Restructuring Sovereign Debt after NML v. Argentina

By Lee C. Buchheit (Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton) and Mitu Gulati (Duke University School of Law)


The decade and a half of litigation that followed Argentina’s sovereign bond default in 2001 ended with a great disturbance in the Force. A new creditor weapon had been uncloaked: The prospect of a court injunction requiring the sovereign borrower to pay those creditors that decline to participate in a debt restructuring ratably with any payments made to those creditors that do provide the country with debt relief. For the first time holdouts succeeded in fashioning a weapon that could be used to injure their erstwhile fellow bondholders, not just the sovereign issuer. Is the availability of this new weapon limited to the aggravated facts of the Argentine default or has it now moved permanently into the creditors’ arsenal? Only time (and future judicial decisions) will tell. In the meantime, however, sovereigns will occasionally find themselves in financial distress and their debts will occasionally need to be restructured. Venezuela already casts this chilly shadow over the sovereign debt market. If, in a galaxy not too far away, sovereign debt workouts are to have any chance of an orderly completion, a method must be found to neutralize this new weapon.  Judging by the secondary market prices of different series of Venezuelan sovereign bonds, large amounts of money are being wagered that this cannot be done.

Argentina’s holdouts argued that they must be paid in full if Argentina wanted to make any payments to the creditors that accepted the country’s restructuring offers in 2005 and 2010. Those creditors had accepted a roughly 75 percent haircut in the value of their claims. But the holdouts were not offering to share with those old creditors any portion of a preferential recovery that the holdouts might be able to extract from Argentina. Why? Because the bonds that had been tendered in the restructurings of 2005 and 2010 had been canceled. The clause in those instruments that the holdouts now pointed to as the basis for their demand for a “ratable” payment whenever Argentina made a payment to its restructured lenders had been extinguished in the bonds previously held by those old lenders. So no contractual basis existed for the old creditors to assert a reciprocal claim against the holdouts.

It didn’t have to be this way. A future workout of New York law-governed sovereign bonds could be structured so that any bonds tendered by participating creditors are kept alive in a kind of deep freeze, available to assert a reciprocal claim against any holdouts who subsequently extract a preferential recovery from the sovereign issuer. The sauce that is flavorful for the goose thus becomes an equally suitable condiment for the gander.

The full article may be found here.