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.”

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.

28 Law Firms Publish White Paper Addressing Trust Indenture Act Complications In Debt Restructurings

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By David A. Brittenham, Matthew E. Kaplan, M. Natasha Labovitz, Peter J. Loughran, Jeffrey E. Ross, and My Chi To of Debevoise & Plimpton LLP

On April 25, 2016, 28 leading U.S. law firms published a legal opinion white paper (the “Opinion White Paper”) addressing recent decisions of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York interpreting Section 316(b) of the Trust Indenture Act of 1939 (the “TIA”) in the Marblegate and Caesars Entertainment cases. These decisions contain language that suggests a significant departure from the widely understood meaning of TIA § 316(b) that had prevailed for decades among practitioners. They have introduced interpretive issues that have disrupted established legal opinion practice and created new obstacles for out-of-court debt restructurings.

Section 316(b) of the TIA generally provides that the right of any holder of an indenture security to receive payment of principal and interest when due may not be impaired or affected without the consent of that holder. These recent decisions suggest that TIA § 316(b) protects more than the legal right to receive payment of principal and interest in the context of a debt restructuring.

The Opinion White Paper presents general principles that can guide opinion givers until the interpretive questions raised by these recent cases are resolved through future judicial opinions or legislative action.

The Opinion White Paper and further discussion of these cases are available here: Opinion White Paper.

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The Bankruptcy Roundtable has previously posted on the Trust Indenture Act as well as the Marblegate and Caesars Entertainment cases. Most recently, Mark Roe posted an article on the underlying policy behind 316(b) and suggested regulatory and legislative changes to address the problems of bondholder holdouts and coercive exit consents: The Trust Indenture Act of 1939 in Congress and the Courts in 2016: Bringing the SEC to the Table. Additionally, the Roundtable posted the National Bankruptcy Conference Proposed Amendments to Bankruptcy Code to Facilitate Restructuring of Bond and Credit Agreement Debt.