284 posts categorized "Sovereign Debt"

Aurelius v. Puerto Rican Control Board (and "What Possibly Could be the Logic Behind Puerto Rico Being in the First Circuit?")

posted by Mitu Gulati

Last Monday, December 3, the First Circuit heard an oral argument that I have been looking forward to for ages.  The case involves an infamously aggressive hedge fund making an audacious challenge to the constitutionality of the Puerto Rican Control Board—an argument that is framed (hilariously, I think) as rescuing the Puerto Rican people from tyranny.  The events that followed did not disappoint in terms of drama. 

Though complex to answer, question in the case is easily put: Did the process by which the Puerto Rican Control Board was put in place violate the Appointments Clause of the US constitution? 

The lawyering was superb, which was not surprising, given that two legendary former SGs, Ted Olson and Don Verrilli, were at the lectern. But the First Circuit judges were ready and raring to go, and it barely took a minute before they launched into tough questions.  Judge Juan Torruella was especially on target; he knows the intricacies of the history and case law relating to Puerto Rico’s status better than almost anyone else and it was a treat to listen to his exchanges with the superstar lawyers.  (There were other lawyers making arguments as well, but the First Circuit panel was primarily interested in the Olson-Verrilli positions.)The audio file is available here, and is well worth a listen.

Continue reading "Aurelius v. Puerto Rican Control Board (and "What Possibly Could be the Logic Behind Puerto Rico Being in the First Circuit?")" »

Venezuelan Bonds: The Game is Afoot

posted by Mitu Gulati

Venezuela began defaulting on its bonds about fifteen months ago and is now in default on almost all of its outstanding bonds (except one that is backed by collateral).  The creditors, for these many months, have shown remarkable forbearance in refraining from accelerating the bonds and seeking judgments. 

The restraint on the part of the creditors for these past many months, I suspect, was not out of any especially benevolent feelings the creditors have towards the Venezuelan government.  Part of the explanation has to do with the different interest rates that applies to unpaid claims if one has an ordinary unpaid claim versus one that has been converted into a judgment (the latter is significantly lower).  On the flip side, the legal protections that apply to a judgment are much stronger (no need to worry about CACs or Exit Consents, and one can grab assets before anyone who has refrained from judgement).  Plus, the reality of most sovereign debt restructurings is that unpaid claims on interest usually don’t get paid out to anyone anyway (since the sovereign can’t even pay the base claims).  For those who want to know more about this, Mark and I talked about these matters here and here, when we were teaching our class on the Venezuelan sovereign debt some months ago.

Once one set of creditors accelerates though, then that puts everyone else who has not done so at a disadvantage because these first guys have an advantage in the litigation/attachment game.  And before today, only a few arbitration claim holders and one Promissory Note had begun the litigation game.  This had been causing anxiety among the bondholders I’ve been chatting with, but they had not made the move to coordinate into blocks of sufficient size to demand acceleration (most of the bonds have a requirement for acceleration of 25% of the holders in principal amount).

Today’s news from Reuters is big though. A group of hedge funds has put together the necessary number of bonds in the Venezuelan bond due 2034.  This is a rather special bond, if memory serves, because an attempt by the sovereign to force a restructuring can be blocked by 15% of the holders (in principal amount) rather than the typical requirement of 25%.  Bottom line: this bond is more litigation friendly.

Continue reading "Venezuelan Bonds: The Game is Afoot" »

Almost Citizens -- by Sam Erman

posted by Mitu Gulati

For those of you, who like me have been following the Puerto Rican debt drama, this wonderful new book by Sam Erman of USC might be of interest.  There are many wonderful and insightful stories in this book that I was altogether unaware of, despite having spent a lot of time reading about Puerto Rico's bizarre constitutional status.  Ultimately though, the most intriguing and insightful aspect of the book, to me, was the connection that Sam draws between the strange "foreign in a domestic sense" status of Puerto Rico and the events surrounding Reconstruction from the same period of time.

Sam was supposed to come to Duke last year to present this to the seminar that I run on Race, Law & Politics with Guy Charles, but we got hit by a snow storm on the day of his talk.  My initial thought had been to cancel the discussion and move on to the next paper.  But the students in the seminar (and Guy) had liked the draft of the book so much that they asked whether we might have a session to discuss it despite the fact that Sam was not going to be able to make it to Durham any longer.  We ended up having a fun discussion with my two wonderful con law colleagues, Walter Dellinger and Joseph Blocher. Indeed, that was perhaps our best session of the term (notwithstanding my general distaste for con law discussions). 

Next week, I hope to -- after talking to Walter and Joseph more -- do a little post on the recent oral argument in the first circuit about the constitutionality of the Puerto Rican Control Board.  That case, if it comes out the way I think it might, could turn the apple cart upside down.  But I need to listen to that oral argument tape again.

Here is the official book blurb for Sam's book:

"Almost Citizens lays out the tragic story of how the United States denied Puerto Ricans full citizenship following annexation of the island in 1898. As America became an overseas empire, a handful of remarkable Puerto Ricans debated with U.S. legislators, presidents, judges, and others over who was a citizen and what citizenship meant. This struggle caused a fundamental shift in constitutional jurisprudence: away from the post-Civil War regime of citizenship, rights, and statehood and toward doctrines that accommodated racist imperial governance. Erman’s gripping account shows how, in the wake of the Spanish–American War, administrators, lawmakers, and presidents, together with judges, deployed creativity and ambiguity to transform constitutional law and interpretation over a quarter century of debate and litigation. The result is a history in which the United States and Latin America, Reconstruction and empire, and law and bureaucracy intertwine."

Holiday Reading Recommendation and a Research Question on the 1MDB Case

posted by Mitu Gulati

The 1MDB case has been on the front pages of the financial papers on a number of occasions recently. The reason: The US justice system is investigating the scam and senior executives from everyone’s favorite ethical investment back, Goldman Sachs, including Lloyd Blankfein, have been caught up in it. And this leads me to my recommendation for holiday reading, if you like reading financial fraud books. The book is The Billion Dollar Whale, by Bradley Hope and Tom Wright of the WSJ. At first, I thought that the book was about the London Whale, but it turns out to be about the rise and fall of a Wharton educated Malaysian named Jho Low – a fascinating character who appears to have engineered one of the biggest financial frauds of the century, while also throwing the most ostentatious parties ever. If you want more background, there is a fun discussion of the book on my favorite financial podcast, Slate Money (Emily Peck, Anna Szymanski and Felix Salmon are a brilliant, and often hilarious, combination). Indeed, I picked up the book after listening to their podcast on it.  There is also a short, but on the money, review in the New Yorker by Sheelah Kolhatkar. Among the many colorful characters involved in the version of the story told in The Billion Dollar Whale are Gary Cohn (of Goldman and the Trump’s economic advisory team), Leo DiCaprio, and the Wolf of Wall Street (both the movie and the main character, Jordan Belfort).

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Ukraine Wins Appeal in Russian Bond Case

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Ukraine and Russia have been battling it out in English courts over whether Ukraine must repay a $3 billion Russian loan from 2013. The loan was unusual both in structure and in substance. For example, although essentially a bilateral loan, it was structured as a tradable Eurobond and held by the Russian sovereign wealth fund. The indenture trustee has been suing to enforce the loan. In March 2017, the High Court of Justice granted summary judgment for Russia. Although Ukraine had a number of plausible defenses to enforcement of the loan, the judge rejected them all. Here's Bloomberg, with coverage of that decision and of the ensuing appeal. Today, the Court of Appeal reversed that decision, sending the case back for discovery and a trial. Here's the decision, which Russia will appeal according to this Financial Times report.

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Timing and Process in Crystallex v. PDVSA

posted by Mark Weidemaier

[Updated with Crystallex's brief opposing the stay.]

In an earlier post, I noted some open questions that had to be answered before Crystallex could execute on PDVSA’s 100% ownership stake in PDV Holding (PDV-H). To recap: The federal district judge in Delaware let Crystallex attach the PDV-H shares on the theory that PDVSA is the Venezuelan government’s alter ego. The open questions relate both to timing (e.g., should there be a stay of execution pending appeal?) and process (how should an execution sale proceed)? A lot turns on the answers to these questions, as I’ll discuss below. First, however, here’s a simplified figure showing PDVSA’s corporate structure for readers who haven’t been following the dispute closely.

VZ-PDVSA-CITGO

Continue reading "Timing and Process in Crystallex v. PDVSA" »

Some Thoughts on the Alter Ego Ruling in Crystallex

posted by Mark Weidemaier

I have had a bit of time to digest the district court’s ruling that PDVSA is Venezuela’s alter ego, and here are some preliminary thoughts. The opinion is 75 pages and covers a lot of ground, but I’ll focus on perhaps the most important and least technical question: Is the case a one-off or a harbinger? Put differently, assuming the ruling stands after appeal and further proceedings in the district court, does it definitively establish that PDVSA is Venezuela’s alter ego? If so, the ruling could have important consequences for a future attempt to restructure the debts of both entities.

The answer isn’t clear. Or rather, it depends whether one wants a formal or a functional answer. Formally, the decision is a one-off; it need not have implications for future alter ego determinations. Functionally, however, the decision creates real risks for PDVSA and the government.

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Court Lets Crystallex Attach Equity in CITGO Parent

posted by Mark Weidemaier

[Edit: Here is the opinion, with redactions related to the OFAC license.]

Just a quick post for now, as the court is keeping its opinion under seal for the time being. Crystallex, a creditor of Venezuela, has been trying to enforce its claims by attaching PDVSA's equity interest in PDV Holding, the ultimate U.S. parent of CITGO. For more background, there have been a number of posts already here on Credit Slips. The district judge overseeing the action in Delaware has just granted Crystallex's request.

I'll have more to say once the opinion becomes public, although portions will undoubtedly be redacted in that version. The secrecy seems to be associated with an OFAC license obtained by a third party (presumably the entity financing this litigation), which Crystallex believes authorizes attachment notwithstanding U.S. sanctions against Venezuela. Those sanctions require OFAC authorization for "attachment of an equity interest in any entity in which the Government of Venezuela has a 50 percent or greater ownership interest" (see FAQ 596) and define "Government of Venezuela" broadly to include PDVSA. I assume the redactions will mostly affect this part of the opinion.

Even more important, the opinion will have to explain why Crystallex, a creditor of Venezuela, can attach PDVSA's property. Presumably the reason is that the court has found the two entities to be alter egos. If so, that's an important ruling that may have much broader consequences in any attempted restructuring of PDVSA or Republic debt.

Edit: I should add that the fact that the court has issued the writ does not necessarily mean Crystallex will immediately be allowed to execute. Leaving aside any delay associated with appeal, the district judge has previously distinguished the decision to issue the writ from the decision to allow execution. Any attempt to execute the writ will also raise new questions. For instance, must there be an attempt to sell the shares? If not, how should the shares be valued (since Crystallex is only entitled to receive the amount of its judgment plus interest)?

Keeping up with the Contracts Clause: the Supreme Court's decision in Sveen v. Melin

posted by Melissa Jacoby

In June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Sveen v. Melin, a case applying Contracts Clause* jurisprudence to a state revocation-on-divorce statute and preexisting insurance contract. It isn't like the Supreme Court hears a Contracts Clause case every week, every term, or even every decade. Given its relevance to many Credit Slips topics, such as a financially distressed government unit without bankruptcy access or mortgage/foreclosure crises, it seems worth fostering a conversation about the case here.  

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Approaching the Middle of the Beginning of the End in Venezuela

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Though none of it is earth-shaking, there has been a lot of news out of Venezuela recently, so it seemed an appropriate time for an update. The election looms. Henri Falcón leads some polls, though those are presumably unreliable indicators, given what Reuters slyly labels Maduro’s “institutional advantages.” A Falcón victory would increase the odds of a restructuring in the near future. A Maduro win might prompt additional U.S. sanctions; the Wall Street Journal (here, also linked above) speculates that these might finally target oil exports.

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A Series of Proposals to Restructure Venezuelan Debt

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier

About two weeks ago, we held a small conference at the University of North Carolina School of Law: How Best to Restructure the Venezuelan Debt. The conference focused on proposals developed this semester by students in our joint UNC-Duke class on international debt finance. Some proposals started fresh; others took an existing idea and built on it. Four student groups presented their work and got feedback from a group of about twenty experienced lawyers, bankers and policy-makers. This was—to our minds—an exceptional group, extraordinarily knowledgeable about sovereign debt markets and with particular insight into Venezuela. Included were Lee Buchheit, Chanda DeLong, Brett House, Fulvio Italiani, Hongtao Jiang, Ruth Krivoy, Trevor Messenger, Siobhan Morden, Katia Porzecanski, and a list of others who we will leave unnamed for confidentiality reasons. We are immensely grateful to all of them for their generosity to us and our students.

After the student presentations, our visiting guests offered their perspectives about the Venezuelan debt crisis. It was a treat for us and our students to hear such experts—all of whom have given a great deal of thought to the crisis—discuss solutions to one of the most complicated restructuring problems in recent history. Not all of the discussion was intended for public consumption, but we have permission to post this video of a terrific conversation between Lee Buchheit and Brett House.

After incorporating feedback from the conference, our students have posted their proposals on SSRN. We are really proud of their work. We pushed them hard, at least as hard as we have pushed any prior class, and they responded in spades. Like every proposal, these have flaws (and some are more plausible than others on the risk-reward continuum). But with that caveat, each represents an immense amount of work and contains new ideas:

PDVSA’s Hail Mary: A Chapter 15 Bankruptcy Solution (Samantha Hovaniec, Ryan Nichols, Matthew Taylor, Heather Werner & Rich Gittings)

Lien-ing on PDVSA: The Positive Side of Negative Pledge (Matt Cramer, Kelsey Moore, Andrea Kropp & Charlie Saad)

The Enduring Legality of Exit Consents: A Realist’s Guide (Steven Diaz, Stephanie Funk, Isabelle Sawhney, Gavin Kim & Austin Rogers)

Oil For Debt: A Unique Proposal For the Unique Problem that is Restructuring Venezuela’s Debt (Aditya Mitra, Andres Ortiz, Bernard Botchway, Evaristo Pereira, Shane O’Neil & Will Curtis)

These papers build on a long line of students papers on topics related to sovereign debt restructuring, some of which have made it to publication. Last year, Dimitrios Lyratzakis and Khaled Fayyad got their proposal, Restructuring Venezuela’s Debt Using Pari Passu, published in the Duke Journal of Comparative and International Law. And sometimes, when the proposals are especially creative or insightful, they manage to get the attention of reporters at the Financial Times, Bloomberg, Reuters, and elsewhere.

Venezuelan Debt: Further Thoughts on “Why Not Accelerate and Sue Venezuela Now?”

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier

Earlier, we posted about whether holders of Venezuelan bonds would be better off accelerating and obtaining judgments sooner rather than later. In a nutshell, here was the point:

When a restructuring comes (and it will), the two primary weapons the restructurer is likely to use are CACs and Exit Consents. A bondholder who obtains a money judgment, as best we can tell, escapes the threat of either CACs or Exit Consents being used against her.

We heard from a number of people with questions prompted by the post. Here are some of them, and our conjectures as to answers.

Continue reading "Venezuelan Debt: Further Thoughts on “Why Not Accelerate and Sue Venezuela Now?”" »

Why Not Accelerate and Sue Venezuela Now?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

People have been asking for months when investors will accelerate PDVSA and Venezuela bonds that have fallen into default. Rumor has it that some investors have already done so. But there seems to be a consensus that investors aren't in a hurry. U.S. sanctions prohibit a debt restructuring, and few investors are eager for the legal battle that would follow acceleration. But we’re wondering if this view misses something important and unique to the Venezuelan crisis. It seems to us that investors who file suit may be able to negate most of the Republic's and PDVSA's restructuring tools, significantly enhancing leverage when a restructuring finally does occur and making it easier to hold out. So we’re a bit puzzled why some of the more aggressive investors aren’t already rushing to get judgments.

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Central Bank Immunity - Don't Miss

posted by Anna Gelpern

This is an important intervention about a massively important topic that comes up over and over again in sovereign restructurings, and will come up in more and more interesting ways in the next few years.

Short version here.

Strip, Swap, Restructure

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu and I have been posting jointly of late about restructuring options for PDVSA and Venezuela. Alas, I’ll have to write this one myself, because it’s time to talk about an idea that Mitu and Lee Buchheit have proffered for restructuring much of PDVSA’s debt. Their proposal has important similarities to one by Adam Lerrick (also described briefly here and in more detail in the Financial Times), so I’ll cover both.

Both proposals are laudably clear-eyed about some fundamental aspects of the Venezuelan debt crisis. First, if it ever made sense to view PDVSA and the Republic as separate credits, that time is long past. Second, for a restructuring plan to be feasible, it must simplify an enormously complicated debt stock and encompass more than bond creditors. Thus, while neither creates a mechanism for encompassing all of PDVSA’s liabilities, both the Lerrick and Buchheit/Gulati proposals envision a restructuring of both bond debt and the pesky promissory notes that PDVSA has issued to trade creditors. The latter instruments are especially problematic from a restructuring perspective, because they lack contract-based mechanisms for modifying their terms. Finally, both proposals recognize that something must be done to protect oil-related assets, including future receivables, from holdouts.

These shared assumptions result in similar proposals. The difference is in the details, which turn out to be important. Let’s call the Lerrick proposal Strip, Swap, Restructure.

Continue reading "Strip, Swap, Restructure" »

Catch Veinte Dos

posted by Mitu Gulati

A few days ago, Mark and I put up a post on the possibilities of using Chapter 15 bankruptcy for Venezuela's state-owned company, PDVSA.  In response, we received a number of terrific comments, both via email and in the comments section.

One of the particularly interesting points that was made to us (both in email and in one of the comments), that we had not raised was the following: 

PDVSA is not just a Venezuelan company; it is the Venezuelan company -- the company responsible for generating 95% of the foreign currency earnings of the entire country.  Placing the fate of PDVSA into the hands of a bankruptcy judge poses an existential risk to the economy and to the government as the sole owner of the company unless, of course, the government can control the outcome of the insolvency proceeding.  But insolvency proceedings in which the equity owner of the bankrupt enterprise can control the outcome are not proceedings likely to be recognized or enforced by foreign courts.

Catch Veinte Dos?

The foregoing also brings up a slightly different question that Bob Rasmussen asked when he was visiting us last week, which was whether the bankruptcy proceeding could be conducted in a manner such that the 100% equity holder (who would normally have to turn over control to the debt holders in an insolvency) could retain all or almost all of the equity.  After all, it does seem clear that Venezuela is not going to accept giving up full control of PDVSA.  Bob did have some very interesting thoughts as to how this might be done in a purely domestic context.  The question that remained though was whether something similar could be engineered for the foreign state-owned company context that wasn't going to give up any control of the process.  But more on this later

 

PDVSA's Debt Restructuring: The Chapter 15 Option

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier

This past week, Bob Rasmussen of USC Law gave a talk at Duke on “Puerto Rico and the Netherworld of Sovereign Debt Restructuring.” Luckily for us, he also took a detour to UNC to talk to our International Debt students about whether PDVSA might use Chapter 15 of the Bankruptcy Code to restructure its debts. Our foil for that discussion was a recent paper by Rich Cooper (Cleary Gottlieb) and Mark Walker (Millstein & Co.) proposing Chapter 15 as a possible solution to PDVSA’s woes. This is one of a number of extant restructuring proposals for Venezuela and PDVSA; Lee Buchheit (working with Mitu) has published several others (here, here, and here). The Cooper and Walker proposal is the only one to explore the Chapter 15 possibility in detail, and it thoughtfully makes the case for that restructuring option. In very condensed form, the proposal is for Venezuela to pass a new bankruptcy law governing PDVSA and other public sector entities, for PDVSA to restructure its debts using that process, and then for PDVSA to ask courts in the U.S. to recognize that bankruptcy under Chapter 15.

Continue reading "PDVSA's Debt Restructuring: The Chapter 15 Option" »

The Pari Passu Strategy in Venezuela

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Should Venezuela worry that holdout creditors will use the strategy that NML Capital and other holdouts successfully used against Argentina? In this article, The Pari Passu Fallacy—Requiescat in Pace, Lee Buchheit and Andrés de la Cruz at Cleary Gottlieb argue not. Lee in particular has made no secret of his distaste for the “ratable payment” interpretation of the pari passu clause. (As many readers know, he is also Mitu’s longtime collaborator.) When interpreted to require ratable payments, the pari passu clause requires a government to pay holdouts in full if it intends to pay restructuring participants in accordance with the terms of their debt instruments. In Argentina’s case, the injunction resulted in another massive default, as the government refused to pay holdouts but could not find a way around the injunction.

Lee and Andrés argue that NML’s pari passu strategy was essentially killed by the person who gave it life, the late Judge Griesa. To oversimplify a bit, the judge’s initial decision--and a decision years before in Brussels in a case involving Peru and Elliott Associates--strongly implied that selective nonpayment is enough to violate the pari passu clause. That is, a government violates the clause simply by paying some equally-ranked creditors but not others. And, crucially, he remedied this breach by issuing an injunction barring everyone with any connection to the United States from cooperating in the continuing violation of the pari passu clause. Without that remedy, Argentina would simply have defied his ruling and continued to stiff holdout creditors.

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Venezuela Errata: Airline Deposits and Administration Posts

posted by Mark Weidemaier

By Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier

The new semester has begun, and we are excited about the International Debt class we teach together, with students from both UNC and Duke thinking about the Venezuelan debt crisis. Their first task—and ours—is figuring out how much Venezuela owes, to whom, and under what contract terms. This year, we have been especially unreasonable, asking students, in just a few weeks, to find, read, and code all relevant contract terms for the entire unmatured bond debt of Venezuela and PDVSA. And the bond debt is only part of the story. For instance, another category of debt, which we haven’t encountered before, consists of local currency (bolivar) bank deposits of international airlines that fly routes to and from Venezuela, which the airlines are not-so-patiently waiting to convert into other currencies.

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Aurelius Seeks a Do-Over; Puerto Rico and the Appointments Clause Litigation

posted by Melissa Jacoby

The lives of Puerto Rico residents remain profoundly disrupted by the aftermath of Hurricane Maria measured by metrics such as electricity, clean water, and health care access, with death tolls mounting. This week, though, in a federal court hearing on January 10, 2018, Puerto Rico has the extra burden of confronting Hurricane Aurelius.

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The Hausmann Addendum to the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Ricardo Hausmann, Harvard economist and former Venezuelan Planning Minister, has been a thorn in the side of the Maduro administration. His blog posts at Project Syndicate condemning the Maduro administration’s continued payment of bondholders while the people of Venezuela starve may well have deterred new lending to the regime. Among other things, Hausmann-induced opprobrium at Goldman Sachs’s infamous "hunger bond"—now trading at a deep discount--has scared many in the market. For more background, check out Cardiff Garcia’s FT podcast interview with Hausmann.

Hausmann’s latest Project Syndicate post goes well beyond complaining about the ethics of Wall Street bond investors. Hausmann first sets out his view of the political realities, in which Maduro’s manipulation of elections and co-option of the military negate any realistic chance for the political opposition to overthrow the regime, notwithstanding U.S. economic sanctions. Given the severe humanitarian crisis, astonishing depletion of national wealth, rampant inflation, widespread corruption, and other harms inflicted or exacerbated by the Maduro regime, Hausmann advocates military action by the United States and like-minded nations. The other nations presumably include countries like Peru, Colombia, Honduras, Argentina, and Chile, all signatories to the Lima declaration condemning the Maduro regime. 

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Implications of the Third Circuit’s Crystallex Decision

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

On Wednesday, the Third Circuit granted Venezuela a victory in its ongoing settled-but-not-settled litigation with Crystallex. The case deals with a limited issue: Whether Delaware law imposes liability for the fraudulent transfer of an asset on an entity that is not itself a debtor.  We want to use this post to speculate a bit about the implications the decision may have for the bigger Venezuelan debt drama. If the new decision is important, it is because it signals something about the receptivity of US courts toward claims that Venezuela, PDVSA, and perhaps US entities like CITGO are “alter egos.” We disagree a bit about that question. But first, some background on this aspect of the Crystallex case.

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Battle of the Bonds: PDVSA Versus Venezuela

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier

Over at Bloomberg, Katia Porzecanski notes that investors in Venezuelan debt are “worried they’re getting ghosted.” Overdue coupons are piling up, and no one is sure whether it is because the government is done paying or because U.S. sanctions have made financial intermediaries slow to process payments. Meanwhile, the government has maintained radio silence about the restructuring it purported to announce six weeks ago. The fact that a few PDVSA coupons have been paid in the meantime prompts Porzecanski to ask whether Venezuela is capitalizing on bondholder inertia to “quietly, selectively default,” and whether the government “may ultimately prioritize PDVSA’s debt over its own.” This Reuters article by Dion Rabouin answers the latter question in he affirmative, opining that Venezuela is more likely to default on its own bonds than on PDVSA’s, for two related reasons. First, PDVSA’s oil revenues are the government’s main source of foreign currency; second, a PDVSA default may prompt creditors to seize oil-related assets abroad, potentially including CITGO.

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Tax "Reform"

posted by Stephen Lubben

Key takeaways for Slips readers from a Moody's report, dated today:

The legislation is credit negative to the US sovereign, owing to the reality that the cuts do not pay for themselves, and Moody's estimates the cuts will add $1.5 trillion to the national deficit over ten years. Higher deficits will put further pressure on the federal government's finances, which are already facing prospects of increased costs of entitlements. Unless fiscal policy reverses course, Moody's estimates that the federal government's debt-to-GDP ratio will rise by over 25 percentage points over the next decade, to above 100%. Combined with rising interest rates, debt affordability for the US will weaken significantly.

The net impact to state and local governments is negative. While the new $10,000 limit on state and local tax (SALT) deductions does not directly impact state or local tax receipts, it will blunt the effect of lower federal rates for many taxpayers. Because the state and local provisions raise the effective tax cost for many taxpayers, public resistance to tax increases will likely rise, and that in turn will constrain local governments' future revenue flexibility. In addition, if larger federal deficits caused by the tax cuts result in attempts to cut entitlement spending, states will be pressured to backfill cuts to federal funds from their own budgets.

The SALT change, combined with the higher standard deduction and tighter limit on the mortgage interest deduction, also reduces the tax incentive for home ownership, which is likely to slow home construction and sales, and moderately suppress home values and property tax growth in higher-price markets.

 

(Updated) About That Mysterious Crystallex Settlement

posted by Mark Weidemaier

[Update: Here is the unsealed letter describing the settlement between Crystallex and Venezuela. As expected, it reveals nothing of note, simply explaining that the settlement's terms require confidentiality and redacting portions discussing the settlement itself. Also, note that the first paragraph of the original post (below) has been edited for clarity.]

We have covered Crystallex’s attempt to enforce its $1.2 billion judgment against Venezuela a bunch here on Credit Slips (for example, here, here, here, here, and here). In late November, the parties reached a settlement, shortly before a December 5 hearing in Crystallex's lawsuit seeking to attach assets belonging to PDVSA. The hearing was to address Crystallex's argument that PDVSA is the government's alter ego, and PDVSA’s cross motion to dismiss. A ruling in Crystallex’s favor would have let it look to PDVSA’s assets to satisfy its judgment against the government. As noted in the Financial Times, a pro-Crystallex ruling might also have had broader implications, potentially letting “holders of defaulted Venezuelan sovereign bonds ... seek to seize PDVSA assets, potentially including those of Citgo.”

Continue reading "(Updated) About That Mysterious Crystallex Settlement" »

Aurelius v. The Control Board: What is Going On? (Part II)

posted by Mitu Gulati

First, thanks to all of you who emailed and commented with possible answers as to what the Aurelius strategy in challenging the constitutionality of the Puerto Rican Control Board might be (the subject of Part I).  My favorite answer was the simple: “Create Chaos”.  That was followed by another answer: “Once the sheep start panicking, they become easy pickings for the wolves.”  I’m not sure that I understand either strategy, but that’s why I’m not running a multi-billion dollar hedge fund (if I were an investor, I suspect that I’d be one of the sheep trying to avoid being eaten by the wolves).

Second, I want to ask the “What is going on?” question from a different direction this week.  I’ve read or skimmed almost all of the anti-Aurelius briefs in the Aurelius v. The Control Board case now (for background on this, see here). Two things puzzle me about them.  I should say at the outset though that my being puzzled may stem directly from not understanding how these fancy constitutional law cases play out.

  1. Puzzle One: None of the anti-Aurelius briefs provide a clear and coherent explanation of exactly what would be at stake for Puerto Rico, financially, if the Control Board were to be deemed unconstitutional. More crassly, they don’t answer the following question at the outset: How much is it going to cost Puerto Rico if Aurelius wins? 

I'm a realist in thinking about what courts do in tough cases (as contrasted with the “legalist” who thinks doctrine does the overwhelming majority of work in predicting outcomes in all cases).  To my reading, the research tends to show that courts care a great deal about the social costs or policy implications of their decisions.  Yes, of course, they care about doctrine too.  But judges care a great deal about the impact of their decisions on real people (and how their decisions will be viewed in hindsight).

So, if a decision ruling that the Control Board is unconstitutional would impose a huge additional cost on the people of Puerto Rico (who have already suffered so much), and the law isn’t crystal clear, would it not be good legal strategy for the anti-Aurelius lawyers to emphasize that?  Clearly, I’m wrong, since that’s not what the all-star group of lawyers on the anti-Aurelius side have done.  But it puzzles me.

My thinking on this borrows heavily from my brilliant political scientist colleague, Georg Vanberg (see "Financial Crises and Constitutional Compromise”).

  1. Puzzle Two: Isn’t it a high-risk strategy to base key parts of one’s argument (as some of the anti-Aurelius briefs do) on cases that are, for want of a better word, “odious”? The cases here are the Insular Cases, that are an embarrassment. My guess is that many lawyers would at least balk at, if not outright refuse, to cite cases like Plessy or Korematsu as their primary support. And most judges, I’d think, would be mortified at having to turn to those cases for support for their decisions (and would like to be shown less yucky ways to getting to the right outcome by the lawyers).

There is a cool article here on the “Anti-Canon” in constitutional law, by Jamal Greene. Getting more specific, in terms of judges who are likely to be faced with these the Aurelius case on appeal, Judge Torruella of the First Circuit has a wonderful set of articles on the yucky Insular cases (and a thundering speech delivered at Harvard Law, where the key ideas for these awful cases were developed in the early 1900s).  A little more distant: Judge Lynch of the First Circuit has a fascinating recent piece talking about Korematsu (a star member of the Anti-Canon).

Odious Debts: A New Book

posted by Mitu Gulati

Classes are over, which means that I get to finally open some of the fun books that I've been meaning to read. Most of what I read is too low brow for me to have the courage to mention here. Plus, Mark tells me that the books in question have to have at least a distant relationship to credit and law.

A couple of days ago, Mark and I talked about Barak Richman's wonderful "Stateless Commerce".

Here is my next recommendation: Jeff King, The Doctrine of Odious Debt in International Law: A Restatement.

Jeff, who teaches at University College in London, was one of the pioneers in the rejuvenation of the Odious Debt literature in 2003-04, when Saddam's government in Iraq was overthrown.  Indeed, it was his co authored article for a Canadian think tank - the Center for International Sustainable Development Law, that jump-started the literature.  Now, thanks to Jeff and his co authors (and to Saddam too, I guess), there is a large and robust modern literature on the topic.  Along the way, in the years that have followed, Correa in Ecuador and Maduro in Venezuela have helped keep interest in the Odious Debt idea alive through their shenanigans. Indeed, Mr Maduro may end up rivaling Saddam in his contributions to the revival of this doctrine whose origins go back to the days of the Czarist regime in Russia in the early 1900s. As an illustration, sovereign debt gurus Ugo Panizza and Ricardo Hausmann have a nice recent piece in Project Syndicate on the relevance of Odious Debt concepts in the context of Venezuelan debt (they have an idea for an Odiousness rating system).

Slipsters are familiar with the Odious Debt debate, I suspect, since Anna G was one of its pioneers.  Plus, it is fascinating.  Basically, it is a doctrine of international law that says that the debts of "odious" regimes that are utilized for the private illicit purposes of the rulers (and where the creditors almost surely knew this was the case), do not have to be repaid by successor governments. The problem with this doctrine though -- to my mind, and to that of many others like Andrew Yianni, Anna, Mark W, Anupam Chander, Adam Feibelman, Sarah Ludington, Lee Buchheit, Eric Posner, Paul Stephan  -- is that it simply does not exist anywhere in international law (or that the basis for it is very very thin). There are some bits and pieces of historical precedent that one could arguably cobble together; but it strikes me as implausible that any modern court would accept the existence of a doctrine of Odious Debt today -- it is just too outlandish for them to do so without a more solid signal from the international community. At least, that was my view until Jeff's book showed up.

Jeff, in his superb book, argues otherwise -- he thinks there is much more of a basis for a doctrine of Odious Debt (and he very politely calls me out for having my head up my backside).  And while I can't quite bring myself to go over completely to his side, I found myself nodding in agreement with a great deal of his analysis. It is nuanced, careful and thoughtful.  Darn it! I don't think I've changed my mind, but that might simply be because I'm too stubborn.

Continue reading "Odious Debts: A New Book" »

Aurelius v. Puerto Rico's Control Board: What's the Game?

posted by Mitu Gulati

While most of the sovereign debt world is focused on Mr. Maduro’s shenanigans in Venezuela, a fascinating litigation is playing out in federal district court in Puerto Rico.  Aurelius, a hedge fund known to many of us because of the role it played in the legendary pari passu litigation against Argentina, is challenging the constitutionality of the Control Board that was put in place to run Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring (and, essentially, key aspects of its fiscal affairs). 

Elsewhere, Joseph Blocher and I have written about why this suit is exciting for us in the context of our other work on Puerto Rico’s problematic (okay, shameful) second-class status.  Specifically, this Aurelius case, has the potential to get the federal courts to confront the question of what the legal validity today is of a set of infamous cases from the early 1900s (the Insular Cases). We hope that the courts, when faced with arguments that derive their authority from these cases, will clearly say – and there is enough of a basis for them to do so – that the actions and developments of the past 100 years have effectively overruled these cases. These cases, for anyone unfamiliar, are a set of stunningly racist cases produced by many of the same judges who ruled in favor of “separate but equal” in Plessy v. Ferguson.  Oversimplifying, these cases ruled that Puerto Rico and its people, partly because they were not deemed to be civilized enough in the early 1900s, constituted an “unincorporated” territory (that is, so very foreign that they were not on their way to eventual statehood).

So, in a sense, I find myself in the bizarre position that while I am not rooting for Aurelius to win, I hope that their lawsuit ends up getting the Insular Cases condemned, once and for all, as an awful relic of an ugly past.  That said, what puzzles me about this case though is its economics, particularly from the perspective of Aurelius.  What do they get by undermining the Control Board? My assumption here is that a ruling that the Control Board is unconstitutional and that all of the actions it has taken so far are void will be hugely expensive for Puerto Rico’s debt restructuring effort.  After all, one of the key aspects of the Control Board is that it has been given the power to solve the traditional collective action problem that bedevils every sovereign or quasi-sovereign debt restructuring.  Remove the Control Board, and we go back to square one where the creditors are fighting with each other about who has what level of priority and how to avoid giving the holdouts a disproportionate share of the pie. End result: Lawyers get paid a lot, but both the people of Puerto Rico and the creditors (including Aurelius) have a much smaller pie to divide up.

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Alter Ego and Alter Id, Venezuela Edition

posted by Anna Gelpern

Venezuela is really really careening sideways into chaotic default. We know this not just because it has been missing payments and the ISDA Determinations Committee said so, but also because the government seems to be in a hurry to hand out what assets it might have to what claimants might show up on its doorstep with a credible threat to do ... something. ... or just to make them go away and buy another five minutes of delusional gambling for resurrection.

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Domination Isn't (Always) Fraud: Venezuela Edition

posted by Mark Weidemaier

I made a joke in the comments to Mitu’s post about whether the arrest of Citgo executives strengthened the argument for treating Citgo as Venezuela’s alter ego. The joke wasn’t very good; I called Venezuela a “typical activist shareholder.” But Mitu generously took it seriously, asking whether this is the kind of behavior creditors should have expected. His question highlights some interesting legal questions. One is whether a creditor who knows about shareholder misconduct before voluntarily dealing with a corporation should be able to enforce its claims against shareholder assets. A second has to do with the legal standard for finding a corporation and its shareholder to be alter egos.  

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Mr. Maduro Writes an Exam Question on Veil Piercing

posted by Mitu Gulati

It is that time of the year; where one of the excuses I use to escape Thanksgiving dinners that have degenerated into to food fights over our current president is: "I have to go write my exam questions".

This year though, for those writing Corporations exams, Mr. Maduro has written an exam question whose facts I could not have imagined.  I don't know the answer, but this is a topic that Mark W has written a brilliant article on already (even he didn't quite imagine these facts though) and Anna G has thought about too (and maybe has an article in the offing). So, I'm throwing this out in the hope that they might answer it.

Put simply, the question is:

Has the risk of the corporate veil of PDVSA (Venezuela's state-owned oil company) being pierced increased significantly after Mr. Maduro fired six of the top executives of Citgo, the refining arm of PDVSA (Citgo a Delaware corp, wholly owned by PDVSA).  Officially, the charges are of corruption; but it is quite possible that they are trumped up (at least, let us assume that for purposes of the hypothetical exam question). Reality, the NYT suggests, is that Mr. Maduro is trying to use the arrests of the executives (four of whom are US citizens) to build political support. His administration has described the alleged corruption as "putrid" (that's a new one).

As background, creditors of Venezuela who have been defaulted on, have already been trying to get at PDVSA's assets, by arguing that PDVSA and the Republic are, for all purposes, one and the same and should be viewed that way.  And at least one such creditor, Crystallex (a Canadian company) has made considerable progress in its suit.

Put another way: Have Crystallex's chances of victory suddenly increased?

My two cents is a Yes. The more Mr. Maduro uses these subsidiaries as his playthings for non-corporate purposes (and particularly purposes that were not disclosed to creditors ex ante), the more likely is a court likely to decide the veil piercing is appropriate. After all, if Mr. Maduro won't respect that separate status of the subsidiaries, why should the court?

Old Wine in New Bottles: Geopolitics and Venezuela's Debt

posted by Mark Weidemaier
Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati
 
Robin Wigglesworth and John Paul Rathbone have an insightful piece in the Financial Times on how China, Russia, and the US are jockeying for position in Venezuela, which needs debt relief. The other governments are in a position to either facilitate or impede this, with conditions. Very roughly speaking, Russia wants regional influence, China wants oil, and the US wants regime change (ideally, while limiting Russian and Chinese influence in the region).
 
Finance has long been both a tool of, and a pretext for, foreign intervention in Latin America. For example, historian Emily Rosenberg and others have written about “dollar diplomacy”—the US government’s early-20th century practice of tying loans to control over customs and taxing authorities. The practice was justified by narratives about the benefits of financial expertise and professionalization, but of course it also served to protect the interests of US lenders while limiting the influence of European powers. Venezuela is no stranger to this history, having endured heavy-handed and often brutal interventions by western powers in the early 1900s.

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Why Didn't Puerto Rico Use its "Local Law" Advantage to Reduce its Debt?

posted by Mitu Gulati

Good academic workshops are hard to run. I know, because this is a task that I have failed at, and continue to fail at, repeatedly.

For that reason though, it is a treat to see someone else run their workshop successfully. I was at one recently that was spectacularly run: Jill Hasday's Public Law workshop at the University of Minnesota. The setting is intimate: a small group of students and faculty gathers in the late afternoon (without wine -- which I usually think of as being key) and they take apart whatever paper is the focus of the discussion. Indeed, after about an hour, the paper that is being discussed almost becomes secondary to the idea that the participants have by then honed in on as being central.  My colleague, Joseph Blocher, and I were lucky enough to have our paper "Puerto Rico and the Right of Accession" be deconstructed last week and it was a special treat for the both of us.  We have a concrete measure for whether a workshop was good (taken from our dear friend, Steve Choi): Did it help generate ideas for a new paper?  This workshop gave us at least three.  That's more than any other workshop I've been to. I don't know how Jill inspires her students or what magic potion her colleagues who attend take, but I want the secret sauce to use next semester at my workshop series with Guy-Uriel Charles.

The one question that Jill, Daniel Schwarcz and at least two students asked that keeps bugging me is: Why didn't Puerto Rico use the fact that the overwhelming majority of its bonds were governed by its own local law to directly restructure it?  Couldn't Puerto Rico have passed a set of laws to enable it to engineer a sharp reduction of its debt?  Greece did precisely that in March 2012; and it faced constitutional protections of property and prohibitions on expropriation very similar to what Puerto Rico would have (as an aside, the challenges to the Greek restructuring of 2012 -- and there have been dozens of suits filed -- have failed so far).  Indeed, the US did something like this with the gold clauses in the 1930s, to jumpstart the economy and get it out of the depression (actions that withstood legal challenge in a set of famous cases such as U.S. v. Perry).

Continue reading "Why Didn't Puerto Rico Use its "Local Law" Advantage to Reduce its Debt?" »

Venezuela's Debt: Is the Game Afoot?

posted by Mitu Gulati

Mitu Gulati & Mark Weidemaier

The confusion over the status of Venezuelan debt over the past week has been remarkable. The government and its oil company, PDVSA, have, variously, defaulted, promised to pay, paid, claimed the money got stuck in bank purgatory, gotten a Russian bailout, triggered CDS contracts, hosted sham restructuring talks (with gift bags!), and more. All while humanitarian conditions worsen. The charade of being able to meet debt obligations may be nearing its end. The prevailing narrative is that investors are willing to be patient as long as they think the government wants to pay. But the investor mix may also be changing. Have the vultures (i.e. distressed debt investors) arrived?  

Two recent articles suggest that the answer is close to being a yes. In this article, from a couple of days ago, Landon Thomas of the NYT reports that, while more traditional investors are beginning to pull out, others who specialize in distress scenarios, like David Martinez of Fintech (a “mysterious” figure, Landon tells us), are entering. The next day, Bloomberg’s Katia Porzecanski published an interview with Jay Newman, formerly of Elliott Associates and infamous for leading the pari passu litigation against Argentina, who seemed very knowledgeable about the legal risks in Venezuelan bonds. (He is ostensibly retired, but one wonders if Venezuelan debt might tempt him out of retirement).

The Bloomberg story highlights an interesting difference of opinion. The markets seem to view PDVSA bonds as significantly safer than Republic bonds. Jay Newman views the former as near-worthless. Why the difference?

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Confusion in Venezuela; Alter Egos in Delaware

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Confusion reigns. Venezuela might plan to default, but maybe it's just pretending so it can buy bonds back on the cheap. Then again, it could be a "giant money laundering operation." If there are restructuring talks, U.S. investors can attend, and listen. Except that the talks will likely be hosted by a drug "kingpin," and investors can't have any "transactions or dealings, directly or indirectly" with that person. And don't ask whether PDVSA's late(ish?) payment was a credit event, or what the CDS payout will be on bonds that have experienced a credit event despite having been paid in full.

Thankfully, the law is clear, right? Here's PDVSA motion to dismiss the lawsuit Crystallex has filed in federal court in Delaware, alleging that PDVSA is Venezuela's alter ego and seeking to enforce an arbitration award against the government by attaching PDVSA's equity stake in the ultimate U.S. parent of CITGO. Here's a summary of the arguments the parties have made thus far. The case matters, first, because if successful Crystallex will sever PDVSA's indirect ownership stake in CITGO. It also matters because, as we've discussed here repeatedly, any debt restructuring will implicate questions of alter ego liability. For instance, many restructuring proposals begin by urging Venezuela to withdraw PDVSA's right to exploit oil reserves, so as to better insulate oil-related assets from creditors. This short article explains some of the issues of alter ego liability raised by these and other proposals.

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Puerto Rico, its Control Board and the "Two-Step Plan" Story

posted by Mitu Gulati

It is rare that the ideas in academic articles fundamentally change the world. A package of pieces by Clay Gillette and David Skeel (starting with "Governance Reform and the Judicial Role in Bankruptcy" in 2014, followed by a NY Times Op Ed in 2015,  and concluding with "A Two-Step Plan for Puerto Rico" in 2016) have arguably done just that though. The context, as many slipsters have written about, was the enormous financial crisis that Puerto Rico has been mired in for multiple years now. The three Gillette-Skeel articles were the foundation for the institution of a federal control board to displace the local elected authorities in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and, in their place, run Puerto Rico's debt restructuring.

Oversimplifying, the idea is that there are occasions when an electoral system becomes so dysfunctional in its running of the local government's operation that a more command-based system needs to be put in place temporarily. Clay has an aptly titled piece "Dictatorships for Democracy" that also explicates this idea. In political economy terms, the problem that Clay and David attack in their pieces is the one where the local competition among electoral candidates is, for whatever reason, consistently delivering severely sub-optimal local governance -- a consistently bad electoral equilibrium that eventually produces a severe government bankruptcy. And the way to get out of the bad equilibrium, they argue, is a temporary dictatorship (aka control board) that is not beholden to the kinds of political interests that were causing the dysfunction.

The question of why the local government system in Puerto Rico produced such immense fiscal mismanagement is a complicated one.  I am inclined to put a big portion of the blame for bad governance on the fact that Puerto Rico has not been allowed to meaningfully govern itself in the same fashion as the states for over a century ("foreign in a domestic sense" and all that). That said, it is hard to argue with the observation that, whatever the reason, Puerto Rico seems to be stuck in a bad governance equilibrium that it needs to be pushed out of. And Clay and David have provided one solution that might just work. (My preferred solution would be that Puerto Rico be allowed meaningful governance rights at the federal level, but no one in Washington DC seems to be willing to give them that).

Two things got me thinking about their idea over the past few days, and induced me to write this post.  First, the hearing on the legal challenge to the constitutionality of the control board is coming up soon (based on a challenge from a NY hedge fund).  Second, there was an interesting article Simon Davis-Cohen of The Nation (a lengthy piece about Clay and David and their ideas) that appeared about a week or so ago. Davis-Cohen's article, to my mind, manages to be both admiring of the ideas and goals that Clay and David have and also question the whether they are appropriate in the Puerto Rican context.

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Venezuela is Defaulting, Maybe . . . Maybe Not

posted by Mitu Gulati

The news out of Venezuela with regards to its debt situation has been keeping investors (who love the high returns, but dislike the uncertainty) in a tizzy, to put it mildly. But today's news was perhaps the most bizarre yet.  Mr. Maduro, on the one hand, announced that PDVSA (the big state-owned oil company that produces 95% of Venezuela's foreign currency earnings) was making its latest payment to creditors (due today) and, on the other hand, announced that a restructuring was being planned immediately.

What? Why? How?

If the plan is to restructure because there is no money, then why were the payments today (and a few days ago) made? That makes no sense to my little brain.

And how in the world is there going to be a restructuring when there are US sanctions prohibiting just that? Through some Russian proxy? Or Chinese? Via a loophole in the sanctions regime?

Katia Porzecanski, sovereign debt guru, has a super article up on this puzzle already at Bloomberg (with co authors Patricia Laya, Ben Bartenstein, and Christine Jenkins).

Venezuelan Debt: Call a Spade a Spade

posted by Mitu Gulati

Adam Lerrick, of the American Enterprise Institute, has offered an intriguing approach to the Republic of Venezuela/PDVSA debt problem. Call a spade a spade. The distinction in the market between Republic of Venezuela and PDVSA bonds has always been artificial and the market has normally perceived it as such. Only recently have market participants begun trying to figure out which bonds -- PDVSA or Republic of Venezuela -- will be more likely candidates for a debt restructuring and therefore which should trade higher in the market.

PDVSA accounts for 95 percent for the foreign currency earnings of the entire country. Without PDVSA, there is no credit standing behind Republic bonds.  At base, there is only one public sector credit risk in the country and Lerrick invites us to acknowledge this fact.

He proposes that the Republic assume the indebtedness of PDVSA and proceed to restructure that debt as part of a generalized Republic debt workout. As part of this process -- and to discourage potential holdouts from the Republic's offer to exchange PDVSA bonds and promissory notes -- he suggests that the Government take back PDVSA's concession to lift and sell Venezuelan oil. This risk has always been prominently disclosed in the PDVSA offering documents and should not come as a surprise to anyone.

Lerrick's proposal adds to the growing list of suggestions for how a future Venezuelan debt restructuring (and there almost certainly will be such a debt restructuring) may be accomplished without holdout creditors devouring the process. No one wants to repeat the experience of Argentina.

Recently, in the context of trying to work out the knotty problem of how to restructure Venezuela’s promissory notes, Lee Buchheit and I made a similar suggestion along these lines. (our friends, Bob Lawless and Bob Scott, two gurus of this world of secured financing and contracts, were invaluable in helping us figure this structure out -- all blame for errors is ours, of course).

The structure we suggest differs from the Lerrick proposal mainly on the question of what should happen to the PDVSA oil assets, including receivables for the sale of oil.  We suggest that PDVSA pledge those assets to the Republic in consideration for the Republic's assumption of PDVSA bond/promissory note liabilities (as opposed to transferring title to the assets back to the Republic).  Such a pledge is expressly permitted by the terms of the PDVSA bonds and promissory notes and should operate to shield the assets from attachment by holdout creditors.

Catalonian Bonds, Anyone?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Joint post by Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier.

Sovereign bonds issued under the government's own law are supposed to be riskier than bonds issued under foreign (typically, English or New York) law. The logic is simple: Local-law bonds can be restructured with the stroke of a legislator's pen; with foreign bonds, it's not so easy. One would expect that difference in risk to show up in bond yields, which should be higher for local-law bonds, especially in times of uncertainty. There's quite a bit of research to back up that intuition (e.g., Bradley et al. (2017), Nordvig (2015), Chamon et al. (2014), Clare & Schmidlin (2014), Choi et al. (2014)). 

Catalonian bond yields have been rising, thanks to jitters over the secession vote. But Nicolas Schmidlin, a fund manager (who worked on this topic as a graduate student and wrote the paper linked above), noticed something odd about bond yields.

Continue reading "Catalonian Bonds, Anyone?" »

If I Were a Holdout ...

posted by Anna Gelpern

Bond pricing has always been a puzzle to me, so I leave it to Mitu. But one thing has bugged me for more than a year. Ever since Venezuela has joined the ranks of the walking dead, market participants have differentiated among its bond contracts in a way that might seem sensible--even sophisticated--to those who think that investors do (or should) occasionally read the small print. In particular, Venezuelan bonds that require 100% of the holders to consent to an amendment of financial terms have fetched a higher price than comparable bonds with so-called collective action clauses, or CACs, which can be amended by either 85% or 75% of the holders, depending on the bond issue. The 100% bonds also have relatively more enforcement-friendly pari passu clauses, which could make it easier to replicate the fabulously successful holdout strategy in Argentina. The price premium must reflect rational investors on the eve of default paying for the power to veto a restructuring or drop out and get paid in full, right? Not quite. As you read the bond documents, the 100>85 reasoning unravels, and the 100% bond starts looking like a pretty fishy holdout vehicle.

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Could Giving the Rohingya Refugees a Debt Claim Ameliorate the Current Crisis?

posted by Mitu Gulati

From Joseph Blocher & Mitu Gulati

Just a couple of weeks ago, the plight of the Rohingya, a muslim minority group in Myanmar, who are being oppressed (to put it mildly–they have been called “the most friendless people in the world”) was front page news. But, as has often been the case with the plight of the Rohingya over the years, news of their plight quickly receded as other human drama and tragedy took over (hurricane in Puerto Rico, Las Vegas shooting, Catalan secession vote/violence, North Korean craziness etc.)

We realize that we are likely engaged in a pointless task.  But we want to plead for the condition of the Rohingya, and indeed other refugees, not to be forgotten so quickly. As a threshold matter, we recognize that our government cannot be depended on to care much (if at all) about the plight of oppressed groups that are as far away, foreign and poor as the Rohingya. In other words, the top down mechanism isn’t going to work. The question then is whether, assuming that the oppression in question is clear and cognizable, there is some other solution—something bottom up--that the international legal system could provide to oppressed groups who are forced into refugee status that does not depend on other governments, such as the U.S., having a self interest in intervening.

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Could Puerto Rico be Expelled for its "Tremendous" Debt?

posted by Mitu Gulati

From Joseph Blocher & Mitu Gulati

We would not exactly call ourselves avid readers of the US Navy blogs. But there is an interesting post on the U.S. Naval Institute Blog today on Puerto Rico and debt by Commander George Capen (retired).

The context that inspired his blog post was the behavior of our president toward the current crisis in Puerto Rico. To quote: 

“Ultimately, the government of Puerto Rico will have to work with us to determine how this massive rebuilding effort—will end up being one of the biggest ever—will be funded and organized, and what we will do with the tremendous amount of existing debt already on the island.” – President Donald J. Trump, 29 September 2017:

Commander Capen, whose post is worth reading in its entirety, writes:

Puerto Rico didn’t ask to become a U.S. territory in 1898; nor do they get to vote in U.S. elections; nor do they have voting representation in Congress. But they are Americans. And they also voted to become a state (over 97 percent) earlier this year.

As an unincorporated commonwealth, our Congress holds the fate of Puerto Rico in their hands. Following their vote for statehood, our Congress can make Puerto Rico a state. Congress could also vote to cast Puerto Rico aside as an independent nation.

That final statement raises a question that we have been fascinated by (and have struggled with). Could Congress really “cast Puerto Rico aside as an independent nation,” even stripping Puerto Ricans of their US citizenship, because they have a “tremendous debt”?

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Your Friendly Neighborhood Sanctions Running Strategy

posted by Anna Gelpern

We are about to hit an anniversary of sorts, a year since Venezuela was surely going to default on its debt ... except that it still hasn't, so the U.S. government has decided to nudge it along. Retroactive debt sanctions imposed on August 25 prohibit, among other things, extending new credit to the government of Venezuela and its state oil company PDVSA beyond 30 days and 90 days, respectively, as well as any transactions in previously issued government debt, and, separately, any direct or indirect, old or new bond-buying from the Venezuelan government. The sanctions are a big headache for U.S. bank compliance departments, but they also got some glorious creative juices running. Mark & Mitu offer a contrarian reading of the sanctions order and one of the general licenses issued by the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) as part of its implementation. As M&M read it, Venezuela cannot restructure all its debt in a debt swap (that would require issuing new bonds), but it could amend some of its old bonds using collective action clauses (CACs), and gain breathing room until oil prices recover, things change, or pigs fly. 

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Do Sanctions Prevent Venezuela From Restructuring CAC Bonds?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

This is a joint post by Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier.

At the end of last week, press reports noted that Mr. Maduro has given the green light for restructuring talks to begin with holders of Venezuelan debt. Curiously, the Russians may lead the talks. One question is whether bondholders subject to US jurisdiction can participate in a restructuring given recent sanctions levied by the Trump administration. Press accounts suggest that the sanctions were intended to prevent this. Bloomberg reports the sanctions were "designed to prevent investors from engaging in liability management, and, if Venezuela can't pay its debt, a restructuring." The Financial Times reports likewise, quoting a senior analyst who thinks the sanctions will work: "If these sanctions stay in place, then Venezuela cannot restructure."

We accept that the sanctions were intended to block a restructuring. But they don't seem to actually do this. There is a rather large loophole that would allow Venezuela to employ a common restructuring technique.

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How Easily Can Creditors Reach Venezuelan Oil Receivables?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Among emerging market countries that have needed to restructure in recent decades, Venezuela is uniquely dependent on external commercial ties, especially oil exports to the United States by state oil company PDVSA. Because of this, many wonder whether holdout creditors pose a unique threat to the country's restructuring prospects. Unlike, say, Argentina, which could keep most valuable assets away from creditors, Venezuela must worry that holdouts will seize oil receivables. PDVSA's assets include money due from U.S. customers. These intangible assets are located in the United States, where courts can easily divert them to satisfy judgments obtained by holdouts. Note that this logic assumes that courts treat PDVSA as Venezuela's alter ego--a topic discussed several times on this blog--but the assumption is plausible.

But even if we assume that courts will ignore the boundaries between PDVSA and the government, is the risk of asset seizure really so great? The scenario described above presumes that Venezuela structures oil sales to U.S. entities in implausibly straightforward ways. Suppose, for instance, that PDVSA sells oil directly to U.S. buyers in exchange for a promise to pay on delivery. In that case, sure; creditors of both PDVSA and the government will have a field day. But while I am no expert on how PDVSA structures its operations, I would be stunned if things were so simple.

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Venezuela is Like... PDVSA's Alter Ego, and Vice Versa?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

And so it begins. As Anna notes, Venezuela is in dire straits, yet its stubborn insistence on paying bondholders puts it in the running for "world's slowest train wreck." When the wheels finally leave the tracks, expect a free-for-all in which competing claimants (bondholders, arbitration claimants, etc.) fight to recover as much as possible, both from the government and from state-owned oil company PDVSA. The major players will include creditors holding billions of dollars in arbitration awards against Venezuela. These creditors, unlike those holding government or PDVSA bonds, need not fear a debt restructuring. They will, however, have to find attachable assets that can be seized to satisfy their claims.

Enter Canadian mining company Crystallex, which has been trying to enforce a $1.2 billion arbitration award against Venezuela, so far without success. A few days ago, it tried a new tack--one with broader implications for any restructuring of Venezuela's or PDVSA's debt. Crystallex asked a federal court in Delaware to attach the shares of PDV Holding, Inc., a Delaware company that is the ultimate U.S. parent of CITGO petroleum. PDV Holding is owned by PDVSA, which, in turn, is owned by Venezuela.

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Venezuela Is Like ... (Part II)

posted by Anna Gelpern

Last time on Super-Sad Updates, I speculated (i) that the Venezuelan people could be in for more suffering and bondholders for more coupon payments (see Romania), (ii) that Venezuela’s complex debt stock was prone to shell games and inter-creditor conflicts, which could delay a workout (see Puerto Rico), and (iii) that a bet on PDVSA bonds over sovereign bonds today required too many assumptions to hold my shrinking attention span (but see Turkmenistan … or not). Now I try to imagine what might happen if the government did decide to restructure. It brings back memories of …

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Venezuela Is Like ... (Part I)

posted by Anna Gelpern

Market and civil society observers have taken Venezuelan debt restructuring as a certainty for more than two years, putting it in contention for the world’s slowest train wreck and quite possibly the messiest. Designs abound, but even after last weekend’s vote followed by new U.S. sanctions, too many variables remain too far up in the air to start laying the yellow brick pavers quite yet.

Depending on where you sit and how long you stare, Venezuela can present as some, none, or all of many past sovereign debt crises. The tour that starts below with broad-brush analogies is not exhaustive, but still plenty depressing.

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Puerto Rico Bankruptcy: More on Audio

posted by Melissa Jacoby

Standing Order 8As my last post mentioned, release of hearing audio recordings does not appear to be standard practice in the District of Puerto Rico district court. But that isn't for lack of authority within that court. Standing Order 8, adopted in 2011, expressed with some pride that the District of Puerto Rico would be the "first in the entire Nation" after the pilot program (discussed in prior post) to make audio files available through PACER. The order makes clear that the recording is not the official record, preserving the role of court reporters. The use of the technology is left to the discretion of the presiding judge. The court's website indicates this order remains in effect.

Ideally recordings of the Puerto Rico hearings would be released for free on the court's website. But even if posted only on PACER for a flat fee, opting into this practice would increase accessibility. 

Puerto Rico Bankruptcy: Audio Recordings?

posted by Melissa Jacoby

As noted as an update in the prior post, May 17 is the first hearing in Puerto Rico's PROMESA restructuring cases (which also have new case numbers). However much interest these cases hold for the professional bankruptcy world, they are of critical importance to Puerto Rico residents. The idea of a government unit being bankrupt is frightening, with the anxiety heightened when the extent to which one's elected officials remain in charge is unclear. Sensitive to the number of stakeholders and high public interest, the courthouse has overflow space reserved for the first hearing. But even a capacious courthouse imposes natural limits on the in-person population.

If the court released audio recordings of hearings for free on its website, as happened in the Detroit bankruptcy, that would provide a window into the federal court process that could help build trust and legitimacy. Ordering and using hearing transcripts is critical to many parties and their lawyers, but that process is not a feasible form of education and access for others. In addition to being prohibitively expensive for residents to acquire, especially on an expedited basis, written transcripts provide insufficient contextual cues for those less familiar with federal courts and lawyers.

Releasing digital recordings does not appear to be standard practice in the District of Puerto Rico. Might this be an opportune moment for an experiment, or at least an exception?*

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