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I expressed concern in my last post that uniform contract terms could destabilize securities markets in unexpected ways. In a recent paper, I dub this risk “Boilerplate Shock.” The paper uses boilerplate terms in Eurozone sovereign bonds as a case study, but I argue that any market in which a lot of securities are governed by uniform contract terms is vulnerable to boilerplate shock. In this post, I will focus on the Eurozone and my proposed solution to the risk of boilerplate shock there.
One major problem is that no one really knows how to deal with sovereign debt obligations denominated in a currency that still exists but is no longer used by the debtor. A partial breakup of the European Monetary Union would trigger some question marks in commercial law and private international law (among other things).
In the Eurozone sovereign lending market, bond contracts typically contain standardized language specifying:
(a) choice of governing law (often foreign), and
(b) currency of payment (euros).
The combined effect of these clauses, I argue, is to render any country that departs the euro more likely to default on its debt. Whatever the impact of the departure itself, a forced default would make things much worse for Europe and the world economy.
Leading scholars have concluded or strongly suggested that a sovereign that changes currencies can redenominate (convert) its bonds to its new currency even where the contract is governed by foreign law (e.g., Philip Wood (p. 177), Michael Gruson (p. 456), Arthur Nussbaum (pp. 353-59), Robert Hockett (passim)). As a descriptive matter, I believe this to be a mistaken interpretation of New York (and probably English) private international law and commercial law (see “Boilerplate Shock” pp. 47-67). But normatively, I agree: a sovereign should be able to redenominate its bonds under certain circumstances. Among other things, the alternative would make currency union breakups far more dangerous than they already are.
- The prevailing consensus underestimates the risk that a departing Eurozone member’s attempt to redenominate its sovereign bonds into a new currency will be ruled a default.
- Since the bonds of other struggling euro countries are largely governed by the same boilerplate terms ((a) and (b) above), this misapprehension has the potential to be particularly damaging. In addition to surprising the market (which appears to incorporate this consensus), it is likely to spread beyond the immediate debtor to the bonds of similarly situated countries that have issued under the same terms.
- Same for CDSs (which are likewise often governed by foreign law, usually New York).
- Thus, given the widespread use of terms (a) and (b), a ruling that a departing country cannot pay its euro-denominated contracts in a new currency could cause the market to demand unsustainable premiums from other weak debtors.
- This could cause Eurozone countries to lose market access. Greece is not TBTF in any sense, but some of its neighbors are—and are also too big for the EU (including the ECB) and IMF to bail out. Italy (the world’s 9th largest economy) and Spain (13th) come to mind.
Thus, if my commercial law/private international law analysis is right, these boilerplate contracts could end up playing quite a big role in the event of any euro breakup.
To mitigate this risk of boilerplate shock, I suggest a new rule of contract interpretation. The proposal is detailed at pp. 67-71 of the article. I suggest commercially significant jurisdictions adopt it by statute. Here is a quick summary.
Any sovereign that:
- Belongs to an international monetary union, and
- Issues bonds in the currency of that monetary union subsequent to the adoption of this rule, and
- Leaves the monetary union and introduces its own currency,
shall retain the right to redenominate its bond obligations into its new currency, UNLESS the sovereign has affirmatively waived the right to redenominate its bonds.
You’ll notice this is a default rule—merely a presumption of the right to redenominate—not a mandatory rule. It is also prospective-only: it does not apply to existing issuances. It also does not protect sovereigns that issue in foreign currency (e.g., Argentina), only those that are monetary union members and issue in the common currency (e.g., France).
The reason for these limitations is to minimize unintended consequences and near-term disruption to the market, but also to embody the relatively modest objectives of the rule. It is an information-forcing default rule that is intended to facilitate better risk management by parties. It is not a “save the world” rule.
The challenge, as I’ll discuss in my next post on the paper, is not that redenomination would be ruled impermissible when it ought to be available (otherwise, that might suggest a mandatory “pro-redenomination” rule). It is that the likely effect of these boilerplate terms—to prohibit redenomination—was almost certainly not bargained for and is largely unknown to parties. This market failure has, in turn, created latent risks to the broader financial system and the existing legal tools are poorly suited to address them.
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