Category: Bankruptcy

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Argentina and Sovereign Insolvency

Thanks to Gerard for the nice introduction. Indeed, I am here to rant about bankruptcy, securities, and corporate, mostly. The vineyard lies dormant now (but any offers for it will be considered).

So, how about Argentina and Elliot? We pay our nice subsidy to the IMF out of our taxes and it finances sovereign restructurings by essentially buying the vote of bondholders into accepting restructurings that are good for both the bondholders and the insolvent sovereign (compared to it wallowing in a depression for years). Then, after the sovereign turns around its economy, our own courts let the holdout bondholders collect on the bonds that, if everyone had held out as they did and the sovereign stayed in a depression for decades, would not have had much value.

We could have a sovereign insolvency regime but the banks opposed the IMF charter amendment to that effect and it did not go through. Or our courts could go back to their equity receivership jurisprudence and try to fashion a sovereign insolvency regime.

Instead, our courts give ammunition to the holdouts, making bonds of insolvent sovereigns more attractive gambles, and pushing up the amount that the IMF will have to pay to buy out the bondholders’ vote in the next restructuring.

How would a sovereign insolvency regime work? It would not be pretty but it would be much prettier than this. Think of Detroit. It makes a bankruptcy filing and proposes a plan that keeps taxes rational and the city viable. No lender of last resort needs to get involved. Bondholders cannot extract any favorable bargains. Our tax dollars do not get wasted.

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Guest Post: Jonathan Lipson on the Mess in Detroit

Lipson_WebPhotoSorry to interrupt the symposium, but this is in the way of a breaking law-news update.  I asked Jonathan Lipson (Temple), a former guest blogger here and all-around bankruptcy superstar, to offer our readers some thoughts on the recent decision out of the Detroit bankruptcy.  Here are his views:

Detroit: Kicking the Federalism Question Down the Rhodes

Yesterday, Bankruptcy Judge Steven Rhodes stayed a state court suit to derail Detroit’s chapter 9 bankruptcy.  While Judge Rhodes may ultimately dismiss the bankruptcy petition on his own, the decision forestalls one of the harder questions underlying the filing: To what extent may an Article I bankruptcy judge approve a bankruptcy plan that (may) conflict with state constitutional protections for municipal union members?

The answer will be difficult for several reasons, mostly having to do with the recursive interactions between federal and state law in this context. Bankruptcy Code § 943(b)(4) permits a bankruptcy judge to approve a “plan of adjustment” (as it is called) if the “debtor is not prohibited by law from taking any action necessary to carry out the plan.”

While chapter 9 case-law is sparse, one court has interpreted this to mean that it could not approve a plan that altered state-law priority-protections for bondholders. In re Sanitary & Improv. Dist. #7, 98 B.R. 970 (Bankr. D. Neb. 1989). Municipal union members may cite this, and then point to Michigan’s constitution, which provides:  “The accrued financial benefits of each pension plan and retirement system of the state and its political subdivisions shall be a contractual obligation thereof which shall not be diminished or impaired thereby.” Mich. Const. Article IX, § 24.

Because the plan proposed by Detroit’s emergency financial manager, Kevyn Orr, apparently reduces accrued benefits significantly, retirees would argue that the plan would diminish and impair their contractual rights.

But Orr may respond in three ways. First, he may cite the recent City of Stockton case, and argue that state law cannot prevent a municipal debtor from “adjusting” (i.e., reducing) debts, because federal law is supreme.  See In re City of Stockton, 478 B.R. 8, 16 (Bank. E.D. Cal. 2012).  Of course, if the federal law in question (the Bankruptcy Code) defers to conflicting state law, this argument doesn’t get him very far.

So, his second move may be to argue that a plan that diminished accrued contractual benefits would not violate the law, because it has long been accepted that the Bankruptcy Power is far greater with respect to contract rights than property rights.

As I (and others) have explained elsewhere, this distinction seems foundational.  Michigan’s constitution may protect municipal union members’ contract rights, in other words, but that’s all they are: contract claims, subject to “adjustment” under federal bankruptcy law.  If municipal retirees had really wanted solid protection, Michigan’s constitution should have characterized their accrued benefits as “property,” not “contract,” rights.

Third, and most instrumentally, the Michigan constitution does not appear to prevent Orr from exiting current agreements prospectively.  Bankruptcy Code section 365 would give Detroit the power to reject such contracts if they are burdensome (there are actually a couple different rejection standards, but it seems likely he could meet them).  Even if Orr’s hands are tied as to accrued obligations, the argument would go, he could terminate large numbers of current employees, some of whom he may rehire at lower wages.  If municipal employees want their jobs back, they (or their unions) would have to compromise accrued benefits claims.

This would in effect pit current employees against former ones (retirees).  Like those who have successfully reorganized mass-tort, Orr may be able to use this tension to extract concessions from the unions.  Or, the unions may be able to use this same tension to get a better deal than the one that’s on the table.

Either way, setting up these sorts of bargains is, in my view, one of the most important federal interests here.  I have argued in the context of the Catholic Church bankruptcies, for example, that that should be the system’s overarching goal, especially in normatively difficult cases.

Yet, further confounding the analysis are the mixed signals the Supreme Court has sent on the interaction between Congress’ Article I powers (especially bankruptcy court power, in cases such as Stern v. Marshall) and “states’ rights.”  On one hand, cases such as Seminole Tribe and Alden (and, indirectly, Stern) suggest that the Court takes state sovereignty seriously:  the federal government has limited powers to intrude into states’ affairs, which may include interpreting their constitutions (okay, let’s ignore Bush v. Gore).  On the other hand, cases such as Hood and Katz suggest that the Court will make an exception for bankruptcy, discharging state claims and permitting suits against states to recover preferential transfers, respectively (okay, let’s ignore Stern).  Perhaps Judge Rhodes will have a relatively free hand here.

How this will unwind in Detroit is difficult to predict, but seems likely to matter to the outcome. In the meantime, we will have to wait for Judge Rhodes to decide whether to permit Detroit’s case to go forward at all.  Bankruptcy Code section 921(c) provides that the bankruptcy “order for relief” cannot be entered until resolving objections to the petition.  This can include an objection that the filing “does not meet the requirements of this title.”

The unions are likely to argue that Detroit’s bankruptcy petition flunks because Orr’s plan would violate the state constitution, as “incorporated” by Bankruptcy Code section 943(b)(4).  Orr would respond by arguing the supremacy of federal bankruptcy law, perhaps along the lines noted above . . . . And so on.

Given these complexities, it would be understandable if Judge Rhodes wanted to kick the federalism question further down the road, in the hope that all major stakeholders—e.g., bondholders and employees—can avoid the costs of litigating these questions, and settle them in a plan they agree on.

The River of Purchasing Power Dries Up at Detroit

RiveraIf only Detroit were a big bank, Treasury officials would be working round the clock this weekend to save it. Alas, this city is no Citi. It lacks a “winning business model” (like lobbying and bonuses for key federal officials). So municipal bankruptcy is on the horizon.

Detroit was chronically mismanaged, and the victim of unforgiving political geography. But the decline of jobs there is also a bellwether for the rest of the country. As Juan Cole observes,

This rise of [robotized manufacturing] violates the deal that the capitalists made with American consumers after the great Depression, which is that they would provide people with well-paying jobs and the workers in turn would buy the commodities the factories produced, in a cycle of consumerism. If the goods can be produced without many workers, and if the workers then end up suffering long-term unemployment (as Detroit does), then who will buy the consumer goods? Capitalism can survive one Detroit, but what if we are heading toward having quite a few of them?

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The New York Fed and the Rule of Law

In Sunday’s New York Times, business columnist Gretchen Morgenson reported a piece of investigative journalism that is transcendently important, but whose complexity may have obscured that. It concerns secret dealings of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Morgenson explains the importance of her topic in terms of the threatened erosion of social trust that can occur when central banking officials engage in dubious behavior.

I would add that her topic, dubious dealings of central bankers, is of vital importance because those who run the FRBNY have enormous power in the field of banking regulation. They oversee the largest banks and provide direct input into the Financial Stability Oversight Council, the interagency government organization created by the Dodd Frank Act to oversee the financial system. It is empowered to intervene when the next financial crisis occurs, which could be later this year or five years or ten or what have you.

As with the financial crisis of 2008, these government actors, dominated by the FRBNY, will call all the shots about which institutions to save, sell or seize, on the one hand, and which creditors and shareholders to pay, wipe out or shortchange, on the other. How they exercise these powers is thus a matter of the utmost national interest. How they exercised them in the 2008 crisis remains both obscure and questionable. Read More

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Volume 60, Issue 2 (December 2012)

Volume 60, Issue 2 (December 2012)


Articles

The Battle Over Taxing Offshore Accounts Itai Grinberg 304
The Structural Exceptionalism of Bankruptcy Administration Rafael I. Pardo & Kathryn A. Watts 384
Patients’ Racial Preferences and the Medical Culture of Accommodation Kimani Paul-Emile 462


Comments

“Not Susceptible to the Logic of Turner”: Johnson v. California and the Future of Gender Equal Protection Claims From Prisons Grace DiLaura 506
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The Penn State Disaster Pool

So this is interesting:

“The mediator who managed the Sept. 11 victims-compensation fund and settlements with those affected by the 2010 BP Gulf oil spill has been hired by Pennsylvania State University in the hope of settling the civil claims of Jerry Sandusky’s victims.

The university announced Thursday that it had hired Kenneth R. Feinberg to facilitate negotiations for the four current lawsuits and more expected to be filed by those sexually abused by the former assistant football coach.”

One way to read this is that PSU is going to make available a large pool of money to a diverse victim class, and has hired Feinberg for his expertise dividing complex pies in ways that leave most folks relatively satisfied.  But there’s another reading that seems at least plausible.  Associating with Feinberg transmutes the human errors which enabled Sandusky’s crimes into a “disaster”, implying less particularized responsibility.  Plaintiffs refusing to partake in the common pool can potentially be framed as selfish, grasping, etc.  That so even though almost by definition, these disaster pools allocate less money to every plaintiff than their individual claims are “worth”.

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Student Debt Discharge in Bankruptcy

I have a question for all of you bankruptcy lawyers who read CoOp.  Is there a principled reason for the rule that student debt is generally not dischargeable in personal bankruptcy?  Or is the only real defense of this rule that “lenders lobbied Congress successfully on this one?”

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Does the Secured Transactions Course Make Sense?

I’ve never taught Secured Transactions, so I’ll start by saying that the following is purely speculative and subject to correction.

We had a job candidate come through at some point this Fall who generally is interested in the field of commercial law.  That person mentioned in passing that although they were more than willing to teach the traditional secured transactions course, in their opinion it wasn’t well structured.  Why? Not, as the navel-gazer might imagine, because the field of commercial law is supposedly intellectually dead.  Rather because the traditional secured transaction course is too narrowly conceived — it usually is limited in coverage to personal property security interests under Article 9.  But many security interests that matter to lawyers aren’t held on movable property.  Since secured is ordinarily the foundational course for the commercial curriculum, students are left starting on too narrow a footing in understanding bankruptcy and bank regulation.  It’s even worse than having a corporations course that excludes LLCs.  Because of its technicality, ST is traditionally so difficult to teach that many students are turned off to the idea of commercial law practice at all.

Again, I don’t know much about this area of law.  I never took ST in law school, I haven’t taught it, and (worse) I haven’t even read a ST syllabus at my current institution.  But it struck me as an interesting thought, at least worth airing.  It’s related to concerns I have about the general corporate curriculum — is “corporations” really a subject that ought to be taught in a single course, or is it really a merger of too many (or too few) legal principles that have glommed together over time.  It’s also related to concerns that one might have about continuing to use the increasingly outdated, purportedly uniform, UCC to teach when States’ adopted versions are moving ever-further-away from that ideal.

Audit Trails: The Corporate Surveillance We Need

What do the following problems have in common?

1) food poisoning
2) systemic risk in the financial system
3) data breaches
4) violations of civil liberties
5) tax evasion
6) insider trading

In each case, we could do a lot more to stop the problem if we better tracked the actions that lead to it. An “audit trail” can enable that tracking. Decades ago, such tracking would be inordinately costly. Nowadays, it is increasingly embedded into any quality logistical system. The technologies of RFID chips, cheap imaging and data storage, and rapid search are ubiquitous. Corporations use them to track customers and products. Now public authorities need to use them to track corporations.

Consider, for instance, this recent story on food safety:
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Will in Insolvency

In this week’s New Yorker, Nick Paumgarten, in the Talk of the Town, kindly draws on my work  about the cultural contingency of financial reporting; he quotes me on the need to update the idea of insolvency.  Usually defined as the ability to pay debts as they come due, or assets exceeding liabilities, there has always been a strong objective thrust to the notion.  The emphasis is on measured financial activity reduced to a verifiable expression of ability. 

But as Nick notes, equally important is a debtor’s will to pay.  The differences appear in the contrast between the United States and Greece.When  Standard & Poor’s recently lowered its credit rating of the U.S. Treasury by one notch, it registered doubt not so much about the country’s ability to pay its debt, but the will of its incumbant political class to do so. In contrast, Greece’s political elite seem committed to finding ways to meet that country’s debts; alas, its resources compared to its obligations raise real doubt about their ability to do so. 

Another example of the difference between the ability and the will to pay debts arose in the September 2008 tussle over what to do about American International Group. It was then the world’s largest insurance company and shortly before the crisis  boasted a market capitalization of $180 billion. Much of its trillion-dollar balance sheet was securely housed in walled-off insurance subsidiaries.  Read More