Category: Bankruptcy

Deceptive by Design: Derivatives as Secret Liens

Secretive practices and institutions are common in contemporary finance. For those who’ve ceased the search for long-term value creation, temporary information advantage is key. Even commonplace practices can be reinterpreted as havens of hiddenness. My colleague Michael Simkovic’s article “Secret Liens and the Financial Crisis of 2008” exposes the role of derivatives and securitization as secretive borrowing strategies, designed to keep the naive or trusting from discovering the fragility of the institutions they loan funds to. His work has been presented to the World Bank Task Force on the Bankruptcy Treatment of Financial Contracts, and is relevant to both private and sovereign debt risks.

Simkovic argues that 80 years of erosion of classic commercial law doctrine ensured that “complex and opaque financial products received the highest priority in bankruptcy.” Products like swaps and over-the-counter derivatives were not adequately disclosed (either by banks in their consolidated financial statements or by their counterparties in publicly accessible transaction registries). By concealing those debts, these already overleveraged financial institutions were able to attract ever more credit and investment, at better rates than those who reported their overall financial health more accurately. (All other things being equal, it’s safer to lend to an entity that owes 10 billion rather than 100 billion dollars.) The genius of Simkovic’s article is to show how “fundamental causes of the financial crisis are relatively old and simple,” even as an alphabet soup of instrument acronyms (CDO, CDS, MBS, ad nauseam) and government programs (TARP, TALF, PPIP, et al.) makes our time seem unique.
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Sidebar Publishes Essay on Rubin v. Eurofinance

Columbia Law Review’s Sidebar is pleased to announce the publication of Rubin v. Eurofinance:  Universal Bankruptcy Jurisdiction or a Comity of Errors? by Rebecca R. Zubaty of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP.

In her essay, Zubaty argues that the English appeals court in Rubin v. Eurofinance missed an opportunity to modernize English rules on the recognition of foreign bankruptcy judgments.  Instead, the essay describes how the court seized on the special bankruptcy circumstances of the case to overcome traditional barriers to recognition of the original foreign judgment by a U.S. bankruptcy court.  Zubaty argues that the court’s decision will have “the immediate practical effect of subjecting any person who may have any property or interest worth attaching in the U.K. to the jurisdiction of all bankruptcy courts worldwide.”  The decision may even have broader ramifications, such as “empower[ing] courts faced with novel conflicts questions to dispense with all conventions, foreign and domestic, to achieve what they deem to be the right outcome.”

Invisible Hand or Hidden Fist?

In his press conference last week, Ben Bernanke concluded on an upbeat note. He had high hopes for a US recovery, since he believed that the Great Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2008 hadn’t taken from the US any of its basic productive capacity.

Whatever the merits of that view, the GFC did highlight debilitating trends in US finance infrastructure that have been intensifying for years. In this week’s Businessweek, Hernando de Soto (with Karen Weise) highlights one of the most important: the opacity of key markets and relationships. With scant exaggeration, de Soto warns that the US is on its way to levels of uncertainty more common in developing and communist countries:

During the second half of the 19th century, the world’s biggest economies endured a series of brutal recessions. At the time, most forms of reliable economic knowledge were organized within feudal, patrimonial, and tribal relationships. . . . The result was a huge rift between the old, fragmented social order and the needs of a rising, globalizing market economy.

To prevent the breakdown of industrial and commercial progress, hundreds of creative reformers concluded that the world needed a shared set of facts. . . . The result was the invention of the first massive “public memory systems” to record and classify—in rule-bound, certified, and publicly accessible registries, titles, balance sheets, and statements of account—all the relevant knowledge available, whether intangible (stocks, commercial paper, [etc]), or tangible (land, buildings, boats, machines, etc.). Knowing who owned and owed, and fixing that information in public records, made it possible for investors to infer value, take risks, and track results. The final product was a revolutionary form of knowledge: “economic facts.”

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UCLA Law Review Vol. 58, Issue 3 (February 2011)

Volume 58, Issue 3 (February 2011)


Articles

Good Faith and Law Evasion Samuel W. Buell 611
Making Sovereigns Indispensable: Pimentel and the Evolution of Rule 19 Katherine Florey 667
The Need for a Research Culture in the Forensic Sciences Jennifer L. Mnookin et al. 725
Commentary on The Need for a Research Culture in the Forensic Sciences Joseph P. Bono 781
Commentary on The Need for a Research Culture in the Forensic Sciences Judge Nancy Gertner 789
Commentary on The Need for a Research Culture in the Forensic Sciences Pierre Margot 795


Comments

What’s Your Position? Amending the Bankruptcy Disclosure Rules to Keep Pace With Financial Innovation Samuel M. Kidder 803
Defendant Class Actions and Patent Infringement Litigation Matthew K. K. Sumida 843


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Let the Good Times Roll

The PR departments of the Big 3 automakers are working overtime. With the public opening of the North American International Auto Show just days away, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler released financial results showing a significant increase in sales in 2010 and promising outlooks for 2011. And the flurry of news coverage certainly has a different feel than the doom and gloom of the coverage just two years ago (see, e.g., here).

Why the difference? Is the economic recovery helping the Big 3? Is chapter 11 bankruptcy the reason for the apparent rebirth of General Motors and Chrysler? If so, what explains Ford’s current success (for some interesting perspectives on this, see here and here)?

Many commentators have analyzed the General Motors and Chrysler bankruptcy cases, and they thoughtfully dissect what was novel, not so novel and somewhat troubling about those cases (see, e.g., here, here and here). It is difficult to assess exactly what role chapter 11 played in General Motors’ and Chrysler’s recoveries, other than to state the obvious that both companies used the process to reduce overhead and balance sheet liabilities significantly. That certainly can provide new life to a company; the question then becomes what the company does with the opportunity.

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The Rule of Flaw: Ibanez and the Too-Big-to-Succeed Problem

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s recent ruling in U.S. Bank v. Ibanez  is the latest and loudest salvo in what may be the most engaging and gruesome legal aspect of the credit crisis yet:  The day of reckoning for the staggering sloppiness that infected virtually every step of the mortgage-securitization process.

Ibanez held that, according to well-established Massachusetts precedent, a mortgagee cannot foreclose unless — surprise, surprise — it actually isthe mortgagee, or a legitimate assignee thereof.  In Ibanez,  lenders or servicers had foreclosed mortgages prior to completing (or commencing) the process of taking assignment of the note and  mortgage  on which they foreclosed.  When they later sought to clear title, Massachusetts courts balked.   “Utter carelessness,” Justice Cordy scolded the plaintiffs.

mistakes were made

This is potentially a huge problem for mortgage servicers (among others), given the long and convoluted chains of title through which mortgages may have passed in order to create mortgage-backed securities (MBS).   Not surprisingly, many observers are apoplectic, warning that this will lead to the end of the financial markets as we know them. 

How did this happen? 

There are probably several answers, but I think one is that the elite financial services sector (EFSS) that created the MBS is (or believes itself to be) a unique institutional force, unchallengeable by the ordinary legal or political mechanisms that keep institutions in check.  It is immune from the rules and norms  that apply to the rest of us.  But we know that spoilt children often lack discipline, so persistent failures of scrutiny have led inevitably to failures of competence. The drip, drip, drip of deregulation left us with firms that are not only too big to fail: they’re also too big to succeed. 

What will happen next? 

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Are You a Winner?

Two lucky people woke up this morning mega millionaires. After yesterday’s lottery ticket buying frenzy, one winning ticket was sold in Idaho and the other in Washington (see here). The winners will share equally the $355 million jackpot.

Sounds like a dream coming true, right? Unfortunately, for many lottery winners, winning the lottery eventually leads to bankruptcy (see here, here and here). Statistics tend to show that a good portion of lottery winners file chapter 7 or chapter 13 personal bankruptcy cases within five years of receiving their jackpots (see here and here). In one sense, the tale of doom attached to big lottery winnings seems similar to the ploy of telling a bride that rain on her wedding day signals good luck—it makes those of us who didn’t win feel a little better. In another sense, however, it highlights a real problem in our approach to financial education.

Yesterday, the American Bankruptcy Institute reported a significant increase in overall personal bankruptcy filings. Undoubtedly, some of those filings are the direct result of the recession, and some filings stem from similar unforeseen changes in circumstances, such as divorce and serious health problems. But many personal bankruptcies involve honest, unsophisticated individuals who simply do not understand or have the skill set to manage their personal finances. Yes, these individuals should take responsibility for their finances, but they also need training and resources to be successful in that endeavor. Studies suggest that many high school graduates do not understand how credit cards and other basic financial instruments work (see herehere and here), yet most carry credit and debit cards in their wallets.

I appreciate the enormous challenges facing the U.S. education system. As we evaluate these challenges, however, we need to consider financial education as part of the core curriculum. We also need to continue working to provide meaningful financial education to adults (for an interesting study concerning financial education and bankruptcy, see here). Although the 2005 amendments to the U.S. Bankruptcy Code incorporate a consumer education component, that requirement has become little more than the potential debtor sitting in front of a computer screen and answering a few questions in order to be able to file her bankruptcy petition (for other perspectives, see here, here and here; for an excellent study regarding the impact of the 2005 amendments on consumer debtors, see here). I hope that as the economy recovers, so too do our financial education initiatives  (see here and here) so that more individuals have a real chance at sustainable financial health.

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Creative Reconstruction

In my opening post, I referenced the slow pace of change and how it can be exceedingly painful for individual consumers. I want to follow up on that concept in the business context, where slow change—or the failure to change at all—can be fatal.

Consider, for example, Borders, which recently announced that it was suspending payments to vendors and trying to refinance its debt obligations (see here and here). Borders, like its competitor Barnes & Noble, is struggling to compete with big box retailers that offer steep discounts on traditional books and the growing popularity of e-Books (see here, here and here). Also like many retailers, Borders was hit hard by the economic recession (see here).

Some may say that Borders is a victim of the recession and creative destruction. And that may, in part, be accurate. (For interesting perspectives on the utility of recessions and creative destruction, see here and here.) But anyone who follows the retail industry or is an avid reader had some sense that this was coming (see here, here and here). So why didn’t Borders’ management? Or rather, why didn’t they react more quickly to the changing market and economy?

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Treasury’s Prime Directive: Protect the Banks

Adam Levitin has been one of the most courageous and compelling commentators on the financial crisis. So it’s not much of a surprise to see this report on his latest testimony before the Senate Banking Committee:

First off, he lamented the fact that we have been holding hearings like this since 2007. “Every year we have another set of hearings, and you can add 2 million foreclosures” to the bottom line. Nothing gets fixed, despite all kinds of documented evidence that the banks and servicers have committed fraud. Levitin’s position is that the servicers should be banned from the loan modification business entirely, because they don’t have any interest in it except as a profit-maximization scheme, and they have massive conflicts of interest that cut against doing right by the borrowers (and even the investors for whom they work).

Levitin said that we don’t have the full data sets from the servicers, or any comprehensive data to see whether there is a full-on crisis of unclear title and improper mortgage assignment. In other words, we don’t quite know the full extent of the problem. Levitin said, essentially, “The federal regulators don’t want to get info from servicers, because then they’d have to do something about it.” They don’t want to recognize the scope of the problem because it would require them to act. And Levitin in particular singled out the Treasury Department. “The prime directive coming out of Treasury is ‘protect the banks’ and don’t force them to recognize their losses.”

While I’m sure the FCIC will issue a nuanced report on the web of causes behind the foreclosure crisis, Levitin sees the spider. It looks like courts are beginning to identify it, too. As Kate Berry reported in the American Banker,
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CELS V: The Year of the Experiment

Data Collection Makes Everyone Grumpy and Hunched Over

For the last several years, I’ve posted recaps of the Annual Empirical Studies Conference.  (See me, @ Cornell, @ USC).  This year, as promised, will be no different.  Yale hosted CELS V, and the committee did a bang up job: the food was tasty; there were no technical snafus of note; and the panels appeared to have a high degree of internal validity & congruence. Richard Brooks, Alan Gerber, Dan Kahan, Yair Listokin, Tracey Meares, and (especially) Roberta Romano are all due a round of applause, or, better yet, supersized computer monitors so they can see their data better.  In this post, I’m going to provide a running diary of the conference.  It will be like you were there with me, except you don’t have to suffer through my bouts of social anxiety!

Unfortunately, I missed the hottest ticket of the conference, Bruce Ackerman’s commentary on Law/Versteeg’s The Evolution and Ideology of Global Constitutionalism.  From all reports, Ackerman said something like: “wrong questions, wrong data, wrong theory,” and then imploded in frustration.  Instead of watching those fireworks, I was watching Yair Listokin present The Meaning of Contractual Silence: A Field Experiment [Here’s an older version of the paper].  Listokin ran a field experiment selling ipods on ebay, some with a warranty, some as-is, and some silent on the warranty term. He found that individuals paid attention to the contract, and there was some evidence that the UCC default was about what they thought silence meant.  As he admitted, there were problems with the design of the study – particularly, (1) small & skewed samples; and (2) a lack of clarity about how much buyers know about ebay’s unique and self-contained dispute resolution system.  As someone remarked after the presentation, it would have been interesting had Listokin sold all the customers bad ipods (instead of good ones) and studied how the contract terms influenced behavior post-“breach”.  Then again, who needs that IRB hassle?

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