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      Insolvency News and Analysis - Week Ending September 19, 2014
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    Posts Tagged ‘“cross-border insolvency”’

    Chapter 15 and US Bankruptcy Courts: How Universal is “Universalism”?

    Saturday, March 12th, 2011

    Chapter 15 of the US Bankruptcy Code, enacted in 2005, was Congress’ effort to make cross-border insolvency proceedings just a little more predictable. 

    Specifically, the statute’s policy objective was to “recognize” the efforts of foreign insolvency administrators and trustees to administer their debtors’ US-based assets – thereby helping to “standardize” the way assets and claims are treated in non-US insolvency proceedings.

    View of Capitol Hill from the U.S. Supreme Court

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    Chapter 15 reflects a strong Congressional preference for what has been described as a “universalist” (rather than a “territorial”) approach to cross-border insolvency administration.  But have US Bankruptcy Courts actually followed through on this “universalist” policy?

    That is the question behind an empirical study on Chapter 15 recently published by Jeremy Leong, an advocate and solicitor with Singapore’s Wong Partnership.  According to Mr. Leong, the study (entitled IS CHAPTER 15 UNIVERSALIST OR TERRITORIALIST? EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE FROM UNITED STATES BANKRUPTCY COURT CASES, and forthcoming in the Wisconsin International Law Journal) and its results indicate that, despite its ostensibly “universalist” objectives:

    United States courts applying Chapter 15 have not unconditionally turned over [the] debtor’s assets in the United States to foreign main proceedings.  The results of the study show that while United States courts recognized foreign proceedings in almost every Chapter 15 case, courts entrusted United States assets to foreign proceedings for distribution in only 45.5% of cases where foreign proceedings were recognized.  When such entrustment was granted, 31.8% of cases were accompanied by qualifying factors[,] including[] orders which protected United States creditors by allowing them to be paid according to the priority scheme under United States bankruptcy law[,] or assurances that certain United States creditors would be paid in full or in priority.  In only 9.1% of cases, entrustment of assets for distribution was ordered without any qualifications[] and where there were US creditors and assets at stake.

    Based on this data, Mr. Leong goes on to conclude that “when deciding Chapter 15 cases, United States courts seldom grant entrustment [of assets for foreign distributions] without [protective] qualifications when United States creditors may be adversely affected.”  Consequently, “Chapter 15 is not as universalist as its proponents claim it to be and exposes the inability of Chapter 15 to resolve conflicting priority rules between the United States and foreign proceedings.”

    Mr. Leong’s study is commendable as one of the earliest pieces of empirical work on how Chapter 15 is actually applied.  But it raises some questions along the way.  For example:

    Is a 45.5% “entrustment” rate really accurate?  Mr. Leong’s claim that “courts entrusted United States assets to foreign proceedings for distribution in only 45.5% of cases where foreign proceedings were recognized” does not really compare apples to apples.  That is, it measures the “entrustment” of assets across all recognized foreign proceedings – and not the smaller subset of proceedings where entrustment was actually requested.

    According to Mr. Leong’s study results, “of the 88 cases where recognition was granted, the [US bankruptcy] court made orders for [e]ntrustment in only 40 cases.  Of the remaining 48 cases where [e]ntrustment was not granted, [e]ntrustment had been requested by foreign representatives in 25 of these cases.”  In other words, “entrustment” of assets was requested in 65 of the cases in Mr. Leong’s sample – and in those cases, it was granted in 40, providing a 61.5% success rate for the “entrustment” of assets, rather than the study’s advertised 45.5% success rate.

    Is a 45.5% “entrustment” rate really all that bad?  Success rates – like many other statistics – are significant only by virtue of their relative comparison to other success rates.  Assuming for the moment that the 45.5% “entrustment” rate observed where US courts apply Chapter 15 was indeed accurate, how does that rate compare against similar requests in the insolvency courts of other sophisticated business jurisdictions applying their own recognition statutes?  

    Without such benchmarks or relative rankings, the conclusion that US courts are not “universal” seems premature.

    Is “asset entrustment” really the true measure of “universalism?”  Finally, and perhaps most fundamentally, Mr. Leong’s focus on the “entrustment” of assets – i.e., the turnover of US-based assets for distribution in a foreign insolvency case – seems to neglect the other reasons for which a US bankruptcy court’s recognition of cross-border insolvency might be sought.  Such reasons include the “automatic stay” of US-initiated litigation against the debtor, access to US courts for the purpose of gaining personal jurisdiction over US-based defendants and the recovery of assets, and access to the “asset sale” provisions of the US Bankruptcy Code which automatically apply along with recognition under Chapter 15.

    Given the breadth of strategic reasons for seeking recognition of a foreign insolvency in the United States (many of which are unrelated, at least directly, to the ultimate distribution of assets), the study’s focus on “entrustment” as a measure of “universalism” may be over-narrow.

    These questions aside, however, Mr. Leong’s study asks thought-provoking and empirically-grounded questions about the true nature of “universalism” as applied in US bankruptcy courts.  It is an important initial step in framing the proper assessment of cross-border insolvencies in coming years.

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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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