postings by Mark Weidemaier

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.

The Sideshow about Venezuela's Prescription Clause

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

We’ve written before about the perplexing prescription clause that appears (in one form or another) in Venezuela’s bonds. A common version of the clause says something like this:

Claims in respect of principal and interest will become void unless presentation for payment is made within a period of ten years in the case of principal and three years in the case of interest from the Relevant Date, to the extent permitted by applicable law.  “Relevant Date” means whichever is the later of (i) the date on which any such payment first becomes due and (ii) if the full amount payable has not been received by the Fiscal Agent on or prior to such due date, the date on which, the full amount having been so received, notice to that effect shall have been given to the Bondholders.

The clause is weird. Because Venezuela’s default in the payment of interest is now approaching its 3-year anniversary for some bonds, some investors worry that, unless they file suit, claims to recover those missed payments will become void. Seeking to reassure them, the interim government has released a statement saying not to worry. In the interim government’s view, the clause “addresses situations where the Fiscal Agent holds amounts paid by the Republic that are unclaimed by, or otherwise not distributed to, bondholders.” The statement asserts that the prescription period has not started to run because the fiscal agent hasn’t yet received the funds.

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Episode Two of Clauses and Controversies: Imperial Chinese Bonds

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

To prepare for later discussions about how to address the looming debt crisis caused by Covid-19, our first few episodes of Clauses and Controversies look backwards, albeit to historical events with current salience. Episode Two is our first official episode and is about pre-PRC Chinese bonds that have been in default since before World War II. One of us (Mitu) loves this topic and the other (Mark) increasingly flies into a rage whenever it comes up.

Our guests are the wonderful Tracy Alloway of Bloomberg (whose article about these bonds last year went viral), sovereign debt guru Lee Buchheit (who knows more about the history of these types of bonds than anyone – here’s the FT's Robin Wigglesworth on Lee), and Alex Xiao, a former student who is working on a paper on this topic.

The subject of defaulted Chinese bonds is back in the news, largely in connection with U.S.-Chinese trade talks. (Are there trade talks?) A group of ardent Trump supporters have apparently accumulated a bunch of these bonds. Izabella Kaminska of the FT wrote about this a recently, and so did Fox Business a couple of days ago. (The Fox Business piece was a bit more enthusiastic, shall we say, than the others.) Previous lawsuits seeking to enforce them have failed on sovereign immunity and statute of limitations grounds, so these investors are lobbying the President to negotiate a recovery for them as part of his trade talks. And there is some reason to think the administration might be interested. The President is inclined to anti-China and anti-Chinese rhetoric, and these defaulted bonds are an opportunity to indulge that impulse further. Plus, Chinese institutions hold huge amounts of U.S. government debt, and some have floated the loony idea that these defaulted Chinese bonds could be used to offset some of that debt. For a deeper dive, here is a fun piece, The Emperor’s Old Bonds, by three former students.

So, why do we have a love hate relationship with these bonds? Here are the remarks we sent our expert guests as a prelude to asking for their views.

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Clauses and Controversies podcast

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Both of us are teaching 1L Contracts online this semester and fear we also may have to do the same for our joint Duke/UNC sovereign debt class next semester. One silver lining is that we have been forced to think of ways to break up the normal class routine. One of these ways is that we are creating a podcast titled "Clauses and Controversies." Thanks to our superb producer, Leanna Doty, the first three episodes are up on iTunes, and Soundcloud, and Overcast. We wanted to come up with something to expose students to ideas and topics that excite us, while giving them a chance to hear conversations with our favorite commentators who study and work on contracts and sovereign debt. The timing seemed right, too, as the economic fallout of Covid-19 may cause many sovereign debt defaults and restructurings.

There is no global mechanism for efficiently and fairly handling a global wave of sovereign financial distress and default. The wave almost hit this past March, when the financial system hit a sudden stop as people seemed to finally recognize the pandemic. Since then, massive infusions of Official Sector capital have allowed government borrowing to continue. But another sudden stop may be in the offing, and even if not the long-term economic damage of the pandemic may tip governments into insolvency.

The first episode is an introduction, which sets out what we hope to do with the series and then gets into the ongoing dispute over whether investors can seize Venezuela’s prize oil refinery in Texas. The absence of a handful of words in the PDVSA governing law clause might make all the difference. But we don’t think it should. (For anyone seeking a deeper dive into the issue, see here.)

We owe an immense debt to our friends in the business who have been so generous in giving us their time, energy, and insight. We also owe a debt to Dave Hoffman and Tess Wilkinson-Ryan for providing us with inspiration with their brilliant contract law podcast series, “Promises, Promises." Fair warning: they are much more brilliant and hilarious than we are. It must be a treat to be in their classes.

The US Government Mumbles Something in Support of Venezuela

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Judicial outcomes are determined by a variety of factors beyond precedent, statutory text, and other purely legal inputs. One factor, especially in cases involving foreign governments, is the preference of the U.S. government. In the middle of the 20th century, the government’s preferences often were dispositive, because the State Department had final say over whether U.S. courts could exercise jurisdiction over foreign states. The State Department eventually tired of being caught in the middle of  these disputes and Congress passed the buck to the judiciary, which now makes immunity determinations in accordance with the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

Still, U.S. administrations periodically put a thumb on the scale in favor of a foreign state. On occasion, this happens even when relations with the foreign state aren’t especially friendly. Foreign sovereign immunity tends to be reciprocal, and the government worries that an overly assertive approach by U.S. courts will prompt courts in other countries to retaliate by asserting expansive jurisdiction over the United States. Still, what’s happening in the Crystallex litigation is a bit unusual. Until now, U.S. sanctions have been the primary tool by which the government has protected Venezuelan assets in the United States. Thus, the U.S. largely sat idle while the federal judiciary ruled that Venezuela and state-oil company PDVSA were alter egos, such that assets formally belonging to PDVSA could be attached by creditors of the Republic itself. Because of that holding, the District Court in Delaware is currently busy trying to figure out whether and how to conduct an execution sale of PDVSA’s equity in PDV Holding, the ultimate parent company of Citgo. (For more, see here and here).

And then, as Anna Szymanski describes in her piece for Reuters that went up earlier today (here), the U.S. government filed a "statement of interest" in the matter.

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Some Confusion About Argentina’s Power to Reverse an Acceleration

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

As negotiations between the Argentine government and its creditors have gotten increasingly acrimonious, some have begun talking about litigation. Because Argentina’s bonds have collective action clauses, it can impose restructuring terms on dissenting creditors as long as it has the support of a supermajority. Even if it doesn’t have supermajority support to do the cram down, it still has weapons.

One important weapon that often gets overlooked in discussions of the cram down power is the power to rescind or reverse a decision by creditors to accelerate the debt. In effect, this is a power to create a standstill. Argentina’s bonds have some relatively unusual provisions in this regard. One possible interpretation of these provisions is that Argentina is about to lose the ability to reverse an acceleration. We think this interpretation is wrong, but we have heard it raised with some frequency and want to address it here.

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PDVSA’s 2020 Bonds: When and Why Does Venezuelan Law Matter?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

In 2016, the Maduro government bought some time through a debt exchange in which holders of maturing bonds issued by state oil company PDVSA swapped them for new bonds due in 2020. The new bonds were collateralized by a 50.1% interest in the U.S. parent company of Citgo. Now that the U.S. no longer recognizes the Maduro administration, the new Venezuelan government sued in the Southern District of New York asking to invalidate the bonds and the collateral pledge. It points to Venezuelan law requiring legislative approval for contracts in the “national public interest,” which didn’t happen here. For background, see our posts from last October, here and here.

The initial briefs have been filed, and not surprisingly the parties disagree about the relevance of Venezuelan law. The PDVSA 2020 bonds are governed by New York law. Venezuela argues that this does not matter, that Venezuelan law determines whether the bonds are valid. The indenture trustee argues that Venezuelan law is irrelevant, that New York law is all that matters, and that under New York law the bonds are enforceable. We’ve seen similar disputes a lot of late, including in connection with debt issued by Ukraine, Mozambique, and Puerto Rico. A government issues foreign-law debt that it later claims was unlawful under its own law. What law governs the dispute?

We have been mulling this question for some time now. At first, we thought it was straightforward, and we suspect many market participants feel the same way. But it is more complicated than a simple foreign versus domestic binary. The end result is this paper, Unlawfully-Issued Sovereign Debt.

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Selling CITGO--Timing and Process

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Yesterday was the deadline for opening briefs regarding the writ of attachment and potential execution sale of PDVSA’s shares in PDVH, the parent company of US oil refiner CITGO. As expected, Venezuela has asked the court to set aside the writ of attachment. Other briefs argue about what an execution sale should look like, if a sale goes forward. An execution sale is typically an informal, auction-on-the-courthouse-steps kind of thing. That’s not the usual way to sell a multi-billion dollar oil company.

Here’s a very quick summary of the filings, with links to the briefs. And here’s a bit more background, focusing on the timing and process of any execution sale.

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The Argentine Re-Designation Drama: Notes From Two Frustrated Readers

posted by Mark Weidemaier

By Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier

In 2014, after much fanfare, a shiny new set of collective action clauses was released by ICMA (the International Capital Markets Association), with the endorsement of the IMF, the US Treasury, and others. The inspiration for these clauses? The fact that Argentina, after its 2001 default, got taken to the cleaners by hedge funds who found ways to exploit ambiguities (pari passu) and oddities (FRANs) in the terms of its debt contracts. The new ICMA CACs were supposed to protect against the risk of holdouts (by letting a super-majority of bondholders quash minority holdouts) while constraining opportunistic behavior by sovereigns (by limiting the sovereign’s ability to coerce creditors into supporting a restructuring). But for all of the good intentions behind these 2014 ICMA CACs, they are long, complicated, and leave gaps for clever parties to exploit. And Argentina’s 2020 restructuring proposal may just illustrate the problem.

Many creditors are irate about Argentina’s exchange offer, so much so that some of them say they no longer want the 2014 ICMA CACs. We have been struggling to understand why the offer got them so upset. Fortunately, Anna Szymanski of Reuters Breaking Views put out a piece titled “Argentina Gets Cheeky With its Creditors” earlier today that makes the basics of the drama clear (here). Cribbing from Anna’s research, here is how we understand what is going on and why creditors are irate.

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How Are So Many EM Sovereigns Issuing New Debt?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier

We have been working on building a dataset of sovereign bonds and their contract terms. Given the economic fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic--close to 100 countries have approached the IMF for assistance--we would not have been surprised if few low- to mid-income countries had issued sovereign bonds in recent months. Instead, there have been large issuances by Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru, Chile, Philippines, Hungary, Mexico and others. 

Take Mexico, one of the biggest players in the sovereign debt market. The country has been badly hit not only by Covid-19 but by brutal drops in oil prices, tourism, and remittances. These developments surely increased the need to borrow in dollar/euro bond markets, but we would have expected investors to balk, or at least to demand punitive coupons. But that doesn’t seem to have happened.

What explains investors’ continued willingness to lend? Might they have drunk the bleach-flavored Kool-Aid and decided that there will be no deep and sustained economic downturn? Possible, we suppose, but unlikely. More plausible explanations include (i) that financial markets are so awash with QE money that investors have few places to go for yield and (ii) that investors may be betting that countries will be bailed out by an official sector desperate to prevent widespread defaults on sovereign debt.

But, because we are interested in the terms of sovereign bonds, we also wondered if investors were demanding extra contractual protections against the risk of non-payment. That would be a sensible precaution given the likelihood that many countries will be unable to make payments. Indeed, colleagues working on M&A contracts have documented a trend towards including risk-shifting clauses that explicitly address pandemic-related events (for a recent paper by Jennejohn, Talley & Nyarko, see here). With superb research assistance from Amanda Dixon, Hadar Tanne, and Madison Whalen, we wondered whether we would find a similar trend in the sovereign bond markets.

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Immunity, Necessity and the Enforcement of Italian Debt in the Era of Covid-19

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

The sovereign debt world has been debating how to design an emergency debt standstill for the poorest nations, so that they can devote scarce resources to public health rather than debt service. As we’ve discussed on this blog, the question has come up as to whether countries might be able to use the customary international law doctrine of necessity to defend against creditor lawsuits.

Our discussion hasn’t focused on any particular jurisdiction, although we have implicitly assumed that much of the litigation would take place in New York. Now, let us switch gears to assume (plausibly, we think) that Italy is one of the countries that might need a debt standstill. It has been among the worst hit by COVID-19 and will likely soon have a debt/GDP ratio upwards of 150%. To quote a scary new report out from Schroders (here): “Italy is the prime candidate for being the first [Eurozone] casualty [from the Covid-19 crisis]. Its high indebtedness and lack of economic growth require policies that are either illegal in the eurozone, or politically unpalatable domestically.” 

Our work on the mechanics of an Italian debt restructuring—see here (Mark) and here (Theresa Arnold, Ugo Panizza, and Mitu)—has not discussed necessity or other defenses to enforcement. That’s because most of Italy’s debt is subject to Italian law, and our focus was on how Italy might change this law to enable a restructuring. But let us say that Italy does not take this approach. Perhaps it continues to pretend that a debt restructuring is simply inconceivable. It does not lay any legal groundwork for a restructuring. Instead, Italian politicians simply pray for some magical combination of high growth (unprecedented) and a no-strings-attached bailout package from European authorities. In that event, it is conceivable that a sudden spike in interest rates might prevent Italy from making payments. Assuming no immediate European bailout (Italy’s politicians have demonstrated a distaste for any of the conditionality that would come with ESM funding), that means some risk of having to defend the non-payment against creditor lawsuits.

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Further Thoughts on Necessity as a Reason to Defer Sovereign Debt Obligations

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu and I posted some preliminary thoughts about the defense of necessity, which might be raised as a basis for allowing sovereign borrowers to defer debt service during the crisis. I wanted to follow up on some of the open issues. A few are technical, addressing some potential objections to the defense. I’ll deal with these first and close with a more fundamental question: What good does this potential defense really do for a sovereign? In thinking through that question, my premise is that many sovereigns will need a temporary standstill on debt service during the crisis. For proposals to this effect, see here, here, and here. (Others will eventually need a debt restructuring, but that’s a topic for another day.) But of course private creditors must agree to a standstill on payments. Those who don’t might sue or file arbitration claims, which will potentially put the sovereign's assets at risk and will certainly consume time and resources to defend. [Last sentence edited for clarity.]

Some background

Necessity is a rule of customary international law. As expressed in Article 25 of the International Law Commission’s draft Articles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts, a state can invoke necessity to excuse its non-performance of an “international obligation” if non-performance is the only way to address “a grave and imminent peril,” as long as non-performance does not seriously impair an essential interest of the “State or States towards which the obligation exists.” Even if these conditions are satisfied, the state cannot invoke necessity to excuse the violation of an international obligation that “excludes the possibility of invoking necessity.” (Put differently, the doctrine purports to treat necessity as a default rule.) Nor can a state invoke the defense if it has contributed to the state of necessity. Finally, even if the defense is available, non-performance is excused only while the threat persists. The state must resume performance when the crisis ends, and it may have to pay compensation for any loss caused by its non-compliance.

It may not be obvious, but this is a remarkably crabbed conception of “necessity.”

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Necessity in the Time of COVID-19

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

COVID-19 has wrought an unprecedented economic crisis, which will most severely impact the poorest countries. Anna has written insightfully (here and here) about the G-20’s agreement to a temporary debt standstill for a subset of poor countries. And there have been numerous proposals (e.g., here and here) for a broader standstill to allow all countries the ability to devote necessary financial resources to the crisis. The basic idea behind these proposals is that countries should have the option to defer debt payments to both official and private creditors during the time of the crisis. A limitation of these proposals is that their efficacy depends on high levels of voluntary participation by private creditors. What is to stop less public-spirited creditors from insisting on full payment, even filing lawsuits or arbitration claims to enforce their debts? One answer to this question is that borrower governments could invoke the defense of necessity—long recognized as a rule of customary international law—as a defense to such lawsuits. We want to address that defense here briefly, recognizing that the topic deserves a lengthier treatment than we can give it here.

To clarify, here is how we understand the necessity defense: If successfully invoked, a sovereign could defer payment of any principal and interest that came due during the crisis, although it would have to make the payments once the crisis ended. It might also (although this is less clear) have to pay some compensation, likely in the form of interest on the delayed payments. But any compensation would reflect a below-market interest rate. In this sense, investors would suffer a real loss. They would be subsidizing the crisis response, although this does not make them unique. So is every other person with a claim on the sovereign’s resources, including the citizens and residents for whose welfare the state is responsible.

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Lebanon’s Vexing Modification Clause

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

We posted earlier about Lebanon’s befuddling fiscal agency agreement. Understanding what exactly the modification provision in this contract means to say is key because Lebanon is in the process of trying to restructure its obligations to bondholders. 

To recap, the chief oddity is that the agreement seems to have only one voting threshold for modifying the bonds (75%).  That makes it relatively easy for dissident investors to block a restructuring. A typical sovereign bond has two voting thresholds, a higher one for payment-related and other “core” terms and a lower one for non-core terms (usually 50%, but sometimes 66.67%). If Lebanon’s bonds lack a lower voting threshold for non-core terms, this would negate the government’s most feasible restructuring strategy, which would involve the use of exit consents to discourage holdouts.  Now, in theory, it is possible that Lebanon and its creditors consciously negotiated a special type of sovereign debt contract totally precluding the use of exit consents. But if that were the case, we’d think that everyone involved (creditors, debtors, rating agencies and so on) would have been aware and this matter would have been prominently flagged on the front pages of the offering document.  Best we can tell, none of that happened.

So, assuming there is no evidence that this was a specially designed anti-exit consent vehicle, the next question to ask is what arguments can be made for enabling the use of the technique. We see two arguments—closely related but distinct—for allowing the government to modify non-core terms at a voting threshold lower than 75%. Apologies; this will be a bit technical.

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Subordinating Holdouts in a Lebanese Restructuring

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Our prior post expressed frustration with the drafting of Lebanon’s fiscal agency agreement, and particularly the collective action clause. The CAC both lacks the aggregation features that are now standard in the market and potentially blocks the use of exit consents. Creditors with a 25% stake in a Lebanese bond issuance would therefore have the whip hand in restructuring negotiations. We noted that this was not the necessary reading of the FAA, but it was certainly plausible given the contract’s idiosyncratic drafting.

But there are other unusual attributes of the FAA that work in the government’s favor, including one that seems to give the government power to subordinate holdout creditors to restructuring participants and other favored creditors.

The oddity appears in the pari passu clause in the Lebanese FAA. This is the same clause, of course, that gave Argentina so much trouble between 2012-2016. Oversimplified, the clause is a relatively ambiguous promise that creditors will be treated equally with other similarly-situated creditors. In Argentina’s case, federal courts in New York interpreted the clause to prohibit the government from legally subordinating one set of bondholders (holdouts) to another (restructuring participants). Argentina violated that prohibition by, among other things, enacting a law in 2005 that forbade the government to pay or negotiate with holdouts. Six years later, the courts ruled that Argentina had violated the clause and issued an injunction that forbade the country to service its restructured debt unless it also paid holdouts in full. (More details here and here.)

Lebanon’s pari passu clause is pretty much the polar opposite of Argentina’s.

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Making (Non)Sense of The Lebanese Fiscal Agency Agreement

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

After trying but failing to locate the fiscal agency agreements underlying Lebanese bond issues, we finally managed to get our hands on this one. We had hoped that the FAA would clarify the respective legal positions of the Lebanese government and its investors. Nope. Our review of the FAA leaves us scratching our heads. The original contract dates from 1999—this is the 3d amended version from 2010—and was one of the first post-Brady-era bonds issued under New York law to include a collective action clause. We were eager to see it and had even heard it had been carefully designed to minimize the risk of holdouts in the event of a restructuring. Certainly the government has reason to fear holdouts, such as London-based hedge fund Ashmore.

This may be the weirdest CAC ever. Taken as a whole, the FAA also includes just about the weakest set of anti-holdout tools we have seen. The Lebanese government may have to get creative to restructure.

Let’s start with the CAC. For background, Ashmore is rumored to hold over 25% in aggregate principal amount of multiple Lebanese bond issues (here). That’s enough to block a restructuring vote in most first-generation CACs (i.e., those that first took hold in the NY market around 2003). Lebanon’s CACs are even older; it adopted them at a time when CACs virtually never appeared in NY-law bonds.

For reasons not obvious to us, Lebanon’s lawyers were New York specialists but operated out of London. For reasons that are also not entirely clear, they designated New York law to govern but then bolted on modification provisions (the CAC) derived from the template then in use in the English law market. The end result is confounding.

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Venezuela, Lebanon, and Tools to De-Fang “Rush-In” Creditors

posted by Mark Weidemaier

A follow-up on my exchange with Mitu (parts 1, 2, 3, and 4) about whether a judgment-holder is bound by the terms of a restructuring accomplished via a sovereign bond’s collective action clause (CAC). The broader concern is that “rush-in” creditors—bondholders who file suit and obtain money judgments, thereby escaping the effect of any modification vote pursuant to the CAC—might jeopardize the prospects of a successful restructuring. Again, the subtext here is Venezuela, and perhaps Lebanon as well.

Note that, although my discussion with Mitu focused on CACs, one could have the same discussion about other bond provisions. Consider acceleration provisions. For example, what if 25% of bondholders vote to accelerate the bond, and a plaintiff subsequently gets a judgment for the full amount of accelerated principal, but then a majority of creditors vote to rescind the acceleration? The short answer to both questions is that the subsequent vote has no effect on the judgment holder. As I noted in my earlier posts, that’s not to say subsequent events like these can’t have an effect; it is just that they are not likely to have one in the ordinary course of events.*

The reason is quite simple. It is that the judgment is an entirely separate source of rights from the underlying legal claim that produced it. This is a practical consequence of the “merger” doctrine, which provides that a judgment extinguishes the plaintiff’s claim (not the contract, the claim). Thereafter, the plaintiff can’t bring another action on the same legal claim but can bring a subsequent action on the judgment. (Such an action differs from judgment enforcement proceedings such as attachment and execution, but we’ll set that detail to one side.)

We can simplify--and avoid discussion of "merger" and associated legal doctrines--by focusing attention away from CACs and onto other bond provisions, which can more plausibly be modified in ways that will affect judgment holders. Consider the following sequence:

(1) The sovereign defaults and investors have a claim to bond principal (whether because the bond was accelerated or because the default was a failure to pay the principal when due);

(2) A plaintiff holding a minority in principal amount of the bonds sues and gets a money judgment for the full principal owed on those bonds;

(3) Thereafter, the issuer conducts a debt exchange in which participating bondholders vote to modify the exchanged bonds by removing the waiver of execution immunity.

Would this modification affect the judgment holder? Of course it would—at least, assuming courts do not reject this use of the exit amendment as unduly coercive.

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Judgments > CACs!!!!

posted by Mark Weidemaier

There is a subtext to my recent exchange with Mitu (here, here, and here) about whether a judgment-holder is bound by a subsequent vote to modify a bond’s payment terms, and it is of course Venezuela. U.S. sanctions prevent a restructuring of Venezuelan debt, and this long delay creates a window in which many creditors might obtain judgments. (It hasn’t happened but, you know, it’s a thing that could happen.) Mitu’s disarmingly “simple-minded” query in his most recent post is (of course) quite sophisticated. Might we view the CAC as an inter-creditor undertaking, such that, for example, after a successful restructuring vote participating bondholders could sue judgment-holders for a pro-rata share of any recovery the judgment-holder had managed to extract?

Before I go into a more detailed reply, a general comment. If one thinks that inter-creditor rivalry is a problem in sovereign debt restructuring—and a decision to litigate early is a form of inter-creditor rivalry, in the sense that a litigating creditor hopes to (i) avoid the effect of a restructuring and (ii) potentially earn a priority claim to the proceeds of any sale of attached sovereign assets—then one will want to find ways to limit inter-creditor rivalry. Perhaps the most elegant solution is to posit the existence of inter-creditor duties. I’m not entirely sure what Mitu has in mind when he posits a duty to “accept a supermajority [restructuring] decision.” (He’s raising this as a question, not necessarily insisting that the duty exists, but I’ll treat it as his proposal—hopefully that’s not too unfair.) Would the breach of that duty give rise to a cause of action for damages—measured, say, by any delay in resumption of payment caused by the lawsuit?* Would it require the judgment-holder to share with restructuring participants the proceeds of any recovery on the judgment, to the extent the recovery exceeded the NPV of the restructured bonds? I suspect this latter option is what Mitu has in mind, because it would eliminate incentives to litigate (or “rush-in,” as Steven Bodzin puts it). It would also be consistent with clever transaction structures that Mitu and Lee Buchheit have proposed elsewhere, which are designed to force holdouts to share any recovery with restructuring participants.

But here’s the thing. It might be a great idea to de-fang holdouts (or, in this context, rush-ins) like this. It would also be a great idea for every reader of this blog to send me $100. Alas, the modification provisions in sovereign bonds require neither thing.

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Judgments > CACs

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu’s post from two-days ago frames an important question. An investor holds a defaulted sovereign bond that includes a collective action clause, sues, and gets a final judgment for the full amount of the outstanding principal. Later, a majority of the remaining bondholders vote to restructure the bond’s payment terms—say, by accepting a 50% haircut. Is the judgment-holding investor somehow bound by this decision? If not, doesn’t this allow prospective holdout investors to circumvent the CAC by rushing to court to get a judgment? Let’s call this the judgment-trumps-CAC argument. Mitu’s post nicely highlights the importance of this question and some of the legal uncertainties. He also describes the judgment-trumps-CAC argument—tongue partially in cheek?—as “not crazy.”

Indeed, the judgment-trumps-CAC argument is not crazy. It is super-duper not-crazy, to the point of being unquestionably correct.* So it seems to me, anyway. Conceivably, a sovereign could use the bond’s subsequent modification as a basis for seeking relief from the judgment, though I wouldn’t fancy its odds of success. But absent such a development—which, importantly, requires judicial intervention—the judgment-holder can enforce the judgment.**

Without getting bogged down in detail, here are just a few reasons why.

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Venezuela’s Weird (and Possibly Mythical?) Prescription Clause

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Ben Bartenstein at Bloomberg has a provocative article on “prescription” clauses in Venezuela’s post-2005 sovereign bonds. As he explains, these clauses arguably modify the statute of limitations that would otherwise apply to bondholder claims, creating a “loophole” that might cost investors billions. Beginning in 2005, the Republic’s bond prospectuses began to include language like this (from a bond maturing in 2026):

Claims in respect of principal and interest will become void unless presentation for payment is made within a period of ten years in the case of principal and three years in the case of interest from the Relevant Date, to the extent permitted by applicable law…

As Bartenstein notes, the meaning of the clause isn’t entirely clear. But he suggests that it might be interpreted to “let Venezuela off the hook on unpaid interest to any creditor after three years—provided the creditor doesn’t take legal action seeking repayment during that span.”

This is a great find by Bartenstein, and he’s right to highlight the risks associated with the clause. But we doubt the clauses have this effect. Actually, we’re not sure the clauses even exist. But first, some background. (Full disclosure: One of us (Mitu) talked to Ben about his find and was rather unhelpful to him; not even having been aware of these clauses prior to Ben flagging them.)

Continue reading "Venezuela’s Weird (and Possibly Mythical?) Prescription Clause" »

A Cautionary Tale: Argentina’s Pari Passu Debt Debacle

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sovereign Gold Bonds in 2019: Really?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

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

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

Liberty Bond photo

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

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

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

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

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

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

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

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

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

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

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

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

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

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

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

Can Argentina Discriminate Against Bonds Issued Under Macri?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

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

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

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

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

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Argentina’s [Insert Adjective Here] Debt Crisis

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

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

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

Voluntary Reprofiling

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

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

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

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

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