Reprofiling Today for a Sustainable Tomorrow: A Unilateral Italian Debt Restructuring

By Emma Cervantes, Victoria Dodev, Shane Ellement, Isabelle Sawhney (Duke University, School of Law)

Italy has €2.4 trillion of debt – an unsustainable level in pressing need of a restructuring. However, traditional avenues for sovereign restructurings cannot be utilized because Italy’s situation is complicated by several factors. First, the massive outstanding bond stock and diversity of bondholders makes a traditional consensual restructuring impractical. Additionally, about 68% of outstanding bonds are held by Italian parties, making any restructuring harmful to the domestic economy. To further add to this complicated situation, the ESM Treaty purports to impose additional restraints on Italy’s ability to restructure through the addition of CACs to approximately 60% of Italy’s bond stock.

Fortunately, there is a loophole in Italy’s bonds that can resolve these problems: Italy can unilaterally extend its maturities without bondholder consent. This power stems from the fact that Italy’s domestic government securities are issued as decrees under the relatively unknown 2003 Consolidated Act, which explicitly grants Italy the power to unilaterally extend bond maturities. Accordingly, 98% of its outstanding bond stock, about €2 trillion, can be restructured without bondholder consent. This strategy could result in the largest sovereign debt restructuring in history being done unilaterally.

This proposal demonstrates that the inclusion of CACs in some of its bonds does not foreclose the use of Italy’s Article 3 power. The proposal also describes the mechanics by which Italy would exercise its right to extend maturities. Unilaterally extending maturities does not require any retroactive utilization of the local law advantage. Nor does it expose Italy to significant legal risks in its domestic courts or under European treaties and conventions.

The full article is available here.

A Sovereign Debt Restructuring Framework for the Euro Area

By Sebastian Grund, Mikael Stenström (European Central Bank)

Our new paper discusses the legal framework for sovereign debt restructuring in the euro area – both de lege lata and de lege ferenda. Sovereign debt restructurings remain exceptional events that come with profound implications for financial stability and monetary policy transmission. However, they may be necessary as part of a financial assistance program to a euro area Member State, as was the case for Greece in 2012. Indeed, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), the euro area’s lender of last resort to sovereigns, may only lend to countries with sustainable debts. Thus, if debt is assessed as unsustainable, an orderly debt restructuring may be warranted to allow for financial assistance by the ESM.

This paper seeks to contribute to the ongoing policy discussion on how to enhance the functioning of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) by exploring the legal aspects of sovereign debt restructuring in the euro area. Drawing upon the International Monetary Fund’s framework for debt restructuring, it analyses whether and how the procedures for sovereign debt restructuring in the euro area can be made more orderly, fair, and predictable by establishing a European Sovereign Debt Restructuring Framework (ESDRF).

We conclude that policymakers may consider the inclusion of enhanced Collective Action Clauses (CACs) as well as certain technical amendment clauses with a view at avoiding holdout inefficiencies. Indeed, the first version of the euro area CAC deviated from the international standard, as it did not allow for full aggregation of bondholder votes across all series. Thus, the euro area always faced a residual risk of holdouts blocking individual bond series, as was for instance the case for certain English-law bonds during the Greek debt restructuring of 2012. Besides CACs, we discuss the potential immunisation of ESM funds from holdout litigation as well as (temporary) stays on debt enforcement actions by opportune investors during restructuring negotiations, also taking account of recent innovations in the context of the Puerto Rican debt restructuring.  Finally, we review broader statutory changes to the current framework. Specifically, two options for a sovereign debt dispute resolution mechanism are discussed: (i) a separate chamber at the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) and (ii) a sovereign debt arbitration mechanism. The rationale behind the establishment of such tribunals would be to centralise dispute settlement in the context of sovereign debt restructurings, thereby forestalling negative externalities from fragmented judicial decisions on bondholder claims.

The paper makes no judgement on the economic or political feasibility and necessity for such changes, but seeks to contribute to the debate by shedding light on the legal aspects to be taken into account in the context of completing Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union.

The full article is available here.

Reorganizing Health Care Bankruptcy

By Laura Coordes (Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law)

Many health care providers are experiencing financial distress, and if the predicted wave of health care bankruptcies materializes, the entire U.S. economy could suffer. Unfortunately, health care providers are part of a growing group of “bankruptcy misfits,” in the sense that bankruptcy does not work for them the way it works for other businesses. This is so for two primary reasons. First, the Bankruptcy Code is insufficiently specific with respect to health care debtors. Second, the Code lacks an organizing principle to allow the court to reconcile the competing players and interests in a health care bankruptcy case.

Previous attempts to address these issues have not succeeded. Notably, the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 scattered reforms across the Code, making bankruptcy more complicated for health care debtors. As a result, some have argued that these debtors are better off using bankruptcy alternatives such as state receiverships to address their debts.

In Reorganizing Health Care Bankruptcy, I assert that despite their bankruptcy misfit status, health care providers can realize distinct benefits from bankruptcy relief. To be effective, however, this relief must respond to health care providers’ unique needs. Creating separate Bankruptcy Code subchapters for health care business bankruptcies would allow Congress to clarify many aspects of health care bankruptcy and enable the development of specific procedures and a distinct organizing principle unique to health care provider bankruptcies. Although this proposal contemplates a significant structural change to the Bankruptcy Code, the Article explains why this change is warranted as part of the Code’s necessary evolution.

The full article is available here.

Involuntary Bankruptcy: Limited Remedy and Strong Sanctions for Abuse

By Michael L. Cook (Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP)

Involuntary bankruptcy cases are relatively rare. According to the Second Circuit “far fewer [cases] are initiated as involuntary petitions by creditors, much less a single creditor,” citing statistics from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. In re Murray, 900.

F.3d 53, 59 (2d Cir. 2018) (less than 1/10 of 1% of all bankruptcies). The numbers suggest that involuntary bankruptcy is a limited creditors’ remedy, causing at least 5 courts of appeals to pen strong opinions in the past 4 years that define the limits of this remedy and describe the sanctions available to an aggrieved debtor.

This article shows why courts have declined to allow bankruptcy courts to become collection agencies for a single creditor when available state law remedies are adequate. The courts have also not shied away from sanctions and damage awards to discourage the filing of improper involuntary bankruptcy petitions. The Third Circuit even held that “bad faith provides an independent basis for dismissing an involuntary petition,” despite the creditors’ having met all of the “statutory requirements,” stressing the “equitable nature of bankruptcy…” In re Forever Green Athletic Fields Inc., 804 F.3d 328, 334 (3d Cir. 2015).

The article also discusses a well-reasoned bankruptcy court decision sanctioning creditors who had “abuse[d]. . . the power given to [them] to file an involuntary bankruptcy petition.” In re Anmuth Holdings LLC, 2019 WL 1421169, *1 (Bankr. E.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2019). In that case, after trial, the court awarded not only attorneys’ fees and costs of about $115,000, but also punitive damages of $600,000, noting the petitioning creditors’ “egregious bad faith conduct,” their “lack of remorse and threats of future involuntary petitions,” plus their “knowingly false statements.”

Involuntary bankruptcy, when used as part of a collective process for all creditors, can insure the orderly and fair distribution of a debtor’s estate. But it is hardly a mechanism for resolving a two-party dispute. Whatever an involuntary bankruptcy petition may be, it is always a risky, limited remedy.

The full article is available here.

The Rise and Fall of Regulatory Competition in Corporate Insolvency Law in the European Union

By Horst Eidenmüller (University of Oxford; European Corporate Governance Institute – ECGI)

In a recent paper, I discuss the rise and fall of regulatory competition in corporate insolvency law in the European Union. The rise is closely associated with the European Insolvency Regulation (EIR, 2002), and it is well-documented. The United Kingdom (UK) has emerged as the ‘market leader’, especially for corporate restructurings. The fall is about to happen, triggered by a combination of factors: the recasting of the EIR (2017), the European Restructuring Directive (ERD, 2019) and, most importantly, Brexit (2019). The UK will lose its dominant market position. I present evidence to support this hypothesis.

Regulatory competition in European corporate insolvency law happened by accident: it was the unwelcome consequence of the entering into force of the EIR in 2002. The EIR was designed to eliminate forum shopping and to harmonize Member States’ jurisdiction and conflicts rules for international insolvencies. However, in practice, it did not achieve this end. The Regulation’s test for main insolvency proceedings, a company’s ‘Centre of Main Interests’, can be manipulated. Forum shopping became almost a signature feature of the EIR, and the UK emerged as the ‘market leader’ for corporate restructurings in the European Union (EU). The available data clearly confirms this assessment. The popularity of the UK as a restructuring venue also stems from the attractiveness of the Scheme of Arrangement—a procedure that is not within the scope of the EIR. Under the applicable European rules, restructuring decisions taken by courts in one Member State must be automatically recognized in all other Member States.

The regulatory landscape for corporate insolvency law in the EU is changing. The EIR was recast in 2017, the EU passed the ERD in 2019, seeking to harmonize Member States’ pre-insolvency restructuring regimes so that local businesses get local access to restructuring processes, and the UK will probably leave the EU in 2019.

I argue that the recast EIR will not significantly affect forum shopping and regulatory competition in corporate restructurings. However, the ERD will have such an effect, i.e. it will significantly reduce forum shopping and regulatory competition in corporate restructurings. This is because the ERD mandates that Member States implement certain key features of pre-insolvency restructuring regimes by 2021, effectively ruling out radical legal innovations departing from the new European standard. Unfortunately, the ERD is a ‘defective product’: it mandates inefficient procedures and should be repealed.

Most importantly, Brexit will eliminate the dominant competitor in the European restructuring market, i.e. the UK. This is because Member States will no longer be forced to automatically recognize decisions taken in UK restructuring proceedings. It appears that the restructuring market already anticipates this effect: one can observe a decline of the popularity of the Scheme of Arrangement in cross-border cases from 2016 onwards. I present evidence in the form of hand-collected data on cross-border Schemes of Arrangement to support this hypothesis.

The full article is available here.

Indenture Trustee Duties: The Pre-Default Puzzle

By Steven L. Schwarcz (Duke University School of Law)

Indenture trustees act for the benefit of the investors in a company’s bonds. They perform this role for virtually all companies that issue bonds, whether in the United States or abroad. The existing scholarship on their duties focuses on the post-default scenario. In many countries, including the United States, the law then imposes a ‘prudent person’ standard. This Article, in contrast, examines an indenture trustee’s “pre-default” duties.

It is critical to try to define those duties because activist investors, including hedge funds and so-called “vulture fund” investors that purchase defaulted bonds at deep discounts, increasingly are making pre-default demands on indenture trustees, who must know how to respond. Also, the manner in which they respond can have widespread economic consequences because the bond market is huge—in 2018, approximately $43 trillion in the United States and $103 trillion worldwide.

Activist investors are also suing indenture trustees for losses on their bonds, alleging they should have taken pre-default actions to protect the bonds. To avoid the risk of liability, indenture trustees should know how they should discharge their pre-default duties.

The indenture trustee’s pre-default duties have not been seriously re-examined since enactment of the Trust Indenture Act of 1939, although the bond market has changed dramatically since then. Institutional investors now dominate; there are few individual retail investors. By virtue of their sophistication and the size of their bondholding, institutional investors face less of a collective action problem than retail investors had faced. Also, as mentioned, certain activist investors increasingly are engaging in high-risk strategic investing.

Whether or not due to these market changes, there are at least two views today of the indenture trustee’s pre-default role. By far the dominant view—and the view that comports with existing law and the plain language of indentures—is that indenture trustees have no pre-default fiduciary duties to investors. Rather, their duties are ministerial and limited to the usually administrative functions specified in the indenture. Since the 2007-08 financial crisis, however, some investors argue that indenture trustees—especially those of securitized bond issues, who act for the benefit of investors whose right to payment is limited to collections on specified financial assets (such as mortgage loans)—should have some pre-default fiduciary duties.

My Article analyzes what an indenture trustee’s pre-default duties should be, starting by considering the possible normative frameworks for legally imposing duties in a business context. I consider two potentially overlapping frameworks: to correct market failures, and to maximize efficiency. I also consider a formalistic rationale for legally imposing duties—because securitized bond issues involve purchased financial assets, they more closely resemble a traditional trust; and trustees of a traditional trust have fiduciary duties.

Based on its analysis, the Article concludes (among other things) that, pre-default, the indenture trustee’s duties should only be those specified in the indenture. The Article also applies that standard to the types of issues that may arise in lawsuits against indenture trustees.

For example, even prior to a formal default, one or more investors may demand that the indenture trustee take some enforcement or other remedial action to try to correct a problem. Compliance with that demand could be expensive, reducing the value of the estate for investors generally. Taking remedial action could therefore create a conflict if it would disproportionately benefit only certain investors. Absent instructions from the requisite investor threshold contractually required to direct the indenture trustee, the trustee should have the right to refuse to take a demanded action. In case of doubt, an indenture trustee could itself seek instructions. The Article also examines practical issues—and practical ways to resolve those issues—that might sometimes impair formation of the requisite investor threshold to direct the indenture trustee.

The full article is available here.

Establishing Corporate Insolvency: The Balance Sheet Insolvency Test

By Dr. Kubi Udofia

Cash flow and balance sheet insolvency tests are the two predominant means of determining insolvency. A company is cash flow or commercially insolvent if it is unable to pay its debts as they fall due. Balance sheet or technical insolvency occurs where the value of a company’s assets is less than the amount of its liabilities, taking into account both contingent and prospective liabilities. The term liabilities is broader than debts as it encompasses liquidated and unliquidated liabilities arising from contracts, tort, restitution etc. This article compares the two insolvency tests and introduces the English approach to the balance sheet insolvency test.

Commercial insolvency is the more prominent of the tests. It is also comparatively easier to establish. In restructuring, a creditor’s immediate concern is often the debtor’s ability to make payments as they mature as opposed to whether its assets are sufficient to meet its present and future liabilities. Despite its seeming obscurity, balance sheet insolvency test is commonly employed in commercial transactions as an event of default. This provides counterparties with early warning signs in long-term contracts where there are no avenues of making demands capable of triggering commercial insolvency.

In BNY Corporate Trustees Services Ltd v Eurosail-UK 2007-3BL Plc [2013] UKSC 28, the English Supreme Court stated that balance sheet insolvency test required a court to be satisfied that, on the balance of probabilities, a company has insufficient assets to meet its liabilities, taking into account prospective and contingent liabilities. This is easier said than done. It has been rightly observed that valuation of assets and liabilities is not an exact science but a matter of judgment as to the amount a willing buyer would pay in the market when dealing with a willing seller. The valuation process may understandably be laborious, detailed and complex. Courts may not be capable of effectively dealing with such intricacies.

The full article is available here.

Simple Insolvency Detection for Publicly Traded Firms

By J.B. Heaton (J.B. Heaton, P.C.)

Solvency plays important substantial roles in both bankruptcy and corporate law. In practice, however, balance-sheet solvency testing is fraught with difficulties. Mechanically, the balance-sheet solvency test asks if the market value of assets exceeds the face value of debt.  As for assets, direct market values of assets are rarely if ever available (closed-end funds may be an exception, but these are hardly run-of-the-mill businesses). Analytical valuation tools—including discounted cash flow analysis, comparable company multiples, and comparable transaction analysis—require considerable subjective judgment and can lead to large valuation errors. As for debt, much debt that is on the balance sheet does not trade in the market, and it is often impossible even to identify all the contingent liabilities like pensions, guarantees, insurance liabilities, and obligations to involuntary creditors like tort claimants, all of which should be valued appropriately and included in determining the total face value of debt.

In a new paper forthcoming in Business Lawyer, I develop a simple balance-sheet solvency test for publicly traded firms. I derive the test from an elementary algebraic relation among the inputs to the balance-sheet solvency calculation: The solvency test requires only the assumption that the market value of assets equals the sum of the market value of the firm’s debt plus the market value of the firm’s equity. The test requires that at least one class of the firm’s debt is traded, and that the equity is traded as well. The result is a generated upper bound on the total amount of debt the firm can have and still be solvent.

The virtue of the method—apart from its ease of implementation—is that it makes possible the detection of balance-sheet insolvent firms notwithstanding the possibility that not all of the firm’s liabilities—including hard-to-quantify contingent liabilities—can be identified. As a result, the method allows for the detection of balance-sheet insolvent firms that otherwise might escape detection. This may assist in a wide variety of situations where it is necessary to analyze solvency.

The full article is available here.

Restructuring Italy’s New York Law Bonds

By Andrea E. Kropp (Duke University School of Law)

Little attention has been paid to Italy’s bonds issued under New York law in discussions of Italy’s debt stock and how it will be restructured should the need arise. Because these New York law bonds have no collective action clauses and had been presumed to contain very creditor-friendly pari passu language, they appeared to be too difficult to restructure. As a result, it has been assumed that they would remain untouched, with an Italian debt restructuring impacting only local law bonds. No proposals had previously addressed how to restructure the New York law bonds because of this assumption. This article fills that gap by creating an actionable strategy to restructure the bonds and by demonstrating how the long-held presumption about the creditor-friendly pari passu language is flawed.

The article advocates for the use a set of exit amendments in an exchange offer effectuating the restructuring of the New York law bonds. These exit amendments will be used to secure execution and attachment immunity and to extend the period before creditors holding the non-exchanged bonds can accelerate. This set of exit amendments act to make the bonds quite unattractive to would-be holdout creditors. In addition, these creditors’ motivation to hold out is decreased even further because of the pari passu language in the indentures for the issuances. While the pari passu language in the bonds appeared to pose an insurmountable challenge to a restructuring, this presumption is grounded in a reading of the sales documents rather than the underlying Fiscal Agency Agreements that actually control the issuances. In contrast to the sales documents, the Fiscal Agency Agreements contain language that is much less creditor-friendly. Consequently, a recalcitrant creditor’s calculus in determining whether to hold out in a restructuring has changed significantly, making the exit amendment strategy a truly viable option.

The full article is available here.

What’s Wrong with Chapter 11?

By Charles J. Tabb (University of Illinois College of Law)

The time has come to cast a discerning eye at chapter 11, the United States corporate bankruptcy reorganization statute, and examine how it is currently broken and what fixes can be made to improve it.

This Article first identifies five core normative goals that chapter 11 should promote: (1) maximize the value of the debtor firm; (2) distribute the maximized value of the firm fairly and equitably; (3) save jobs; (4) minimize the ripple effect of the firm’s failure; and (5) ensure that in pursuing those normative goals, the cure is not worse than the disease.

The Article then examines five critical ways in which chapter 11 in practice fails to achieve the normative ideals: (1) traditional chapter 11 restructurings are largely a thing of the past, and have given way to quick all-asset sales of the company; (2) secured lenders control everything and get a disproportionate share of the firm’s value; (3) a small number of other creditors are able to apply leverage to obtain unfair and inequitable payments on their claims compared to other creditors; (4) venue forum shopping has triggered a race to the bottom; and (5) bankruptcy judges routinely ignore the statute as written and legislate judicially.

The Article concludes by identifying seven possible reforms that could help transform chapter 11 from the current nightmare to the normative ideal dream: (1) making sales once again just sales; (2) resurrecting the “perishability” or “emergency” test for sales; (3) limiting secured creditors to foreclosure value; (4) opening up DIP financing terms and eliminating draconian terms; (5) eliminating all preferential priority-altering payments; (6) curtailing venue choice and forum shopping; and (7) eradicating judicial legislation.

The full article is available here.

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