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.

Financially Distressed Companies, Restructuring and Creditors’ Interests: What is a Director to Do?

By Andrew Keay (University of Leeds)

Out of court restructuring is a popular and, according to many, optimal way of resolving the circumstances of insolvent companies in the UK, and probably more so since the advent in the UK of the Enterprises Act 2002. One concern that some commentators have raised is the fact that the opportunities to engage in such restructuring are likely to be reduced given the way that the courts have approached claims that directors who have initiated restructuring strategies are liable for breach of duty in failing to take into account the interests of company creditors when their company is insolvent or near to it (as applied by section 172(3) of the Companies Act 2006 in the UK). Allied to this is the concern that if directors are not granted freedom to use their discretion in entering into a restructuring process companies might be placed into administration or liquidation when they have some prospect of continuing to trade and to do so profitably, because directors may choose to be risk averse in placing a company into administration or liquidation rather than take the risk of being held liable for breach of the duty if they attempt restructuring. This paper examines whether the aforementioned concerns are realistic, given the law, and, if they are, what directors should be doing to ensure that they do not breach the obligation in relation to creditors. These are important issues as little consideration has been given in the UK to the issue of liability of directors for breach of duty in the wake of a restructuring. The issues are considered in light of section 172(3) of the Companies Act 2006 which makes the director’s duty to promote the success of the company for the benefit of the shareholders (as under section 172(1) and providing for what is known as ‘enlightened shareholder value’) subject to any rule of law that requires directors to consider the interests of creditors. It is a rule of law in the UK (and in many Commonwealth countries and Ireland) that when their company is insolvent or in dire financial distress directors must take into account the interests of creditors.

The paper finds that while directors might be subject to liability in entering into restructuring attempts, this is only going to occur in limited cases and so there should not be particular concern over liability. This is because first of all courts will not hold directors liable if they acted in good faith and took into account the interests of creditors, and regarded these interests as paramount in their considerations. Even if the directors failed to take into account the interests of creditors or failed to make them paramount, they will not be liable where the court finds that the honest and intelligent director, taking into account creditors’ interests, would have entered into the restructuring in any event on the basis that it would benefit creditors. Obviously if directors restructure in such a way as to benefit themselves or specific creditors, or they have improper motives, then liability is more likely to ensue. But, where the directors have acted reasonably then they should be safe from challenge.

The full article is available here.

Fifth Circuit Rules That Corporate Charter Provision Requiring Shareholder Consent for Bankruptcy Filing Is Enforceable but Declines to Rule on Validity of “Golden Shares”

By Mark A. Cody and Mark G. Douglas (Jones Day).

In a highly anticipated decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed a bankruptcy court order dismissing a chapter 11 case filed by a corporation without obtaining—as required by its corporate charter—the consent of a preferred shareholder that was also controlled by a creditor of the corporation. In Franchise Services of North America, Inc. v. Macquarie Capital (USA), Inc. (In re Franchise Services of North America, Inc.), 891 F.3d 198 (5th Cir. 2018), a Fifth Circuit panel ruled that: (i) state law determines who has the authority to file a voluntary bankruptcy petition on behalf of a corporation; (ii) federal law does not strip a bona fide equity holder of its preemptive voting rights merely because it is also a creditor; and (iii) the preferred shareholder-creditor was not a controlling shareholder under applicable state law such that it had a fiduciary duty to the corporation which would impact any decision to approve or prevent a bankruptcy filing.

However, to the disappointment of many observers, the Fifth Circuit declined to decide whether “blocking provisions” and “golden shares”—either generally or when wielded by a party that is both a creditor and an equity holder—are valid and enforceable. Such provisions have been increasingly relied upon by creditors, including private equity sponsors and other investors who take both equity and debt positions in a portfolio company, as a means of managing or limiting access to bankruptcy protection, but with mixed results in the courts. Franchise Services does little to remedy the unsettled state of bankruptcy jurisprudence regarding this important issue. Moreover, because the case involved a minority shareholder-creditor without any fiduciary obligations, the decision did not involve many of the more difficult questions posed by other cases involving these issues.

The article is available here.

Fiduciary Duties in Bankruptcy and Insolvency

By John A. E. Pottow (University of Michigan Law School).

Although discussed nowhere in the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, fiduciary duties play a central role in guiding the administration of an insolvent debtor’s assets. Regulatory oversight of trustees is only loosely circumscribed by statute, but significant lacunae exist regarding specification of the duties of loyalty.  In assessing what fiduciary obligations are owed to secured creditors, unsecured creditors, and debtors, some courts build upon the general principle that the trustee’s fiduciary duty of loyalty flows to all creditors. Other courts, though, work from the premise that secured creditors are better situated to look after themselves and that a trustee’s primary obligation is to unsecured creditors, perhaps especially non-priority general creditors. The Supreme Court has also weighed in, stating that a DIP’s fiduciary duties run directly (if somewhat delphically) to “the corporation.” How then does a trustee choose between beneficiaries of the estate, and what remedies are there for losing parties disappointed with this allegiance decision?  This book chapter explores the fiduciary obligations of trustees (including DIPs) under both statute and common law. There is a special focus on the intrinsic conflicts that arise within the “menagerie of heterogeneous creditors” that constitute the claimants of a bankruptcy estate.  A single normative theory seems unlikely to explain the results (so much for the “residual fiduciary beneficiary”!).  What does seem clear is that trustees are “more fiduciary” for some constituencies than for others.  Fortunately, U.S. bankruptcy courts are accustomed to shifting allegiances and disalignments of interest. Thus, the bankruptcy system may be well-suited to handle the endemic conflicts of interest between corporate constituencies through various bankruptcy-specific mechanisms, such as the institution of the Creditors Committee and the norm of engaged judicial oversight.

The full article is available here.