324 posts categorized "Sovereign Debt"

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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.)

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Imagine Riding the Ceteris Pari-bus into the Sunset ... in Argentina

posted by Anna Gelpern

Imagine sovereign debt without Argentina -- no Paris Club, no pari passu, no CACs, no SDRM ... even sovereign immunity might look totally different. History teaches that whatever happens in Argentina's imminent bond restructuring (revisiting, reprofiling, rejiggering, revamping --the difference is overblown) is likely to have consequences beyond the long-suffering Republic. The fact that Argentina has an actual government with authority over the economy and some capacity to execute a restructuring (unlike, say, Venezuela) justifies wading into the small print of its bond disclosure--as Mark and Mitu have done. Their able interventions free me to focus on two under-covered points. Methinks that (1) the single-minded focus on voting thresholds is misguided, and that (2) it helps to think of "uniformly applicable" as the latest incarnation of pari passu, which goes to show that inter-creditor equity remains a perennial problem in sovereign debt.

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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.

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Aurelius v. Puerto Rican Control Board (or "Do Activist Hedgies Add Value?")

posted by Mitu Gulati

This post draws considerably from research on Puerto Rico and its current constitutional status with Joseph Blocher (see here).

Tuesday was oral argument day at the Supreme Court in the battle between the Puerto Rican Control Board and a big bad hedge fund, Aurelius.  Aurelius, zealous defender of the constitution that it is, had brought a challenge to the constitutionality of the Control Board. The claim being that the failure of President Obama and the then Congress to follow the strictures of the Constitution for the appointment of principal officers of the federal government (nomination by the President, followed by Senate confirmation) made the Board and all its actions invalid.

I am not a constitutional scholar and don’t have any desire to be one.  Still, the basic issue here seems fairly simple:  Are the members of the Control Board principal federal officers?

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A Mini Q&A on Venezuela’s Possible Defense to Foreclosure on the PDVSA 2020

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Along with Ugo Panizza of the Graduate Institute in Geneva, we’ve put up a couple of posts in recent days asking whether Venezuela might have a legal basis for challenging its obligations on the PDVSA 2020 bond (here and here). A large payment of close to a billion dollars is due in a few weeks and there is no money to pay it.  Most important, the bond is collateralized by a pledge of a majority stake in CITGO Holding.

The possible basis for the legal defense is that the bonds, and especially the pledge of collateral, were not properly authorized under Article 150 of the Venezuelan constitution. (This matter has also received press attention over the past few days—e.g., here and here).

As background, provisions in the Venezuelan constitution (Art. 312) and related Venezuelan laws require the passage of a “special law” (our translation) to authorize public indebtedness, but exempt PDVSA from the requirement. However, a separate constitutional provision, Article 150, requires “approval” from the National Assembly for contracts of national interest. We don’t know of situations in which the provision has been invoked. With apologies for possible mistranslations here and elsewhere in this post, here is the text:

Article 150. The entering into of national public interest contracts will require the approval of the National Assembly in the cases determined by law. 

No municipal, state, or national public interest contract can be entered into with States or foreign official entities or with companies not domiciled in Venezuela, not being assigned to them without the approval of the National Assembly.

The law may require in public interest contracts certain conditions of nationality, domicile or any other kind, or require special guarantees

For a Caracas Chronicles piece on this, see here.

We have gotten numerous questions in response to our two pieces, one at Project Syndicate and one here. There were many excellent questions. And since we find this topic fascinating (we are working on an empirical paper on governing law provisions in sovereign debt contracts), we decided to go down the rabbit hole of trying to answer them. 

The caveat here is that while we know a good bit about sovereign bond contracts, we have no expertise in Venezuelan constitutional law. Here goes:

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Can Creditors Seize CITGO? Enforcing the PDVSA 2020 Bond Collateral

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Writing with Ugo Panizza, we have a piece out today on Project Syndicate (Should Creditors Pay the Price for Dubious Bonds?) discussing the collateralized bond issued by Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA (the PDVSA 2020 bond). We have written here previously about the bond as well. In 2016, when PDVSA was near default, it conducted a debt swap in which investors exchanged short-maturity bonds for the longer-maturity PDVSA 2020. To sweeten the deal, the PDVSA 2020 bond was backed by collateral in the form of a 50.1% interest in CITGO Holding, the immediate parent company of U.S. oil refiner CITGO Petroleum.

A payment of nearly $1 billion is coming due in the next few weeks on the PDVSA 2020 bond. The Maduro regime—no longer recognized as the legitimate government of Venezuela—can’t pay it. And the government-in-exile led by Juan Guaidó—though it desperately wants to retain control of CITGO—presumably can’t afford to pay. If there is a default, and bondholders seize the collateral, the loss of CITGO may significantly disrupt Venezuela’s ability to recover from its current economic and humanitarian catastrophe. To be sure, the prospects of recovery are dim while Mr. Maduro remains in power, but if he leaves, the loss of CITGO will be a major blow.

The Project Syndicate article describes how, under Venezuelan law, the National Assembly must approve contracts of national interest. That didn’t happen here. Venezuela might therefore challenge the issuance of the PDVSA 2020 bond, and the grant of collateral, as lacking proper authorization under Venezuelan law. Ugo and we examine the potential justification for such a challenge at Project Syndicate.

Here, we focus on a more wonky question: Is the validity of the PDVSA 2020 bond and the pledge of collateral to be judged under Venezuelan law or New York law? And would the outcome change depending on which law governs? The answers turn out to be more complicated than one might think. But, given the court battle that we expect, rather important.

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The Puzzling Pricing of Venezuelan Sovereign Bonds

posted by Mitu Gulati

by Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Venezuela’s sovereign bonds differ in ways that should, in theory, be reflected in market prices. For example, depending on the bond, the vote required to modify payment terms through the collective action clause (CACs) varies from 100% (requiring each holder to assent), to 85%, to 75%. Bonds with higher voting thresholds are harder to restructure and one would think prices would reflect this. Two bonds issued by state oil company PDVSA also have legal features that one might expect to have pricing implications. One bond benefits from a pledge of collateral (the PDVSA 2020) and, in consequence, should be priced higher than otherwise-comparable bonds. A second was issued at a particularly large original issue discount (OID); this is a potential legal defect that should lower its price. This is the so-called “Hunger bond” (PDVSA 2022 —see here, here and here for more)).

Although these differences seem like they should matter, reports from the European markets (where the bonds can still be traded) indicate that bid prices for Venezuelan sovereign bonds range from around 13.0 to 13.5 cents on the dollar, while ask prices range from about 14.5 to 15.5. Moreover, prices on the bonds with different voting thresholds are identical. That is, the bonds that cannot be restructured except with each creditor’s assent are trading the same as bonds that allow a creditor majority of 85% or 75% to force restructuring terms on dissenters. But why? Venezuela is in full-fledged default, when legal protections should matter the most.  Shouldn’t these non-US investors (US investors can’t buy, given OFAC sanctions) be offering higher prices for bonds with better terms?

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Enough With the Old Chinese Debt Already

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

We may be partly to blame for the fact that stories keep surfacing about whether the U.S. government might help holders of pre-revolutionary, defaulted Chinese debt monetize their claims. Here’s Tracy Alloway of Bloomberg, with a good assessment of the political and legal basis for this kind of intervention. The bonds have been in default since the 1930s. China won’t pay these pre-PRC debts. Taiwan sends its regrets. But a vocal contingent of American bondholders is lobbying for the U.S. government to intervene. The precise manner of intervention is not clearly defined, but the basic idea is that the bondholders could assign their rights to the U.S. government, which could then use the bonds to offset U.S. debts to China. As Alloway quotes the President of the American Bondholders Foundation (a bondholder group): “What’s wrong with paying China with their own paper?”

Look, we’re torn here. Expressed like that, the idea is bonkers. No, it’s worse. If you’ll forgive an obscure theater reference: compared to a bonkers idea, this idea is lying “in the gutter looking up in wide-eyed admiration.” Sure, the US government could try to “pay” China with defaulted Chinese bonds. It could also try to pay with toilet paper or chewing gum.* We have to assume this would be a credit event triggering CDS contracts issued on the U.S. And to be fair, from a certain armchair perspective, that would be…entertaining?

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Trump Wants to Buy Greenland for the U.S. – But Who Is the Relevant Seller?

posted by Mitu Gulati

(This post draws from my prior work with Joseph Blocher and the many conversations we have had about this topic over the years; he bears no responsibility for errors and sarcasm)

According to a flurry of news reports from the WSJ, CNN, Bloomberg, the NYT and many more, our eminent chief executive has an interest in the possibility of buying Greenland.  Most reactions to this news of DJT’s latest whim have boiled down to incredulity, while also generating a fair amount of mirth (see here, here and here).  What has interested us the most, though, are the articles that have concluded that the U.S. cannot buy Greenland. Bloomberg’s Quick Take ran the title – “Can Trump Actually Buy Greenland – The Short Answer is No”. 

But is that really the case? The relevant international law seems to present no explicit barrier to nations buying and selling territory (here). Indeed, much of today’s United States was acquired through the purchase of territory.  The barrier that most commentators see as insurmountable is not legal, but rather the lack of a willing seller.  Maybe so.  But a handful of quotes from government officials and politicians in Denmark and a few from politicians in Greenland (see here and here) is not necessarily enough to conclude that this trade could never work.

Before jumping to the foregoing conclusion, one needs to first ask how such a sale would work.

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Coyle on Studying the History of a Contract Provision

posted by Mitu Gulati

The way many of us teach interpretation in Contract Law, there is little role for history (admittedly, this is just based on casual observation). The meaning of a clause is a function of the words that make up that clause.  The parties to the transaction are assumed to have drafted it to document the key aspects of their transaction, to balance risks and rewards blah blah.  If a dispute arises, we might have an argument as to whether a strict textualist reading of the words accurately represent what the parties really meant by them or whether we need to also examine the context of the relationship. What we do not ever do, however, is to delve into the history of the clause from before these parties contemplated using it – that is, of what prior drafters of the original versions of this clause might have meant in using it.

The foregoing makes sense in a world in which the contracts for each deal are drafted from scratch. But does anyone draft contracts from scratch?  What if we live in a world where 99.9% of contracts are made up of provisions cut and paste from prior deals; provisions that are assumed to cover all the key contingencies, but not necessarily understood (or even read)? In this latter world, where there are lots of provisions that the parties to the transaction never fully focused on (let alone understood), might there be an argument – in cases where there are interpretive disputes -- for the use of a contract provision’s history? Might that history not sometimes be more relevant than the non-understandings of the parties as to what they did or did not understand they were contracting for? (Among the few pieces that wrestle with this question are these two gems: Lee Buchheit's Contract Paleontology here and Mark Weidemaier's Indiana Jones: Contract Originalist here)

I’m not sure what the answer to the foregoing question is. But it intrigues me.  And it connects to a wonderfully fresh new body of research in Contract Law where a number of scholars have been studying the production process for modern contracts.  The list of papers and scholars here is too long to do justice to and I’ll just end up making mistakes if I try to do a list.  But what unites this group of contract scholars is that for them it isn’t enough to assume that contracts show up fully formed at the time of a deal, purely the product of the brilliant minds of the deal makers who anticipate nearly every possible contingency at the start.  Instead, understanding what provisions show up in a contract, and in what formulation, requires understanding the contract production process. (Barak Richman's delightful "Contracts Meet Henry Ford" (here) is, to my mind, foundational).

It is perhaps too early to tell whether this research will catch on and revolutionize contract law. I hope it does, but I’m biased.

One of my favorite papers in this new body of contract scholarship showed up recently on ssrn. It is John Coyle’s “A History of the Choice-of-Law Clause” (here). I have rarely found a piece of legal scholarship so compelling.  The paper is not only a model of clarity in terms of the writing, but it is brave. It is completely unapologetic in not only taking on an entirely new mode of research (a painstaking documentation of the historical evolution of the most important terms in any and every contract), but in coming up with a cool and innovative research technique for unpacking that history (this project would have been impossible to do without that innovation).

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Third Circuit Affirms Crystallex Attachment Order

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the order allowing jilted Canadian mining company Crystallex to attach PDVSA's equity stake in PDV-Holding (the corporate parent of CITGO). Here's the unanimous opinion. (For prior coverage of the attachment ruling see here.) It's possible proceedings in the District Court might be delayed further if Venezuela seeks Supreme Court review, while the district judge resolves outstanding procedural questions (see here), or because of lingering uncertainty about whether the U.S. sanctions now in place will prevent an actual execution sale. So it's not exactly over. But on the core question--whether Venezuela's control over PDVSA was so extensive as to make the entity the government's alter ego--the Court of Appeals resoundingly rejected Venezuela's argument: "Indeed, if the relationship between Venezuela and PDVSA cannot satisfy the Supreme Court’s extensive-control requirement, we know nothing that can."

India to Issue its First Foreign Currency Sovereign Bond?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati & Mark Weidemaier

The two of us are beginning a project to build a dataset of foreign currency sovereign bonds and their contract terms. The dataset of bond issuances has a conspicuous absence: India.

Turns out India has never issued a foreign currency sovereign bond. Some state-owned enterprises have ventured onto the foreign markets in search of investors, but not the sovereign. This is a bit puzzling because India certainly has the economic growth and financial prospects to attract foreign investors. Countries like the Philippines, Turkey, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Russia, and China regularly tap the international markets. Indeed, closer to home, many of India’s smaller neighbors, such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan and even little Maldives, have tapped the foreign currency sovereign markets. We also know from our research that there is considerable appetite for Indian sovereign issuances from big investors in places like Singapore and Canada. The interest is such that foreign funds buy Indian domestic currency issuances despite the inflation risks they pose. Presumably, these funds would jump at the opportunity to buy a foreign currency issuance.

So, why not India?  Or, perhaps we should ask: Why now India? There are conflicting reports, but the government appears to be considering issuing an international, foreign-currency bond, likely yen- or euro-denominated. In a recent budget speech, the Finance Minister of India announced the plan (see here, for a recent Bloomberg story). Other reports, however, indicate that the office of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has developed cold feet about the plan (see Bloomberg here). The Economic Times of India (here; and also this Money Control article) also describes how the senior bureaucrat who was in charge of the issuance has been transferred from the Finance Ministry to a less prominent position and is seeking to retire early.

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Pre-Revolutionary Chinese Debt: An Investment for the Truly Stable Genius

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

About a year ago, an unusual securities action was brought against a pastor at one of the largest Protestant churches in the country and a financial planner. The accusation was that the two, Kirbyjon Caldwell and Gregory Smith, had duped elderly investors into buying participation rights in bonds issued by the pre-revolutionary Chinese government. The bonds have been in default since 1939. Here is the SEC’s press release; Matt Levine at Bloomberg talked about the case here. Among other things, the SEC accused Caldwell and Smith of violating the registration requirements of the federal securities laws and of committing fraud.

This case got a fair amount of attention because Mr. Caldwell is no ordinary pastor. He leads one of the largest congregations in the country, with roughly 14,000 members, and was a spiritual adviser to George W. Bush and Barack Obama (see here).

The core of the fraud case seems to be that Caldwell and Smith promised investors safe, quick returns. Allegedly, the plan was to sell the bonds for a profit or to get the Chinese government to pay up. From the SEC’s perspective, this was like promising to squeeze water from a stone; since the communist takeover in 1949, Chinese governments have steadfastly refused to pay the bonds.

It all sounds rather daffy. Also, weirdly specific. It can’t be easy to persuade people to open their pocketbooks for antique Chinese sovereign bonds. Still, we were struck by the SEC’s characterization of the bonds, in both the press release and the complaint, as “defunct” and as “collectible memorabilia with no meaningful investment value” (here and here). The characterization presumes the answer to a question that has long fascinated us, which is whether a sufficiently motivated claimant could enforce these bonds against China.

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Venezuelan Debt: Soft Power Matters

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

Last week, we did a post about a set of creative but long shot defenses that Venezuela’s Interim Government has invoked to defend against lawsuits by creditors holding defaulted debt. Basically, the government wants a stay of creditor enforcement efforts. The plaintiffs want summary judgment—i.e., a relatively quick entry of judgment, without a trial or significant fact-finding. The Interim Government’s defenses have equitable appeal but questionable (although not zero) legal merit. The defenses included the contract law defense of Impossibility and the customary international law defenses of Necessity and Comity. Impossibility rarely works, especially when the defendant’s argument boils down to, “I’m out of money and need time to work out a deal with my creditors.” Necessity and Comity may not even apply in cases arising from a sovereign’s default. However, the Interim Government’s legal team persuasively emphasized their client’s impossible situation—recognized as the legitimate representative of the country but unable to access its resources.

Judges have power, and much of this power is of the “soft” variety that comes, not from the ability to resolve substantive disputes, but from professional status and authority and from the ability to control process. Here, the judge has given the Interim Government a bit of the relief it wanted, in the form of a relatively favorable scheduling order.

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Equal Treatment in Sovereign Restructurings

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati & Mark Weidemaier

Last Friday, the Venezuelan government (at least, the representatives of that government recognized by the U.S.) issued a set of broad principles it intended to follow when it conducted the debt restructuring that is going to be necessary as soon as Mr. Maduro is given the proverbial boot from office.  One of those principles is going to be “equal treatment” of the various claims denominated in foreign currency – PDVSA bonds, promissory notes, Venezuelan sovereign bonds, arbitral awards and so on.  For those who are familiar with sovereign restructurings, the use of this broad equal treatment principle is going to be familiar (for example, Greece used it in 2012 when faced with an array of different types of debt instruments).

Our question is why.  The different debt instruments that Venezuela has – PDVSA bonds, sovereign bonds, Prom Notes, etc. – have different legal terms.  Some have stronger creditor rights and others have weaker ones. And that probably means that the current investors paid different amounts to buy them.  If investors paid different amounts for stronger versus weaker legal rights, doesn’t it stand to reason that the ones with the stronger rights should be offered a higher payout in a restructuring? And if they are not paid different amounts, isn’t that an invitation to the ones with stronger rights to engage in holdout behavior?

In Greece, for example, both the local-law governed Greek sovereign bonds and the foreign-law ones were offered the same deal.  Almost of the local-law bondholders took the deal, but relatively few of the foreign ones did. End result: Greece paid out the foreign-law bonds that refused the offer in full.  The same was true for a bunch of the Greek guaranteed debt. 

In Barbados, in the restructuring that is ongoing, the domestic-law bonds have taken the offer made by the government. But that same offer has been turned down the foreign-law bondholders; presumably because they think their instruments are worth more because of their stronger legal rights.  Wouldn’t it be efficient to offer the foreign holders more rather than getting mired in years of litigation?

There is undoubtedly a logic to the equal treatment principle.  We are wondering what it is. Efficiency? Maybe the logic is that if, for example, Venezuela were to offer the sovereign bonds requiring 100% of the creditors to approve of the restructuring a few cents more on the dollar than the ones requiring 75%, the whole process would get mired in disputes over whose bonds had stronger or weaker legal rights? Or maybe the logic is that investors will either hold out or not. Put differently, maybe there really is no marginal investor (i.e., one who, in exchange for a few extra pennies, might choose not to hold out and sue). Investors either have an appetite for litigation (in which case they aren’t interested in accepting restructuring terms) or they don’t (in which case there is no need to compensate them for rights they don’t have the appetite to assert). But again, we are speculating.

As a final puzzle, why are some bonds exempt from the equal treatment principle? The restructuring guidelines say that bonds backed by collateral will receive different treatment. But why? Why is a right to collateral different from a 100% voting right? Perhaps it is because some collateral pledges are relatively easy to enforce, such as the pledge of shares in U.S. entities. The PDVSA 2020 bonds are the primary example here. By contrast, a 100% voting right ensures the right to sue but doesn’t do much to help an investor enforce the judgment. However, the guidelines released by the Guaido team may have in mind something more than just the 2020s.

Yannis Manuelides Paper on the Limits of the "Local Law Advantage" in Eurozone Sovereign Bonds

posted by Mitu Gulati

Sovereign debt guru and Allen & Overy partner, Yannis Manuelides has a new paper (here) out on the “local law advantage” in Euro area sovereign bonds.  This paper, along with Mark Weidemaier’s paper from the beginning of the summer (here – and a prior creditslips discussion about it here), helps shed light the thorny question of which European local-law sovereign bonds should be valued more by investors: Ones with CACs or ones without them.  Given that there are billions of euros worth of these bonds with and without CACs being traded every day, one might have thought that there would be clear answers to these questions from the issuing authorities themselves.  There are not.  Further, some of the folks at the various government debt offices take the bizarre (to me) view that answering this question might somehow scare the market.

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Evaluating Venezuela’s Guidelines for Debt Restructuring

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

As reported in the Financial Times, Reuters, and elsewhere, Juan Guaido’s economic and legal team has released a report setting out guidelines for a restructuring of Venezuelan debt. The report, attached here, describes a process that can only happen if/when Maduro loses power and the U.S. government lifts the current sanctions regime, which effectively forbids most transactions in Venezuelan debt. The report is a brief three pages, but it offers intriguing clues about what a restructuring might look like.

Proposals to restructure the Venezuelan debt must accommodate certain basic realities:

- The country is experiencing a dire humanitarian crisis, which demands immediate attention.

- The debt stock is utterly, needlessly complex. Venezuela has somewhere in the range of $200 billion in external liabilities. Virtually all creditors are unsecured, and every creditor’s repayment prospects are tied directly to the government’s ability to monetize one asset: oil. For all practical purposes, every creditor is in the same position. Yet the debt is spread across multiple obligors (the government, PDVSA, etc.) and a bewildering array of obligations (bonds, promissory notes, trade credits, arbitration awards, and who knows what else).

- The government therefore needs time—time to focus on humanitarian needs, time to rehabilitate the oil sector, time to stabilize the political situation, time to determine the full scope of its debts, time for a new government to come up with a credible economic plan for recovery, time to persuade key foreign companies that they won’t be expropriated again if they come back and help in the recovery, and time to come to terms with its creditors. But…

- It may not have much time. Many creditors have been patient. But a few have already reduced claims to judgment and initiated attachment proceedings against crucial government assets, including U.S. oil operations. It is surprising that the litigation floodgates have not opened, but that could happen any day now.

- The next government is going to be highly vulnerable to creditor lawsuits, and particularly so in the United States. It cannot right its economy without selling oil abroad (and sales in the U.S. are typically the cheapest, given refineries and distances). But these sales generate assets in foreign jurisdictions, where creditors will try to seize them. This vulnerability, paired with the complexity of its debt stock, makes Venezuela more akin to Iraq than to more recent crises.

- Finally, the U.S. government may prove a fickle ally. The most effective way to buy time for a Venezuelan restructuring would be for the U.S. and other key jurisdictions to block creditors from attaching Venezuelan assets while the government was engaged in good faith restructuring negotiations. This is what happened for Iraq, but will the Trump administration be able to collaborate with other key nations (China, Russia) to produce a solution similar to that designed for Iraq?  We don’t know.

These facts make for a very messy debt restructuring scenario. But that doesn’t mean the restructuring plan must be complicated. To the contrary, the proposal released by Mr. Guaido’s team attempts to simplify. (Note that the plan does not address debts owed to other nations, presumably including state-owned companies):

Timing and credibility: As noted, Venezuela needs time to address pressing humanitarian needs and, more broadly, to get its house in order. It also needs to persuade its creditors that it has accurately estimated its liabilities and repayment capacity. But the byzantine debt stock created by the Maduro regime, combined with the government’s long-standing refusal to engage with the IMF, means that creditors have little reason to accept the government’s estimates. Not surprisingly, then, the proposal envisions that the IMF will both provide emergency humanitarian assistance and play its usual role in assessing the country’s growth and repayment prospects.

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Venezuelan Debt Restructuring: Making Impossibility Possible?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

There have been relatively few recent developments regarding Venezuela’s debt, as Maduro hangs on to power and U.S. government sanctions bar trading or restructuring of Venezuelan debt by U.S. persons. However, at least one important development has mostly escaped attention. Venezuela-watchers know that the U.S. government, along with many others, has recognized Juan Guaido’s team as the legitimate government of Venezuela. This had immediate implications for creditor lawsuits against Venezuela in U.S. courts. The first involved disputes over which legal team—the lawyers selected by Maduro or those selected by Guaido—had the dubious honor of representing the Venezuelan government. The answer (sensibly enough) seems to be that Guaido’s legal team calls the shots. But Mr. Guaido and his team represent a government in exile, without meaningful resources or real levers of power. Plus, no one denies that Venezuela has failed to pay its creditors. Normally, those facts lead courts to enter judgments in creditors’ favor and to let creditors attach government assets. What legal basis could a Guaido-led government have for resisting these lawsuits?

Court papers defending against the two latest creditor lawsuits reveal an intriguing and innovative strategy. The two cases are Pharo Gaia Fund Ltd et al. v. Venezuela & Casa Express Corp. v. Venezuela.  Both are pending before Judge Analisa Torres in federal court in the Southern District of New York. In filings made a couple of weeks ago (June 21, 2019), the lawyers for Venezuela (Arnold & Porter) raised three doctrines that one rarely sees in modern sovereign debt litigation for the simple reason that these ordinarily have little chance of success: impossibility, necessity and comity.

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Reparations Claims by the Herero and Nama Against Germany

posted by Mitu Gulati

About two years ago, in 2017, an intriguing lawsuit was filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act in New York. It was filed by members of the Herero and Nama tribes for the genocide of their ancestors that took place in what is now known as Namibia. In March this year, Judge Laura Taylor Swain, who readers of this blog may know from the Puerto Rican financial drama, ruled that the claims against Germany were barred by that nation’s right of sovereign immunity. As an aside, having oversight of the Puerto Rican debt debacle is not Judge Swain’s only connection to sovereign debt lore – she also sits in the judgeship vacated by none other than Judge Thomas Griesa of pari passu infamy. For accounts of the above mentioned class action by the Herero and Nama, see here and here. (Lawsuits on roughly similar grounds had been attempted earlier as well; see here).

This outcome is probably not surprising for anyone who has followed the fate of human rights litigation over the past few years brought under the Alien Tort Claims Act. Basically, under the direction of the Supreme Court, the possibilities for victims of human rights violations that took place overseas to foreigners with no more than minimal connections to the US (in terms of the claims themselves) have been severely curtailed.

My reason for bringing this up is that this is a history that I knew little about until I started coming across references to the genocide in Namibia in accounts of the Congo where, similar horrors were taking place in the 1890s and early 1900s under King Leopold of Belgium (Joseph Blocher and I have been working on the question of contemporary implications for international law of the transfer of control that took place after the genocide in the Congo (here)). Still though, these references didn’t give me anything close to a sense of how horrific things had been there.

That is, until I came across this case and began reading the filings in more detail. And one of the most interesting pieces I’ve found is by German scholar Matthias Goldman that both uses original archival research to describes the events that took place and uses them to question our contemporary understanding of the law of sovereignty. The law of sovereignty, as with all of customary international law, is based on assumptions (often faulty – as Matthias shows in this case) about history. The article, “The Entanglement of Property and Sovereignty in International Law”, is short and eminently readable (here). Matthias, who many slipsters know because of his work on sovereign debt matters, has not only been writing on the topic of the genocide in South Western Africa but has also been involved in the court case (he filed an affidavit in the Herero and Nama lawsuit).

I hope that Judge Swain’s decision is not the end of the road for the claims of reparations by the Herero and Nama. Maybe they will have better fortune with a filing in a German court?

PROMESA heads to the U.S. Supreme Court?

posted by Melissa Jacoby

In February 2019, the United States Court of Appeals for First Circuit held that the selection process of the Oversight Board in PROMESA, the rather bipartisan Puerto Rico debt restructuring law (and more), is unconstitutional. The reason: its members were not selected with advice and consent of the Senate, in violation of the Appointments Clause. In other words, it held that the Appointments Clause applies even when Congress created the positions through plenary power over territories, and that Oversight Board members constitute "Officers of the United States." The First Circuit also used the de facto officer doctrine to avoid a complete do-over; it did not dismiss the Title III petition of Puerto Rico (parallel to the filing of a bankruptcy petition), it did not invalidate the already-taken acts of the Board, and the Board could continue to act, at least until the court's stay runs out (originally 90 days, then extended to July 15). 

Given that last remedial twist, even the prevailing parties found reasons to dislike the First Circuit's ruling. Like the Jevic case, the PROMESA dispute invites unlikely bedfellows. Joining Aurelius Capital Management in challenging the First Circuit's ruling on the remedy is the labor union UTIER. They likely have little in common other than wanting a new Oversight Board, or, even better, no Oversight Board. A full bouquet of certiorari petitions followed, including one by the United States/Solicitor General predicting dire consequences if the Appointment Clause ruling stands. On June 20, 2019, the Supreme Court consolidated and granted certiorari on the various petitions. Argument is to take place in October.

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Round 2 -- Do the Euro CACs Have to be Used if There is a Need to Restructure a Euro Area Sovereign's Debt?

posted by Mitu Gulati

The intriguing question raised by Mark Weidemaier’s superb new paper posted a few weeks ago (here) was whether, if a Euro area country hits a debt crisis, it would be mandatory for it to use the Euro CACs that are now part of the majority of Euro area sovereign bonds.  Mark’s paper says no (for more, see also Tyler Zellinger, here; and Buchta, Shan, Plambeck & Shufro, here).

About ten days ago, this question came up at a conference at the EUI organized by Franklin Allen, Elena Carletti and Jeromin Zettelmeyer. The plan for the conference hadn’t been to discuss this particular topic, but CACs and restructurings in the Euro area more broadly. But Mark’s paper had just come out and it turned out that almost everyone there had strong views about it; particularly in the context of thinking about Italian sovereign debt.

The panel of CAC/sovereign debt experts was: Yannis Manuelides, Anna Gelpern, Aitor Erce and Giampaolo Galli.  And the discussion – helped by interventions from experts in the audience who included Jeromin Zettelmeyer, Ignacio Tirado, Richard Portes, Lee Buchheit and Elena Carletti -- was fascinating.  Bottom line:  While experts have strong views about this topic, there is zero clarity in terms of what the policy intent was -- we are all reading the tea leaves.  Mark’s view is that the existing Euro CACs are but an option; and he makes a strong argument for that position (one that I buy).  Ignacio, however, is equally convinced of the opposite position; that the Euro area countries are stuck using the CACs if they hit a debt crisis and need to restructure (this does not mean that he thinks this is the efficient solution; just the legal mandated one).  And I have learned over the years that Ignacio is a very careful thinker and knows his European treaty law better than almost anyone.  Yannis, for his part, was – as he always is – nuanced and took a position somewhere in between.  Put differently, he refused to say whether he agreed with Mark or Igancio.  Anna too, didn’t take a side on this (although she knows the history of what was originally intended by the policy makers better than anyone).  Perhaps most interesting – especially since I had not heard his views before – was the wonderfully gracious and wise Giampaolo Galli (Economics Dept, Cattolica University, Roma), who talked explicitly and in detail about the debt situation in Italy.  For those who don't know him yet, here is his Wikipedia page (it is an understatement to say that he has had an impressive career).

My reason for putting up this post is that Giampaolo has just posted his conference draft, “Collective Action Clauses and Sovereign Debt Restructuring Frameworks: Why and When is Restructuring Appropriate” to ssrn.com (here).  The draft both addresses the question raised by Mark in a nuanced way (while also reporting the views of those in the legal department of the Italian Treasury) and goes further to ask whether the primary task of the Italian government now should be thinking of restructuring techniques or figuring out ways to improve growth and get spending under control.  Giampaolo argues persuasively that focus should be on the latter problems and not the former.  Clever restructuring techniques, he explains, may eventually be needed. But they are not the solution to the problem with the giant Italian debt.

Given the strong disagreements on this matter, and the utter lack of clarity as to what was intended by Euro area policy makers in the first place, it sure would be helpful to have some kind of legislative history as to what was intended when the Euro CACs were adopted in late 2012.   Alternatively, maybe the European authorities could tell us what they were thinking?  Or what they are thinking now about what they should have been thinking then?

How Chaotic Would an Italian Debt Restructuring Be? (Not Very)

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Wolfgang Munchau’s column in the FT yesterday identifies a possible Italian debt crisis as one of the biggest worries for the Eurozone. This makes sense, given Italy’s huge debt stock (upwards of 130% of GDP), seemingly irresponsible politicians, and low growth. An Italian debt restructuring would be the biggest in history, yet it might prove necessary. Munchau highlights the economic consequences of a debt restructuring (e.g., for Italian and other European banks) and also asserts that Europe’s “legal systems are not prepared.” The general sense is that an Italian debt crisis will be a disaster.

It won’t be good, that is for sure. But if planned properly, an Italian debt restructuring can be done relatively smoothly. Why? Because Italy has an enormous “local law advantage,” combined with an enormous set of captive (aka local) holders who have been, to quote an old friend in the sovereign restructuring business, “rolling over their Italian bonds since Hadrian died.”

One might ask, Didn’t Greece have the same local law advantage and wasn’t that a chaotic restructuring? Our reply is that the source of chaos in the Greek case was the unwillingness of key institutions to acknowledge that the debt was unsustainable until very late in the process. The restructuring itself was relatively smooth (for more, see here). In any case, the restructurers this time can learn from the Greek experience. Plus, the local law advantage is significantly bigger in Italy.

Students in our joint class on sovereign debt worked intensely this semester on what an Italian debt restructuring might look like, and they have recently posted their work to ssrn.com. From our informal conversations with European colleagues and friends, we understand that lawyers at various official sector institutions take the position that they do not have the power to do the things our students suggest. But we have yet to hear convincing reasons for this position. Indeed, our impression is that these lawyers are mostly worried that they will spook investors if they publicly acknowledge having the power to restructure (on the theory that investors might take this as a sign that restructuring is likely).

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DebtCon3: A Curtain Raiser and a Love Story

posted by Anna Gelpern

DebtCon3, the Third Interdisciplinary Sovereign Debt Research DebtconXand Management Conference, is starting in just a few hours at Georgetown Law. This year's DebtCon takes place in parallel with IMF and World Bank Spring Meetings. When we first launched the DebtCon project in the snowstorms of 2016, the idea was to have a giant party -- a sovereign debt Coachella -- channeling nerdy energy across different academic disciplines and institutional ecosystems, gathering everyone willing to obsess over public debt to help solve a handful of concrete problems. Mitu wanted to serve frozen pizza, but kind souls chipped in for dinner, and we had fish. The Argentina (!#@%*!) panel was snowed out. Nobody got the Sovereign Debt Research and Management joke ...but the temporary tattoos worked on key demographics, and we came back. In 2017,   Ugo Panizza and his colleagues at the Graduate Institute put on a fabulous DebtCon2 in Geneva, which set an impossibly (Swissly!) high bar for organization, and here we go again. At last count, the star-studded DebtCon3 program has some 120 speakers, plus over 200 registered guests from around the world -- a humongous number for what is often considered a narrow topic. So what is it about sovereign debt? ... and what is it about DebtCon?

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Puerto Rico, the Board, and the Appointments Clause

posted by Stephen Lubben

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Development on the CAC v. No-CAC Question in Euro Area Sovereign Bonds

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier

We have previously discussed how Euro area sovereign bonds with Collective Action Clauses or CACs (issued after Jan 1, 2013) and without CACs (issued prior to Jan 1, 2013) potentially differ in their vulnerability to debt restructuring. For anyone trying to draw up plans to tackle a future Euro area sovereign debt crisis (e.g., in Italy), it will be crucial to decide whether the CAC and no-CAC bonds are in fact different from a restructuring perspective. Conversely, for investors trying to predict which bonds to avoid and which to buy, the matter is equally important – and indeed, should be reflected in prices (for recent empirical papers, see here, here and here).

Last week, a research note by two Dutch researchers made its way to our desks (via reporters who found the claims intriguing). These researchers, looking into investment treaties entered into by the EU with Singapore, Canada and Vietnam, were concerned about two aspects relevant to future sovereign debt restructurings (among other things). To quote their abstract:

On the eve of the vote in the European parliament on the new investment treaty between Singapore and the European Union, SOMO publishes an analysis on the risks for managing government bonds and money flows. The analysis explains how the EU-Singapore Investment Protection Agreement (IPA) negatively impacts the policy space the EU, EU member states and Singapore have to manage financial instability and prevent financial crises.

(Note:  As per the Dutch research note, the EU-Singapore Investment Agreement has not been ratified by the EU parliamentary authorities yet). The issues of concern were:

First, the treaty seemed to include government bonds within its ambit (which is not the case in all such bilateral investment treaties).

Second, the treaty has specific vote requirements that differ from other treaties (e.g., 75% in the EU- Singapore agreement; 66.67% in the EU-Canada one) and that, if not followed, allow investors to bring treaty-based claims.

One concern raised by the report is that such treaties – perhaps inadvertently, perhaps intentionally – can make future restructurings of Euro area sovereign bonds harder by granting investors in certain countries additional rights that could enable them to block restructuring attempts.

Here are our preliminary thoughts, focusing on the EU-Singapore treaty:

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Republic and PDVSA Bonds: No Trades With Friends and Family

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

A few days ago, we wondered why the U.S. government had constrained U.S. holders of PDVSA debt instruments to sell only to non-U.S. parties. The constraint would likely kill liquidity for these bonds and impose losses on bondholders. But why? And why impose the constraint on PDVSA bonds but not the Republic’s bonds?

On Friday, the Treasury apparently amended the sanctions order to impose the same constraint on the Republic’s bonds. Now these too can only be sold to non-U.S. persons.

But again, why?  Venezuela hasn’t issued new bonds for a while, so why kill the secondary market for existing bonds? 

Here are four possible explanations; we’d be grateful to hear others from readers:

1.    Cut Off Oxygen: Venezuela has made a habit of issuing bonds and then parking them in domestic financial institutions, for later sale when the government is low on cash. Counterparties have been willing to accept these bonds in the hope that a future government will pay, even if the current one won’t. Perhaps the U.S. government believes Venezuela still has a stockpile of these parked bonds and is trying to eliminate this last source of oxygen for the Maduro government.

2.    What’s Coming is Brutal: Perhaps the U.S. government expects a brutal restructuring and wants to give U.S. holders an opportunity to escape by selling to non-U.S. parties. But query: If this is the story, why would anyone want to buy? (Ans: They wouldn’t, thereby reducing liquidity even further).

3.    Don’t Want Irate Bondholders Calling and Yelling at US Treasury Officials: This explanation is a version of the first one (Oxygen denial) and says that the U.S. wants to dramatically reduce the value of Venezuelan bonds in the short run, but not to zero, so that U.S. holders who really need to exit will still have a small escape window.

4.    Cut Venezuela Out of the Index: Nearly two years ago, Harvard economist Ricardo Hausmann urged JP Morgan to remove Venezuelan bonds from its index (see here, for Hausmann’s now-famous “Hunger Bonds” article). Venezuela needed to solve a humanitarian crisis, not pay coupons to foreign bondholders. Hausmann understood that many investors would view Venezuelan bonds less favorably if the bonds were removed from JP Morgan’s index. Indirectly, the U.S. government might be trying to bring about this result. To stay in the index, a bond must be traded to some minimal degree. If the sanctions prevent this, Venezuelan bonds may be removed from index. But why would this matter to the U.S. government? Hausmann was worried about coupon payments being made to foreign creditors in lieu of assistance to the people of Venezuela. But Venezuela is not paying any coupons these days (except on the one collateralized PDVSA bond).

Explanations one and three seem most plausible to us. Perhaps the U.S. government is hoping for regime change in the near future. If so, the pain bondholders feel will be temporary and offset by gains once a reasonable government is in place. But if Maduro retains power, then the pain for U.S. holders of these instruments will be significant.

Euro Area Sovereign Bonds: CACs or no-CACs?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati and Mark Weidemaier

Beginning January 1, 2013, Euro Area authorities required member countries to include “collective action clauses,” or “CACs,” in sovereign bonds with a maturity over one year. CACs are a voting mechanism by which a bondholder supermajority (e.g., 66.67% or 75%) can restructure bond terms in a vote that binds dissenters. Before 2013, the vast majority of sovereign bonds issued by Euro area countries not only lacked CACs; they essentially said nothing about restructuring. For much more on CACs, European and otherwise, see here, here and here.

Because of this policy change in 2013, almost every Euro Area sovereign has two sets of bonds outstanding: CAC bonds and no-CAC bonds. Is either type of bond safer for investors to hold in the event of a restructuring?

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The Woes of PDVSA Debt Holders

posted by Mitu Gulati

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

Many things about the current situation in Venezuela bewilder us. Among them are parts of the new sanctions.  The one that especially puzzles us is the part that says that transfers of PDVSA debt claims by US persons are only permitted to non-U.S. persons.

What could possibly be the logic here?  To attempt to see that, our first question was: What is the likely effect of such a constraint. Answer: To kill the liquidity of the bonds and promissory notes and any other debt instruments, since US investors are likely 50% or more of this market.  And that in turn means that the price of these PDVSA instruments is going to drop precipitously.

But why hurt the market for PDVSA debt instruments so viciously?  Maybe the UST knows that there are large chunks of these instruments held by Maduro cronies who have been issuing these instruments to themselves (without paying fully for them) so that they have a nest egg in the event of a change in government.  But does that help get rid of Maduro and his cronies faster?  Not clear.  But maybe there is a story here. We'd love to know more.

Alternatively, and this is a bleaker story for the PDVSA holders, maybe the Trump administration knows that a future restructuring of Venezuelan debt under the new government is going to have to be particularly brutal.  And maybe they want to make sure that US holders have largely sold off their holdings to non US entities?  Maybe.  But if this is the case, then why are similar sale restrictions not being imposed on the bonds of the Republic?

Or maybe this bit of the new sanctions is just an error.  Maybe.

On the Attachability of Blocked Venezuelan Assets

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

We gather that there is still activity in the U.S. government to think through the implications of the recent expansion of sanctions against Venezuela. Here’s the original version of the most relevant Executive Order. In brief, it provides: “All property and interests in property that are in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of any United States person of the following persons are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in…” The new sanctions add PDVSA to the blocked list.

One question is whether this stops the Crystallex attachment proceeding in its tracks. After all, shares in PDV-H are an interest in property owned by PDVSA, and an execution sale is nothing if not a transfer of assets. To spin this out even further, what about the shares in CITGO-H, which were pledged as security for the PDVSA 2020 bonds? If the sanctions extend to property owned by entities controlled by PDVSA, then the sanctions would also seem to block holders of the PDVSA 2020s from foreclosing (without first getting a special license). These complexities will require clarification; perhaps Treasury will provide it soon.

More broadly, let’s assume that the effect of the sanctions is to divert a significant pool of assets into some blocked accounts in the U.S. As we said in our prior post, we are skeptical that there is a big pool of assets, but we might be wrong. Let’s further assume that the U.S. administration eventually declares that Juan Guaidó and associates, as the officially-recognized leaders of Venezuela, have access to the funds. Are the funds now attachable by Venezuela’s creditors (like Crystallex)? At least as a formal matter, the answer would seem to be “yes.” The assets would no longer be blocked, and would also seem to belong to the government. Creditors with claims against the government would be entitled to assert claims (subject to the law of foreign sovereign immunity). Yet this can’t be the intended result—or so we hope. It would effectively divert government assets to a handful of creditors, enabling them to achieve disproportionate recoveries (compared to other creditors) at the expense of the Venezuelan people. We hope the administration will make clear this is not the intent.

What is the U.S. Government’s Strategy in Venezuela?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mark Weidemaier and Mitu Gulati

Even by the eccentric standards of its ongoing debt crisis, weird things are afoot in Venezuela. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó has declared himself president and been recognized by the U.S. and other governments. That’s not especially weird. What’s odd is that the political convulsions in Venezuela are manifesting in part as a battle over control of the CITGO board. Guaidó has said he plans to appoint a new board. Rumors are circulating that this is part of a plan, assisted by the U.S. government, not just to cut off the flow of oil revenues to the Maduro regime but to redirect that flow towards opposition coffers. As the Wall Street Journal previously reported: “U.S. officials say they want to divert oil money--as well as control over other assets like gold reserves--away from Mr. Maduro to the new interim president without stopping crude exports from the country.” That’s also consistent with a recent statement recently put out by the U.S. Treasury. 

Since these reports, the U.S. administration announced new sanctions, which don’t direct funds to opposition coffers but which do appear intended to prevent CITGO from remitting oil-related payments to Venezuela. Instead, the funds must be held in blocked accounts in the U.S. Here’s Bloomberg on the sanctions, and the Wall Street Journal, and Reuters, and the New York Times.        

What’s going on here?

Continue reading "What is the U.S. Government’s Strategy in Venezuela?" »

The Commonwealth and the GOs, part 2

posted by Stephen Lubben

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

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

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

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

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

Mozambique’s Guarantees on the Tuna Bonds: Can They be Repudiated?

posted by Mitu Gulati

Mark Weidemaier & Mitu Gulati

There have recently been headline articles in the press about three loans made to state-owned security companies in Mozambique (see here, here and here) and guaranteed by the government. The reason for the attention to these loans – made originally between 2013 and 2014 by Credit Suisse and the Russian bank VTB – is that US federal prosecutors are pursuing charges against a number of bankers from Credit Suisse and government officials from the Mozambique finance ministry. (Somehow the VTB folks seem to have escaped so far.) To simplify, these individuals were allegedly involved in siphoning off funds ostensibly intended to support Mozambique’s fishing industry and enhanced security in its territorial waters. Concretely, the loan was supposed to be used for new boats: some to catch fish (hence the moniker “tuna bonds”) and others to bolster the coast guard (“maritime surveillance”).

Instead, much of the money seems to have disappeared. The loans went into default; few tuna were caught. For contemporaneous reporting, see here, here, and here.

We have been thinking about debt repudiation of late. And Tracy Alloway of Bloomberg (and formerly of FT Alphaville) specifically got us thinking about the Mozambique tuna bonds on a recent podcast for Bloomberg’s Odd Lots (Tracy is a spectacular host).  Prompted in part by Tracy, we wondered--now that the corruption on the part of the agents for the banks and agents within the Mozambique finance ministry has been revealed—whether the government can repudiate the loans on the grounds that they were infused with illegality.

One of the three loans is worth treating separately from the others. This loan was made specifically for tuna boats. It involved an $850m bond for a company called Ematum—allegedly a sham—which has since been converted from a state-guaranteed bond to a sovereign Eurobond. For the other two loans, the repudiation question—since the borrower companies seem to have no assets—is whether the state can withdraw its guarantee on account of the corruption. There is a good argument that the answer is “yes.” Contract law in many key legal jurisdictions makes contracts infected by corruption and bribery voidable.

Some years ago, one of us analyzed this question in an article with Lee Buchheit, where we analyzed the question of “corrupt debts” (here – at pp 1234-39). We quoted this illustrative language from a 1960 New York Court of Appeals case: “Consistent with public morality and settled public policy, we hold that a party will be denied recovery even on a contract valid on its face, if it appears that he has resorted to gravely immoral and illegal conduct in accomplishing its performance.” Jeff King, in his new book on Odious Debts (here – at pp 119-23), has a section on sovereign obligations infected by corruption and makes much the same point under English and a number of other laws. And Jason Yackee tackles the corruption defense for sovereigns in the BIT context here. Bottom line: There is a pretty good defense here.

Continue reading "Mozambique’s Guarantees on the Tuna Bonds: Can They be Repudiated?" »

Puerto Rico’s Audacious Move: Can it Cut its Debt by $6 bn?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati & Mark Weidemaier

Last week, the Government of Puerto Rico, acting through the Financial Oversight and Management Board (and in conjunction with the creditors’ committee), filed a claims objection seeking to invalidate roughly $6 billion of its General Obligation debt. The reason is that the government allegedly borrowed in violation of the Debt Service Limit and the Balanced Budget Clause of the Puerto Rican constitution. Stephen’s recent post on this subject discusses the merits of this argument in some detail. In this post, we are especially interested in the question of restitution. The Commonwealth doesn’t get much benefit from invalidating loans unless it also avoids the obligation to pay restitution (i.e., return the purchase price). So the objectors make the additional argument that bondholders have no equitable right to restitution under a theory of unjust enrichment.

There is some precedent for the objectors’ arguments in similar contexts, although not a lot of it. Some of the important cases, such as Litchfield v. Ballou (1885), are also very old. However, at least one law review article—a student note in the North Carolina Banking Institute journal (here)—squarely addresses Puerto Rico’s argument, ultimately concluding:

How can Puerto Rico’s penalty for illegally borrowing above its means be that it is allowed to declare the debts void and keep the money for itself? Despite the manifest unfairness of such a result, the applicable law indicates that this is likely the proper legal result.

Continue reading "Puerto Rico’s Audacious Move: Can it Cut its Debt by $6 bn?" »

The Commonwealth and the GOs, part 1

posted by Stephen Lubben

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

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

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

More details after the break.

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

Who Went to Caracas Last Week?

posted by Mark Weidemaier

Mitu Gulati & Mark Weidemaier

More and more creditors are filing lawsuits against Venezuela, and we had been planning to do a post on how the dominos were falling. 

But then we came across a piece by Ben Bartenstein of Bloomberg about how some investors appear to be pursuing an alternate strategy, allowing bondholders to be compensated from oil-related activities. One can understand why creditors would rather have a future claim to oil revenues than litigate over unpaid bond debt. After all, Venezuela has huge oil reserves, and the current Venezuelan government is sure to lose power eventually. Although it may take a while, a government will eventually be in place capable of resuming oil production, and in that event, investors could make a bundle.

Good for investors, but terrible for the future government and the people of Venezuela. Having finally rid themselves of Maduro, they would have to deal with the fact that he and his cronies had either stolen the country's assets or pledged them in exchange for a temporary reprieve from creditors. This is not a new issue. It implicates the problem of odious debts, for which Venezuela is quickly becoming a poster child. (Ugo Panizza and Ricardo Hausmann have a nice piece about the need for Odiousness Ratings in the Venezuelan context.)

Continue reading "Who Went to Caracas Last Week?" »

Congolese Elections and the Opportunity for the International Community to do the Right Thing

posted by Mitu Gulati

The Congo held elections yesterday; elections that the ruling party has kept finding excuses to postpone over the past two years.  International pressure though, forced them to be held (albeit in an incomplete fashion).  Now, the question is whether the vote counts will be done with some modicum or propriety and whether the current kleptocrats will nevertheless find some way to hold on to power in this resource rich nation with a tragic history.  The latest reports are telling us that there is already chaos and that the internet has been shut down (from the Washington Post, see here).

My interest in the Congo was spurred by a question about its sovereign debt (of course). My Duke colleague and frequent co author, Joseph Blocher, who has worked in Africa and knows my obsession with sovereign debt–and particularly the question of what is to be done about the sovereign debts incurred by despotic leaders (the “Odious Debts” problem)--got me hooked on the history of the Congo some years ago by telling me the story of the debt of the Congo Free State from the late 1800s. The debt was incurred by, and proceeds subsequently stolen by, one of the worst despots in history–King Leopold of Belgium.  He issued bonds in the millions of francs in the name of the Congo Free State and then, in 1908, when the international community forced him out because of the genocide he had engineered, the debts he had incurred in the name of his vassal state were put by the international community on to the backs of the Congolese people. When it comes to the Congo, the rest of the world has so much to be ashamed about (there is a super episode from the BBC’s The Foreign Desk here). But maybe we will do the right thing this time?

Drawing from work that Joseph and I have been doing on the Congo and the infamous 1908 forced transfer of sovereignty (here), here are some thoughts on the parallels between the events of today and of a century ago.

The scene in the Congo today is, sadly, is familiar. An unaccountable leader treats Congo as personal property, enriching himself as untold millions of Congolese labor to extract resources needed for the world’s latest technological boom. What will the international community do?

Today, the despot holding power is Joseph Kabila, the resource is coltan (used in cell phones), and the international response remains uncertain. Kabila has agreed to hold elections and step down, but he and his henchmen seem to keep finding excuses to postpone the transfer of power. 

In 1908, the leader was King Leopold, the resource was rubber (made valuable by the development of vulcanization), and the international response was extraordinary: On November 15, 1908, in response to intense pressure, Belgium bought the Congo Free State from its own king.

Today, as the world is understandably focused on the present and the future of the Congo, we should not forget the lessons of its past.

Continue reading "Congolese Elections and the Opportunity for the International Community to do the Right Thing" »

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).

Continue reading "Holiday Reading Recommendation and a Research Question on the 1MDB Case" »

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.

Continue reading "Ukraine Wins Appeal in Russian Bond Case" »

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.

Continue reading "Some Thoughts on the Alter Ego Ruling in Crystallex " »

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.  

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

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.

Continue reading "Approaching the Middle of the Beginning of the End in Venezuela" »

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