Pari Passu and Collective Action Clauses: The New World

An IMF staff report published in September and entitled “Strengthening the Contractual Framework to Address Collective Action Problems in Sovereign Debt Restructuring” discusses recent legal developments of relevance for sovereign debt markets and implications for the sovereign debt restructuring process.

The New York court decisions (NML Capital, Ltd v. Republic of Argentina) have rendered a holdout strategy more likely to succeed. This tends to exacerbate collective action problems and raises the risk of more protracted debt restructuring processes. Market participants, including the International Capital Markets Association (ICMA) are discussing contractual clarifications and modifications in response to this challenge. The IMF observes these discussions and supports the preliminary results.

The New York court decisions established a broader interpretation of the standard pari passu clause in sovereign debt contracts. Specifically, they extended the standard notion of “protection of a creditor from legal subordination of its claims in favor of another creditor” to the broader notion that a sovereign must pay creditors on a pro rata basis. The court decisions prohibited Argentina from making payments to holders of restructured bonds unless it paid holdout creditors on a pro rata basis, and it prevented banks from making payments on Argentina’s behalf. In this context, the decisions also interpret the U.S. Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The scope of the rulings is not clear, not least because the decisions also refer to Argentina’s “course of conduct.” If interpreted broadly, the court decisions change the legal framework and are likely to complicate the restructuring of New York law-governed debt contracts (while probably not affecting London law-governed contracts).

Box 1 of the report discusses in detail the history of the Argentine litigation in the U.S. The report also contains an annex on the history of pari passu clauses in New York law-governed sovereign debt contracts.

Sovereign issuers have already reacted to the court decisions, by modifying the pari passu clauses in debt contracts. Also, ICMA has proposed a new standard pari passu clause, emphasising equal ranking as opposed to pro rata payments.

Collective action clauses enable a qualified majority of bondholders (e.g., 75%) of a specific bond issuance to bind the minority to the terms of a restructuring agreement. If collective action clauses operate on a series-by-series basis rather than on the total stock of debt then a blocking minority can more easily be formed and a strategy of holding out is more likely to succeed, in particular in light of the recent New York court decisions. The possibility to aggregate claims across bond series for voting purposes works in the opposite direction. Some countries have included aggregation clauses in the debt contracts, and the ESM treaty requires standardised aggregation clauses (“Euro CACs”) in Euro area government bonds as well. These clauses feature a “two limb” voting structure, requiring a majority of bondholders in each series and across all series but a lower quorum (e.g., 66%). Currently, “single limb” procedures are being discussed. These would solely require a majority across all series. To prevent abuse, such single limb procedures would have to be accompanied by safeguards that ensure inter-creditor equity, in particular a restriction to offer all affected bondholders the same (menu of) instruments. (Offering the same (menu of) instruments would generally imply that some creditors suffer larger restructuring losses than others, depending on the type of instruments they held initially. But already today, this is common and generally accepted.)

Box 2 of the report discusses the history of collective action clauses. Box 3 of the report discusses disenfranchisement provisions. Their purpose is to limit the risk of a sovereign manipulating voting processes by influencing votes of entities under its control.