© Disney, “Duck Tales”
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.
By now, the risk that a distressed European nation such as Greece might leave the Eurozone and thereby spark global economic calamity is well known. Regular readers of this blog may even privately relish the prominence of the issue. Not since the days of the gold standard has international monetary policy come so close to being a socially acceptable topic of dinner conversation.
As I noted in my first post, observers rightly perceive the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis to be driven by political and economic forces. But many consequences of a euro breakup would be determined by law, including sources of American (specifically New York) private law.
This is a complex issue. I try to address it more fully in a new article, "Boilerplate Shock," which I've just posted on SSRN.
In brief, and to continue picking on Greece, one key question in the event of a euro breakup would be: would a court recognize an attempt by Greece to convert its euro-denominated debt into its new currency, or would it instead insist that Greece pay in euros, the currency of contract? The answer is important because, as a practical matter, requiring payment in euro would be tantamount to forcing a default.
That's the familiar narrative, anyway. And I agree. But I believe that the ubiquity of boilerplate terms in these bonds—specifically, clauses selecting governing law (usually foreign) and currency of payment (euro)—is likely to make any dispute over redenomination even more damaging than this suggests.
In the article, I argue that the sparse literature on the question of redenominating sovereign bonds overlooks some sources—especially cases interpreting New York contract law and private international law—that, if extended to Eurozone sovereign bonds, could surprise the market and cause serious global repercussions. I argue that the reason for this is not only that the dominant view overlooks what are likely controlling sources of law. It is that standardization of contract terms across the Eurozone sovereign lending market makes the stakes of surprise that much higher.
If Greece's attempt to redenominate its bonds is declared a default, then the fact that the operative terms in Italian, Spanish, Irish, etc. sovereign bonds are the same or similar makes markets likely to demand unsustainable premiums from those countries. Capital and investor flight could be very rapid. We have seen several previews of this movie over the past few years in the Eurozone, and each time official-sector bailout institutions have saved the day. But the European Union/European Central Bank and IMF probably do not have the resources to stop a broad-based bank run of this nature, to say nothing of the political support necessary to attempt it.
Maybe none of that will happen. Nevertheless, the potential for uniform contract terms to create risk not just to individual third parties but to securities markets seems likely to grow at least as fast as those markets. Using Eurozone sovereign bonds as a case study, I introduce the term "boilerplate shock" to describe the potential for standardized contract terms—when they come to govern the entire market for a given security—to transform an isolated default on a single contract into a threat to the market of which it is a part, and, possibly, to the economy in general. My larger objective here is to foster a discussion of the potential for securities law and private-sector securities lawyers to manage (or alternatively, to contribute to) systemic risk.
I've posted an abstract below and will be returning to the subject. I look forward your comments.
Boilerplate Shock abstract:
No nation was spared in the recent global downturn, but several Eurozone countries arguably took the hardest punch, and they are still down. Doubts about the solvency of Greece, Spain, and some of their neighbors are making it more likely that the euro will break up. Observers fear a single departure and sovereign debt default might set off a “bank run” on the common European currency, with devastating regional and global consequences.
What mechanisms are available to address—or ideally, to prevent—such a disaster?
One unlikely candidate is boilerplate language in the contracts that govern sovereign bonds. As suggested by the term “boilerplate,” these are provisions that have not been given a great deal of thought. And yet they have the potential to be a powerful tool in confronting the threat of a global economic conflagration—or in fanning the flames.
Scholars currently believe that a country departing the Eurozone could convert its debt obligations to a new currency, thereby rendering its debt burden manageable and staving off default. However, this Article argues that these boilerplate terms—specifically, clauses specifying the law that governs the bond and the currency in which it will be paid—would likely prevent such a result. Instead, the courts most likely to interpret these terms would probably declare a departing country’s effort to repay a sovereign bond in its new currency a default.
A default would inflict damage far beyond the immediate parties. Not only would it surprise the market, it would be taken to predict the future of other struggling European countries’ debt obligations, because they are largely governed by the same boilerplate terms. The possibility of such a result therefore increases the risk that a single nation’s departure from the euro will bring down the currency and trigger a global meltdown.
To mitigate this risk, this Article proposes a new rule of contract interpretation that would allow a sovereign bond to be paid in the borrower’s new currency under certain circumstances. It also introduces the phrase “boilerplate shock” to describe the potential for standardized contract terms drafted by lawyers—when they come to dominate the entire market for a given security—to transform an isolated default on a single contract into a threat to the broader economy. Beyond the immediate crisis in the Eurozone, the Article urges scholars, policymakers, and practitioners to address the potential for boilerplate shock in securities markets to damage the global economy.
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Before returning to the legal boundaries of monetary policy, I wanted to briefly highlight some interesting contract and regulatory issues lurking just beneath the surface of an unusual Kansas state court order declaring a sperm donor to be the legal father of a child, against the wishes of all persons involved.
In 2009, a Topeka man answered a Craigslist ad soliciting sperm donations. The ad was placed by a lesbian couple, Jennifer Schreiner and Angela Bauer. The man supplied a donation. Schreiner became pregnant and delivered a baby. Schreiner began receiving Kansas welfare benefits for the child. Seeking child support payments, the state sued the sperm donor to establish paternity. The state argued that the donor—who lacks any relationship with the child or the couple (now estranged) beyond supplying the donation—was the child’s legal father, and therefore must pay child support.
This is where the case gets interesting as a matter of private ordering and trade regulation.
Prior to the donation, all persons involved—the donor and both members of the couple—signed a non-paternity agreement in which the donor waived his parental rights and was released from his parental obligations.
Both mothers opposed the state’s campaign to declare the donor the child's legal father.
Nevertheless, the court granted the state’s paternity petition, which means it can now seek to compel the donor to provide child support. The paternity finding also appears to give the donor a good shot at asserting parental rights (though he seems unlikely to try).
Justifying its decision to ignore the wishes of both parents and the donor, the court intoned:
A parent may not terminate parental rights by contract, however, even when the parties have consented.
Well, maybe this case is a morality tale about those who would seek a father for their child on Craigslist. A warning from a heartland state to those who would selfishly try to contract around their sacred parental obligations. A sign that courts place the welfare of the child above all else. Right?
Haha, of course not!
Kansas law makes it easy to conclusively terminate the parental rights and obligations of sperm donors by contract. Care to guess what you need to do, besides sign a contract?
Pay a doctor.
The court explained:
Through K.S.A. 23-2208(f) [PDF], the Kansas legislature has afforded a woman a statutory vehicle for obtaining semen for [artificial insemination] in a manner that protects her and her child from a later claim of paternity by the donor. Similarly, the legislature has provided a man with a statutory vehicle for donating semen to a woman in a manner that precludes later liability for child support. The limitation on the application of these statutory vehicles, however, is that the semen must be “provided to a licensed physician." [FN1] (emphasis added)
The parties failed to do this.
So, the upshot is that you are free to find a father for your child on Craigslist—and you can even count on the State of Kansas to keep him out of your child’s life in the future—so long as you hire a doctor to do the procedure. Similarly, you can spend your free time fathering children on Craigslist without losing sleep over child support suits—as long as you kick some of the action upstairs to an M.D.
It’s not just Kansas; California, Illinois, and as many as 10 other states [FN2] follow the same law, the Uniform Parentage Act of 1973.
I’m not a family law expert, but it seems to me that a complete list of legitimate and unique public policy concerns that are implicated when a couple and a third-party sperm donor settle their parental obligations by contract looks something like this:
- Ensuring that the state can identify who can be held legally responsible for supporting the child.
Nevertheless, let’s assume there are also truly compelling public health reasons to involve a physician in artificial insemination. After speaking with a few doctors, I’m skeptical that this is the case, but even if it were here are ten points that I think are worth considering:
- Should a mother who became pregnant by artificial insemination be forced to share parental rights with a stranger who donated sperm simply because she decided not to hire a doctor for the procedure?
- Conversely, should the scope of a sperm donor’s rights and responsibilities as a father turn on the decision whether to enlist a doctor to oversee the procedure?
- Should the adequacy of a child support scheme turn on whether couples using sperm donors choose to hire a doctor?
- There are sound public policy reasons to be concerned about voluntariness in agreements that waive paternity. But if this case is really about ensuring voluntariness, why is enlisting doctors the solution? Establishing consent during contract formation is not some novel problem. Hiring a doctor is a novel solution, but as an evidentiary device it is not very probative.
- Hiring doctors for artificial insemination is not cheap. A single attempt through a physician’s office costs about $3,000, and sometimes multiple attempts are necessary. Unsurprisingly, the American Fertility Association (a trade group for the fertility industry) applauded the court’s decision.
- This rule looks even more like an attempt to extract rents when you consider that for many people, the price of artificial insemination without physician assistance may be zero.
- If the state interest in the use of doctor-assisted artificial insemination is so compelling, maybe the law should simply require it on penalty of criminal sanction. I have never even heard this idea floated, probably because it would be perceived (rightly) as an excessive intrusion on various important freedoms…
- …yet while they do not provide criminal sanctions, about 13 states are willing to provide unbelievably harsh "family-law sanctions." If a woman declines to hire a doctor, she is placing herself and her child in eternal jeopardy; at any time, the donor or the state can move to declare the donor to be the legal father, which would put the donor in a position to seek full parental rights—even if he is a stranger. (The same is true in reverse re: child support.) It is unsurprising that both mothers opposed the state’s petition.
- Although facially neutral, this rule is almost certainly discriminatory in practice. It means that lesbian couples must either hire a doctor or adopt—there is no other way they can safely preclude the donor from being granted parental rights. And of course this is just one of many unofficial taxes gays and lesbians must pay, especially in states like Kansas that do not allow them to marry. It seems to me that there’s a good argument the law should fail rational basis or equal protection review, but I will leave that brief to the con law scholars.
- Finally, beyond any constitutional infirmity, this law should serve as a reminder that protectionist regulations—which often take the form of onerous occupational licensing restrictions and NIMBY zoning rules—frequently have regressive distributional consequences, because they tend to favor powerful incumbents. And although probably not the case here, such laws can harm the broader economy as well by stifling innovation.
I welcome your comments. And I hope my doctor friends still talk to me.
* * * *
[FN1] It should be noted that under the letter of the statute as well as a 2007 Kansas Supreme Court decision (PDF) on this issue, the court did not have an obvious alternative to finding for the state. The problem, such as there is one, is with the statute.
[FN2] An accurate count is not possible without doing a full 50-state survey. As I have written about previously, the Uniform Law Commission’s Enactment Status Maps are often unreliable or imprecise (see FNs 163 & 188).
The Bitcoin exchange Mt. Gox appeared to be undergoing more convulsions Tuesday [February 25], as its website became unavailable and trading there appeared to have stopped, signaling a new stage in troubles that have dented the image of the virtual currency. . . .
Investors have been unable to withdraw funds from Mt. Gox since the beginning of this month. The exchange has said that a flaw in the bitcoin software allowed transaction records to be altered, potentially making possible fraudulent withdrawals. No allegations have been made of wrongdoing by the exchange, but the potential for theft has raised concern that the exchange wouldn't be able to meet its obligations.
The apparent collapse of Mt. Gox is just the latest shock to hit Bitcoin, the price of which is now off more than 50% from its December 2013 peak:
For those better acquainted with the dead-tree/dead-president variety of money, Bitcoin is a virtual currency not backed by any government. Rather than being printed or minted by a central bank, Bitcoins are created by a computer algorithm in a process known as "mining" and are stored online or on your computer. They are bought and sold on various exchanges, including until recently Mt. Gox (whose troubles have been reported for a few weeks now).
There are many reasons, some of them even lawful. Bitcoins can be regarded as a medium of exchange, an investment, a political statement...or a way of avoiding capital controls and other pesky laws like bans on drug trafficking and human smuggling.
But the criminal potential of Bitcoin is probably overstated. The Chinese have gotten wise to its use for avoiding capital controls. Using Bitcoin for criminal or fraudulent activity would be difficult at scale (PDF). The Walter White method is still far and away the best way to ensure your criminal proceeds retain their value and anonymity.
I don't share the utopian fervor for Bitcoin expressed in tech and libertarian circles (see, e.g., this supposedly non-utopian cri de coeur), but it may have some positive potential as a decentralized and lower-cost electronic payments system. We'll see if that ever gets off the ground.
In the meantime, the Mt. Gox collapse is pretty huge news for Bitcoinland. Unlike the NYSE (the failure of which would be hard even to imagine), Mt. Gox does not benefit from any systemic significance and thus is unlikely to receive a lot of official-sector help. The situation has some early adopters running for the Bitcoin exits, like this leading Bitcoin evangelist.
Despite (because of?) my agnosticism on the currency, I'll be writing more about Bitcoin soon. (Mainly, I wanted to stake a claim to being the first to write about Bitcoin on The Conglomerate.) If your Palo Alto cocktail party can't wait, however, this explainer (PDF) from the ever-impressive Chicago Fed should tide you over.
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Greetings, Glommers! (and hello, Janet and Mario*!)
It’s an honor to join this extremely sharp and thoughtful community of corporate and commercial law scholars for the next two weeks. The Conglomerate has long been one of my favorite law blogs and it’s truly a privilege to walk among these folks for a time (if a bit daunting to follow not just them but Urska Velikonja and her excellent guest posts). Thanks to Gordon, David, and their Glom partners for inviting me to contribute.
By way of biographical introduction, I’m currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, where I teach International Business Transactions and International Commercial Arbitration. Last year, I did a VAP at Hofstra Law School (and taught Bus Orgs and Contracts). I am on the tenure-track market this year.
In the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring a number of issues related to law and global finance. I have a particular interest in currencies and monetary law, or the law governing monetary policy. Two of my current projects (on which more soon) address legal aspects of critical macroeconomic policy questions that have emerged since 2008: U.S. monetary policy and the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis.
Without further ado, I will take a page from Urska and kick off my residency here with a somewhat meta question: should scholars refrain from writing about legal issues in macroeconomics, specifically monetary policy?
One thinks of monetary policy decisions—whether or not to raise interest rates, purchase billions of dollars of securities on the secondary market ("quantitative easing"), devalue or change a currency—as fundamentally driven by political and economic factors, not law. And of course they are. But the law has a lot to say about them and their consequences, and legal scholarship has been pretty quiet on this.
Some concrete examples of the types of questions I’m talking about would be:
- Pursuant to its dual mandate (to maintain price stability and full employment), what kinds of measures can the Federal Reserve legally undertake for the purpose of promoting full employment? More generally, what are the Fed’s legal constraints?
- What recognition should American courts extend to an attempt by a departing Eurozone member state to redenominate its sovereign debt into a new currency?
When it comes to issues like these, it is probably even more true than usual that law defines the boundaries of policy. Legal constraints in the context of U.S. monetary policy appear fairly robust even in times of crisis. For example, policymakers themselves often cite law as a major constraint when speaking of the tools available to the Federal Reserve in combating unemployment and deflation post-2008. Leading economics commentators do too. Yet commentary on “Fed law” is grossly underdeveloped. With the exception of a handful of impressive works (e.g., by Colleen Baker and Peter Conti-Brown), legal academics have largely left commentary on the Fed and macroeconomics to the econ crowd.
A different sort of abstention characterizes legal scholarship on the euro crisis. Unlike the question of Fed power, there is a burgeoning literature on various “what-if” euro break-up scenarios. But this writing tends to focus on the impact on individual debtors and creditors, not on the cumulative impact on the global financial system. Again, the macro element is missing.
It is curious that so many legal scholars would voluntarily absent themselves from monetary policy debates. The subtext is that monetary policy questions are either normatively or descriptively beyond the realm of law. If that is scholars’ actual view, I think it is misguided. But maybe the silence is not as revealing as all that.
- One issue is sources. You will not find a lot of useful caselaw on the Fed’s mandate or the Federal Reserve Act of 1913, and the relevant statutes and regulations are not very illuminating. Further, it’s a secretive institution and that makes any research (legal or otherwise) on its inner workings challenging.
- Another issue is focus. Arguably the natural home of legal scholarship on domestic monetary issues, for example, should be administrative law. But the admin scholarly gestalt is not generally as econ-centric as, say, securities law. Meanwhile, securities scholars tend to focus on microeconomic issues like management-shareholder dynamics.
- A final possibility, at least in the international realm, is historical. After World War II, Bretton Woods established a legal framework intended to minimize the chance that monetary policy would again be used as a weapon of war. The Bretton Woods system collapsed over forty years ago, the giants of international monetary law (Frederick Mann, Arthur Nussbaum) wrote (and died) during the twentieth century, and now even some of the leading scholars who followed in their footsteps have passed away. At the same time, capital now flows freely across borders and global financial regulation has become less legalized in general. These factors plus the decline of exchange-rate regulations (most countries let their currencies float) may have undermined scholars’ interest in monetary law. But as the ongoing euro saga demonstrates, international monetary law and institutions remain as critical as ever.
These are some possible explanations for why legal scholars have largely neglected questions of monetary law, but I’m sure I’ve overlooked others. What do you think?
*Pictured are Janet Yellen and Mario Draghi, chiefs, respectively, of the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank.
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Ronald Coase had some ideas about why speech is given more protection from government intervention than economic activity:
The paradox is that government intervention which is so harmful in the one sphere [speech] becomes beneficial in the other [economics activity].... What is the explanation for the paradox? ... The market for ideas is the market in which the intellectual conducts his trade. The explanation of the paradox is self-interest and self-esteem. Self-esteem leads the intellectuals to magnify the importance of their own market. That others should be regulated seems natural, particularly as many of the intellectuals see themselves as doing the regulating. But self-interest combines with self-esteem to ensure that, while others are regulated, regulation should not apply to them. And so it is possible to live with these contradictory views about the role of government in these two markets. It is the conclusion that matters. It may not be a nice explanation, but I can think of no other for this strange situation.
Ronald H. Coase, The Economics of the First Amendment: The Market for Goods and the Market for Ideas, 64 AM. ECON. REV. PROC. 384, 386 (1974).
There are some powerful counters to this argument (e.g., speech is a public good that is likely to be underproduced, especially if not protected vigorously), but I just thought it was interesting that Coase had written this article on the First Amendment.
From Aaron Director, The Parity of the Economic Market Place, 7 J.L. & ECON. 1, 2 (1964):
Laissez faire has never been more than a slogan in defense of the proposition that every extension of state activity should be examined under a presumption of error. The main tradition of economic liberalism has always assumed a well-established system of law and order designed to harness self-interest to serve the welfare of all.
Director didn't write much, but he wrote well.
After over four years of work, my book Law, Bubbles, and Financial Regulation came out at the end of 2013. You can read a longer description of the book at the Harvard Corporate Governance blog. Blurbs from Liaquat Ahamed, Michael Barr, Margaret Blair, Frank Partnoy, and Nouriel Roubini are on the Routledge’s web site and the book's Amazon page. The introductory chapter is available for free on ssrn.
Look for a Conglomerate book club on the book on the first week of February!
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Last summer, I decided to scorn market efficiency and invest in a portfolio of individual stocks. Not a lot of money, but enough that I cared. I did some research and picked 18 stocks. Here are the results (blue line) compared to the Dow Jones, S&P 500, and Nasdaq:
As you can see, I am beating the market by a large margin. Feeling pretty confident about my success and believing that I could take advantage of the uncertainty created by the impending fiscal cliff, I purchased another small portfolio of stocks in September:
While this new portfolio has been rallying in late December as prospects for a cliff deal waxed and waned, I am still in the hole. The WSJ tells me that tonight's fiscal cliff deal will bolster my returns, but why? With all of the other uncertainties about the debt ceiling, spending cuts, and tax increases looming, the optimistic story seems to be that neither President Obama nor the Republicans in Congress are as extreme as their public positions, which are irreconcilable.
What a mess. We need a leader, and none is in sight.
As in a bad horror movie (or a great Rolling Stones song), observers of the current crisis may have been disquieted that one of the central characters in this disaster also played a central role in the Enron era. Is it coincidence that special purpose entities (SPEs) were at the core of both the Enron transactions and many of the structured finance deals that fell part in the Panic of 2007-2008?
Bill Bratton (Penn) and Adam Levitin (Georgetown) think not. Bratton and Levin have a really fine new paper out, A Transactional Genealogy of Scandal, that not only draws deep connections between these two episodes, but also traces back the lineage of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) back to Michael Millken. The paper provides a masterful guided tour of the history of CDOs from the S&L/junk bond era to the innovations of J.P. Morgan through to the Goldman ABACUS deals and the freeze of the asset-backed commercial paper market .
Their account argues that the development of the SPE is the apotheosis of the firm as “nexus of contracts.” These shell companies, after all, are nothing but contracts. This feature, according to Bratton & Levin, allows SPEs to become ideal tools either for deceiving investors or arbitraging financial regulations.
Here is their abstract:
Three scandals have fundamentally reshaped business regulation over the past thirty years: the securities fraud prosecution of Michael Milken in 1988, the Enron implosion of 2001, and the Goldman Sachs “Abacus” enforcement action of 2010. The scandals have always been seen as unrelated. This Article highlights a previously unnoticed transactional affinity tying these scandals together — a deal structure known as the synthetic collateralized debt obligation (“CDO”) involving the use of a special purpose entity (“SPE”). The SPE is a new and widely used form of corporate alter ego designed to undertake transactions for its creator’s accounting and regulatory benefit.
The SPE remains mysterious and poorly understood, despite its use in framing transactions involving trillions of dollars and its prominence in foundational scandals. The traditional corporate alter ego was a subsidiary or affiliate with equity control. The SPE eschews equity control in favor of control through pre-set instructions emanating from transactional documents. In theory, these instructions are complete or very close thereto, making SPEs a real world manifestation of the “nexus of contracts” firm of economic and legal theory. In practice, however, formal designations of separateness do not always stand up under the strain of economic reality.
When coupled with financial disaster, the use of an SPE alter ego can turn even a minor compliance problem into scandal because of the mismatch between the traditional legal model of the firm and the SPE’s economic reality. The standard legal model looks to equity ownership to determine the boundaries of the firm: equity is inside the firm, while contract is outside. Regulatory regimes make inter-firm connections by tracking equity ownership. SPEs escape regulation by funneling inter-firm connections through contracts, rather than equity ownership.
The integration of SPEs into regulatory systems requires a ground-up rethinking of traditional legal models of the firm. A theory is emerging, not from corporate law or financial economics but from accounting principles. Accounting has responded to these scandals by abandoning the equity touchstone in favor of an analysis in which contractual allocations of risk, reward, and control operate as functional equivalents of equity ownership, and approach that redraws the boundaries of the firm. Transaction engineers need to come to terms with this new functional model as it could herald unexpected liability, as Goldman Sachs learned with its Abacus CDO.
The paper should be on the reading list of scholars in securities and financial institution regulation. The historical account also provides a rich source of material for corporate law scholars engaged in the Theory of the Firm literature.
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I am getting ready to teach MGM v. Scheider next week in Contracts. The case (347 N.Y.S.2d. 755) involves whether a series of communications between a Hollywood studio and actor Roy Scheider (who would later star in JAWS) constituted a contract that bound the star to act in an ABC tv series. [Note: should any of my contract students read this post, the foregoing is not an example of a good case brief.]
When going over the aftermath of this case in class, the inevitable question comes up: “Why didn’t the lawyers insist on a more formal, written, and executed contract?” The same answers surface: sloppiness, lack of sophistication, time pressure. It makes for an easy moral for law students (“be tougher and more careful”), but one that I find increasingly less satisfying and nutritious. Sloppiness just seems too pat an answer to explain this or many of the other lawyer “mistakes” that populate a Contracts case book.
Fortunately, Jonathan Barnett (USC Law) has a new working paper that provides a much more nuanced answer. Barnett’s “Hollywood Deals: Soft Contracts for Hard Markets” explores why many contracts between Hollywood studios and star level talent (both sides usually represented by experienced lawyers) fall into this netherworld of “soft contracts” – that is agreements of questionable status as enforceable contracts. Barnett’s explanation involves both parties navigating two different risks – project risk (the risk a film won’t happen or will flop) and hold-up risk (the risk that a necessary party to a film will back out, possibly to hold the project hostage). The studio system used to provide a way to balance these two risks. The decline of this sytem, according to Barnett, gave rise to a growing use of “soft contracts.” Here is the abstract:
Hollywood film studios, talent and other deal participants regularly commit to, and undertake production of, high-stakes film projects on the basis of unsigned “deal memos,” informal communications or draft agreements whose legal enforceability is uncertain. These “soft contracts” constitute a hybrid instrument that addresses a challenging transactional environment where neither formal contract nor reputation effects adequately protect parties against the holdup risk and project risk inherent to a film project. Parties negotiate the degree of contractual formality, which correlates with legal enforceability, as a proxy for allocating these risks at a transaction-cost savings relative to a fully formalized and specified instrument. Uncertainly enforceable contracts embed an implicit termination option that provides some protection against project risk while maintaining a threat of legal liability that provides some protection against holdup risk. Historical evidence suggests that soft contracts substitute for the vertically integrated structures that allocated these risks in the “studio system” era.
The very accessible paper is worth a read – not only for Contracts scholars and teachers, but also for those interested in the theory of the firm. For a different, stimulating approach to supplementing the teaching of contracts (Hollywood and otherwise), Larry Cunningham’s new book, Contracts in the Real World: Stories of Popular Contracts and Why They Matter is out from Cambridge University Press. Larry gave a preview of the book and his approaching to teaching the subject in our Conglomerate forum on teaching contracts last summer. The book is chock full of very useful stories on chestnut casebook opinions, as well as contracts straight out of Variety involving stars from Eminem to Jane Fonda.
The Times has a not that newsy profile of the Mittelstand, today, Germany's vaunted SME sector, and one that counts for 60 percent of its employment. The big reveal is that the Mittelstand likes the euro, though that calculation is largely on the basis of interviews at one obscure (every Mittelstand company is obscure, that's rather the point) shut-off valve manufacturer.
If you hang out at business schools, the Mittelstand is a useful corrective to everything you think you're supposed to know about finance. German companies eschew debt, we are told, rely on banks instead of capital markets for funding, and retain their employees at all costs. Basically the opposite of the private equity playbook. And yet ... look at the awesome German economy! It has implications for corporate law, too, given that Mittelstand firms are likely to be closely held, with representation for workers and banks if it isn't just a family thing. Maybe that's what Delaware ought to be offering!
But I think this obsession with the Mittelstand may be branding more than anything else. Take that 60% employment number. In the US, though, small businesses account for half, and 65% of all new jobs. And some Mittelstand firms probably count as large businesses in the American definition (500 employees is the cutoff). Nor is Germany radically more industrialized than the US, though that's what the Mittelstand is supposed to be. 28% of the country's employees are in manufacturing. The we-just-do-service United States proportion? 22%
Wiser heads than mine accept the Mittelstand as different - the interest in SME-usable research is an excellent way to fund a project in not just German, but European universities more generally. But surely some perspective is in order. It's easy to overstate modest differences, and while I'll be happy to conclude that the German model well and truly is unique, I'd like to see a few more differences between that approach and ours before doing so.
I'll admit. I love pianos. I remember the day that my mom and I went to someone's house to buy a piano she had heard was for sale. I was 4 or 5, so I don't know if she saw the piano listed in the newspaper or heard about it from a friend, but I know the seller was a stranger. I remember the man asked if we wanted to try the piano, but neither my mom nor I played. We just bought it based on its good looks alone. We lucked out. It is a good piano.
When I was 27, after six years of living on my own, without a piano, I bought a piano from a warehouse dealer. I took a long my boyfriend, who has perfect pitch and who became my husband. He told me to pick what I would describe as the ugliest piano there, with a mismatched bench. It turns out, it is an excellent piano, a Baldwin from the early 1960s, when the company did not put the name on the outside of the piano. As a result, I bought the piano at a fraction of its "market value."
But, I've been skeptical of adding this asset to my concept of my "net worth," because I can't imagine that I would find a buyer willing to pay market value for my scratched-up upright piano. And this article in the NYT today says that I'm probably right.
Markets depart away from efficiency when transaction costs are high. Pianos have incredibly high transaction costs. They are difficult to transport and difficult to store. Yeah, but so are cars, right? Yes, but cars can transport themselves, don't have to be climate-controlled (besides hail), and don't need a tune-up after being transported. And, there are warranties. Online markets don't do well with pianos, which need to be heard, not seen, and often heard by an expert. So, though I have often wondered why there isn't more piano arbitrage, with dealers scooping up deals from unsuspecting sellers' houses, it may be that the transaction costs of going to people's houses, storing and transporting pianos is too much.
The article also makes the point that fewer people want pianos anymore. Even though houses are bigger, people seem to like electronic keyboards that don't have to be tuned and can be stored easily. When one of my neighbors announced they were selling their piano because their son really just wanted a keyboard and they were remodeling the living room, I was appalled. But, this seems to be the way of the world. And, I guess my neighbor's son will be able to take his keyboard when he moves out, unlike me. I'm sure folks with fancy foyers and front rooms still want grand pianos, as long as they are shiny and look good (and maybe with digital "player piano" capabilities), but the middle-class front room piano may go the way of the Encyclopedia Britannica. In fact, it's so hard to get rid of an old piano these days -- like a set of encyclopedias -- you may even have to pay someone to take it off your hands.
I am attending the Economics Bloggers Forum 2012 today at the Kauffman Foundation. You can get a progam and live stream here. Cool event, as is the norm with Kauffman and Bob Litan.
UPDATE: The Kauffman sketchbook series is fun. We just watched "I'm a blogger" featuring Tyler Cowen. Nice.
On Sunday, the NYT published a long, front-page story that is getting a lot of attention, Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend On It. The article has a lot of interesting facts, like the amount of spending on government entitlement programs has skyrocketed, but those dollars are going less and less (as a percentage) to the lowest fifth of the population. Relatedly, though surveys show that most Americans believe that the programs that are growing the fastest are for the poor, these programs are not growing at all, except for Medicaid. And, the program that is growing the fastest is Medicare.
But the article wants to point out what it seems to see as a hypocrisy: that people who are arguing that government should be smaller, and voting their concerns, are beneficiaries of these programs. So, folks that argue that government should cut spending to the poor are taking advantage of free lunch programs and getting disability checks, Social Security and Medicare. The article seems to think that this irony is the result of some sort of "except me" selfishness or cognitive dissonance. If the latter is the case, then voters are surely not voting their interests, and next year they will wake up and realize that they can't make ends meet any more because they can't qualify for free lunch or their unemployment checks were much smaller. And then, of course, it's too late to re-cast your vote. The article seems to hold up these people as sort-of ignorant victims of Tea Party rhetoric who maybe shouldn't deserve to vote.
But, there could be alternative theories. It could be that a voter doesn't think that some of these programs should be funded by the government. But they are. So, if I can't control how that money is being spent, then it's in my interest to take advantage of the program until the program is ended. So, I may think that our summer research grants are too large (obviously a hypothetical) or that our teaching load is too small (again, just go with me). But, I'm not in a position to change either of those, so I might as well take the summer money and teach the prescribed load. But, if a Dean candidate came through saying that she would reduce summer grants and increase the teaching load (this candidate has become extinct due to evolution), then I wouldn't be a hypocrite or a creature of cognitive dissonance to vote for that candidate. Now, I have known a few people who turn down free government services they otherwise qualify for because they can pay their own way (special needs services for children, for example). But these folks are few and far between, I think.
No one in the article seems to articulate that "ride the wave" type of thinking (at least how the article is written), but some do seem to fit into the category of "I spent my life thinking I could count on Social Security and Medicare, and now I depend on it. But I do think the government should make cuts so as not to overburden the youth. But any cuts to my income would be devastating because I was counting on those." I don't think that's hypocritical or cognitive dissonance; that's just realistic pragmatism.