Corporate Governance, Bankruptcy Waivers and Consolidation in Bankruptcy

By Daniel J. Bussel (UCLA School of Law)

Bankruptcy law—once the vanguard of enterprise liability —has increasingly tended to kowtow to formalities of corporate law standing in the way of effective reorganization.

In two areas in particular, corporate law is seen by some courts and commentators as imposing rigid and substantive limitations on bankruptcy rights.

First, although bankruptcy courts have long held that access to bankruptcy relief may not be waived in a contract, recent decisions have enforced state corporate law’s choice to defer to contractual governance arrangements baked into corporate charters that hinder or preclude an entity from filing for bankruptcy relief.

Second, influential appellate decisions have pushed bankruptcy courts to respect the legal boundaries between affiliated entities within a corporate group for substantive insolvency law purposes, even as those boundaries are routinely ignored for operational, financial, tax and regulatory purposes.

Professors Baird and Casey, expanding upon earlier work by Professor LoPucki, have noted and embraced this judicial trend toward respecting corporate law formalities.  They have coined the term “withdrawal rights” to describe the phenomenon of prebankruptcy contractual arrangements enforceable under state corporate law that operate to allow a particular creditor to opt-out of the bankruptcy process by segregating key operating assets in entities that are effectively precluded from obtaining bankruptcy relief without the creditor’s express consent.

In CORPORATE GOVERNANCE, BANKRUPTCY WAIVERS AND CONSOLIDATION IN BANKRUPTCY, I argue that these techniques, however clever, run smack into traditional and still vibrant bankruptcy doctrines that find contractual waivers of access to bankruptcy relief void as against public policy, and that permit consolidation of entities whose formal separateness is inconsistent with the actual and effective operation of the corporate enterprise under reorganization.

Thus “Golden Share” arrangements in which a creditor is issued a special class of equity (the Golden Share) and the debtor’s charter is amended to preclude bankruptcy filing absent the Golden Shareholder’s consent, fail as unenforceable contractual waivers of bankruptcy rights.

Moreover, constituents with claims against affiliated companies in bankruptcy proceedings that effectively operate as a unified enterprise should not be surprised when they are treated as a claimant against that unified enterprise, except to the extent that the bankruptcy equities themselves demand otherwise, and so long as the value of their rights in property are adequately protected, even if the formalities of entity separateness are otherwise respected.  The restrictive approach to substantive consolidation adopted by some appellate courts, notably the Third Circuit in Owens-Corning, that encourages reliance on formal entity separation, should be rejected.

Bankruptcy courts are destined to struggle with the problem of withdrawal rights forever. Powerful creditors have never fully accepted the concept that they can be compelled to participate in a collective proceeding in the event of the common debtor’s insolvency and have sought ways to opt out of those proceedings when it is to their advantage to do so. They show no signs of flagging in efforts to structure bankruptcy-remote relations through statutory exceptions and preferences, the creation of property rights in their favor, and contractual strictures. If they have the political strength to carve out express exemptions in the Bankruptcy Code, courts may have little flexibility to prevent the opt-out.

But absent a federal statutory exemption, to the extent that state law corporate formalities manipulated to the advantage of certain constituencies through special contractual arrangements become impediments to effective bankruptcy reorganizations, those formalities are quite properly overridden by bankruptcy law.  Bankruptcy law limits the efficacy of the “Golden Share” and other contractual arrangements incorporated into company charters, and the entity partition techniques observed by LoPucki, Baird and Casey (among others).  Those limits should be factored into market expectations surrounding asset securitization and other structuring techniques designed to avoid the ordinary operation of bankruptcy law upon a particular creditor’s claim. If they are properly factored in, it is difficult to believe that securitization of core assets of non-financial operating companies will remain a cost-effective alternative to more traditional financing arrangements. The market should place little value on a bankruptcy withdrawal right that is likely to prove illusory when it matters most.

The full article is available here.

Debt Restructuring and Notions of Fairness

By Sarah Paterson (London School of Economics & Political Science)

In a recent article, I argue that we have repeatedly failed to identify clearly our concerns for fairness in different types of debt restructuring situations, and that this has confused corporate bankruptcy policy debate.  To defend the article’s thesis, I build a theoretical frame by unpacking the principles and the procedural demands of fairness from diverse fields of scholarship such as moral and political philosophy, biological sciences, psychology, organisation theory, group theory and economics.  I apply this theoretical frame to three very different types of debt restructuring: a restructuring of a small or medium sized enterprise; a restructuring of a large corporate; and a restructuring of a financial institution in English law.  In each case, a fairly typical fact pattern is outlined to ground the analysis, and the quality and extent of the fairness concerns examined.

The analysis in the article concentrates exclusively on fairness.  It does not consider the trade-off between fairness and other objectives (such as cost reduction), or utilitarian objections (such as concern that a situation which differentiates between classes of stakeholder in its approach to the fairness of the case would make stakeholders worse off overall), or arguments that what we might consider to be questions of fairness should properly be reinterpreted as economic questions.  In short, its objective is not to argue that fairness should prevail over all other considerations, but rather to explore, as an initial question, the quality of fairness in each of the situations with which it is concerned.

S. Paterson, ‘Debt Restructuring and Notions of Fairness’ (2017) 80(4) Modern Law Review 600 available here.

The Year in Bankruptcy: 2017

by Charles M. Oellermann and Mark G. Douglas (Jones Day).

In their annual chronicle of business bankruptcy, financial, economic, and related developments in the U.S., Charles M. Oellermann and Mark G. Douglas of Jones Day review the most significant events of 2017, including business bankruptcy filing statistics and industry trends; newsworthy developments regarding sovereign and commonwealth debt; the top 10 public-company bankruptcies of the year; notable private and cross-border bankruptcy cases; significant business bankruptcy and U.S. Supreme Court bankruptcy rulings; bankruptcy-related legislative and regulatory developments; noteworthy chapter 11 plan confirmations and exits from bankruptcy; and more.

The article is available here.

Applying Jevic: How Courts Are Interpreting and Applying the Supreme Court’s Ruling on Structured Dismissals and Priority Skipping

By Shane G. Ramsey and John T. Baxter (Nelson Mullins).

The U.S. Supreme Court in Czyzewski v. Jevic Holding Corp., 137 S.Ct. 973 (2017), addressed the issue of chapter 11 debtors using structured dismissals to end-run the statutory priority rules. The Court’s ruling preserved the priority system, holding that the bankruptcy court could not approve a structured dismissal of a chapter 11 case that provided for distributions that failed to follow the standard priority rules unless the affected creditors consented to such treatment. Although the Bankruptcy Code does not expressly apply its priority distribution scheme to a structured dismissal, the Court clarified that courts should do so.

As a way to track how bankruptcy courts across the country are applying the ruling in Jevic, the Nelson Mullins Bankruptcy Protector has introduced a new periodic series: the Jevic Files. As of February 19, 2018, the Jevic Files has collected and summarized thirteen cases across twelve jurisdictions. While the majority of the cases involved structured dismissals in the context of a chapter 11 case, courts have also applied the ruling in Jevic to the dismissal of chapter 13 plans; the priority of trustee payments in a chapter 7 case; and even a state court foreclosure hearing that came on the heels of a dismissed chapter 11 case. As Jevic continues to be interpreted and applied in bankruptcy (and other) courts throughout the country, we will continue to keep an updated summary of cases through the Jevic Files.

The article is available here.

The Roundtable has posted on Jevic before, including a report of the case by Melissa Jacoby & Jonathan Lipson and a roundup of law firm perspectives on the Court’s decision and an initial scholarly take on the opinion from Nicholas L. Georgakopoulos. For other Roundtable posts related to priority, see Casey & Morrison, “Beyond Options”; Baird, “Priority Matters”; and Roe & Tung, “Breaking Bankruptcy Priority,” an article that the Jevic opinion referred to.

How to Restructure Venezuelan Debt

By Lee C. Buchheit (Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP) & G. Mitu Gulati (Duke University School of Law).

There is a growing consensus that Venezuela will not be able to persist for much longer with its policy of full external debt service. The social costs are just too great. This implies a debt restructuring of some kind. Venezuela, principally through its state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (“PDVSA”), has extensive commercial contacts with the United States. Not since Mexico in the 1980s has an emerging market country with this level of commercial contacts attempted to restructure its New York law-governed sovereign debt. Holdout creditors in a restructuring of Venezuelan sovereign debt will therefore present a serious, potentially a debilitating, legal risk. The prime directive for the architects of a restructuring of Venezuelan debt will be to neutralize this risk.

The full article is available here.

Deterring Holdout Creditors in a Restructuring of PDVSA Bonds and Promissory Notes

By Lee C. Buchheit (Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP) & G. Mitu Gulati (Duke University School of Law).

Probably the main reason why the Maduro administration has not attempted to restructure Venezuelan sovereign debt is the potential mischief that may be caused by holdout creditors. The next administration in Venezuela — whenever and however it may arrive — will not want for suggestions about how to minimize or neutralize this holdout creditor threat. One option, before a generalized debt restructuring of some kind affecting all outstanding bonds, is for Venezuela to acknowledge that there really is only one public sector credit risk in the country and that the distinction between Republic bonds and its state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (“PDVSA”) bonds is artificial, and then to offer to exchange PDVSA bonds for new Republic bonds at par. The question will be, as it always is, how to discourage PDVSA creditors from declining to participate in such an exchange offer.

We suggest that one method might be for PDVSA to pledge all of its assets to the Republic in consideration for the Republic’s assumption of PDVSA’s indebtedness under its outstanding bonds and promissory notes. This is a step expressly permitted by PDVSA’s bonds and promissory notes. Existing PDVSA creditors would be perfectly free to decline to exchange their exposure for new Republic bonds, but they would face the prospect that a senior lienholder (the Republic) would have a first priority claim over any PDVSA assets that the holdout may attempt to attach to satisfy a judgment against PDVSA. That realization should make them think twice about the wisdom of holding out.

The full article is available here.

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.”

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