Venezuela’s Restructuring: A Realistic Framework

By Mark A. Walker (Millstein & Co.) and Richard J. Cooper (Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, LLP).

Venezuela is confronting an economic and financial crisis of unprecedented proportions.  Its economy remains on a precipitous downward trajectory, national income has more than halved, imports have collapsed, hyperinflation is about to set in, and the government continues to prioritize the payment of external debt over imports of food, medicine and inputs needed to allow production to resume.  Bad policies are complemented by bad news as oil production and prices have declined dramatically from previous highs.  Financially, the country is burdened with an unsustainable level of debt and has lost market access.  Venezuela will be unable to attract the substantial new financing and investment required to reform its economy without a comprehensive restructuring of its external liabilities.

Given this array of problems, Venezuela and its national oil company, PDVSA, face what may be the most complex and challenging sovereign debt restructuring to date.  This paper proposes a framework for restructuring and discusses the key issues that will arise during the restructuring process.  These issues include the vulnerability of PDVSA assets outside Venezuela to actions by creditors (which affects, most importantly, receivables from petroleum sales and PDVSA’s interest in the U.S.-based CITGO); whether the restructuring should be implemented in one or two steps (an immediate restructuring versus the reprofiling of principal payments in the short term); the incentives and disincentives for would-be holdout creditors to join a restructuring; and the admissibility and treatment of various claims (such as PDVSA bonds that may have been originally issued at prices below their par value and claims against PDVSA for services billed at significant premiums to market prices).

The article is available here.

Mark A. Walker is Managing Director and Head of Sovereign Advisory at Millstein & Co.  Richard J. Cooper is a Senior Partner in the Restructuring Group at Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, LLP.  The views expressed in the article are those of the authors only.

Sovereign Debt Restructuring and English Governing Law

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

This Roundtable post is based on the author’s forthcoming article, Sovereign Debt Restructuring and English Governing Law, scheduled for publication in a symposium issue of the Brooklyn Journal of Corporate, Financial and Commercial Law (available at http://ssrn.com/abstract=2952776).

Unsustainable sovereign debt is a serious problem for nations as well as their citizens and creditors. It also is a threat to global financial stability. The existing “collective action clause” contractual approach to restructuring that debt is inadequate. At the same time, a multilateral framework, such as a convention or treaty, is not currently politically feasible. Recent research shows a drastic rise in sovereign debt litigation by holdout creditors, suggesting the urgency of finding solutions.

This article proposes a novel legal framework, focusing on governing law, for restructuring unsustainable sovereign debt. Because a significant percentage of sovereign debt is governed by English law, the UK Parliament has a unique opportunity to modify that law to include the legislative equivalent of perfect aggregate-voting collective action clauses in all English-law governed sovereign debt contracts. That not only would facilitate the fair and equitable restructuring of unsustainable sovereign debt; it also should ensure the continuing legitimacy and attractiveness of English law as the governing law for future sovereign debt contracts.

The article also proposes and examines the text of a model law that Parliament could consider as a basis for its legislation. Additionally, the article explains why, even absent Parliamentary enactment, a model-law approach could contribute to the incremental development of sovereign-debt-restructuring norms.

The full paper is available here

Solving the Pari Passu Puzzle: The Market Still Knows Best

By Sergio J. Galvis (Sullivan & Cromwell LLP)

As a result of the Argentine sovereign debt crisis and ensuing holdout litigation saga, the pari passu (or ranking) clause became a source of great consternation in the international sovereign bond market. Specifically, Judge Griesa’s holding that Argentina had violated the pari passu clause by refusing to pay creditors who had not participated in the nation’s earlier debt exchanges, and the accompanying requirement that Argentina had to pay those holdout bondholders, led to uncertainty in the market regarding the leverage holdouts could exercise in sovereign debt restructurings going forward. Concern was expressed over the ability of sovereigns to succeed with voluntary exchange offers premised on the threat that the restructuring sovereign would default on payments due to non-participating bondholders. This article evaluates the impact of the court’s decision in the Argentine litigation to date, including subsequent court decisions that have helped reinforce the view that the equitable holding in favor of the holdouts in the Argentine saga is a narrowly prescribed outcome that is unlikely to be repeated absent extraordinary circumstances. It then examines the adoption of improved ranking clauses and collective action voting clauses in recent issuances of sovereign debt in the effort to bring greater certainty to market participants and facilitate efficient restructurings in the future without the need for extra-contractual restructuring mechanisms and remedies.

The full article is available here.


For other recent Roundtable posts related to sovereign debt, see Lubben, “Sovereign Bankruptcy Hydraulics“; Gulati and Rasmussen, “Puerto Rico and the Netherworld of Sovereign Debt Restructuring“; and a Cleary Gottlieb update on Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy.

Pari Passu Undone: Game-Changing Decisions for Sovereigns in Distress

By James Michael Blakemore (Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP)

In “Pari Passu Undone: Game-Changing Decisions for Sovereigns in Distress,” which appears in Issue No. 3 of the “Cleary Gottlieb Emerging Markets Restructuring Journal,” published by Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP,[1] Michael Lockman and I examine a recent decision in White Hawthorne, LLC v. Republic of Argentina, No. 16 Civ. 1042 (TPG), 2016 WL 7441699 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 22, 2016), regarding the hotly litigated pari passu clause.

Following an economic catastrophe in the early 2000s, the Republic of Argentina successfully restructured the vast majority of its more than $80 billion of debt, exchanging new bonds for those on which the crisis had forced default. In February 2012, Judge Thomas P. Griesa of the Southern District of New York, based on a boilerplate provision in the defaulted bonds known as the pari passu clause, enjoined Argentina from servicing its restructured debt without simultaneously making ratable payments to holdout creditors who had refused to participate in the exchange. This interpretation was unprecedented and, given the pari passu clause’s ubiquity in sovereign debt instruments, threatened to reverberate far beyond the specific facts of Argentina’s case. For nearly five years, anxious sovereigns and market participants were left to ponder the scope of these rulings. Most basically, would a sovereign debtor’s decision to pay some but not all of its creditors, taken alone, violate the pari passu clause?

Judge Griesa has now answered this crucial question. Following Argentina’s announcement, in February 2016, of a global proposal to settle its defaulted debt, a group of hedge funds brought suit, arguing in part that Argentina’s settlement with other creditors violated the pari passu clause. In White Hawthorne, Judge Griesa disagreed. The Court’s opinion confirmed that, absent aggravating circumstances—Judge Griesa mentioned specifically the “incendiary statements” and “harmful legislation” of Argentina’s former government—a sovereign debtor may pay some of its creditors and not others without running afoul of the pari passu clause. The decision does much to clarify the limits of the pari passu clause and deals a serious blow to creditors who would interpret the clause broadly to undermine future sovereign restructuring efforts.

The full article is available here.


[1] The firm represented the Republic of Argentina in the matters described in the article. The views expressed here are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the firm or its clients.

Puerto Rico and the Netherworld of Sovereign Debt Restructuring

By G. Mitu Gulati (Duke Law School) and Robert K. Rasmussen (University of Southern California Gould School of Law)

Puerto Rico has incurred debt well beyond its ability to repay. It attempted to address its fiscal woes through legislation allowing the restructuring of some its debt. The Supreme Court put a stop to this effort, holding that Congress in the Bankruptcy Code barred the Commonwealth from enacting its own restructuring regime. Yet all agreed that the Bankruptcy Code did not provide anything in its place. Congress quickly passed the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) in an attempt to address Puerto Rico’s fiscal ills by enacting a special proceeding to deal with Puerto Rico’s financial woes. The price Puerto Rico paid, however, was steep—the imposition of a control board to direct, in effect, the Commonwealth’s finances and any insolvency proceedings. In light of the conditions that gave rise to PROMESA, we explore whether, in the first place, Congress has the power to bar Puerto Rico from enacting a restructuring mechanism without offering an alternative. We submit that the answer is no. When it comes to a state, the Supreme Court has held the power to issue debt necessarily implies the power to restructure that debt. Congress can preempt that power so long as it puts something in its place. To preempt and leave nothing runs afoul of our federal system. The same reasoning, with even greater force, applies to Puerto Rico. The federal government entered into a compact with the citizens of Puerto Rico, granting them, among other things, the power to issue debt. Puerto Rico implicitly received the power to restructure this debt. Congress could offer a substitute to any regime that Puerto Rico might enact, but it cannot leave the Commonwealth without any means to address its fiscal affairs.

The full paper is available here.


For previous Roundtable coverage of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, see “Puerto Rico Update: White House Weighs in with a Proposal,” “Puerto Rico Public Corporation Debt Enforcement and Recovery Act,” and “U.S. District Court Holds that Puerto Rico’s Recovery Act Is Unconstitutional.”

Sovereign Bankruptcy Hydraulics

By Stephen Lubben (Seton Hall University School of Law)

The frequent suggestion that the world needs a sovereign bankruptcy mechanism is puzzling.   What precisely would be gained?

The core of any insolvency system consists of a stay against creditor action, an ability to recover preferential payments, and an ability to revamp the debtor’s operations by rejecting burdensome contracts and selling assets. These features, however, are largely irrelevant to sovereign debtors.

In the event of insolvency – or, more simply an inability to pay – sovereign debtors have four tools at their disposal. First, the sovereign might hide behind its immunity, by refusing to be sued. Or the sovereign might change its own law applicable to the debt. That might violate norms, but the sovereign who does this probably also controls the remedy for violations of such norms. Third, the sovereign might manipulate the currency in which its debts are paid. There are economic consequences to doing this, but they might be preferable to a formal default.

These first three tools comprise the modern concept of “sovereign immunity.” But a discussion of sovereign debtors must include a fourth, related issue: the ability to shield assets from collection. That is, even if the debtor can be sued somewhere, in some court, a judgment might be worthless.

If a government issuer can employ some or all of these mechanisms, it has little need of a bankruptcy mechanism because it can refuse to pay its debts, or it can negotiate with creditors to restructure the debt on its own. Kings and queens of old had no need for a bankruptcy mechanism because they could use all four of these tools. They would pay when they felt that paying was worth it, such as when they needed more funds from lenders.

Of course, there are differing forms of “sovereign immunity.” Few sovereigns retain full, old-fashioned sovereign immunity. Today, many emerging market borrowers and all American municipalities lack access to the first three tools. Their ability to avoid paying turns on the fourth tool, which they can deploy with varying ability.

In short, sovereignty and sovereign immunity occur along a continuum, and the need for a bankruptcy system to address financial distress varies inversely with a sovereign’s place on the continuum.

My short paper, Sovereign Bankruptcy Hydraulics, forthcoming in NYU’s Annual Survey of American Law, examines this basic dynamic and its implications for the insolvency of sovereigns and semi-sovereigns.

The Role of the Court in Debt Restructuring

By Jennifer Payne (Oxford University)

This paper examines the intervention of the law, and the role of the court, in debt restructuring, both in terms of imposing constraints on creditors and in seeking to ameliorate the potential abuses that can arise from such constraints. Three potential forms of abuse are examined: the imposition of a restructuring on dissenting creditors, which introduces the potential for wealth transfers between creditors; the imposition of a moratorium while a restructuring is negotiated, which might lead to misuse of the process by managers wishing to prop up companies that are not viable or may allow the managers of a viable business to “shake off” liabilities that the business is capable of servicing; and the imposition of debtor-in-possession arrangements, which raise the potential for new creditors to be preferred at the expense of existing creditors.  It is argued that the court’s role in protecting creditors from these three forms of potential abuse is vital, although the nature of that role differs according to the form of abuse. Recent debt restructuring reform proposals in both the UK and the EU, which adopt quite different approaches to the role of the court in this process, are examined in the light of this discussion.

The full paper is available here.

The Avoidance of Pre-Bankruptcy Transactions: A Comparative and Economic Approach

By Aurelio Gurrea-Martínez (Harvard Law School and Ibero-American Institute for Law and Finance)

Most insolvency jurisdictions provide several mechanisms to reverse transactions entered into by a debtor prior to the commencement of the bankruptcy procedure. These mechanisms, generally known as claw-back actions or avoiding powers, fulfill several economic goals. First, they act as an ex post alignment of incentives between factually insolvent debtors and their creditors, since the latter become the residual claimants of an insolvent firm but do not have any formal control over the debtor´s assets while the company is not yet subject to a bankruptcy procedure. Therefore, the existence of these mechanisms allows the prevention or, at least, reversal of opportunistic behaviors by factually insolvent debtors. Second, the existence of avoidance actions may also prevent, at an early stage, a destructive race to collect. Third, these legal devices also minimize the overinvestment problems potentially faced by insolvent debtors. Fourth, the existence of avoidance powers may encourage managers to take corrective actions in a timely manner. Finally, the existence of avoidance actions may also protect the interests of both the debtor and its creditors as a whole when some market participants want to take advantage of a distressed debtor.

However, the use—and even existence—of avoidance actions is not costless. On one hand, such actions bring litigation costs. On the other hand, the existence of these provisions may be harmful for legal certainty, especially in those countries in which bad faith is not required to avoid a transaction and the “twilight period” may be too long.

In a recent paper, I discuss how insolvency legislators should deal with this trade-off. Namely, by providing an economic and comparative analysis of avoidance actions, I discuss the optimal way to design claw-back actions across jurisdictions, taking into account the costs and benefits potentially generated by these provisions.

The full paper is available here.

Contracting for a European Insolvency Regime

By Horst Eidenmueller (Oxford University)

The European Commission has proposed a directive on “preventive restructuring frameworks” for financially distressed firms. If adopted, the directive would force the Member States of the European Union (“EU”) to design restructuring proceedings that conform to the directive’s stipulations.

In a recent paper, I demonstrate that the proposal is flawed because it creates a refuge for failing firms that should be liquidated, because it rules out going-concern sales for viable firms, and because it is, in essence, a twisted and truncated insolvency proceeding. I also demonstrate that the Commission’s harmonization plan is misguided. If implemented, financing costs for firms would rise. The plan would cast in stone an inefficient restructuring framework on a European-wide scale, preventing member states from experimenting with more efficient procedures.

I suggest an alternative regulatory proposal: European firms should have the option to choose a “European Insolvency Regime” in their charter. This regime should be embodied in a European regulation, guaranteeing legal certainty to stakeholders. This proposal would preserve horizontal regulatory competition between the Member States for the best “insolvency product,” and it would introduce vertical regulatory competition between the member states and the EU in the field of insolvency law. Hence, my proposal would strengthen market testing of European insolvency regimes instead of eliminating creative discovery processes through a flawed harmonized framework.

Key design principles of the proposed optional “European Insolvency Regime” are the following: (i) it should be open for restructurings, going concern sales, and liquidations, and firms should be channelled into the appropriate process based on the opinion of a court-appointed supervisor; (ii) it should be a fully specified (complete) and fully collective insolvency proceeding; and (iii) the proceeding should be conducted in DIP form with the mandatory appointment of a supervisor who performs important insolvency-related functions.

The full paper is available here.

The Future of UK Debt Restructuring

By Jennifer Payne (University of Oxford – Faculty of Law)

In the UK, a number of different mechanisms exist which can be used to restructure the debt of viable but financially distressed companies. This paper assesses the debt restructuring mechanisms currently available to companies in English law and considers whether reform is needed. In particular, the paper analyses the reform proposals put forward by the UK Insolvency Service in July 2016, which recommended: (i) the introduction of an option to cramdown whole classes of creditors using a single restructuring mechanism (something which can only be accessed at present using a scheme of arrangement combined with administration); (ii) the introduction of a restructuring moratorium akin to that which is attached to administration at present, together with a new ability for companies to prevent creditors with “essential contracts” from terminating them on the basis of insolvency alone; and (iii) the introduction of provisions designed to facilitate debtor-in-possession financing, something notably absent from the current UK regime. These reforms will need to be introduced with skill and care in order to ensure that the potential benefit they can bring to financially distressed businesses is balanced appropriately with the constraints that they impose on existing creditors’ rights. The aim of the Insolvency Service’s proposals is laudable, and it is argued that reform of the UK regime is needed. In particular, the introduction of a restructuring moratorium and a cramdown facility would be beneficial. Making these changes would provide English law with a stronger and more effective debt restructuring procedure. Furthermore, such changes are required if the UK wants to remain competitive in a global market.

The full article is available here.

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