By Steven L. Schwarcz (Duke University School of Law)
Large financial institutions, such as U.S. Bank or Bank of NY Mellon, typically administer the governance of bond indentures—the contract under which bonds are issued—on behalf of the investors; in that role, they are called indenture trustees or, more colloquially, bond trustees. In Bond Trustees, and the Rising Challenge of Activist Investors, the 2020 TePoel Lecture at Creighton University School of Law, I examine how bond trustees should respond to this challenge.
Bondholders are the primary beneficiaries of indenture governance, just as shareholders are the primary beneficiaries of corporate governance. As beneficiaries, bondholders and shareholders have much different expectations. Indenture governance and corporate governance have evolved differently to meet those different expectations.
For example, because bondholders are only entitled to receive principal and accrued interest on their bonds, indenture governance has evolved to protect that recovery. In contrast, because shareholders, as residual claimants of the firm, are entitled to (and thus expect to receive) the firm’s surplus value, corporate governance has evolved to increase that value.
Most people would consider corporate governance as more important than indenture governance. In part, that’s because corporations and stock markets are highly visible to the average person. Also, a corporate manager’s job—to try to increase shareholder value—involves more judgment and discretion, and thus can be more interesting (and more desirable of scholarly study), than an indenture trustee’s job of merely protecting bondholder recovery.
Still, indenture governance is critically important. Domestically and worldwide, the amounts invested in bonds dwarfs the amounts invested in stock. Recent data show, for example, that global bond issuance is almost 30 times greater than global equity issuance.
An indenture trustee’s governance duties turn on whether the trustee is acting pre-default, or post-default. Once an indenture defaults, the law requires the indenture trustee to act on behalf of the bondholders as would a prudent person in similar circumstances regarding its own affairs. Many post-default decisions—such as whether to accelerate the maturity of the bonds or to liquidate collateral—involve difficult judgment calls. These decisions are made more difficult by what I have called a “protection gap”: when things go wrong, investors often blame parties with deep pockets, especially indenture trustees, for failing to protect them. Post-default indenture governance becomes even more complicated when the bondholders themselves have conflicting interests, caused, for example, by conflicting payment priorities or conflicting sources of payment.
Notwithstanding its complexities, post-default indenture governance is informed by case law. And perhaps because of its complexities, post-default indenture governance is also informed by legal scholarship. In contrast, pre-default indenture governance is not yet well informed by either case law or legal scholarship. The rising challenge of activist investors is now making it critical to also understand what an indenture trustee’s pre-default duties should be.
Historically, an indenture trustee’s pre-default duties have been seen as ministerial and limited to the specific terms of the indenture, such as selecting bonds for redemption and preparing and delivering certificates. Since the financial crisis, some investors argue that indenture trustees of securitized bond issues, in which investors are paid from collections on underlying financial assets such as mortgage loans, should have pre-default fiduciary duties. Indeed, complaints in recent lawsuits allege that those indenture trustees should “police the deal” for the investors.
These allegations are not compelling. Indenture trustees receive relatively tiny fees and don’t even negotiate the terms of the indentures. In contrast, the institutional investors in securitized bond issues, including activist investors, are highly sophisticated. Indenture trustees could not understand complex securitized bond issues better than those investors.
Furthermore, parties other than indenture trustees are assigned monitoring duties to protect the investors. Notably, securitized bond issues require a party, usually called a servicer, to service and collect payment on the underlying financial assets. In litigation following the financial crisis, which caused widespread defaults on residential mortgage loans, some investors argued that indenture trustees in mortgage securitization transactions should have monitored or supervised the performance of the mortgage-loan servicer.
Imposing such duties on the indenture trustee would be duplicative and expensive. Rather, an indenture trustee that actually becomes aware of servicing problems should act in a common sense and practical manner. For example, it might enter into conversations with the servicer about its performance and communicate the results of those conversations to the investors. It also might seek, or request the investors to provide, formal investor directions.
Typically, indentures allow investors with at least 25-50 percent of voting rights to direct the indenture trustee to act.
The full TePoel Lecture is available here: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3543656.
For a related Roundtable post, see Steven L. Schwarcz, Indenture Trustee Duties: The Pre-Default Puzzle.