The South Bay Law Firm Law Blog highlights developing trends in bankruptcy law and practice. Our aim is to provide general commentary on this evolving practice specialty.
 





 
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    It’s Different In Hong Kong

    Monday, January 24th, 2011

    Readers of this blog will know that a number of jurisdictions around the world have remodeled their insolvency schemes based on concepts developed originally in the US under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code.  Relatively recent examples of this trend include the People’s Republic of China as well as Mexico.

    But not all jurisdictions have rushed to follow the US.  For one, Hong Kong – one of the world’s leading financial centers – has struck out on a different path.

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    With origins steeped in colonial history and a long-standing tradition of UK law, Hong Kong still follows the legal contours of most commonwealth jurisdictions, including those applicable to the resolution of insolvencies.  In Hong Kong, a “winding-up” is the traditional means of achieving a moratorium on creditor activity; however, “winding up” has been limited to liquidation.

    Corporate reorganization (or “corporate rescue,” as it’s sometimes called) relies on the implementation of a “scheme of arrangement.”  In Hong Kong, however, schemes are deemed of little practical value where their comparative complexity and expense buy no moratorium from creditors.

    Previously, corporate reorganization in Hong Kong relied upon an ad hoc solution – utilization of the “winding up” procedure to implement what was known colloquially a “provisional liquidation.”  The essence of the “provisional liquidation” concept is that a voluntary winding up is commenced – and the debtor can avail itself of a moratorium against creditor action – while a court administrator is appointed to oversee the debtor until the company and its creditors can reach acceptable reorganization terms (at which time, the winding up is dismissed and the debtor reorganized consensually).  Though initially accepted, such solutions were ultimately sharply limited by the Hong Kong courts.

    In 2009, Hong Kong’s Financial Services and Treasury Bureau (FSTB) published a consultation paper reviewing corporate rescue procedure with the aim of reforming key reorganization issues.  The FSTB paper – and the different concepts it proposes for Hong Kong reorganization vis á vis “US”-style Chapter 11’s – are the subject of recent analysis by Dr John K.S. Ho, Assistant Professor, School of Law, City University of Hong Kong and Dr Raymond S.Y. Chan, Associate Professor, School of Business, Hong Kong Baptist University.

    Specifically, Dr’s Ho and Chan ask “Is Debtor-in-Possession Viable in Hong Kong?”  In providing an answer, they discuss reform efforts in Hong Kong, noting that a “provisional supervision” has been and remains the preferred approach to Chapter 11 rather than a US-style “Debtor-in-Possession” (DIP) approach, where management remains in control of its own destiny.

    So why doesn’t a US-oriented corporate rescue scheme work in Hong Kong?  According to Ho and Chan, “[i]n order to understand the corporate rescue law of a jurisdiction, one must also recognize the economic nature and historical development of that society.”  Some of the differences in economic development which shape differences in US and Hong Kong insolvency laws include:

    Varying Appetites for Risk.  “In the US, it is widely believed that there is a different attitude towards risk and risk-takers . . . .  Debt forgiveness, both personal and business debt, ultimately was seen as critical to a vibrant American economy.  These historical and economic factors explain in large part why the US business bankruptcy system is more forgiving towards the debtor than other jurisdictions are.  However, the same analogy may not apply to the concept of corporate rescue in Hong Kong because the stakeholders which reform proposal in Hong Kong is most concerned with are different from Chapter 11 in the US.”

    Different Stakeholders.  How are Hong Kong stakeholders different?  And why should corporate rescue look different in Hong Kong than in the US?

    [I]n Hong Kong, the objectives for . . . corporate rescue are radically different . . . .  [E]mployees should generally be no worse off than in the case of insolvent liquidation and . . . consideration should be given to allow greater involvement of creditors in the rescue process in exchange for their being bound by the moratorium once the process commences and the rescue plan is agreed . . . .  [P]revious attempt[s] to introduce a corporate rescue law failed in Hong Kong because of the disappointing treatment of workers’ wages, complete exclusion of shareholders from the provisional supervision process, and the difficulty in classification of creditors.  Therefore, if a law is to be successfully promulgated this time, greater consideration would need to be given to these stakeholders.

    Though they explain how the proposed treatment of Hong Kong stakeholders in a corporate reorganization might differ from those in a US Chapter 11, Ho and Chan don’t really explain the why of those differences.  What they do offer is an explanation for the absence of any interference with secured creditors’ rights, noting that this “is understandable given the fact that many major secured creditors [in Hong Kong] are financial institutions such as major banks and their influence both politically and economically cannot be ignored given that the growth of Hong Kong as a financial services hub has been supported largely by the banking sector.”

    These differences are “in line with the legal creditor rights ratings of the two jurisdictions as reported in a financial economics study in which a creditor rights index is developed for 129 countries and jurisdictions. This index ranges from 0 to 4 (with higher scores representing better creditor rights) and measures four powers of secured lenders in bankruptcy.  Hong Kong (and also the UK) has a perfect score of 4, but the US has a score of 1.”

    Different Corporate Ownership and Control Structures.  A more interesting difference arises from the authors’ argument that, unlike in the US, share ownership and corporate control in Hong Kong are closely related:

    According to research conducted at the turn of the millennium, . . . separation of ownership and control, [has] largely become the phenomenon in the US.  This trend was accompanied by a shift in bankruptcy law towards a more flexible, manager-oriented regime, assuming that managers of corporations that have filed Chapter 11 will subsequently make business decisions in the best interests of the corporations as a whole. On the bankruptcy side these developments culminated in 1978 with the enactment of the Bankruptcy Code and its DIP norm.  However, in Hong Kong, [this] type of [dispersed corporate ownership] is not as prevalent. According to research on ownership structures and control in East Asian corporations, about three-quarters of the largest 20 companies in Hong Kong are under family control, while fewer than 60 per cent of the smallest 50 companies are in the same category. As for corporate assets held by the largest 15 families as a percentage of GDP, Hong Kong displays one of the largest concentrations of control, at 76 per cent. For comparison, the wealth of the 15 richest American families stands at about 3 per cent of GDP.

    Because of this reality, the Ho and Chan argue that the DIP concept so common in US reorganizations simply isn’t practical in Hong Kong:

    Given such context, a corporate rescue process based on the DIP concept of the US will not be practical for Hong Kong because wide dispersion of share-ownership and manager-displacing corporate reorganization simply do not exist in reality.  This is consistent with the government’s proposal in rejecting the DIP given concerns that if the existing management was allowed to remain in control, a company could easily avoid or delay its obligations to creditors as the managers of a family business either are family members or are nominated by the family.  They are expected to place the family’s interests in the corporation as the first priority even at the expense of creditors’ interests.

    Though these differences may be true in the case of publicly held and traded US corporations, they are not so clear in the case of closely-held US companies – which many readers will acknowledge comprise the bulk of US business.

    Why No Post-Petition Financing?  As for post-petition financing – a mainstay of US reorganizations – Ho and Chan point out that though the US has developed a vibrant distressed debt market, “the debt market is not as developed and is materially underused in Hong Kong.  The major reason for illiquidity and lack of use is best expressed as Hong Kong’s cultural background.  Hong Kong lacks no resources for deal structuring but has no tradition of traded debt, and corporate governance practice has historically been insufficient to support issue of debts by large companies.”

    Economic Efficiency.  Finally, the authors cite well-recognized and frequently noted flaws in the Chapter 11 process: Its perceived inefficiency arising from its “one-size-fits-all” approach, as well as the arguably high rates of recidivism amongst those debtors who do successfully confirm a Chapter 11 Plan.

    Whatever one’s take on Ho and Chan’s assessment of US-style reorganizations, their work affords an interesting glimpse into alternative methods of corporate rescue currently under consideration in one of the world’s most sophisticated financial jurisdictions.

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    “Equality is Equity”

    Sunday, December 19th, 2010

    The distribution scheme embodied in federal bankruptcy law serves several important functions.  In Chapter 7, the detailed statutory distribution scheme imposes order on the chaos that might otherwise attend the liquidation of business assets.  In Chapter 11, the fixed order of priority claims and the “absolute priority rule” – along with the requirement that similarly situated classes receive identical treatment – provide predictability within the confirmation process and a framework for out-of-court negotiations.

    But not all resolutions of business insolvency afford this level of predictability.  In particular, state and federal receiverships afford the prospect of considerably greater flexibility and discretion on the part of the appointed receiver and the appointing court.

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    The scope of a receiver’s discretion was illustrated early this month by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals’ approval of a federal receiver’s proposed pro rata distribution of the assets of six insolvent hedge funds.

    SEC v. Wealth Management LLC, — F.3d — 2010 WL 4862623 (7th Cir., Dec. 1, 2010) involved an SEC enforcement action against Appleton, Wisconsin-based investment firm Wealth Management LLC and its principals, alleging, among other things, misrepresentation and fraud.  At the SEC’s request, the Wisconsin District Court appointed a receiver for Wealth Management and its six unregistered pooled investment funds.

    The receiver’s plan, approved by the District Court, was relatively straightforward:  All investors would be treated as equity holders, and would receive pro rata distributions of the over $102 million invested in the funds.  Two investors who had sought redemption of their investments pre-petition disagreed and appealed the receiver’s plan.  The essence of their argument was that Wisconsin law (and Delaware law, which governed several of the funds), required that investors who sought to redeem their investments be treated not as equity holders, but as creditors of the failed funds.  As a result, their redemption claims were of a higher priority than investors who had not sought to withdraw their funds.  The investors also relied on 28 USC § 959(b), which provides that receivers and trustees must “manage and operate” property under their control in conformity with state law.

    The 7th Circuit rejected this argument, finding instead that federal receivers and trustees need not follow the requirements of state law when distributing assets under their control. Holding that “equality is equity,” the court found that to give unpaid redemption requests the same priority as any other equity interest “promotes fairness by preventing a redeeming investor from jumping to the head of the line . . . while similarly situated non-redeeming investors receive substantially less.”

    The Wealth Management decision highlights the flexibility and ambiguity of the receivership system – itself a critical distinction from the well-defined priorities of federal bankruptcy law.  Though the 7th Circuit’s reasoning – rooted in “similarly situated claims” – is consistent with the policy objectives of the Bankruptcy Code, the result is diametrically opposed to the scheme of priorities on which Wealth Management’s investors undoubtedly relied.

    Wealth Management – like many receivership cases – is a case based on federal securities fraud.  But federal and state receiverships are applicable in a variety of contexts – including business dissolutions, directorship disputes, marital dissolutions, and judgment enforcement.  Where a proposed distribution to creditors can be fairly characterized as “equitable” under the circumstances of the case and where it represents a fair exercise of the receiver’s fiduciary duty on behalf of the receivership estate, the flexibility of a receivership may justify its typically high cost.

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    Squeezing the Most Value from Distressed Assets: Is Chapter 11 Always the Best Way?

    Monday, June 21st, 2010

    It is perhaps stating the obvious that Chapter 11 of the US Bankruptcy Code offers a well-known and very flexible means of extracting the most value from distressed assets.  But in these economic times, it is worth remembering that Chapter 11 is by no means the only avenue for addressing insolvency – nor is it always the best . . . or most appropriate.

    Bankruptcy (or “Section 363”) sales have been a time-honored and tested means of moving distressed assets quickly and cost-efficiently from buyer to seller.  But the lack of credit necessary to fund the transition period required for such sales during the recent downturn, combined with a handful of recent appellate decisions which cast doubt on the validity of contested sales, serve as reminders that other transactional structures sometimes work just as well – or even better.

    The folks at Turnaround Management Association (TMA) released a spate of articles last week which illustrate the point: Two of TMA’s pieces (one on ABC’s and Receiverships and one on alternative sale structures for distressed acquisitions) compare and contrast federal bankruptcy proceedings with other means of optimizing the transfer of distressed assets. A third focuses on “strict foreclosures” (or “Article 9 sales”).

    All three are well worth a read.

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    The Stanford Saga – Chapter 16: Settlin’ Words? Or Something Else?

    Monday, February 15th, 2010

    A brief update on Stanford (earlier posts are available here):

    Evidentiary hearings scheduled for late January in the ongoing struggle for control over the financial assets of Stanford International Bank, Ltd. (SIB), the cornerstone of Allen Stanford’s financial-empire-turned-Ponzi-scheme, were cancelled by presiding US District Court Judge David Godbey.

    As readers of this blog are aware, Antiguan liquidators Peter Wastell and Nigel Hamilton-Smith’s efforts to obtain recognition in the US for their Antiguan wind-up of SIB, and US receiver Ralph Janvey’s competing efforts to do the same in Canadian and UK courts, were to culminate in a hearing set for late last month.  But shortly after a scheduled status conference on pre-hearing matters, the evidentiary was cancelled.

    Recent reporting by Reuters (available here) may provide a reason for the change: Reuters reported on February 5 that the liquidators and Mr. Janvey may, in fact, be settling. According to staff writer Anna Driver, a dispute over $370 million in assets traced to Stanford, as well as $200 million located in Switzerland and the UK, are driving the parties toward a deal.

    But there may be other pressures as well. The Associated Press reported (here) that last Thursday, Judge Godbey indicated his intent to rule on a request by third-party investors to commence their own involuntary bankruptcy filing, thereby replacing Mr. Janvey as a receiver.

    Stay tuned.

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    Kazakhstan’s 2d Largest Bank Seeks Protection of Its US Assets Through Chapter 15

    Sunday, February 7th, 2010

     

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    JSC BTA Bank (BTA), reportedly the second largest bank in Khazakstan, sought protection for its US-based assets through Chapter 15 last Thursday in New York’s Southern District.

    The Chapter 15 filing in Manhattan appears to be part of Khazakstan’s own banking bailout for BTA.  In papers submitted to Bankruptcy Judge James Peck, BTA Chairman Anvar Saidenov represented, through BTA’s counsel, that between 2004 and 2007 BTA expanded rapidly with significant increases in its total assets and number of branches and cash offices.  This expansion was primarily funded through short- and medium-term bank borrowings and the issue of securities in the international capital markets.  Khazakstan’s credit-rating downgrade in late 2007 precluded BTA from refinancing its short-term credit lines, which in turn curtailed BTA’s ability to make new loans.

    Beyond the Kazakh credit downgrades, BTA allegedly further suffered “significant losses” due to “fraudulent and ulawful transactions entered into by [BTA's] former management prior to February 2009.”

    Before last February, the Republic of Kazakhstan and its Agency for Regulation and Supervision of Financial Markets and Financial Organizations (FMSA) had previously announced a proposal to recapitalize BTA as part of a broader plan to stabilize the country’s financial system. The plan involved JSC National Welfare Fund Samruk-Kazyna (Samruk-Kazyna), Kazakhstan’s sovereign wealth fund, providing financial support to struggling financial institutions. At the same time, Samruk-Kazyna acquired a controlling 75.1 % of BTA’s total share capital. BTA also continued to down-size its operating activities in response to the deteriorating market and BTA’s financial condition.

     BTA’s recapitalization triggered “change-of-ownership” clauses and demands for repayment under some of its lines of credit from foreign lenders.  These and other, continuing regulatory problems inside Khazakstan ultimately led to a preliminary restructuring plan in mid-2009.

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    At the end of August 2009, the Kazakh government enacted banking regulatory legislation which put into place, among other things, an insolvency regime to deal with the restructuring of financial institutions.  BTA sought protection under this new legislation less than 45 days after its enactment, thereby obtaining a stay of all relevant claims of BTA’s creditors and protection of BTA’s property from execution and attachment until completion of the restructuring.

    BTA’s restructuing – presently contemplated within the third quarter of 2010 – presently contemplates that creditors of the Bank, including Samruk-Kazyna and certain related parties (excluding depositors and certain government agencies funding special loan programs) will receive a mixture of cash, senior debt, subordinated debt, other forms of debt, equity and so-called “recovery notes” in consideration for the restructuring of their claims.  Payments on the “recovery notes” will be funded by cash recoveries on any provisioned assets, litigation recoveries, and deferred tax recoveries.

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    Does “Too Big to Fail” Mean “Too Big for Bankruptcy”?

    Sunday, January 31st, 2010

    The market collapse of 2008 and resulting financial crisis have led to significant reflection on a number of systemic features of our financial markets and on the stability of institutions that play significant roles in their function.

    That reflection has produced a fresh round of legal scholarship on what role – if any – the federal Bankruptcy Code should play in addressing the financial difficulties of these institutions.  In a recent paper, Columbia’s Harvey R. Miller Professor of Law Edward R. Morrison asks, “Is the Bankruptcy Code an Adequate Mechanism for Resolving the Distress of Systemically Important Institutions?

    The issue, at least as put by Professor Morrison in the opening paragraphs of his paper, is framed as follows:

    The President and members of Congress are considering proposals that would give the government broad authority to rescue financial institutions whose failure would threaten market stability. These systemically important institutions include bank and insurance holding companies, investment banks, and other “large, highly leveraged, and interconnected” entities that are not currently subject to federal resolution authority.  Interest in these proposals stems from the credit crisis, particularly the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers.

    That bankruptcy, according to some observers, caused massive destabilization in credit markets for two reasons.  First, market participants were surprised that the government would permit a massive market player to undergo a costly Chapter 11 proceeding. Very different policy had been applied to other systemically important institutions such as Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac.  Second, the bankruptcy filing triggered fire sales of Lehman assets. Fire sales were harmful to other, non-distressed institutions that held similar assets, which suddenly plummeted in value. They were also harmful to any institution holding Lehman’s commercial paper, which functioned as a store of value for entities such as the Primary Reserve Fund. Fire sales destroyed Lehman’s ability to honor these claims.

    Lehman’s experience and the various bailouts of AIG, Bear Stearns, and other distressed institutions have produced two kinds of policy proposals. One calls for wholesale reform, including creation of a systemic risk regulator with authority to seize and stabilize systemically important institutions.  Another is more modest and calls for targeted amendments to the Bankruptcy Code and greater government monitoring of market risks.  This approach would retain bankruptcy as the principal mechanism for resolving distress at non-bank institutions, systemically important or not.

    Put differently, current debates hinge on one question: Is the Bankruptcy Code an adequate mechanism for resolving the distress of systemically important institutions? One view says “no,” and advances wholesale reform. Another view says “yes, with some adjustments.”

    Morrison’s paper sets out to assess this debate, and concludes by advocating [again, in his words] “an approach modeled on the current regime governing commercial banks. That regime includes both close monitoring when a bank is healthy and aggressive intervention when it is distressed. The two tasks – monitoring and intervention – are closely tied, ensuring that intervention occurs only when there is a well-established need for it.” As a result of the close relationship between the power to intervene and the duty to monitor, however, any proposed legislation “is unwise if it gives the government power to seize an institution regardless of whether it was previously subject to monitoring and other regulations.”

    Elsewhere in the Empire State, at the University of Rochester, Distinguished Professor Thomas H. Jackson proposes “Chapter 11F: A Proposal for the Use of Bankruptcy to Resolve (Restructure, Sell, or Liquidate) Financial Institutions.”  According to Jackson:

    Bankruptcy reorganization is, for the most part, an American success story. It taps into a huge body of law, provides certainty, and has shown an ability to respond to changing circumstances. It follows (for the most part) nonbankruptcy priority rules – the absolute priority rule – with useful predictability, sorts out financial failure (too much debt but a viable business) from underlying failure, and shifts ownership to a new group of residual claimants, through the certainty that can be provided by decades of rules and case law.

    Notwithstanding its success, bankruptcy reorganization has a patchwork of exceptions, some perhaps more sensible than others.  Among them are depository banks (handled by the FDIC), insurance companies (handled by state insurance regulators), and stockbrokers and commodity brokers (relegated to Chapter 7 and to federal regulatory agencies).  In recent months, there has been a growing chorus to remove bankruptcy law, and specifically its reorganization process, from “systemically important financial in-stitutions (SIFIs),” with a proposed regulatory process substituted instead, run by a designated federal agency, such as the Federal Reserve Board or the Securities and Exchange Commission.

    Putting aside political considerations, behind this idea lie several perceived objections to the use of the bankruptcy process.  First, it is argued, bankruptcy, because it is focused on the parties before the court, is not able to deal with the impacts of a bankruptcy on other institutions – an issue thought to be of dominant importance with respect to SIFIs, where the concern is that the fall of one will bring down others or lead to enormous problems in the nation’s financial system.  Second, bankruptcy – indeed, any judicial process – is thought to be too slow to deal effectively with failures that require virtually instant attention so as to minimize their consequences.  Third – and probably related to the first and second objections – even the best-intentioned bankruptcy process is assumed to lack sufficient expertise to deal with the complexities of a SIFI and its intersection with the broader financial market.

    Jackson’s response to this growing chorus of objections is to propose amending existing Chapter 11 legislation.  Again, in his words:

    The premise of [Jackson's] “Chapter 11F” proposal, which [he] flesh[es] out [in his paper], is that, assuming the validity of each of these objections, they, neither individually nor collectively, make a case for creating yet another (and very large) exception to the nation’s bankruptcy laws and setting up a regulatory system, run by a designated federal agency, that operates outside of the predictability-enhancing constraints of a judicial process. Rather, bankruptcy’s process can be modified for SIFIs – [Jackson's] Chapter 11F – to introduce, and protect, systemic concerns, to provide expertise, and to provide speed where it might, in fact, be essential. Along the way, there is probably a parallel need to modify certain other existing bankruptcy exclusions, such as for insurance companies, commodity brokers, stockbrokers, and even depository banks, so that complex, multi-faceted financial institutions can be fully resolved within bankruptcy.

    With views as divergent as these, one might be tempted to look for a fundamental assessment of the differences between the banking regulatory system and the Chapter 11 process.  And that assessment is, in fact, available from the Congressional Research Service – which last April provided its own comparison of “Insolvency of Systemically Significant Financial Companies: Bankruptcy v. Conservatorship / Receivership.”  As summarized by its author, Legislative Attorney David H. Carpenter:

    One clear lesson of the 2008 recession, which brought Goliaths such as Bear Sterns, CitiGroup, AIG, and Washington Mutual to their knees, is that no financial institution, regardless of its size, complexity, or diversification, is invincible. Congress, as a result, is left with the question of how best to handle the failure of systemically significant financial companies (SSFCs). In the United States, the insolvencies of depository institutions (i.e., banks and thrifts with deposits insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)) are not handled according to the procedures of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Instead, they and their subsidiaries are subject to a separate regime prescribed in federal law, called a conservatorship or receivership. Under this regime, the conservator or receiver, which generally is the FDIC, is provided substantial authority to deal with virtually every aspect of the insolvency. However, the failure of most other financial institutions within bank, thrift, and financial holding company umbrellas (including the holding companies themselves) generally are dealt with under the Bankruptcy Code.

    In March of 2009, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner proposed legislation that would impose a conservatorship/receivership regime, much like that for depository institutions, on insolvent financial institutions that are deemed systemically significant. In order to make a policy assessment concerning the appropriateness of this proposal, it is important to understand both the similarities and differences between insured depositories and other financial institutions large enough or interconnected enough to pose systemic risk to the U.S. economy upon failure, as well as the differences between the U.S. Bankruptcy Code and the FDIC’s conservatorship/receivership authority.

    [Carpenter's] report first discusses the purposes behind the creation of a separate insolvency regime for depository institutions. The report then compares and contrasts the characteristics of depository institutions with SSFCs. Next, the report provides a brief analysis of some important differences between the FDIC’s conservatorship / receivership authority and that of the Bankruptcy Code. The specific differences discussed are: (1) overall objectives of each regime; (2) insolvency initiation authority and timing; (3) oversight structure and appeal; (4) management, shareholder, and creditor rights; (5) FDIC “superpowers,” including contract repudiation versus Bankruptcy’s automatic stay; and (6) speed of resolution. This report makes no value judgment as to whether an insolvency regime for SSFCs that is modeled after the FDIC’s conservatorship/receivership authority is more appropriate than using (or adapting) the Bankruptcy Code. Rather, it simply points out the similarities and differences between SSFCs and depository institutions, and compares the conservatorship/receivership insolvency regime with the Bankruptcy Code to help the reader develop his/her own opinion.

    Fascinating reading . . . and an awful lot of it.

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    Why Banks Aren’t In Bankruptcy

    Saturday, January 16th, 2010

    Recent federal assistance to the banking sector has focused attention on how failing banks are regulated – and why.  From the University of Virginia School of Law, professors Richard M. Hynes and Steven D. Walt visit this issue in their recent article entitled “Why Banks Are Not Allowed in Bankruptcy.”

    Here’s the article – and the authors’ abstract:

    Unlike most other countries, the United States uses different procedures to resolve insolvent banks and non-bank firms. When non-bank firms file for bankruptcy, the Bankruptcy Code divides control among the various claimants and a judge supervises the resolution process. By contrast, the FDIC acts as the receiver for an insolvent bank and has almost complete control. Other claimants can sue the FDIC, but they cannot obtain injunctive relief, and their damages are limited to the amount that they would have received in liquidation. The FDIC has acted as the receiver of insolvent banks since the Great Depression, and the concentration of power in the FDIC is traditionally justified by two arguments: i) the need for a timely disposition of the bank’s assets to maintain the liquidity of deposits and encourage faith in the banking system, and ii) the FDIC’s role as the largest creditor gives it an incentive to maximize the recovery from the assets. We revisit these arguments in light of the dramatic changes that have occurred in banking and ask whether they still (or ever did) justify FDIC control. We suggest that the first argument fails because it conflates the need for a timely satisfaction of the claims of insured depositors by the FDIC with the need to quickly dispose of the failed bank’s assets. As stated, the second argument does not justify FDIC control as one must generally ask whether the largest creditor will take actions that are harmful to the other claimants on the failed firm’s assets. However, if modified the second argument is much more persuasive. A detailed survey of the capital structure of failed banks reveals that the FDIC is usually the only major creditor and that the value of the FDIC’s claim nearly always exceeds the value of a failed bank’s assets. The FDIC is therefore the residual claimant and has the incentive to make the right decisions in disposing of the bank’s assets. We question whether this principle can justify recent proposals to extend FDIC control over the resolution of large bank holding companies. We further note that this principle limits the circumstances in which the FDIC should retain control over the resolution of the banks themselves. Four limits are considered: i) capital structure is endogenous – the absence of claims junior to the FDIC may reflect the lack of voice given to these claimants in a bank resolution process, ii) agency costs internal to the FDIC may prevent the FDIC from maximizing the recovery from the failed bank’s assets, iii) the FDIC may not be the residual claimant of extremely large banks with complex liability structures, and iv) debt conversion schemes which allow for automatic financial restructuring of a failed bank may render bank resolution procedures less necessary. The Article argues that these limits do not justify removing the FDIC from control in resolving most bank failures.

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    The Stanford Saga – Chapter 15: Some Further Thoughts on COMI.

    Saturday, January 9th, 2010

    When a foreign business entity commences a bankruptcy proceeding, US courts’ recognition of that proceeding depends on whether or not it is a “foreign main proceeding” under the meaning of US Bankruptcy Code.  Whether or not a foreign bankruptcy is a recognized “foreign main proceeding” depends on the location of the debtor’s “center of main interests” (or “COMI”).

    The concept of a debtor’s “COMI” has become a critical one – not only in the US, but in a number of foreign jurisdictions including the UK.  Because the same legal concept arises in multiple jurisdictions, the manner in which the “COMI” concept is applied across international boundaries carries with it the potential for the same sort of duplication, jurisdictional confusion, and mischief that led to the development and implementation of UNCITRAL’s model cross-border insolvency law in the first place.  Consequently, getting COMI right – and getting it consistent across jurisdictional borders – has become a matter of international concern.

    The importance of COMI has come to light most recently in the Stanford matter (see prior posts here), where multiple courts have been asked to determine COMI for Stanford International Bank, Ltd. (SIB).  In Texas, Judge David Godbey has taken extensive briefing from the parties in advance of a decision on recognition.  In London, Mr. Justice Lewison’s original decision finding SIB’s COMI to be Antigua – rendered last July – saw approximately 5 days of appellate argument at the end of last year.  The parties presently await a decision from the English Court of Appeal.

    The Stanford matter highlights a fundamental question about COMI:  Should it be a flexible concept, susceptible to broad judicial discretion?  Or should COMI be based purely on objective factors, precisely and mechanically applied?

    Mr. Justice Lewison’s prior decision in London (summarized and avaialable here) took an essentially mechanistic approach to determining COMI, focusing primarily – as the UK Regulation requires – on what creditors objectively perceived about the debtor.  US law – which, like England’s, is based on the UNCITRAL model – likewise places similar emphasis on creditors’ perceptions in dealing with the debtor.

    But did legislators in the UK or the US intend that the analysis should stop with what creditors knew or likely would have known about the debtor?

    After all, Stanford’s operation was a sham.  And where creditors’ perceptions of SIB were based on a sham, is it appropriate to perpetuate the sham in determining COMI?

    While the English Court of Appeal deliberates Lewison J’s decision, Judge Godbey appears headed in a slightly different analytical direction.  Specifically, the questions on which he’s requested briefing in the Texas proceeding appear to focus more specifically on the similarity of COMI to a debtor’s “principal place of business” as that concept is recognized under US law.  Though not inconsistent with what creditors would have perceived about the debtor, it tends to focus more broadly on factors which, though objective, are not tied as closely to what the debtor held out to specific parties.  Instead, the debtor’s “principal place of business” views the totality of the debtor’s operations – whether or not such operations were completely visible to creditors or other third parties – and, on the basis of these specific facts, determines the debtor’s principal place of business.

    Whether a possible change in COMI analysis means a change in SIB’s COMI remains to be seen.

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    The Stanford Saga – Chapter 14: Fightin’ Words.

    Monday, January 4th, 2010

    Evidentiary hearings are scheduled for later this month in the ongoing struggle for control over the financial assets of Stanford International Bank, Ltd. (SIB), the cornerstone of Allen Stanford’s financial-empire-turned-Ponzi-scheme.  A series of posts on this blog have covered liquidators Peter Wastell and Nigel Hamilton-Smith’s efforts to obtain recognition in the US for their Antiguan wind-up of SIB, and US receiver Ralph Janvey’s competing efforts to do the same in Canadian and UK courts.

    The Stanford case is of considerable significance in the US – and in the UK and Canada, where it has spawned at least two decisions and related appeals over the parties’ efforts to obtain cross-border recognition for their respective efforts to clean up the Stanford mess.

    In Dallas, Texas, where an enforcement action commenced by the American Securities and Exchange Commission remains pending (and where Mr. Janvey has been appointed as a receiver for the purposes of marshalling Stanford assets for distribution to creditors), US District Court Judge David Godbey has taken prior pleadings from both sides under advisement and, in advance of this month’s hearing, has requested further briefing on three issues.  Mr. Janvey’s brief, submitted last week, addresses each of these as follows:

    The Current State of Fifth Circuit Law on What Constitutes an Entity’s “Principal Place of Business,” Including Whether Stanford International Bank’s (“SIB”) Activities Were Active, Passive or “Far Flung.”

    The Liquidators have argued that, under applicable Fifth Circuit standards, SIB’s “principal place of business” was Antigua and that its activities were actively managed from Antigua, and were not “far flung” so as to render SIB’s Antiguan location irrelevant.

    Predictably enough, Mr. Janvey responds that under appropriate circumstances, the Fifth Circuit applies principles of alter ego and disregards corporate formalities in determining an entity’s “principal place of business:”  “The Fifth Circuit applies alter ego doctrines not only to enforce liability against shareholders and parent companies, but also to determine a corporation’s ‘principal place of business’ for jurisdictional purposes.” (citing Freeman v. Nw. Acceptance Corp., 754 F.2d 553, 558 (5th Cir. 1985)).

    Based on this construction of Fifth Circuit law – and because COMI is generally equated to an entity’s “principal place of business” under US corporate law –   Janvey then argues that consistency and logic require the same rules be followed for COMI purposes.  He then goes on to argue that Stanford’s Ponzi scheme activities were “far flung,” that SIB’s Antiguan operations were “passive,” and that its “nerve center” and “place of activity” were both in the U.S.

    The Relationship Between SIB and the Financial Advisors Who Marketed SIB’s CDs to Potential Investors.

    Wastell and Hamilton-Smith have argued that financial advisors who sold SIB’s CDs to potential investors were, in fact, independent agents employed by other, independent Stanford broker-dealer entities and were not controlled by SIB.

    Mr. Janvey pours scorn on this argument.  According to him, it does not matter that there were inter-company “contracts” purporting to make the Stanford broker-dealer entities agents for SIB in the sale of CDs.  As Mr. Janvey views it, a fraud is a fraud . . . from beginning to end.  Consequently, there was no substance to the “contracts” as all the entities involved were instruments of Stanford’s fraud.

    The “Single Business Enterprise” Concept as Part of the “Alter Ego” Theory of Imposing Liability.

    As noted above, Mr. Janvey takes the position that “alter ego” treatment of the Stanford entities is not only viable – it is the only appropriate means of treating SIB’s relationship to other, US-based Stanford entities, and of determining COMI for SIB.  He argues further that substantive consolidation – the bankruptcy remedy referred to by Messr’s. Wastell and Hamilton-Smith – can be just as effectively accomplished through a federal receivership, which affords US District Courts significant latitude in fashioning equitable remedies and determining distributions to various classes of creditors.

    Mr. Janvey’s argument appears quite straightforward.  Because a fraud is a fraud, geography matters very little in determining its “center of main interests.”  According to him, what should count instead is the location of the fraudsters and the place from which the fraud was managed and directed.  Yet even Mr. Janvey acknowledges that “Antigua played a role in [Stanford's Ponzi] scheme . . . [in that] [Antigua] was where Stanford could buy off key officials in order to conduct his sham business without regulatory interference.”  In other words, geography was important . . . at least for Stanford.  Specifically, geography provided Stanford direct access to a corrupt regulator who would afford cover for the conduct of Stanford’s fraudulent CD sales to investors.

    Mr. Janvey addresses this potential problem by taking aim at the entire Antiguan regulatory structure:

    “Chapter 15 contains a public policy exception: ‘Nothing in the chapter prevents the court from refusing to take an action governed by this chapter if the action would be manifestly contrary to the public policy of the United States.’ 11 U.S.C. § 1506. The facts warrant application of the public policy exception here. The very agency that first appointed the Antiguan [l]iquidators and then obtained their confirmation from the Antiguan court was complicit in Stanford’s fraud. That same agency has allowed financial fraud to flourish on Antigua for decades. It would be contrary to public policy for this Court to cede to Antigua the winding up of a company that bilked Americans and others out of billions when it was Antigua that permitted the fraud.”

    Mr. Janvey then goes further still, arguing that Messr’s. Wastell and Hamilton-Smith (and their employer, British-based Vantis plc) are precluded by Antiguan law from complying with the disclosure requirements Judge Godbey has imposed on the US receivership – and therefore simply unable to concurrently administer a “main case” in Antigua and cooperate with the Receiver (or with the District Court) in the US.

    Finally, Mr. Janvey gets directly personal: He recites the opinion of the Canadian court that revoked Vantis’ administration of Stanford’s Canadian operations and refused recognition of the Antiguan wind-up on the grounds that “Vantis’ conduct, through [Messr's. Wastell and Hamiton-Smith], disqualifies it from acting and precludes it from presenting the motion [for Canadian recognition], as [Vantis] cannot be trusted by the [Canadian] Court . . . .”  The Canadian court’s opinion has been upheld on appeal, and is now final.

    In a nutshell, Mr. Janvey argues that geography shouldn’t matter where a fraud is concerned . . . but if it does matter, it ought to count against jurisdictions such as Antigua, an “impoverished island” which has a population “about 80% that of Waco, Texas” and a history of financial fraud.

    As is sometimes said in Texas, “Them’s fightin’ words.”

    The SEC’s brief, like Mr. Janvey’s, is also on file.  Messr’s. Wastell and Hamilton-Smith’s reply will be due shortly.

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    The Stanford Saga – Chapter 13: Three Questions About Recognition

    Monday, December 14th, 2009

    An update regarding Peter Wastell and Nigel Hamilton-Smith’s dispute with federal Receiver Ralph Janvey over control of Stanford International Bank Ltd. (SIB)’s financial assets, and the 13th in a series on this blog covering the dissolution of Allen Stanford’s erstwhile financial empire and alleged international “Ponzi scheme” – a dissolution playing out in Montreal, London, and Dallas.

    Wastell and Hamilton-Smith, liquidators appointed by Antiguan regulators for the purpose of winding up SIB in Antigua, and Janvey – a federal Receiver appointed at the behest of the US Securities and Exchange Commission to oversee the dissolution of Stanford’s financial interests in connection with an enforcement proceeding in the US – have sought recognition of their respective efforts in courts outside their home jurisdictions.  Each has met with mixed results: Janvey’s request for recognition was denied in the UK, while Wastell and Hamilton-Smith, originally recognized in Canada, have been removed and replaced by a Canadian firm.  Each of these results has been appealed.

    Meanwhile, Wastell and Hamilton-Smith have sought recognition of the Antiguan wind-up in Janvey’s home court pursuant to Chapter 15 of the US Bankruptcy Code.  Initial briefing was submitted several months ago; supplemental filings (including copies of the decisions rendered in London and Montreal) have been trickling in.  US District Court Judge David Godbey has set an evidentiary hearing for mid-January 2010.

    Messr’s. Wastell and Hamilton-Smith’s supplemental brief, filed last week in Dallas, addresses three issues, apparently raised by Judge Godbey during a recent conference call with the parties:

    The Current State of Fifth Circuit Law on What Constitutes an Entity’s “Principal Place of Business,” Including Whether Stanford International Bank’s (“SIB”) Activities Were Active, Passive or “Far Flung.”

    The liquidators acknowledge that while Chapter 15 of the US Bankruptcy Code doesn’t refer to an entity’s “principal place of business” in dealing with a cross-border insolvency, many US courts nevertheless analogize an entity’s “principal place of business” to its “center of main interests” (COMI) for purposes of determining the forum that should host the “main case.”   The American approach is, according to the liquidators, similar to that followed by European courts.

    That said, what constitutes an entity’s “principal place of business” is not a settled question under US federal case law: The Fifth Circuit (where the Stanford matters are pending) applies a “total activity” test, which is also applied by the Sixth, Eighth, Tenth and Eleventh Circuits, whereas the Ninth Circuit applies a “place of operations” test, the Seventh Circuit applies a “nerve center” test, and the Third Circuit examines the corporation’s center of activity.  The liquidators suggest in a footnote that these “varying verbal formulas” are functional equivalents, and “generally amount to about the same thing” under nearly any given set of facts.

    A significant portion of the liquidators’ brief is devoted to applying the facts of SIB’s dissolution to the Fifth Circuit’s “verbal formula;” i.e., “(1) when considering a corporation whose operations are far-flung, the sole nerve center of that corporation is more significant in determining principal place of business, (2) when a corporation has its sole operation in one state and executive offices in another, the place of activity is regarded as more significant, but (3) when the activity of a corporation is passive and the ‘brain’ of that corporation is in another state, the situs of the corporation’s brain is given greater significance.”  See J.A. Olson Co. v. City of Winona, 818 F.2d 401, 411 (5th Cir. 1987).

    The liquidators argue:

    – SIB’s principal place of business was in Antigua;

    – SIB’s activities were neither “passive” nor “far flung” and thus the “nerve center” test should not predominate; but

    – even if SIB’s operations were passive or far flung (which they were not), its “nerve center” was in Antigua.

    The Relationship Between SIB and the Financial Advisors Who Marketed SIB’s CDs to Potential Investors.

    The liquidators are emphatic that financial advisors who marketed and sold SIB’s CD’s to potential investors were not, in fact, agents of SIB.  Rather, “they operated individually under management agreements with SIB, or were employed by other Stanford companies which had management agreements with SIB . . . .  These advisors worked for Stanford related entities all over the world, including Antigua, Aruba, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Switzerland, and Venezuela, as well as in the United States . . . . All of the financial advisors marketed the CDs but none had authority to contract on behalf of SIB . . . . Further, Liquidators understand that the financial advisors sold other Stanford-related products besides SIB CDs.”  Those advisors who were located in the US ‘worked for an entity called the Stanford Group Companies (“SGC”), and though they marketed SIB CDs to potential depositors, they were not agents of SIB.'”

    Put succinctly, the liquidators’ argument is that an international network of independent sales agents does not create the sort of “agency” that would alter cross-border COMI analysis under US law: “[US] Courts analyzing similar circumstances have consistently held that a company’s COMI or its principal place of business is in the jurisdiction where its operations are conducted even if the company has sales representatives in other jurisdictions.”

    The “Single Business Enterprise” Concept as Part of the “Alter Ego” Theory of Imposing Liability.

     Finally, the liquidators argue that SIB is neither part of a “single business enterprise” nor an “alter ego” of other Stanford entities or of Stanford’s senior managers – and their respective “principal place[s] of business” in the US cannot be imputed to SIB for purposes of determining SIB’s COMI.  This is so, according to Messr’s. Wastell and Hamilton-Smith, because:

    – The doctrine of “single business enterprise” liability is a particular creature of Texas law – which, in addition to being inapplicable to an Antiguan-chartered international bank such as SIB, is itself no longer viable even in Texas.  See SSP Partners v. Gladstrong Invs. (USA) Corp., 275 S.W.3d 444, 456(Tex. 2008) (rejecting the theory because Texas law does not “support the imposition of one corporation’s obligations on another” as permitted by the theory); see also Acceptance Indemn. Ins. Co. v. Maltez, No. 08-20288, 2009 WL 2748201, at *5 (5th Cir. June 30, 2009) (unpublished) (recognizing the holding of Gladstrong).

    – The doctrine of “alter ego” does not apply because its primary use is to permit corporate creditors to “pierce the corporate veil” and seek recourse from the corporation’s parent or individual shareholders.  Here, the liquidators argue, Mr. Janvey is attempting to pierce the corporate veil in the opposite direction:  He is attempting to permit creditors of a corporate parent or individual principals to seek recourse from a distinct and separate foreign subsidiary.  Such “reverse veil piercing” is properly obtained (if at all) through the “extreme and unsual” remedy of substantive consolidation through bankruptcy.  However, liquidation of the Stanford entities through a federal bankruptcy proceeding is something Mr. Janvey has, to date, “studiously avoided.”

    – The equitable purposes of the “alter ego” doctrine would be frustrated in this case.  The “injustice” that “alter ego” relief is designed to reverse would, in fact, only be furthered where SIB investors would see their recoveries diluted by creditors of other Stanford entities.

    Mr. Janvey’s response is due December 17.

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