The Undead Norm of Unenforceability in Sovereign Debt

True story: two years ago, U.S. hedge fund NML Capital seized an Argentine navy vessel in Ghana. NML recently won an important series of rulings in US courts on defaulted sovereign bonds issued by the Latin American nation.

True story: two years ago, U.S. hedge fund NML Capital seized an Argentine navy vessel in Ghana. NML recently won an important series of rulings in US courts on defaulted sovereign bonds issued by the Latin American nation.

As the Argentina sovereign debt litigation hurtles towards its thrilling conclusion (or at least a new phase), I’ve sketched this proposal for a new paper and welcome any thoughts:

The Undead Norm of Unenforceability in Sovereign Debt

Historically, sovereigns have repaid their debts not because they feared court orders if they didn’t but to preserve their good name in global capital markets. Courts played along, tolerating transgressions of their enforcement authority even beyond what sovereign immunity would require. This dance has allowed courts to lend their expressive support to the fiction of enforceability while avoiding the downsides—for courts and markets—that aggressive attempts at enforcement against foreign sovereigns would bring. However, in NML v. Argentina, the latest round of litigation over Argentina’s 2001 default, the SDNY signaled a shift: it issued an unprecedented injunction prohibiting the world payments network from processing Argentina’s bond payments unless the sovereign also tendered payment in full to a group of holdout creditors. This ultimately pushed Argentina into default in July 2014, prompting some legal scholars and the financial press to declare that the episode would seriously impair future efforts to restructure sovereign debt.

In The Undead Norm of Unenforceability in Sovereign Debt, I intend to argue that the NML decision (which was upheld on appeal) is poised to close the gap between the rhetoric of obligation and the reality of enforcement, but only temporarily, and that the systemic effects many fear are unlikely to materialize. NML provides a clear example of some of the dangers I write about in Boilerplate Shock: Sovereign Debt Contracts as Incubators of Systemic Risk: standard terms in private, foreign-law contracts—in this case, a provision known as the pari passu clause—are driving macroeconomic events to a degree that no one anticipated.

However, the magnitude of the harm here will probably be contained. The near-term systemic impact has not been (and was unlikely to be) great in part because, unlike Greece (whose bonds I use as an example in Boilerplate Shock), Argentina is not a member of a monetary union. On a longer horizon, the effects seem even likelier to dissipate. Argentina’s contract-driven default is just the type of salient event that will prod the market to update boilerplate terms, in this case probably by restricting the reach of pari passu in future bond issues and perhaps in existing ones (by adding Collective Action Clauses, for example, which virtually eliminate the holdout problem). This should allow restructurings to continue on the flexible, ad hoc basis on which they currently occur—which is to say, without excessive judicial interference at the enforcement stage. Far from demonstrating that the norm of unenforceable sovereign debt is dead, this episode suggests it can’t be killed.

For this article, I’ll be standing on the shoulders of a rich literature on the Argentina dispute and drawing on research I’ve done at the intersection of commercial law, private international law, and financial regulation. In Boilerplate Shock, for example, I argue that currency and governing law clauses in Eurozone sovereign bonds are magnifying systemic risk in ways no one imagined when they selected those contract terms. In Ending Judgment Arbitrage: Jurisdictional Competition and the Enforcement of Foreign Money Judgments in the United States, I argue that fragmentation in the U.S. judgment enforcement regime post-Erie renders that system ripe for manipulation by savvy judgment creditors via a process I call “judgment arbitrage.”

Undead shares many commonalities with these two articles (particularly Boilerplate Shock). Perhaps most important, together they posit that private contracts—combined with choice of law rules and expansive conceptions of jurisdiction that make it possible to secure and actually enforce judgments based on them—are driving international economic events to a degree that no one anticipated. This is mainly a story of cascade effects, amplified by standardization: the interpretation of a given contract term impacts other actors (whose rights are determined by similar contracts) in the relevant market, and where that market is systemically significant, it can affect the global financial system.

As I suggest above and in the Boilerplate Shock abstract, I think the risk of contract-driven systemic failure (which I call “boilerplate shock”) is far more manageable today in the case of Argentina than in the Eurozone sovereign lending market. Let’s hope the risk does not materialize in Europe either; we already live in pretty exciting times.

Photo: Reuters/NYT

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