Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Is Creditor Sabotage a Myth?

Yesterday, my weekly SSRN search on the keyword “derivatives” returned a fascinating article: Vincent S.J. Buccola, Jameson K. Mah, and Tai Zhang’s The Myth of Creditor Sabotage (forthcoming in the U. of Chi. L. Rev. 2020). For years now, as researchers in this area know, much speculation has existed about the role of net-short creditors – those creditors for whom “a derivative payoff [as a result of a debtor’s failure would be] more than sufficient to offset a loss on the underlying investment” – potentially play in a debtor’s demise.  Indeed, I’ve posted about Confining Lenders with CDS PositionsLargely missing from such debates, however, has been discussion of other market participants’ incentives.  Indeed, as the authors state in their Introduction: “The problem with the sabotage story is not that it misapprehends net-short creditors’ incentives, but that it ignores everyone else’s.”  So basic, yet so right.  Thus far, legal scholarship has insufficiently focused on this critical consideration.  In hopes of helping to reverse this shortfall, I highly encourage readers to review this article.  It is posted on SSRN here and an abstract is below:

Since credit derivatives began to substantially influence financial markets a decade ago, rumors have circulated about so-called “net-short” creditors who seek to damage promising albeit financially distressed companies. A recent episode pitting the hedge fund Aurelius against broadband provider Windstream is widely supposed to be a case in point and has at once fueled calls for law reform and yielded an ostensible effigy of Wall Street predation.

This article argues that creditor sabotage is a myth. Net-short strategies work, if at all, by in effect burning money. When therefore an activist creditor shows its cards, as all activists must eventually do, it also reveals an opportunity for others to profit by thwarting the activist’s plans and saving threatened surplus from the ashes. We discuss three sources of liquidity that targeted firms could tap to block a saboteur — “net-long” derivatives speculators, the targets’ own investors, and bankruptcy. We conclude that it is exceedingly difficult for creditors to make money hobbling debtors and that there is little reason to believe anyone tries. We then examine the Windstream case and find, consistent with our theory, that the strongest reason for thinking Aurelius aimed at sabotage, namely that everyone says so, is weak indeed. Our analysis suggests that calls for law reform are addressed to a non-existent or at worst self-correcting problem. Precisely for this reason, however, the persistent appeal of the sabotage myth is a lesson in political rhetoric. A story needn’t be true for some to find it useful.


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