?

Excuse Me?

posted by Stephen Lubben

Barry Ritholtz has a generally sensible column about the ten-year anniversary of the financial crisis, but the bankruptcy stuff really makes no sense at all. Start with this proposition:

I believed then (and still believe) that the best course of action would have been prepackaged bankruptcies for all the insolvent institutions instead of bailouts.

How precisely would that work? A prepack involves pre-bankruptcy solicitation of votes from creditors – largely bondholders if we are talking about a SIFI's holding company. Under the securities laws, the solicitation will take at least 20 days. That is about 19 days more than will be required for the run on the SIFI to be fully commenced.

And then we have:

I would have had the federal government provide debtor-in-possession financing, allowed qualified private institutional investors to bid on the assets thereby letting markets set the valuations, with the government picking up the rest.

So this is not a prepack at all. If we are bidding on assets post-bankruptcy, there is no pre-bankruptcy plan for creditors to vote on. Indeed, until we see how the sale goes, there is no plan at all.

In short, we are just doing chapter 11, Lehman style. Maybe with a bit more pre-planning, which could not hurt. But if you assume better facts, you are bound to think you have found a better way

I continue to doubt that bankruptcy has much to offer with regard to a SIFI failure – which is really much more a question of ex ante regulation, and post default politics.

Available at finer booksellers everywhere (and Amazon too!)

posted by Stephen Lubben

CoverMy new book is out – the Law of Failure.

The sub-title is "A Tour Through the Wilds of American Business Insolvency Law," which pretty much tells the whole story. I try to cover all business insolvency law – not just the Bankruptcy Code. State laws, and federal laws like Dodd-Frank's OLA are covered too. All in a concise little volume.

In my research I discovered that many states have specialized receivership and other insolvency laws for specific types of businesses. And some states – I'm looking at you New Hampshire – still have corporate "bankruptcy" statutes on the books from the days when there was no federal bankruptcy law, or (as was the case with the early Bankruptcy Act) the law did not extend to all types of businesses. Can any of these laws really work? It is hard to say, since the Supreme Court has not dealt with a bankruptcy preemption issue in a very long time.

I welcome discussion on this question, or the book in general, from Slips readers, either below or via email.

Jay Alix v. McKinsey Update

posted by Stephen Lubben

As my summer of poutine, donairs, and nippy waters winds down, a quick post to note that the long-expected motion to dismiss has been filed in the battle between the chapter 11 financial advisors. A McKinsey spokesperson also provided the following statement, which gives some insight into how they intend to respond to this case:

“Jay Alix has waged a years-long crusade against McKinsey & Company to stifle competition in the bankruptcy advisory market. His attempt to bootstrap a disclosure dispute into a RICO action is devoid of any legal basis and obviously intended to do nothing but inflict reputational damage. Courts have previously upheld the appropriateness of McKinsey’s disclosures. This lawsuit is just one more part of Mr. Alix’s anticompetitive campaign to push out of the market a competitor whose deep expertise and unmatched scale deliver superior bankruptcy outcomes.”

Thoughts: initial thoughts on the Alix-McKinsey lawsuit

posted by Stephen Lubben

The compliant alleges some damming stuff. McKinsey brushes it all off as an anti-competitive ploy. It seems to me that the biggest risk to McKinsey is that the failure to disclose can itself be the basis for an order to disgorge fees.

McKinsey 2Even if McKinsey might have been retained in these cases if it had made disclosure up front – I don't necessarily agree with the Alix complaint that the alleged connections would have been, in all cases, fatal to their retention – failure to disclose is itself a serious problem. Bankruptcy professionals always have to disclose more than what is required by section 327's adverse interest/disinterested standard, because ultimately what counts as a problem for section 327 purposes is a question for the court, not the professional, to decide.

And I wonder why the courts approved McKinsey's retention applications in the first place. And where was the US Trustee? It is alleged that many of their retention applications stated that McKinsey had no relevant conflicts to disclose.  As in none. For a company of the size and importance of McKinsey, that frankly is not plausible. 

The allegations in paragraphs 120 to 122, which I have cut out in the image, are deeply troubling. In short, Jay Alix alleges that McKinsey recommended law firms to clients, and the law firms in turn recommended McKinsey for retention in the case. Not only might this be illegal, as Alix says, but this sort of relationship would have to be disclosed in the McKinsey (and law firms) retention applications even if not illegal.

Battle of Giants

posted by Stephen Lubben

I have been studying chapter 11 professionals since before the turn of the century, but today we have a first. Jay Alix, as assignee of AlixPartners LLP, has filed a 150 page complaint against McKinsey & Co., Inc. and others, alleging RICO violations in connection with McKinsey's alleged violations of section 327 and rule 2014.  This apparently comes out of the Wall Street Journal's report last week that McKinsey was suspiciously light and vague in its disclosures in bankruptcy court, as compared with other, similar professionals.

The alleged conspiracy goes back to cases during my time in practice – that is, long, long ago. It will be interesting to watch this develop.

Coming Soonish to a Bookstore Near You

posted by Stephen Lubben

Assuming you still have those in your town. If not, also available for preorder now is my forthcoming book, entitled The Law of Failure.  It is my attempt to consider all of American business insolvency law as a whole. Not just bankruptcy but also assignments, receiverships, and even oddball things like Nevada's campground receivership provisions.

The Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act

posted by Stephen Lubben

Or EGRRCPA, for short. That is the official name of S. 2155, a bill which seems to be tearing Senate Democrats apart. Republicans are uniformly in favor of the bill, which Bloomberg describes as "another faulty bank-reform bill." Some Democrats see it as needed regulatory relief for small banks, while others, including the one who used to blog here, see S. 2155 as a rollback of keys parts of Dodd-Frank for big banks that remain too big to fail.

It is both. Indeed, if the bill were stripped of its title IV, I think most people could live with it. But title IV is a doozy.  

Most notably, it raises the threshold for additional regulation under Dodd-Frank from $50 billion in assets to $250 billion. Banks with more than $50 billion in assets are not community banks.

The banks in the zone of deregulation include State Street, SunTrust, Fifth Third, Citizens, and other banks of this ilk. In short, with the possible exception of State Street, this is not a deregulatory gift to "Wall Street," but rather to the next rung of banks, all of which experienced extreme troubles in 2008-2009, and all of which participated in TARP.

My prime concern – given my area of study – is that these banks will no longer be required to prepare "living wills." That is, they will not have to work with regulators on resolution plans.

How then do we expect to use Dodd-Frank's orderly liquidation authority if they fail? It would be impossible without advanced planning. Same for the misguided attempts at "chapter 14." I have real doubts about the wisdom of "bankruptcy for banks," but if it is ever to work, it will require lots of advanced planning (and luck).

And we can't use the normal FDIC approach of finding another, bigger bank to take them over, because that would simply create another colossus, like Wells Fargo. Certainly we don't want that.

Maybe a bailout then? Is that the "new" plan?

Chapter 11 Locale

posted by Stephen Lubben

For nearly two decades, the fact that many really large chapter 11 cases file in two districts has been a point of controversy.  On the one hand, the present system makes some sense from the perspective of debtor’s attorneys, and many DIP lenders, who value the experience and wisdom of the judges in these jurisdictions and the predictability that filing therein brings.  On the other hand, for those not at the core of the present system, it reeks of an inside game that is opaque to those on the outside.  And it is not clear the judges outside the two districts could not handle a big case; indeed, most could.

Where big chapter 11 cases should file is an issue again, at least among bankruptcy folks, given the possibility that the pending Cornyn-Warren venue bill might pass as part of some bigger piece of legislation, perhaps the pending S. 2155 (whose Title IV is so misguided it certainly warrants a separate post).

I have long been frustrated by the discussion of chapter 11 venue.  On the one hand, the present system has developed largely by accident, with little thought for the broader policy implications.  On the other, there is certainly some merit in concentrating economically important cases before judges who are well-versed in the issues such cases present.  The issue calls for careful study, but, as with most political issues these days, we are instead presented with a binary choice.

I have often contemplated concentrating the biggest chapter 11 cases among a group of bankruptcy judges, trained in complexities of multi-state or even global businesses.  A small panel of such judges could be formed in various regions around the country, such that the parties would never have to travel further than to a neighboring state for proceedings.  Geographically larger states – i.e., California and Texas – might comprise regions all by themselves.

Such an approach would ensure that cases would capture some of the benefits of the present system, without the drawbacks of having a Seattle-based company file its bankruptcy case on the East Coast.  Comments are open, what do readers think about developing a nationwide group of "big case" judges?

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