On June 16, the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) (Sculpture of Contemplation of Justice at the US Supreme Court, above left, credit) issued its judgment (penned by Justice Antonin Scalia) in Republic of Argentina v. NML Capital Ltd., affirming the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision holding that the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) did not immunize Argentina from postjudgment discovery of information sought by judgment creditor NML Capital Ltd. in regard to Argentina’s extraterritorial assets. Despite its broad waiver of sovereign immunity in its bond indenture agreements, Argentina had argued that the broad scope of discovery procedures in aid of execution of judgments was limited by principles of sovereign immunity. (Opinion of the Court, p. 5). The Second Circuit had held that “in a run of the mill execution proceeding….the district court would have been within its discretion to order the discovery from third-party banks about [Argentina’s] assets located outside the United States.” (Opinion of the Court, p. 5). From a textual reading of the conferral of immunities under the FSIA (§ 1604, 1606, 1609, 1610, 1611), the Court declared “there is no third provision forbidding or limiting discovery in aid of execution of a foreign-sovereign judgment debtor’s assets.” (Opinion of the Court, p. 8).The SCOTUS judgment thus enables NML to ask for information from third parties on Argentina’s global assets, so as to determine which of these assets could be subject to execution to satisfy a judgment debt of around $2.5 billion. The holdout creditors constitute around 7% of the total bondholder debts (about $1.5 billion remaining owed to the holdouts), with the 93% majority of bondholders having participated in restructurings in 2005 and 2010 where they accepted around 70% haircuts in their credits due. Read the rest of this entry…
In a landmark decision, the EFTA Court on 28 January 2013 dismissed all claims brought by the EFTA Surveillance Authority against Iceland in the Icesave case. The Authority had alleged that Iceland had breached its obligations under Directive 94/14/EC on deposit guarantee by failing to compensate Icesave depositors and had violated the prohibition on non-discrimination in the Directive and Article 4 of the EEA Agreement by prioritising payments to domestic savers. The court, referring to the collapse of the Icelandic banking system as an “enormous event” (para. 161), found that Iceland was not responsible for the liabilities of the Icelandic deposit insurance scheme that was overwhelmed with claims following the collapse of Iceland’s three major banks.
Icesave refers to two branches of the Icelandic bank Landsbanki that accepted deposits offering comparatively high interest rates in the UK and the Netherlands. Deposits in these branches were primarily the responsibility of the Icelandic Depositors’ and Investors’ Guarantee Fund (TIF). Following the wholesale collapse of Iceland’s banking system in October 2008, savers in the UK and the Netherlands lost access to their deposits on 6 October 2008. The Icelandic Parliament adopted emergency legislation on the same day to split Landsbanki into a good and a bad bank. By virtue of the same legislation, it gave priority to depositors as compared to other creditors (for further background on the Icesave dispute, including the unsuccessful negotiations between Iceland and the UK/Netherlands, see my ASIL Insight Iceland’s Financial Crisis – Quo Vadis International Law).
On 15 December, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) ordered Ghana to release the Argentine military training vessel ARA Fragata Libertad (see oral proceedings). NML Capital, an investment company focused on distressed debt based in the Cayman Islands and owned by Elliot Associates, a US hedge fund, had earlier obtained an order from the Ghana Superior Court of Judicature (Commercial Division) to attach the Libertad moored in the port of Trema to satisfy a judgment by a US District Court for payment on defaulted Argentine bonds. The Libertad was on an official goodwill mission in Ghana’s internal waters at the time of the attachment. Read the rest of this entry…
More than ten years have passed since Argentina defaulted on its external debt obligations in December 2001. However, the repercussions of the Argentine financial crisis continue to contribute to the development of international law. This brief note provides a short overview of the most recent decisions of different domestic courts arising out of this Argentinian saga: NML Ltd et al. v the Republic Argentina before the US Court of Appeals decided on 26th October 2012 (see reporting here, here, here and here), and the decision of the Ghanaian Commercial Court of 2nd October 2012 (see Opinio Juris, BBC, Al Jazeera, and elsewhere: here, and here), while reference will be made to the NML v Argentina case, before the UK Supreme Court which was decided on 6th July 2011 (see reporting here and here).
These three cases pronounced on inter-related, but distinct, legal issues (enforcement of foreign awards, state immunity, and non-discriminatory treatment of bondholders) arising out of the Argentine decision to default on its external debt. In combination, they have far-reaching legal implications. It is noteworthy that different courts from around the globe repeatedly ruled in favour of bondholders and against Argentina. Although Argentina in and out of court has invoked political arguments, such as the implications of the court’s approach to the Eurozone crisis resolution efforts (in NML v Argentina before the US Court of Appeals) and the nature of the claimants as ‘vulture funds’ (see here reacting to the Ghanaian Commercial Court ruling; see also Lord Phillips and Lord Collins in NML v Argentina  UKSC 31, paragraphs 1 and 104-107 respectively), domestic courts consistently prioritise a more legal or stricto sensu approach and promote the Rule of Law in international economic and financial relations.
Background and US Proceedings
After the default in 2001, Argentina made exchange offers to holders of bonds, which were governed by the Fiscal Agency Agreement (FAA). Read the rest of this entry…
Daniel Thym is Professor of Public, European and International Law at the University of Konstanz
Domestic German debates about the euro-crisis have had an unreal character so far. In the face of an economic crisis with global repercussions, the German public has been fascinated by the role of the Constitutional Court whom they admire. A vast majority of Germans trust that the country’s highest justices will steer the euro-debate through troubled waters with legal arguments. This confidence in the ability of Germany’s top constitutionalists, including several public law professors, was always bound to lead to disappointment.
It is true that the German Constitutional Court cannot be held responsible for the excessive media hype (or indeed opinion polls) about its role. However, it has to shoulder some responsibility. In recent years, the Court’s Second Senate had nourished the expectation that its interpretation of the principle of democracy was a lodestar for rescue operations. The debate reminded me of the fairy tale ‘The Emperor‘s New Clothes’. Those who aspire to ever more prestigious garments as a sign of power and wisdom risk being found to be naked at the end of the day. This applies to the German judicial ‘sovereign’ in the same vein as to the entourage who longed to gain from the prestige of their glorious ruler.
The Court’s latest judgment on the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) (also discussed by Michael Waibel here) and related instruments is an excellent demonstration why the desire for the pomp and circumstance of imperial times, remains an illusion (at least in Germany). The lesson is evident: the time has come to recalibrate the (legal) debate on euro rescue operations in Germany and beyond. Read the rest of this entry…
On September 12, 2012, the German Constitutional Court dismissed several constitutional complaints that sought an injunction to prevent German ratification of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) – a central pillar of the Eurozone’s crisis response – and the Fiscal Treaty in the preliminary phase of the proceedings (extracts in English). A full ruling is expected in a few months. German ratification is required for the ESM treaty to enter into force, and critical in financial terms for the ESM’s credibility. The Court’s preliminary ruling means that the last hurdle for the ESM to enter into force has now been cleared. German ratification should follow in the next few weeks.
The court conditioned German ratification on two reservations to the ESM treaty: first, the German capital subscription needs to be limited to 190 billion Euros, as provided by the ESM Treaty (though the ESM’s capital may be increased beyond this ceiling pursuant to the procedure forseen in Article 10 of the ESM Treaty); and second, notwithstanding the confidentiality of the ESM’s deliberations, the German Parliament needs to be fully informed about operations of the ESM. The Bundesverfassungsgericht seized its one chance to foreclose two possible, but unlikely interpretations of the ESM Treaty that would conflict with the German Constitution before interpretative authority passes to the Court of Justice under the ESM Treaty.
The Court’s insistence on two reservations is only a small “but”. The Court took issue with two aspects that are marginal to the firepower and effectiveness of the ESM. The decision has virtually no effect on how the ESM will operate, and in particular on the capital that the ESM will have its disposal. It could lengthen the German ratification process by a few weeks, but the Court’s decision has removed substantial unertainty about the Eurozone crisis response. Most other Eurozone member countries, including France and Spain, have already ratified the treaty. According to Article 48 of the ESM Treaty, the Treaty enters into force once countries representing 90 percent of capital subscriptions have ratified. The German share in of the total capital subscriptions of 700 billion Euros is just over 27 percent.
While financial markets have focused on Karlsruhe where the second challenge to the Eurozone rescue efforts in a year is currently pending, the Irish Supreme Court held on July 31 that Irish ratification of the Treaty establishing the European Stability Mechanism and the Fiscal Treaty was compatible with the Irish constitution. The court referred two questions to the Court of Justice under the latter’s accelerated preliminary reference procedure due to the exceptional urgency of the case. Notwithstanding, the Supreme Court declined to enjoin the Irish ratification process while the case is pending before the Court of Justice. The Irish government ratified both treaties on August 1.
In contrast, the German Bundesverfassungsgericht bidded its time on a similar challenge to German ESM ratification. Ireland is on the frontline of the Eurozone crisis. The Economist, in departure from the deference it typically pays to court proceedings, called the German Constitutional Court ‘ scandalously slow’ . Ireland is one of three Eurozone countries with an EU-IMF financing package in place. Most of the support is provided by the European Financial Stability Facility that the ESM is designed to replace once it starts operating. The need to decide this significant case as a matter of urgency was evident to the Irish Supreme Court. It put seven judges on the appeal, super-fast-tracked the hearing, and reserved four days for the hearing.
On August 1, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) dashed hopes of Northern Rock shareholders to obtain compensation from the UK for the collapse and nationalization of British bank Northern Rock. The Fourth Section of the ECtHR unanimously dismissed the case Dennis Grainger and others v. UK (Application No. 34940/10) as manifestly ill-founded and inadmissible. The decision has broader ramifications. It suggests that member countries of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) have a wide margin of appreciation in setting macro-economic policy in general and in the resolution of banking and financial crises in particular. The ECtHR decision suggests that creditors and other interested parties will face an uphill struggle in challenging measures taken in the context of financial crisis resolution before the ECtHR and in obtaining compensation. It is an important decision at the intersection of international finance and human rights. Investors holding the debt of Eurozone governments will take note.
The court fully endorsed the holding and approach of the English courts. Like the English domestic courts, it found that the assumptions that the valuer of Northern Rock shares was required to make pursuant to the Banking (Special Provisions) Act 2008 s.5 (4) did not violate the rights of shareholders under Article 1 of the First Additional Protocol.
Review of Expert Determinations of the International Swaps and Derivatives Association by Domestic Courts
A central policy concern since the onset of the Greek debt crisis in 2010 has been whether sovereign debt restructurings trigger credit default swaps (CDS). CDS are insurance-like financial products whereby a protection seller agrees to pay the protection buyer in case of a credit event on a reference entity (in this case Greece) in return for a premium over a defined period of time. The legal framework for CDS transactions is largely standardized. More than 90 percent of CDS transactions are based on the ISDA Master Agreement. As a mechanism for creditors to hedge against the default of a debtor, CDS are financial instruments to redistribute risk (or, according to their defenders, to shift risk onto those entities willing and capable of better bearing such risks). Over the last two decades, CDS on sovereign debtors became increasingly common.
Greece’s debt restructuring in February/March 2012 was the first to be implemented under the umbrella of a large number of CDS (more than 2.5 billion Euros in net terms). During the implementation phase of the Greek restructuring in March 2012, several interested market participants raised the question whether the Greek restructuring triggered an obligation for the sellers of CDS on Greece to pay. The Determinations Committee (DC) of the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA) for Europe, Middle East and Africa, the body established by ISDA and given decision-making power under the ISDA documentation to rule on credit events, found that a restructuring credit event was triggered on March 9 2012. The parties to CDS have agreed by contract that a credit event occurs only if the competent DC has said so.
As the Greek restructuring in February/March 2012 demonstrated, the consequences of such expert determinations by DCs can be momentous in financial terms not only for the parties to CDS transactions themselves, but also for the broader public and for taxpayers. A case in point is the Austrian bank KA Finanz, the bad bank split off from Kommunalkredit, the comparatively small Austrian lender to municipalities previously owned by Dexia that the Austrian government nationalized at the height of the global financial crisis. KA Finanz had taken over about 500 million Euros of CDS on Greece from Kommunalkredit. As a result of the payouts following the March 9 decision, the Austrian government had to inject another 1 billion Euros into the bank in order to stave off its collapse.
DCs recruit their members from among financial institutions and investment managers, which will often have positions on either side of CDS transactions. In view of their composition and the considerable practical importance of their decisions, concern has arisen that DC members may be tempted to “vote their own book” – i.e. to reach credit determinations in part based on whether the firm is on the buying or selling side of CDS for a particular reference entity. For instance, two members of the Steering Committee of the Institute of International Finance which negotiated the restructuring of Greek debt on behalf of private creditors of Greece, are voting members of the DC for Europe (BNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank). They were net sellers of CDS protection on Greece, meaning that both institutions had to pay out to protection buyers when the credit event occured. Given these concerns about independence of DCs and the right to a fair trial in civil matters under Article 6 of the European Convention, it is an open question whether competent domestic courts could in effect review decisions and potentially overturn decisions of DCs. Read the rest of this entry…