Disruption and Credit Markets

By Bo Becker (Stockholm School of Economics) and Victoria Ivashina (Harvard Business School)

Corporate bond defaults have been on a long and powerful upward trajectory in the past few decades. The default rate of U.S. corporate bonds rose from 0.12 percent to 0.46 percent between the first and second halves of the period from 1970 to 2016—an increase of almost four times. The rating agency Moody’s reports that, of the ten years with the highest default rates since 1960, six occurred in the new millennium and none before 1990. In a recent working paper, we investigate the role of disruption in explaining this trend.

By disruption, we refer to the process whereby new firms replace old firms using innovations in their business models, operations, or new technology. This process causes incumbent firms to lose market share, suffer reduced profitability, and, as we demonstrate, default on debt obligations. Just to name a few of the many recent examples: single-location bookstores were disrupted by chain stores, which were in turn disrupted by online bookstores, and off-line travel agents were disrupted by online services.

In our study, we compare industries with high rates of arrival of new firms, measured as either venture capital investments in the sector over the last five years or as the fraction of public firms in the industry with an IPO date in the past five years. The two variables capture different stages of disruptors’ ascent. While one can easily think of several broad forces that have increased innovation and disruption over the past few decades, different industries have been affected at different speed and different depth. We exploit this variation to draw the connection between disruption and defaults.

Our measures of disruption positively predict future defaults on corporate bonds, controlling for a host of other factors (including time, industry, bond characteristics such as seniority and callability, and issuer characteristics such as credit rating). These bonds are largely issued by mature firms (startups rarely access the bond market). Not only are future defaults higher in industries with high rates of disruption, but the bond market prices this in: newly issued bonds in high-disruption industries have higher yields. These findings are surprising, as a reasonable expectation might be that firms in the same industry would generally suffer similar fates. We would then expect to see high rates of new firm creation coupled with low defaults on the debt (of incumbents). Instead, we find the opposite.

An active IPO market and elevated venture capital investment may help the inception and advancement of potential disruptors, but underlying causes may be found in technological shifts (information technology, mobile, and ,in an earlier era, perhaps electricity), deregulation (think airlines), and globalization (in our data, industries directly exposed to off-shoring are no more likely to see defaults; however, global markets may have an important role in scaling up the opportunities available for disruptive businesses).

The importance of disruption probably extends beyond creditors to other stakeholders of incumbent firms. The corporate bond market is useful for studying disruption because bonds are liquid securities with detailed, high-quality data. Furthermore, losses on corporate bonds are important because bonds are widely held. This is in contrast with the gains from disruption, which tend to be concentrated with entrepreneurs and venture capital investors.

Disrupting Secured Transactions: Should UCC Article 9 Be Revised to Reflect the Rise of the Internet of Things?

By Christopher G. Bradley (University of Kentucky College of Law)

The “Internet of Things” (IoT) refers to the networks formed by interconnected devices that can communicate, and be communicated with, remotely. The IoT has already affected our daily lives, as a crucial part of our smart phones, Fitbits, smart watches, car navigation units, and so on.  But even more, it has profoundly affected businesses of every sort.  Manufacturing, transportation, and utilities firms alone are estimated to have spent more than $347 billion on IoT technology in 2018. Companies have deployed IoT tools in order to automate operations, streamline supply chains, ease regulatory compliance, and facilitate safer and more reliable production.

The IoT also affects secured creditors’ ability to monitor their collateral. For instance, individual tags can be placed on objects as they are checked in and out of a facility; cameras and temperature sensors can assess warehouse or field conditions to protect against loss or theft; vehicles can be tracked at all times and even remotely disabled upon default.

I argue that just as the rise of the IoT represents a revolution in business practice, it should bring a similar one to UCC Article 9. The article argues that Article 9 should allow–and in fact require–creditors to stake their claims in tangible collateral directly rather than through the now-antiquated means of a filing system routed through the debtor’s name/identity.

The proposed system would require creditors to tag items as collateral, or to use an interactive map administered by the state filing office over the Internet, in order to perfect security interests in tangible collateral. After sketching the proposed system, the article considers some of its major costs and benefits.

The full article is available here.

Absolute Priority Redux: First-Day Orders and Pre-Plan Settlements in Chapter 11 Post-Jevic

By Bruce Grohsgal (Delaware Law School Widener University)

Bankruptcy’s absolute priority rule arose 150 years ago to prevent insiders from using their control over an enterprise – often coupled with hypothetical valuations, contrived sales, and collusion with other parties – to obtain a greater distribution or “control premium” from estate assets.  This premium came at the expense of parties who had a higher distributional priority but were not “in on the deal.”  The Supreme Court again considered this issue in Jevic in 2017, when it held that a chapter 11 case-ending settlement called a “structured dismissal” must comply with the same absolute priority rule that applies to the similarly case-ending confirmation of a chapter 11 cramdown plan.  The Court emphasized that insider control and collusion can endanger bankruptcy’s core principle of an orderly distribution in accordance with statutory priorities.

The Jevic Court explicitly left open, though, the extent to which a pre-plan settlement or court-ordered “first-day” distribution in chapter 11 may deviate from the absolute priority rule.  It suggested only that a court approving these pre-plan distributions must show some respect for – or a “proper solicitude” to – the statutory distributional priorities.

I propose in this paper that, for a proposed pre-plan, priority-skipping settlement with an insider, secured lender or other party who exercises some control over the debtor, the absolute priority rule is sufficiently respected when a bankruptcy court subjects to an auction the claim proposed to be settled.  If at the auction, a third party bids the same or a higher price for the claim absent the priority-skipping, then it will be clear that the initially proposed transaction included a control premium.  If instead a higher third-party bid is not obtained, it will be clear that the settling insider is not paying a discounted settlement price based on its control and that the priority-skipping has a legitimate basis that does not implicate the problem of insider control.  The auction, by displacing suspect hypothetical valuations, can address the precise mischief sought to be remedied by the absolute priority rule.

I further contend that a market test for a “first-day” distribution to a critical vendor, employee or other creditor that is challenged as priority-skipping will be limited to whether the debtor sought and failed to obtain in the market the same good, service, or credit from an alternative supplier on the same or better terms than those proposed in the first-day motion.  The reason for this is simple – a bankruptcy court will not be able in most cases to obtain, at the time of the first-day hearing, a market determination of case-ending distributions to creditors.  Any hypothetical valuation at a first-day hearing of the end-of-case distributions to creditors will be highly unreliable.  Because of these obstacles, I suggest that the question of whether a first-day payment will comport with end-of-case distributional priorities should be replaced with the question of whether the debtor sought and failed to obtain an alternative supply in the market on the same or better terms, and by a rebuttable presumption that preserving the going concern value of the chapter 11 debtor likely will benefit even the disfavored creditors.  This approach – which essentially adopts the occasionally maligned “doctrine of necessity” and rejects the Seventh Circuit’s Kmart rule – recognizes the disturbing weakness of a hypothetical determination, made at the first day hearing, of end-of-case distributions in a chapter 11 case.

The full article is available here.

Make-Whole Claims in Bankruptcy

By Sam Lawand (White & Case LLP)

The well-established “perfect tender in time rule” dictates that debt must be repaid only upon maturity, and no earlier. Under this rule, early repayments of debt are prohibited absent a contrary provision under the debt instrument. Debt instruments bar early repayments altogether through a “nocall” provision or permit early repayments through a “make-whole” provision. By modifying the “perfect tender in time rule,” make-whole provisions allow debtors to repay debt in advance of stated maturity, in exchange for a predetermined premium, usually based on the discounted value of the stream of future scheduled interest payments.

To determine whether make-whole claims are allowed in bankruptcy, courts undertake a two-pronged analysis. Because make-whole provisions are contractual, courts rely on contract construction principles to determine whether the debt instrument contains a make-whole provision, and, if so, the circumstances in which such provision is triggered. If a make-whole provision is triggered, courts then proceed to determine whether such provision is enforceable under state law.

If the make-whole provision is enforceable under state law, courts proceed to determine whether such provision is enforceable under bankruptcy law. Section 101(5)(A) of the Bankruptcy Code defines “claim” as a “right to payment,” which encompasses make-whole claims. Section 502(a) provides that “claims” are allowed, except to the extent disallowed under section 502(b). In turn, section 502(b)(1) disallows “claims” that are “unenforceable . . . under any agreement or applicable law,” and section 502(b)(2) disallows “claims” on account of “unmatured interest.” In certain circumstances, section 506(b) allows “secured claims” to include “interest” and “any reasonable fees, costs, or charges provided for under an agreement or State statute.” The confluence of these Bankruptcy Code provisions is murky.

Given that make-whole provisions, in essence, liquidate damages arising out of the loss of future scheduled “interest” payments, which by definition are “unmatured,” the allowance of make-whole claims in bankruptcy compels a demanding analysis.

In resolving whether make-whole claims are allowed in bankruptcy, this article examines the application of contract construction principles, reconciles conflicting precedent on such  principles, and construes applicable Bankruptcy Code provisions. This article recognizes that, in applying the provisions of the Bankruptcy Code, bankruptcy courts are courts of equity and that considerations of bankruptcy and commercial policies, including practicality and predictability, bear on the application of such provisions. This article concludes that make-whole claims are generally not allowed in bankruptcy, unless (1) the default or “early repayment” by the debtor is “voluntary”; or (2) the debt instrument contains a “clear and unambiguous” provision calling for a make-whole payment in all circumstances of early repayment.

In accordance with this two-pronged analysis, the first-half of this article covers the state-law analysis, and the second-half of this article covers the bankruptcy-law analysis.

The complete article is available for download here.

Triangular Setoff Impermissible Under Section 553: No Contracting or Theorizing Around It, Section 553 Requires Mutuality

By Ronit J. Berkovich, Andriana Georgallas and Aarti Gupta (Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP).

In a recent decision, In re Orexigen Therapeutics, Inc., No. 18-10518 (KG) (Bankr. D. Del. Nov. 13, 2018), Judge Kevin Gross of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware analyzed setoff under section 553 of the Bankruptcy Code.  Setoff is a contractual or equitable right that allows entities that owe each other money to apply their mutual debts against each other.  Whether a party has a setoff right is a twofold inquiry.  First, the party seeking setoff must acquire such right prepetition under applicable nonbankruptcy law.  Second, once the party establishes its setoff right, the party must meet the requirements of section 553(a) of the Bankruptcy Code, namely: (1) the party seeking setoff must be a “creditor” and (2) that party must have a “mutual debt” where that party’s debt to the debtor arose prepetition and that party’s claim against the same debtor arose prepetition.

In In re Orexigen Therapeutics, Inc., Judge Gross held that the mutuality requirement must be strictly construed, declining to find mutuality in a triangular setoff between the debtor, a parent entity that owed the debtor money, and that entity’s subsidiary, which was a creditor.  Specifically, Judge Gross held that there is no contractual exception to the mutuality requirement and that mutuality may not be satisfied under a third-party beneficiary theory.

The full article is available here.

Second Circuit Backs Foreign Clawback Claims in Madoff Bankruptcy Action

By Adam J. Goldberg, Christopher Harris, Robert J. Malionek, Kevin L. Mallen (Latham & Watkins)

In In re Picard, Tr. for Liquidation of Bernard L. Madoff Inv. Sec. LLC, No. 17-2992(L), 2019 WL 903978 (2d Cir. Feb. 25, 2019), the Second Circuit held that the trustee administering Bernie Madoff’s insolvent estate could use Section 550(a) of the Bankruptcy Code to claw back purely foreign transactions between foreign entities. The money at issue had been initially transferred by Madoff to foreign funds, then subsequently transferred by the foreign funds to the foreign defendants. The defendants argued that the Madoff trustee’s clawback claims were barred by the presumption against extraterritoriality and the principles of international comity.

While the Southern District of New York had focused its analysis on the subsequent transfers by the foreign funds to the foreign defendants, the Second Circuit focused on the initial transfer from Madoff to the foreign funds when determining whether the subsequent transfers could be recovered. The Second Circuit reasoned that since the initial transfers were from New York-based Madoff, the presumption against extraterritoriality and the principles of international comity did not bar the Madoff trustee’s attempts to recover these foreign subsequent transfers.  In so holding, the Second Circuit reversed the Southern District of New York’s prior ruling that such foreign transfers could not be recovered, and removed a protection for foreign investors who may not have anticipated that their investments — and their returns — could otherwise be subject to clawback under US law.

The full article is available here.

The Social Costs of Dividends and Share Repurchases

By J. B. Heaton (J.B. Heaton, P.C.)

The issue of share repurchases has captured the attention of United States senators on both sides of the aisle, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, Senator Bernie Sanders, I-VT., and Senator Marco Rubio, R-FL, each proposing legislation limiting share repurchases and dividends. One need not agree with all parts of their plans to acknowledge that excessive dividends and share repurchases can have severe negative social consequences.

In a new paper forthcoming in the Journal of Business, Entrepreneurship and the Law, I explore five negative consequences of dividends and share repurchases. First, they dramatically increase the riskiness of corporate debt, diverting resources into credit monitoring and credit speculation. Voluntary creditors must charge a high price for credit ex ante – subsidized by tax payers through interest expense deductions – to protect them from the ex post effects of the existing legal regime, and many resources are spent on monitoring and trading on the fluctuating risks of default and only partial recovery on corporate debt. Second, the existing legal regime requires a bankruptcy system to process large and complex corporate failures. Third, it leaves firms less resilient to financial crises.  Fourth, it unfairly shifts costs to involuntary and unsophisticated creditors in violation of the implicit social bargain of limited liability.  Finally, it distorts the supply of securities toward riskier debt that is publicly subsidized through the deductibility of interest, reducing the supply of safer assets.

One possible solution that deserves further study is restricting dividends and share repurchases to corporations that have low debt and adequate insurance against harm to involuntary creditors and pay reasonable wages and benefits. Such a rule would still allow corporations with high debt, little insurance, and low wages and benefits to operate, but they could pay shareholders only after meeting all their other obligations.

This proposal is consistent with what corporate law is supposed to provide to investors and society alike. A long-held view in the academy is that shareholders are “residual claimants” in the sense that they are paid in full only after the corporation pays its creditors. The reality, of course, is far different. Corporations give away significant assets to their shareholders in the form of dividends and share repurchases long before they have satisfied creditors, both voluntary contract creditors and involuntary tort creditors.  Existing law is quite permissive in allowing indebted corporations to distribute this cash to shareholders. As a result, shareholders are hardly “last paid” capital providers of corporate-law folklore but rather “first-in, first-out, and then some” capital providers. They receive their capital back and much more while the corporation has often very large liabilities outstanding.  As my paper explores, neither corporate law nor voidable transfer law are strong enough to prevent the destructive social impact of dividends and share repurchases.

***

J.B. Heaton is a data scientist, financial economist and legal scholar. His paper, “The Social Costs of Dividends and Share Repurchases,” is available here.

 

A New PDVSA? The Transfer of Venezuela’s Oil Assets to a Successor Entity and Fraudulent Conveyance

By Richard Levin (Jenner & Block LLP) and Roland Pettersson (LEC Abogados).

This Working Paper analysis the hypothetical transfer and conveyance of Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A.’s assets to a new state-owned entity by the Venezuelan Government, and the possible creditor responses to such action, on account of the Venezuela’s NOC current financial-distress situation. The study is conducted from the perspective of Venezuelan law, which might provide certain legal remedies under Civil, Commercial and Administrative law—although with somehow little practical success expectations, given other factors and externalities—as well as from the perspective of U.S. law, which is of particular relevance, given (i) significant asset exposure in the U.S., where PDVSA—through CITGO—maintains an important operation, (ii) the contractual terms in the bulk of Venezuela and PDVSA’s financial indebtedness relies on U.S. law and provides for submission to the jurisdiction of NY courts, and (iii) many creditors are actually U.S. persons. Thus, this Working Paper examines the above situation, given the multiple issues and complexities on the case, starting from the very nature of PDVSA as an state-owned entity under Venezuelan law, but with particular emphasis on the creditors’ side of the equation and the theory of fraudulent transfer, which is analyzed both from the standpoint of Venezuelan law, as well as from U.S. insolvency framework and international law in general.

The full working paper is available here.

Restructuring Venezuela’s Debt: An Update

By Mark Walker (Guggenheim Securities)

Lee Buchheit and Mitu Gulati have proposed an innovative and aggressive strategy to facilitate the restructuring of Venezuela’s external debt based on consensual agreement between Venezuela and a supermajority of its broad creditor universe. Borrowing from the United Nations Security Council’s decision (supported by action of the United States) to shield Iraq’s assets from seizure by its creditors in order to promote a restructuring of Iraq’s debts, they propose that the Security Council or (more likely) the President of the United States by Executive Order shield Venezuela’s assets (particularly revenues from the sale of oil into the United States) from legal process. The rationale for their proposal rests on the premises that (1) virtually all of Venezuela’s foreign exchange is generated by sales of oil into the United States, (2) the revenues from exports of oil to the United States are vulnerable to attachment by creditors and therefore a small group of aggressive creditors could strangle the entire economy of the country, (3) existing restructuring techniques are inadequate to the task and (4) the policy of the United States is to promote the restructuring of sovereign debt based on an agreement between the debtor state and a supermajority of its creditors in the context of a process in which all creditors are bound by the vote of a supermajority.

This article argues that (1) a new Venezuelan government (which all agree is a prerequisite to a restructuring) will have substantial means to shield the country’s oil revenues from seizure by creditors, (2) a new government will also be able to expand its foreign exchange earnings to include sale of oil outside the United States, (3) the proposals do not create a mechanism to allow all of Venezuela’s creditors to have a voice in the terms of a restructuring — by supermajority or otherwise — and would treat U.S. and non U.S. creditors differently and (4) the unintended consequences of the proposals advanced by Buchheit and Gulati would negatively affect the ability of emerging market sovereigns, and Venezuela in particular, to fund themselves in the debt markets and would be disruptive of the sovereign debt market generally. Referring to the paper that the author and Richard Cooper wrote one year ago, the author argues that there are tested, market-based mechanisms to achieve the goal of a consensual restructuring arrived at by a supermajority vote of creditors, in particular a restructuring of PDVSA’s debts under a newly enacted Venezuela law that is implemented with the support of a Chapter 15 proceeding under the United States Bankruptcy Code.

The full article is available here.

OECD Report on Corporate Bond Markets in a Time of Unconventional Monetary Policy

By Ryan M. Rossner (Harvard Law School, J.D. 2019)

On February 25, the OECD published another report in its Capital Market Series, Corporate Bond Markets in a Time of Unconventional Monetary Policy, which noted both a significant increase of outstanding nonfinancial corporate debt and a simultaneous decrease in bond quality post-financial crisis. Authored by Mats Isaksson, Serdar Çelik, and Gul Demirtaş, the report drew upon a dataset of almost 85,000 unique corporate bond issues by nonfinancial companies from 114 countries between 2000 and 2018.

The report provides a detailed account of capital markets development post-financial crisis with comparisons among different jurisdictions.  The authors emphasize that levels of nonfinancial corporate bond issuances have reached record highs. Global outstanding debt in the form of corporate bonds issued by nonfinancial companies reached almost $13 trillion USD at the end of 2018, twice the amount in real terms than was outstanding in 2008.  The report links the expansion of corporate bond issuances to regulatory initiatives aimed at encouraging corporate bond issuances, expansionary monetary policy, and (particularly in the EU) quantitative easing.  The report also forecasted a record repayment period ahead with $2.9 trillion coming due for advanced economy issuers and $1.3 trillion for emerging economy issuers within 3 years.

The US remains the largest corporate bond market and US issuers raised the most funds over the period.  However, the authors found that the number of US nonfinancial issuers increased only modestly in the post-crisis era, suggesting increased issuer concentration in US primary corporate bond markets. Over the same period, Japan, the EU, Korea, and China all increased both their use of corporate bond issuances as a means of borrowing and their number of issuers. Most strikingly, the number of Chinese companies issuing bonds increased steeply from 68 issuers in 2007 to a peak of 1,451 in 2016.

Amidst the expansion, the authors found a marked decrease in bond quality. To support these conclusions, the authors pointed to a marked expansion of non-investment grade bonds, and the increase of BBB-rated bonds (the rating just above non-investment grade) as a percentage of investment grade debt (to 54% in 2018).

The report also noted a decrease in covenant protection for non-investment grade corporate bonds. The authors devised a “Covenant Protection Index” of US issuances, by looking at the presence or absence of 27 different types of covenants in bond indentures.  While the index is a rough measure of covenant protection, it demonstrated a downward trend for non-investment grade bonds.  The authors attribute the decrease in covenant protections to increased issuer bargaining power in a low interest rate environment, as investors have been willing to forgo certain protections in favor of higher yields.

The authors note that the combination of increased bond issuances, a “prolonged period of low issuer quality,” and “lower levels of covenant protection” for noninvestment grade bonds suggest that in an economic downturn the amount of expected future corporate bond defaults “may be considerably larger than that experienced in the financial crisis.” This report comes shortly after Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell, during the January FOMC meeting press conference, described the current state of corporate debt as a “macroeconomic risk,” which could “amplify” a negative downturn.

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For a previous Roundtable post on distressed debt, see Edward Altman & Robert Benhenni, “The Anatomy of Distressed Debt Markets.”

 

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