The Time Has Come for Disaggregated Sovereign Bankruptcy

By Odette Lienau (Professor, Cornell Law School)

Odette Lienau

The ongoing economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has generated important proposals for addressing countries’ financial distress in the short to medium term. However, it has also made even more apparent the existing gaps in the global financial architecture writ large and highlighted the extent to which key actors pay closest attention to this infrastructure in situations of crisis. By then, of course, it is already too late.

This essay argues that the international community should use the energy generated in the current context to move toward ‘disaggregated sovereign bankruptcy’—which can be understood as a framework by which multiple processes at varying levels simultaneously support or instantiate a shared set of sovereign debt resolution principles and commitments. Such an approach moves beyond overly simplistic and binary framings of market-based versus statutory options, and instead conceives of improvements in the contractual realm, in the multilateral arena, and at the level of domestic legislation as complementary rather than competitive. The essay also clarifies that the explicit embrace of a more disaggregated framework for implementing debt resolution principles need not be disorganized. It argues in favor of establishing an international body purpose-built to recommend, coordinate, and facilitate steady, incremental progress in the architecture for dealing with sovereign debt across multiple vectors. Advocates of more rational debt restructuring should take steps now to adopt an infrastructure that would make future debt crises less severe and perhaps less likely—even when the spotlights are directed elsewhere.

The full article can be found here.

Restructuring Sovereign Debt and Rebuilding a National Economy for a Failing State: The Case of Venezuela

By Steven T. Kargman (Kargman Associates/International Restructuring Advisors)

Steven T. Kargman

Venezuela is facing a veritable perform storm: a major humanitarian crisis, a collapsing economy, a sovereign debt crisis, and a political stalemate between the ruling Maduro regime and the opposition.  Yet, if and when Venezuela tries to come to terms with these very serious challenges (probably under the auspices of a new Venezuelan government), Venezuela will first and foremost need to address the pressing social needs of the Venezuelan people, but it will also need to undertake the monumental task of rebuilding its national economy and restructuring its sovereign debt that has been estimated to be $150 billion or more.

In a new article entitled “Venezuela: Prospects for Restructuring Sovereign Debt and Rebuilding a National Economy Against the Backdrop of a Failing State,” I discuss the prospects for a sovereign debt restructuring as well as the major legal and policy challenges associated with a program of sovereign debt restructuring and national economic reconstruction.  For any future sovereign debt restructuring, Venezuela will need to consider employing a broad range of restructuring tools, both old and new.  Further, for any future economic reconstruction effort, Venezuela will need to consider strategies for rebuilding its national oil industry as well as strategies for diversification of its economy.

The article originally appeared in AIRA Journal, Vol. 34, No. 2 (May 2021) and is reprinted with the permission of its publisher, the Association of Insolvency & Restructuring Advisors (AIRA).  The article can be found here.  (The article was first posted on the CLS Blue Sky Blog of Columbia Law School (May 18, 2021) and is cross-posted here with the permission of the CLS Blue Sky Blog.)

Restructurings in Emerging Economies One Year into the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Steven T. Kargman (Kargman Associates/International Restructuring Advisors)

Steven T. Kargman

A new article entitled “The COVID-19 Pandemic and Emerging Market Restructurings: The View One Year Later” provides an overview of the challenging economic landscape that continues to face many emerging economies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it also discusses current sovereign debt restructuring and corporate debt restructuring issues in the emerging economies.
The article provides an analysis of sovereign debt restructuring situations involving a serial defaulter (Argentina) and failing states (Venezuela and Lebanon). It also reviews the sovereign debt restructuring travails of an African state, Zambia, that may have implications for future sovereign debt restructurings in Sub-Saharan Africa in light of the intercreditor tensions that arose in the Zambian case between Chinese creditors and bondholders.

Even though corporate defaults in the emerging economies were fairly muted over the last year, many observers expect a surge of corporate defaults, restructurings, and non-performing loans (NPLs) in the emerging economies and developing countries in the coming years, particularly as the special COVID-related responses of governments come to an end. Nonetheless, if and when there is a sharp increase in insolvencies in emerging market jurisdictions, this could pose a major problem for the court systems in the emerging economies and developing economies given the limited capacity of many of these systems to deal with a large volume of cases. Thus, there may well be a need for greater reliance on out-of-court restructurings to address this expected surge in insolvency cases in the emerging economies and developing countries.

The article originally appeared in International Insolvency & Restructuring Report 2021/22 and is reprinted with the permission of its publisher, Capital Markets Intelligence. The article can be found here.

Structuring and Practice for Aircraft Leases to Prevent Lease Payments from Being Clawed Back in a Lessee Bankruptcy

By Stewart B. Herman (Katten) and Timothy J. Lynes (Katten)

Stewart B. Herman
Timothy J. Lynes

In King v. Bombardier Aerospace Corporation et al., the trustee sought under 11 U.S.C. §§ 547(b) and 550(a) to have the lessor disgorge rent that the debtor lessee had paid to the lessor under an English-law aircraft lease during the prepetition preference period using funds advanced to the debtor by its shareholder. Pursuant to §547(b), the trustee argued that the debtor had made the payment for an antecedent debt; the loan balance on what was alleged to be disguised secured financing rather than a true lease. The lessor asserted (i) the trustee had not sufficiently shown the nature and amount of the antecedent debt as required under § 547(b)(2), (ii) under § 547(c)(4) the lessor had provided the debtor subsequent new value after the debtor made the payment, (iii) under § 547(c)(2) that the debtor had made the payment in the ordinary course of business, and (iv) that under the earmarking doctrine the payment should not be clawed back because the payment had been funded by a loan from a third party (the debtor’s shareholder). The court found (i) the trustee had not satisfactorily shown the nature and amount of the antecedent debt, (ii) the lessor had sufficiently shown it added subsequent new value to the debtors, (iii) the lessor had not sufficiently shown the payment was in the ordinary course of business, under either the subjective test or the objective test, and (iv) the lessor had not sufficiently shown facts to support an earmarking defense. The article concludes by offering suggestions for structuring leases to survive preference claims. The full article is available here.

Reviewing Redwater: An Analysis of the U.S. and Canadian Approaches to Environmental Obligations in Bankruptcy

By Laura N. Coordes (Associate Professor of Law, Arizona State University – Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law)

Laura N. Coordes

The United States and Canada have both seen significant litigation over the treatment of environmental obligations in bankruptcy proceedings. Both countries also have robust regulatory and statutory frameworks with respect to bankruptcy and environmental law, making the two jurisdictions ripe for comparison.

Although the U.S. legal landscape differs somewhat from Canada’s, courts in both countries have struggled to sort out the treatment of environmental obligations in bankruptcy. However, in 2019, the Supreme Court of Canada decided Orphan Well Association v. Grant Thornton Limited (“Redwater”), which characterized environmental obligations, not as claims, but as duties owed to the public that could not be compromised in bankruptcy. Meanwhile, U.S. courts continue to grapple with the question of how to treat a company’s environmental obligations in bankruptcy.

This article analyzes the impact of Redwater and highlights issues that U.S. scholars and policymakers should consider as they press for changes. In particular, the article focuses on three questions: (1) What is the role of the legislature as compared to the judiciary? (2) What is the role of federal law, as compared to provincial or state law? and (3) What is the role of the public interest?

These three questions implicate debates that go beyond the immediate issue of the role of environmental law in bankruptcy proceedings. However, considering environmental and bankruptcy law in light of these universal issues illuminates unresolved tensions that both the U.S. and Canada will likely continue to face on a larger scale.

The full article is available here.

Reorganization of Corporate Groups in Brazil: Substantive Consolidation and the Limited Liability Tale

By Sheila C. Neder Cerezetti (Professor of Law, University of São Paulo Law School)

Sheila C. Neder Cerezetti

As argued by prominent Brazilian scholars, some of the most relevant attributes of the corporate form – limited liability and asset partitioning – might be considered just a tale in Brazil, as they have been consistently and subsequently weakened by a variety of reasons.

In light of this and of the large number of corporate reorganization cases involving groups of companies, which gave way to a series of unsubstantiated applications of substantive consolidation, the article raises the debate on the correct use of the mechanism in the country.

I question whether the lenient approach to substantive consolidation by Brazilian courts (i) is a natural consequence of the weakening of limited liability and asset partitioning, and (ii) represents a better way to recognize the Brazilian corporate reality, bringing more truth to reorganizations.

In the attempt to answer these questions, the article introduces the basic aspects of corporate reorganization in Brazil, offering a comprehensive overview of the Brazilian Bankruptcy Act (Law No. 11,101/2005). The description addresses the broad use of procedural and substantive consolidation even if, at the time, the Brazilian Bankruptcy Act lacked provisions for proceedings with multiple debtors. It shows that the permissive approach first directed to procedural consolidation slowly unraveled into a silent acceptance of substantive consolidation.

Next, the article explores some of the uses of substantive consolidation in the USA (where the mechanism started and gained traction) and in the UNCITRAL Legislative Guide on Insolvency Law (an important indicator of what might be adopted in other jurisdiction in the future), with a brief reference to the status of the matter in the European Union. In these cases, a set of prerequisites have been established to determine when the exceptional measure of the mechanism is appropriate.

In contrast, I call a misuse the often-unsubstantiated acceptance of substantive consolidation in Brazil, that fails to note its exceptionally. In the vast majority of cases, substantive consolidation actually happened in proceedings where none of the parties and not even the court expressly addressed the issue and implicitly just treated a single plan as something normal, although it mixed assets and liabilities of different debtors. And in those cases where the matter has been expressly addressed, the criteria for ordering the consolidation (i) varied greatly, to the point that it could not be rationalized in the form of a test, and (ii) failed to treat the remedy as an exceptional tool.

In light of the mentioned “tale of limited liability in Brazil”, one could wonder if such a misuse of substantive consolidation is in fact inappropriate. However, I argue that this tale is not so severe as to justify the lenient approach described, in view of the rules on corporate groups as well as of the fact that strictly commercial and civil relationships are, for the most part, protected from the exceptions to limited liability.

The article contends that there still is a compelling case for a stricter use of substantive consolidation, considering, among other reasons, that accepting the lenient criteria for ordering substantive consolidation would mean further weakening the attributes of the corporate form. It concludes by pointing to other tools in bankruptcy law that can better deal with the exceptions to the limitation of liability, and argues that substantive consolidation should remain a remedy for abuses of the corporate form that turn it dysfunctional.

Finally, it should be noted that a recently approved bill included provisions on procedural and substantive consolidation in the Brazilian Bankruptcy Law, ratifying the lenient approach described in the article. The article also serves as an explanatory description of the pathways that led the Brazilian legal system to such a discipline and as a warning about the perils of following this route.

The full article is available here.

What’s Done is Done: Third Circuit Upholds Equitable Mootness and Rules Out Possibility of Individualized Relief for Timely Objecting Party

By Robert Lemons (Weil) and Patrick Feeney (Weil)

Robert Lemons
Patrick Feeney

Over the past several years, certain circuits criticized the Equitable Mootness doctrine for its lack of statutory basis and effect of avoiding review of chapter 11 plans on the merits.  However, the Third Circuit recently held in In re Nuverra Environmental Solutions, Inc. v. Hargreaves, Case No. 18-3084, 834 Fed. Appx. 729 (3d Cir. Jan. 6, 2021), that the Equitable Mootness doctrine is still alive and well.

 The Third Circuit rejected the appeal of Hargreaves, a creditor who timely objected to the chapter 11 plan and timely appealed the bankruptcy court’s entry of the plan’s confirmation order, because the plan was already substantially consummated and could not be unwound.  Further, the Third Circuit held that it could not grant Hargreaves “individualized relief” because such relief would violate Bankruptcy Code § 1123(a)(4)’s restriction on preferential treatment of class members and § 1129(b)(1)’s prohibition on unfair discrimination between classes. 

 In a concurring opinion, Judge Krause rejected the application of Equitable Mootness, finding the majority did not sufficiently analyze whether disparate treatment of creditors within a class is permissible on appeal when parties choose not to object to, or appeal confirmation of, the plan.  Judge Krause also noted that denial of the appeal on Equitable Mootness grounds precluded consideration of substantive arguments and development of the Third Circuit’s bankruptcy jurisprudence.  

While Judge Krause’s concurring opinion highlights difficulties plan objectors face when appealing plan confirmation, the majority opinion signals that Equitable Mootness is still a healthy doctrine in the Third Circuit.

The full article is available here.

Another Court Adopts Majority View in Approving Bankruptcy Trustee’s Use of Tax Code: Look-Back Period in Avoidance Actions

By Daniel J. Merrett (Jones Day) and Mark G. Douglas (Jones Day)

Daniel J. Merrett
Mark G. Douglas

The ability of a bankruptcy trustee or chapter 11 debtor-in-possession (“DIP”) to avoid fraudulent transfers is an important tool promoting the bankruptcy policies of equality of distribution among creditors and maximizing the property included in the estate. One limitation on this avoidance power is the statutory “look-back” period during which an allegedly fraudulent transfer can be avoided—two years for fraudulent transfer avoidance actions under section 548 of the Bankruptcy Code and, as generally understood, three to six years if the trustee or DIP seeks to avoid a fraudulent transfer under section 544(b) and state law by stepping into the shoes of a “triggering” creditor plaintiff.

The longer look-back periods governing avoidance actions under various state laws significantly expand the universe of transactions that may be subject to fraudulent transfer avoidance. Indeed, under a ruling recently handed down by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of North Carolina, the look-back period in avoidance actions under section 544(b) may be much longer—10 years—in bankruptcy cases where the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) or another governmental entity is the triggering creditor. In Mitchell v. Zagaroli (In re Zagaroli), 2020 WL 6495156 (Bankr. W.D.N.C. Nov. 3, 2020), the court, adopting the majority approach, held that a chapter 7 trustee could effectively circumvent North Carolina’s four-year statute of limitations for fraudulent transfer actions by stepping into the shoes of the IRS, which is bound not by North Carolina law but by the 10-year statute of limitations for collecting taxes specified in the Internal Revenue Code.

Zagaroli does not break new ground on the power of a bankruptcy trustee or DIP to bring avoidance actions under section 544(b) of the Bankruptcy Code. Nevertheless, the court’s endorsement of the majority approach on the availability of a longer look-back period in cases in which the IRS is a creditor is notable. Widespread adoption of this approach could significantly augment estate avoidance action recoveries.

The full article is available here.

The Municipal Bond Cases Revisited

By Allison Buccola (Independent) and Vince Buccola (Assistant Professor, The Wharton School)

Allison Buccola
Vince Buccola

Puerto Rico’s Title III proceedings under PROMESA mark the return of debt repudiation as a feature of the government debt restructuring landscape. Backed by an official committee, the Federal Oversight and Management Board has argued that some $6 billion of bonds the Commonwealth issued are void and worthless. According to the Board, the bonds were sold illegally, in contravention of a constitutional debt limit, so that (also according to the Board) they cannot bind the Commonwealth. A similar argument was lodged in Detroit’s bankruptcy. For the better part of a century before that, however, repudiation was mostly unheard of in the United States. 

The invocation of ultra vires to escape bond obligations is nothing new, though. In the second half of the nineteenth century, municipal debtors frequently welched on their debts. In the 1850s and 1860s, cities, towns, and counties across the Midwest and West issued bonds to finance the construction of railroads and other infrastructure. Many ultimately defaulted. Rather than simply announce that they couldn’t or wouldn’t pay, however, they often contended that they needn’t pay: for one or another reason, the relevant bonds had been issued ultra vires and so were no obligation of the municipality at all. Litigation in the federal courts was common. Several hundred repudiation disputes made their way to the Supreme Court in the forty years starting 1859.

With an eye to the modern cases, we set out to understand how the Court reckoned with repudiation. We read every one of the 196 cases in which the Justices opined on bond validity (i.e. the enforceability of a bond in the hands of innocent purchasers). In a recently published article, we correct received wisdom about the cases and remark on the logical structure of the Court’s reasoning.

To the extent the municipal bond cases are remembered, modern scholars usually think of them as exemplary instances of a political model of judging. The caricature has the Court siding with bondholders even when the law called on them to rule for the repudiating municipalities. The Justices—or a majority of them—are imagined as staunch political allies of the capitalist class, set against the institutions of state government and their regard for agricultural interests. We find that this picture is inconsistent with reality. In fact, the Court ruled for the repudiating municipality in a third of all the validity cases. As importantly, the Court’s decisions reflected a readily articulable formal logic, a logic the Justices seem, to our eyes, to have applied soundly.

The Court’s analytical approach traded on a distinction between legal and factual bases for repudiation. A municipality might repudiate either on a theory that no legal authority permitted the contested bond to be issued under the circumstances the bondholder alleged or, alternatively, on a theory that the circumstances alleged did not in fact pertain. Where the theory of repudiation turned on a legal predicate, the Court simply proceeded to the merits, comparing the bond to the powers granted to the issuer by state law at the time of issuance. Repudiating municipalities often prevailed.

Where the theory of repudiation turned on a factual predicate, by contrast, bondholders fared much better. The defining theme in such cases was a procedural mechanism that precluded assessment of the merits, namely the adaptation of estoppel doctrine to the municipal context. It was, and still is, customary for bonds to recite circumstances relevant to issuance. Estoppel allowed buyers in the secondary market to credit whatever facts—but only facts—the issuer declared true at the time of issuance. In a number of debt-limit cases reminiscent of Puerto Rico, this logic propelled bondholders to a judgment. Estoppel did not resolve all fact-based repudiation arguments. It did not foreclose a trial if, for example, the contested bond failed to recite a predicate fact. Nevertheless estoppel was an important feature of the bond cases, one which, given the profound asymmetry of information that prevailed with respect to matters of fact, probably helped to sustain the bond market as a source of capital for municipal development.

The article can be found here.

Government Activism in Bankruptcy

By Jared A. Ellias (Bion M. Gregory Chair in Business Law and Professor of Law, UC Hastings College of Law) and George Triantis (Professor of Law and Business, Stanford Law School)

Jared A. Ellias
George Triantis

It is widely recognized that bankruptcy law can stymie regulatory enforcement and present challenges for governments when regulated businesses file for Chapter 11.  It is less-widely understood that bankruptcy law can present governments with opportunities to advance policy goals if they are willing to adopt tactics traditionally associated with activist investors, a strategy we call “government bankruptcy activism.”  The bankruptcy filings by Chrysler and General Motors in 2009 are a famous example: the government of the United States used the bankruptcy process to help both auto manufacturers resolve their financial distress while promoting the policy objectives of protecting union workers and addressing climate change.  A decade later, the government of California applied its bargaining power and used an innovative state law in the Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s Chapter 11 case to protect climate policies and the victims of wildfires.  These examples illustrate that, by tapping into the bankruptcy system, governments gain access to the exceptional powers that a debtor enjoys under bankruptcy law, which can complement the traditional tools of appropriations and regulation to facilitate and accelerate policy outcomes.  This strategy is especially useful in times of urgency and policy paralysis, when government bankruptcy activism can provide a pathway past veto players in the political system.  However, making policy through the bankruptcy system presents potential downsides as well, as it may also allow governments to evade democratic accountability and obscure the financial losses that stakeholders are forced to absorb to help fund those policy outcomes.

The full article is available here.

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