Controversy in Detroit: What's a Fair Settlement of Bondholder and Pension Obligation Claims?

Controversy in Detroit: What's a Fair Settlement of Bondholder and Pension Obligation Claims?

A huge battle between pensioners and bondholders is on. Last week, a Bond rating agency blasted Governor Rick Snyder’s $350-million Detroit pension rescue plan as being too favorable to creditors at the expense of bondholders.

Today, the New York Times reports Detroit Turns Bankruptcy Into Challenge of Banks.

Amy Laskey,a managing director at Fitch Ratings, said in a recent report that she sensed an “us versus them” orientation toward debt repayment. And in the view of bondholders, bond insurers and other financial institutions, it only grew worse last week after the city circulated its plan to emerge from bankruptcy and filed a lawsuit on Friday.

The suit, brought by the city’s emergency manager, Kevyn D. Orr, seeks to invalidate complex transactions that helped finance Detroit’s pension system in 2005. In a not-so-veiled criticism, the city said the deal was done “at the prompting of investment banks that would profit handsomely from the transaction.”

Of even greater concern to creditors is the city’s 99-page “plan of adjustment,” the all-important document that details how Detroit proposes to resolve its bankruptcy and finance its operations in the future. Banks, bond insurers and other corporate creditors think they are being asked to share a disproportionate amount of pain under the plan, still in draft form and not yet filed with the bankruptcy court.

“The essential issue is the near-total wipeout of the bondholders,” said Matt Fabian, a managing director of Municipal Market Advisors. He said Detroit’s case appeared to be heading toward a “cramdown,” or court-ordered infliction of losses on unwilling creditors.

The plan calls for the city to give pensioners up to 50 cents on the dollar for their claims, while other unsecured creditors, like those that bought Detroit’s general-obligation bonds, would end up with about 20 cents on the dollar. The pensioners’ claims would be paid with cash, while general-obligation bondholders would receive notes that Detroit proposes to issue.

The debt that raised $1.4 billion for the city pension system in 2005 would suffer bigger losses still. The plan of adjustment does not accept the entire $1.4 billion as a valid claim, only about half of it. So the investors who bought that debt, called “certificates of participation,” often called COPs, would end up with about 10 cents on the dollar. It would come in the form of a different series of notes, which has lags built into the payment schedules.

What’s a Fair Settlement?

Last summer, Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan said the intent was to “determine the best path forward that respects, and is fair to, pensioners and all parties.”

In bankruptcy, the court has an obligation of fairness. However, it’s not unprecedented for judges to take one side or another. Until now, the article claims “municipal bondholders have not had losses of principal forced on them by a court.”

Here is a key point: Both the pension obligations and bondholder debt are unsecured debt.

Why not treat both pensioners and bondholders equally? The proposal currently on the table is for pensions to get 50 cents on the dollar (a 50% haircut) and bondholders 20 cents on the dollar (an 80% haircut).

I have a simple proposal. Give everyone 35 cents on the dollar (a 65% haircut). Neither side would be happy, but the ruling would be fair.

I also recommend the court trash the city’s defined benefit plan entirely, or Detroit will be back in bankruptcy in a number of years.

Finally, if bondholders do not think they got a fair shake, they will demand higher interest rates going forward. Regardless of what the judge decides, the Detroit bankruptcy settlement will affect municipal bond interest rates going forward, not just in Michigan, but nationally.

About the Author:  Mike Shedlock is the editor of the top-rated global economics blog Mish’s Global Economic Trend Analysis, offering insightful commentary every day of the week. He is also a contributing “professor” on Minyanville, a community site focused on economic and financial education.


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