Recent Developments in Bankruptcy Law October 2017

By Richard Levin (Jenner & Block LLP)

The bankruptcy courts and their appellate courts continue to explore issues of interest to practitioners and academics. This quarterly summary of recent developments in bankruptcy law covers cases reported during the third quarter of 2017.

The Second Circuit adopted the use of a market rate to determine cram-down interest rates in a chapter 11 case. It also disallowed a secured lender’s make-whole, although without deciding whether a make-whole should be generally disallowed as unmatured post-petition interest. (In re MPM Silicones (Momentive)) In contrast, the Houston bankruptcy court allowed a make-whole in a solvent case, but also without reaching the post-petition interest issue. (In re Ultra Petroleum)

The Delaware bankruptcy court clarified its jurisdiction to approve a third-party release in a settlement implemented through a confirmed chapter 11 plan, holding that plan confirmation is a core proceeding, so Article III limits do not apply. (In re Millennium Lab Holdings II, LLC) The Delaware bankruptcy court also reconsidered, and disallowed, a merger agreement termination fee after termination of the agreement. (In re Energy Future Holdings, Inc.)

Bankruptcy courts increasingly approve of the idea that under section 544(b), the trustee may use the longer reachback periods of the Internal Revenue Code and the Federal Debt Collection Procedures Act (In re CVAH, In re Alpha Protective Services). And the Ninth Circuit has ruled that for the trustee to pursue an avoidance claim against the United States, section 544(b) does not require a separate sovereign immunity waiver. (In re DBSI, Inc.) 

Finally, the courts have been sympathetic to attorneys in allowing their fees. (In re Stanton; In re Hungry Horse, LLC; In re CWS Enterps., Inc.) Less so for investment bankers. (Roth Capital Partners)

The full memo, discussing these and other cases, is available here, and the full (900-page) compilation of all prior editions is available here.

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.

Chapter 11 Bankruptcy and Loan Covenant Strictness

By Garence Staraci (Yale University, School of Management) and Meradj Pouraghdam (Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po))

In syndicated loan contracts, a borrower’s failure to comply with a covenant restriction triggers a default, and as such the lender’s right to terminate the loan (or foreclose on assets which are serving as collateral). The likelihood that such a covenant violation would occur depends on the loan covenant strictness, which measures how stringent covenant restrictions are on the borrower. Rationales for creditors to demand strict covenants include the pricing of default risk and the allocation of bargaining power in more frequently triggered renegotiations.

In this paper, we propose a new determinant of covenant strictness: the degree of creditor friendliness in Chapter 11 bankruptcy practices. This new determinant dictates that the more debtor(creditor)-friendly the bankruptcy practice is, the more creditors will seek to increase(decrease) their level of loan monitoring outside of bankruptcy through an adjustment in covenant strictness. Borrowers would agree on stricter covenants in exchange for a lower loan spread, and vice-versa. We demonstrate that covenants are not only included in order to shift the governance from debtors to creditors once they are breached, but to also potentially address the concern creditors might have about how the bankruptcy law is practiced if the borrowing firm goes bankrupt.

This paper finally relates to the recent recommendations of the American Bankruptcy Institute Commission to Study the Reform of Chapter 11, which has investigated the creditor friendliness of the corporate bankruptcy practice. Our results imply that any amendment to the Code that would limit the creditors’ rights during bankruptcy would have an impact on the pricing of syndicated debt through a modification of the covenant structure of loan contracts.

The full paper is available here.

The New Bond Workouts

By William W. Bratton (University of Pennsylvania Law School)

Bond workouts are a dysfunctional method of debt restructuring, ridden with opportunistic and coercive behavior by bondholders and bond issuers. Yet since 2008 bond workouts have quietly started to work. A cognizable portion of the restructuring market has shifted from bankruptcy courts to out-of-court workouts by way of exchange offers made only to large institutional investors. The new workouts feature a battery of strong-arm tactics by bond issuers, and aggrieved bondholders have complained in court. A fracas followed in courts of the Second Circuit, where a new, broad reading of the primary law governing workouts, section 316(b) of the Trust Indenture Act of 1939 (“TIA”), was mooted in the Southern District of New York, only to be rejected by a Second Circuit panel.

In “The New Bond Workouts,” Adam Levitin and I exploit the bond market’s reaction to the recent volatility in the law to reassess the desirability of section 316(b). Section 316(b), which prohibits majority-vote amendments of bond payment terms and forces bond issuers seeking to restructure to resort to untoward exchange offers, has attracted intense criticism, with calls for its amendment or repeal. Yet section 316(b)’s staunch defenders argue that mom-and-pop bondholders need protection against sharp-elbowed issuer tactics.

Many of the empirical assumptions made in the debate no longer hold true. Markets have learned to live with section 316(b)’s limitations. Workouts generally succeed, so there is no serious transaction cost problem stemming from the TIA; when a company goes straight into bankruptcy, there tend to be independent motivations. But workout by majority amendment will not systematically disadvantage bondholders.  Indeed, the recent turn to secured creditor control of bankruptcy proceedings makes workouts all the more attractive to them, as their claims tend to be unsecured. Accordingly, we cautiously argue for the repeal of section 316(b). Section 316(b) no longer does much work, even as it prevents bondholders and bond issuers from realizing their preferences regarding modes of restructuring and voting rules. The contractual particulars are best left to the market. Still, markets are imperfect, and a free-contracting regime may result in abuses. Accordingly, repeal of section 316(b) should be accompanied by the resuscitation of the long forgotten intercreditor good faith duties, which present a more fact-sensitive way to police overreaching in bond workouts than section 316(b).

The full paper is available here.


For previous Roundtable posts on Marblegate, section 316(b), and bond workouts, see “Second Circuit Rules on § 316(b) in Marblegate“; Liu, “Exit Consents in Debt Restructurings“; Roe, “The Trust Indenture Act of 1939 in Congress and the Courts in 2016: Bringing the SEC to the Table.”

Out-of-Court Restructurings After Marblegate: Trust Indenture Act Section 316(b) and Beyond

Lawyers from Davis Polk, Drinker Biddle, and Wilmer Hale recently held a panel discussion entitled “Out-of-Court Restructurings After Marblegate: Trust Indenture Act Section 316(b) and Beyond.” Jude Gorman of Reorg Research moderated.

The panelists considered the future of out-of-court restructurings and refinancings in light of the Second Circuit’s recent Marblegate decision, the latest development in the litigation between Marblegate Asset Management and Education Management Corp. The panelists discussed several issues surrounding section 316(b) of the Trust Indenture Act (“TIA”), including its underlying policy rationale, how the statute might serve capital markets most effectively, the practical application of 316(b) after the Second Circuit’s decision, and the likelihood of near-term changes to the legal context for out-of-court restructurings. Of particular note, James Millar, of Drinker Biddle, discussed how guarantees of bonds may be treated independently from the underlying bond under the TIA and, hence, subject to 316(b). George Shuster, of WilmerHale, noted that the decision could lead unhappy bondholders to pursue involuntary chapter 11 cases or fraudulent transfer actions. Byron Rooney, of Davis Polk, discussed how the lower court decision in Marblegate had disrupted opinion practice. Finally, Mark Roe emphasized that the SEC has broad authority to issue exemptions, presumably prospectively and generally, as well as on a case-by-case basis; although the SEC has used this authority only occasionally, in theory, bond market players unhappy with the impact of 316(b) could seek conditional exemptions.

Reorg Research’s summary of the session is available here.

(This post comes from Paavani Garg, J.D. ’18.)

 

Exit Consents in Debt Restructurings

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By Benjamin Liu (University of Auckland Business School)

The exit consent technique refers to an offer by a bond issuer to all the bondholders to exchange the existing bonds for new bonds or other types of securities, on the condition that the tendering bondholders consent to a resolution to amend the terms of the existing bonds to make them less valuable.

In Marblegate and Caesars, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York held that the relevant exit consent in each case violated Section 316(b) of the Trust Indenture Act of 1939, reasoning that Section 316(b) prohibits not only impairment of a dissenting bondholder’s formal right to payment, but also “practical impairment” of such right. This article argues that there is no sufficient justification for giving Section 316(b) a broader interpretation than its plain language suggests. Such an interpretation is inconsistent with the legislative history of Section 316(b) and how the term “impairment of a right” is used in other contexts. In January 2017, in a 2–1 decision, the Second Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling in Marblegate, holding that Section 316(b) prohibits only non-consensual amendments to an indenture’s core payment terms.

In Assenagon, the U.K. High Court held that the exit consent arrangement in that case was unlawful because it breached the abuse principle under English law. This article argues that the application of the abuse principle in exit consent cases should be considered in light of the facts and the parties’ presumed intention. A consenting bondholder does not abuse its power when it is simply making a rational choice. Furthermore, it cannot possibly be the parties’ presumed intention that, when the issuer has made an exchange offer coupled with an exit consent, the consenting bondholder is required to prioritize the interests of the dissenting bondholders over its own interest.

The full article is available here.


For past Roundtable posts on exit consents and related issues, see the Roundtable’s round up of reactions to the recent Marblegate decision; our post covering a white paper by twenty-eight law firms on debt restructurings and the TIA; and Roe, “Fixing the Trust Indenture Act to Allow Restructuring Votes.”

Companies Are Using Covenants to Restructure Their Capital Structure and Prime Existing Debt

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By Michael Friedman, Simone Tatsch, and Nicholas Whitney (Chapman and Cutler LLP)

As more Companies face liquidity issues and near term debt maturities, they are looking closely to exceptions contained within their indenture/credit agreement covenants in order to achieve an overall or partial restructuring of their capital structure. Investments in “Unrestricted Subsidiaries” are an exception to investment covenants, which have been used in an attempt to provide flexibility in restructuring a Company’s capital structure. Before purchasing debt, distressed investors need to be mindful of what Unrestricted Subsidiaries are and how they impact the overall credit of a Company or debt recovery.

Companies may use Unrestricted Subsidiaries in order to transfer a valuable asset outside of the purview of a Financing Agreement’s covenants. A Company can use the Unrestricted Subsidiary to exchange near term maturing debt junior in the Company’s capital structure for debt issued by the Unrestricted Subsidiary – an exchange that would otherwise not be permitted by the covenants. The exchanged indebtedness could then be supported by the asset which has been transferred to the Unrestricted Subsidiary.

Two recent and well publicized examples of moving value into an Unrestricted Subsidiary are iHeartCommunications (“iHeart”) and J.Crew Group, Inc. (“J.Crew”). In iHeart, the stock of an iHeart subsidiary was moved to an Unrestricted Subsidiary in order to effect a debt exchange, while in J.Crew valuable intellectual property was moved into an Unrestricted Subsidiary for likely the same purpose. Investors must be prepared to determine if there is a way for a Company to utilize its covenants to transfer value to an Unrestricted Subsidiary.

The full client alert is available here.

Three Ages of Bankruptcy

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By Mark J. Roe (Harvard Law School)

During the past century, three decisionmaking systems have arisen to accomplish a bankruptcy restructuring — judicial administration, a deal among the firm’s dominant players, and a sale of the firm’s operations in their entirety. Each is embedded in the Bankruptcy Code today, with all having been in play for more than a century and with each having had its heyday — its dominant age. The shifts, rises, and falls among decisionmaking systems have previously been explained by successful evolution in bankruptcy thinking, by the happenstance of the interests and views of lawyers that designed bankruptcy changes, and by the interests of those who influenced decisionmakers. Here I argue that these broad changes also stem from baseline market capacities, which shifted greatly over the past century; I build the case for shifts underlying market conditions being a major explanation for the shifts in decisionmaking modes. Keeping these three alternative decisionmaking types clearly in mind not only leads to better understanding of what bankruptcy can and cannot do, but also facilitates stronger policy decisions today here and in the world’s differing bankruptcy systems, as some tasks are best left to the market, others are best handled by the courts, and still others can be left to the inside parties to resolve.

The full article is available here.

Second Circuit Rules on § 316(b) in Marblegate

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Last week, the Second Circuit decided Marblegate Asset Management, LLC v. Education Management Corp., holding that § 316(b) of the Trust Indenture Act (“TIA”) protects only bondholders’ formal, legal right to repayment, not their practical ability to recover. The Second Circuit’s 2–1 decision thus resolves uncertainty surrounding out-of-court bond workouts and returns to the pre-Marblegate practice.

The majority viewed the statute’s text as ambiguous and consulted the legislative history; it emphasized legislative history supporting the idea that § 316(b) protects only against the formality of a bondholder vote altering payment terms and discarded legislative history to the contrary as shards. The dissent concluded that the transaction “annihilated” a bondholder’s right to payment and, hence, ran afoul of statute’s plain language — which requires that a bondholder’s right to payment cannot be affected or impaired without the affected bondholder’s consent.

Law firms reacted rapidly to the decision. Wachtell Lipton, which represented the winning appellant, and Weil Gotshal both extoll the opinion. Paul, Weiss and Morgan Lewis see in the decision a clear rule that bars only express changes to core terms. Several firms, such as Shearman & Sterling and White & Case, emphasized that the decision will facilitate out-of-bankruptcy restructurings.

Squire Patton Boggs highlights limitations, arguing that the law remains “neither clear nor predictable” on when an out-of-court restructuring goes so far as to impair bondholders’ right to repayment. They caution against assuming that any action short of a direct alteration of core repayment terms is now permissible.

In his American Bankruptcy Institute column, Bill Rochelle notes that the decision’s focus on legislative history, including views contemporaneous with the statute’s passage, was unusual and, by implication, indicates that the dissent’s textual decision-making mode fits better with current Code interpretation. Seyfarth Shaw notes the decision’s limited practical effect because of the widespread use of binding votes in pre-packaged Code restructurings, which avoid § 316(b)’s restrictions.


The Roundtable has posted previously on Marblegate and § 316(b). In one post, Mark Roe argued that bondholders should not be barred by statute from choosing in their indenture whether to be allowed to reposition their bonds via a fair vote. Other posts include a summary of the National Bankruptcy Conference’s proposed amendments to the Bankruptcy Code to facilitate bond restructuring; a 28-law firm legal opinion white paper on transactional complications arising from the Marblegate district court decision; and an international perspective on the TIA’s prohibition on collective action clauses.

Awaiting the Second Circuit’s Decision in Marblegate

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We anxiously await the Second Circuit’s decision in Marblegate, which was argued earlier this year. John Bessonette of Kramer Levin briefly summarizes the stakes:

“Section 316(b) of the Trust Indenture Act provides that ‘the right of any holder of any indenture security to receive payment of the principal of an interest on such indenture security . . . shall not be impaired or affected without the consent of such holder . . . .’ Various plaintiffs used this provision this past year to successfully challenge out-of-court restructurings in Marblegate and Caesars. In both cases, the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York held that § 316(b) not only protects the formal legal right to receive payment under an indenture, but also restricts non-consensual out of court debt reorganizations, even where no express terms of the indenture are violated.

“However, neither case provided a limiting principle for when out-of-court restructurings violate § 316(b), and plaintiff firms are now taking advantage of this murkiness. In the last year, three lawsuits challenging distressed exchange offers have been filed by retail holders of unsecured bonds. Each lawsuit involves an exchange offer made to qualified institutional buyers by a distressed energy company, and retail bondholders who object to their bonds being subordinated to the secured bonds issued to QIBs as part of the exchange.

“The cases are still pending and it remains to be seen whether the courts will clarify the ambiguity around § 316(b). Meanwhile, this obscure provision of the TIA will occupy a more prominent role in out-of-court debt restructurings and serve as a new weapon for plaintiffs challenging such restructurings.”

His full memo is available here.

The Roundtable has issued multiple posts on the Marblegate litigation and the Trust Indenture Act. Mark Roe wrote what the appropriate limiting principle should be for courts when invalidating exit consent transactions under section 316(b) of the Act. He further argued that courts alone cannot solve the fundamental problems: The SEC must also act. The Roundtable also covered the 28-law-firm white paper on how courts should handle that section. See our archives for more.

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