postings by Mark Weidemaier

More on Belize: Marine Conservation is Nice; Deeper Haircuts Are Better

posted by Mark Weidemaier

A couple of additional thoughts on Belize’s debt workout, especially the relatively novel aspect involving the pre-funding of a marine conservation trust. The deal has featured prominently in the financial press lately, with great coverage in the FT (here by Robin Wigglesworth and here by Tommy Stubbington), Bloomberg (here), and elsewhere. For details, see Mitu’s posts here and here. Mitu has a relatively optimistic take, which I’m mostly on board with. It would be wonderful if countries could both ease debt burdens and increase investment in marine conservation and other forms of sustainable growth. It would be even more wonderful if investors paid for some of this by granting significant debt relief. But even if that’s what happened with Belize—and I’m not entirely sure that it is—the Belize deal may not be replicable at a scale that would matter.

The plan is for Belize to repurchase and retire its outstanding international bond. Reports suggest that negotiations over the repurchase price were stalled at around 60 cents on the dollar. Ultimately, investors agreed to take 55. In return for that concession, Belize will prefund a $23.4 million trust to support future marine conservation projects. One potential takeaway is that investors agreed to the additional 5 cent reduction after being presented with the debt-for-nature idea, perhaps in part because intense media coverage created pressure to demonstrate their ESG bona fides.

The first point to note here is that the additional 5 cents per dollar is very large in comparison to the concessions investors seem willing to make to achieve ESG goals in other contexts.

Continue reading "More on Belize: Marine Conservation is Nice; Deeper Haircuts Are Better" »

Might PBA Creditors Take a Lesson From the Black Widow?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

We’ve had lots of interesting responses to our earlier post on debt restructuring shenanigans engaged in by the Province of Buenos Aires. Many on the creditor side are miffed. Two issues raised by these responses seemed worth another post. So here we go.

Why not use the Black Widow Strategy?

At first, we didn’t understand the reference. But Google helped. Black Widow is the new Marvel movie starring Scarlett Johansson, who is suing Disney because it, and its subsidiary Marvel, did not do an exclusive release of the movie in theaters before selling it on the new Disney Plus streaming service (here). Instead of suing Marvel for breach of contract, she is suing Disney for tortious interference with contract. This is a standard move for parties bound, like Ms. Johansson, by an arbitration clause they would prefer to avoid. By suing a related third party, they get to proceed in court—unless the third party can argue that it is a third party beneficiary or otherwise entitled to invoke the arbitration agreement.

Why mention tortious interference in the context of the Province of Buenos Aires’ recent exchange offer? Tortious interference is an old common law tort action. It is typically brought against a non-party who induces one of the contracting parties to breach. Since it is a tort, one has to show causality and, in some circumstances, also that the non-party not only interfered but did so with some improper motive or by some improper method. (And defining what counts as improper has proven difficult). A senior lawyer who hated Ecuador’s original exit exchange in 2000 once commented that he was inclined to organize a tortious interference action and believed he would win. The logic then and now is that, by inducing participating creditors to vote to impair the rights under the contract they are exiting, the issuer is inducing a breach of that contract.

But we are less confident that tortious interference is a helpful way of thinking about behavior like PBA’s.

Continue reading "Might PBA Creditors Take a Lesson From the Black Widow?" »

Why Are Creditors OK With The Province of Buenos Aires’ Dodgy Use of Exit Amendments?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier

For the most part, the financial press has not scrutinized the details of the ongoing restructuring by the Province of Buenos Aires (PBA), which is nearing completion. The details are worth considering. Some aspects of the exchange offer might have crossed the line between good and bad faith and might have been subject to legal challenge. But this turns out be an uncertain area of law.

The basic transaction is structured as an exit exchange, and this technique raises some legal uncertainties even if we ignore the dodgy particulars of PBA’s restructuring. A debtor in financial distress needs to negotiate a debt reduction with its creditors. The debt contracts allow creditors to consent to reduce the amounts owed them, but only on condition that a majority or supermajority vote in favor. Let’s say, hypothetically, this requires the support of 90% of creditors. And let us say that the debtor has managed to persuade only 60% of creditors to support its restructuring proposal. So the debtor would seem to be out of luck.

Enter the exit exchange.

Continue reading "Why Are Creditors OK With The Province of Buenos Aires’ Dodgy Use of Exit Amendments?" »

(Why) Are ESG Sovereign Bonds (Such) Scams?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

Environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investing is all the rage, with heaps of money pouring into sovereign and corporate bonds intended to finance efforts to meet climate-related goals and other worthwhile objectives. We have been skeptical of these commitments for some time, mostly because we aren’t persuaded investors care about much other than yield. And in fact, yields on ESG bonds seem to be a bit—but only a bit!—lower than yields on non-ESG bonds (the so-called “greenium”). As Matt Levine pointed out a couple of days ago, it’s not obvious how socially responsible investing will affect investors’ returns. But we are a little bit suspicious of the market for sovereign ESG bonds.

In part, we’re suspicious for the usual reasons. The basic transaction structure is that the bond issuer says it will use the proceeds for some beneficial environmental or social purpose. But the commitments are often defined so vaguely that it is hard to verify compliance. This is a pretty standard complaint, and a lot of smart people are thinking about how to define “green” investments and develop verification tools. But we’re suspicious for a more fundamental reason: The contracts are absolute b.s. Many issuers don’t commit to anything at all, or so the documentation suggests.

Continue reading "(Why) Are ESG Sovereign Bonds (Such) Scams?" »

The Haitian Independence Debt

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

The Haitian Independence Debt of 1825 is perhaps the most odious in the history of sovereign debt. France agreed to grant recognition to the Haitian state in exchange for a massive indemnity payment, ostensibly intended to compensate French plantation owners for losses suffered during Haitian revolution. With French gunboats lurking in port and offshore, the French imposed a massive and unpayable debt burden equal to roughly 5 times the annual French budget.

Surprisingly, the literature on odious debt pays fairly little attention to this episode. Perhaps this because the doctrine of odious debt was developed with a view towards borrowing by a despot who is subsequently overthrown. Must the populace repay money borrowed to oppress it? Thus, when Haiti does show up in the odious debt literature, the question typically involves debts incurred by the despotic Duvalier regimes. The Independence Debt, by contrast was incurred in the context of a colony escaping the control of an imperial power, and the modern odious debt literature generally ignores this context. We discuss this in a recent Clauses and Controversies podcast with the wonderful Gregoire Mallard, that should be out soon.

This semester, we asked students in our international debt class what they would say if either the French or the Haitian governments came to them today, asking for advice on whether Haiti had a viable legal claim arising from these 1825 events.

Continue reading "The Haitian Independence Debt" »

SDNY Upholds Pledge of Collateral for PDVSA 2020s

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Today, Judge Failla of the Southern District of New York issued an opinion rejecting PDVSA's request for a declaration invalidating the PDVSA 2020 bonds. These bonds, which we've written about before (e.g., here, here and, here) are backed by a pledge of 50.1% of the equity in Citgo Holding. The argument for invalidating the bonds contends that the 2016 exchange offer and collateral pledge was a contract in the "national public interest," which, under Venezuelan law, required but did not receive the approval of the National Assembly. PDVSA argued, first, that under the act of state doctrine, the court had to defer to a series of National Assembly resolutions declaring the exchange offer invalid. It also argued that Venezuelan law governed disputes over the validity of the contract, even though the governing law clause in the bonds specified New York law.

The district judge rejected these arguments in a lengthy and thoughtful opinion. (There is one clear but fairly tangential mistake, when the opinion implies on p. 59 that PDVSA is neither a "foreign state" nor an agency or instrumentality of a foreign state for purposes of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.*) On the governing law question, the judge ultimately decided that New York law applied because--to oversimplify a bit--New York had a significant connection to the transaction. The bonds were negotiated and paid in New York, etc. For more on this conflict of laws issue, see here.

I'd expect to see an appeal, although whether that will benefit PDVSA (even if just by giving it more time) will probably depend on whether the district judge or court of appeals issues a stay of the current order. [edit: And of course on further developments in the U.S. sanctions regime.]

*Technically, the court said only that neither party argued that PDVSA was such an entity. The court made this point to help it distinguish FSIA cases that supported PDVSA's position. But this is no distinction at all. It is beyond dispute that PDVSA is an agency or instrumentality of Venezuela (or is indistinguishable from the government if treated as its alter ego). In either case, the FSIA unquestionably applies to PDVSA, so it is not obvious why cases under the FSIA would be irrelevant to the dispute.

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