By CHARLES E. CAREY

On March 15, 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission (“Commission” or “SEC”) published in the Federal Register for comment proposed amendments to Rule 15c2-12 (the “Rule”) under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”) that would amend the list of event notices required under the Rule in a manner that, if such amendments are finalized in their proposed form, would likely require issuers of, or “obligated persons” on, publicly offered municipal bonds to provide detailed ongoing disclosure of any new debt, derivatives and other “financial obligations.”

The Rule requires that a broker, dealer, or municipal securities dealer (collectively, “dealers”) acting as an underwriter in a primary offering of municipal securities reasonably determine that an issuer or an obligated person has undertaken, in a written agreement or contract for the benefit of holders of the municipal securities, to provide to the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board (“MSRB”) through the MSRB’s Electronic Municipal Market Access (“EMMA”) system, prompt notice of specified events. The proposed amendments would amend the list of such event notices to include;

  • (i) incurrence of a financial obligation of the obligated person, if material, or agreement [by the obligated person] to covenants, events of default, remedies, priority rights, or other similar terms of a financial obligation of the obligated person, any of which affect security holders, if material; and
  • (ii) default, event of acceleration, termination event, modification of terms, or other similar events under the terms of a financial obligation of the obligated person, any of which reflect financial difficulties.

The proposed amendment provides a broad definition of “financial obligation” which includes: a (i) debt obligation, (ii) lease, (iii) guarantee, (iv) derivative instrument, or (v) monetary obligation resulting from a judicial, administrative, or arbitration proceeding. The “financial obligation” definition excludes traditional municipal bonds which are already covered by the Rule.

In the release accompanying the proposed amendments, the SEC noted that if new financial obligations or new material covenants, events of default or remedies impacted an issuer’s or obligated person’s liquidity and creditworthiness, the credit quality of the issuer’s or obligated person’s outstanding debt could be adversely affected which could impact an investor’s investment decision or other market participant’s credit analysis. Such changes to credit quality could also affect the price of the issuer’s or obligated person’s existing bonds.  Items the SEC referenced as potentially material include debt service coverage ratios, rate covenants, additional bond tests, contingent liabilities, events of default, remedies and priority payment provisions (including structural priority such as balloon payments, for example).

The Commission’s accompanying release stated that the event notice of incurrence of a material financial obligation generally should include a description of the material terms of the financial obligation. According to the release, examples of such material terms include the date of incurrence, principal amount, maturity and amortization, and interest rate, if fixed, or method of computation, if variable (and any default rates); the release states that disclosure of other terms may be appropriate as well, depending on the circumstances.

Unless the proposed amendments are pared back following the comment period, they are likely to result in the required disclosure by issuers or obligated persons of municipal bonds subject to the Rule of virtually all new loan agreements with banks or other private lenders, privately placed municipal bond indentures or loan agreements, swap agreements, real estate leases, and material judgments or arbitration rulings, as issuers and obligated persons are unlikely to shoulder the administrative burden and legal risk associated with determinations of which obligations, and which terms of such obligations, are “material” and which are, and will remain in hindsight, clearly immaterial.  Similarly, for expense and risk reasons, it is more likely that full legal documents will be disclosed versus substantially redacted or summarized versions.

The proposed amendments do not appear to require disclosure of the termination or satisfaction of financial obligations previously disclosed on EMMA as material events; accordingly they may result in the accumulation over time on EMMA of a variety of lengthy loan agreements, indentures, swap agreements and the like with no clear way for bondholders or brokers accessing EMMA to determine whether the relevant obligations and the related agreements continue in effect. Such overdisclosure may limit the pool of investors with respect to the obligations of the issuer or obligated person, in that brokers responsible under MSRB Rule G-47 for conveying to customers all material information about the security accessible on EMMA may opt not to do so for securities with EMMA postings that include unwieldy amounts of raw legal documents.

Issuers and obligated persons may also deem the requirement to publicly disclose otherwise private transactions adverse to their business interests. Currently, for example, an issuer or obligated person may negotiate different covenants and different covenant levels with different private lenders, without each lender necessarily having access to the covenants of the other lenders.  If the amendments require the issuer or obligated person to disclose on EMMA the coverage, days cash on hand, interest rates and other material terms of its private loan arrangements, the result over time may be for each new lender to require, in effect, most favored nation status with covenants and other terms at least as tough as the toughest terms previously agreed to by the applicable issuer or obligated group.  Reasonable minds may disagree on whether that should “come with the territory” when an issuer chooses to access the public municipal market, but to date such public disclosure of the details of private transactions has not been required.

The second new event notice, for the occurrence of a default, event of acceleration, termination event, modification of terms, or other similar events under the terms of a financial obligation of the issuer or obligated person, presents a different judgment call for issuers and obligated persons, as such disclosure is only required if the event “reflects financial difficulties.” Some of the examples cited in the release for subsequent events include monetary or covenant defaults that might result in acceleration of the debt, swap events, such as rating downgrades, which might require the posting of collateral or the payment of a termination payment and changes to the contract rights of the counterparties to financial obligations. Again, it is unlikely that entities subject to such requirements would expend much legal capital on parsing through whether a swap termination event, or even an amendment of loan documents, “reflects financial difficulties”, and the tendency is likely to be towards overdisclosure.

There are additional ambiguities in the proposed amendments. According to the accompanying release, the amendments will only be applicable to continuing disclosure agreements executed after the amendments are finalized, but it is unclear, for example, whether an issuer or obligated person that executes a continuing disclosure agreement governed by the amended Rule will be required to disclose all previously incurred material “financial obligations”, or whether only “financial obligations” incurred following the execution of such an agreement will be subject to such disclosure.  The accompanying release does indicate that the required notice of default, event of acceleration, termination event, modification of terms, or other similar events under the terms of a financial obligation which reflect financial difficulties would apply with respect to financial obligations previously incurred.

Unlike many of the existing events for which event notices are currently required under the Rule, which occur rarely, incurrence of financial obligations occurs regularly for many issuers and obligated persons. Accordingly, these amendments arguably would constitute the broadest expansion to date of the Rule’s continuing disclosure requirements. They are sure to generate many comments from affected parties before they are finalized.

By CHRISTIE MARTIN and MAXWELL D. SOLET

After two sets of proposed regulations, Treasury and IRS have now released final regulations on the definition of “issue price” for purposes of arbitrage investment restrictions that apply to tax-advantaged bonds (the “Final Regulations”) and it appears that the third time’s the charm. Practitioners are particularly praising the addition of a special rule for determining issue price for competitive sales and clarification on determining issue price for private placements.  The Final Regulations were published in the Federal Register on December 9, 2016 and can be found here.

Several years ago, tax regulators became concerned that the longstanding practice of allowing an issue price to be calculated based on reasonable expectations could lead to abuse in that “reasonably expected” issue prices for bonds sometimes differed from the prices at which bonds were actually being sold to retail investors. A determination by the IRS that the “issue price” has been erroneously calculated can have ramifications for the calculation of arbitrage yield that could ultimately cause loss of tax-advantaged status.  A clear and predictable definition of issue price is therefore essential for the tax-advantaged bond community.

After the first set of proposed regulations, published in the Federal Register on September 16, 2013, caused an uproar in the bond counsel community as being largely unworkable, they were withdrawn and re-proposed on June 24, 2015 (the “2015 Proposed Regulations”). The 2015 Proposed Regulations were subject to a comment period followed by a public hearing.  These Final Regulations build on the 2015 Proposed Regulations with certain changes in response to the public comments.

The Final Regulations look to actual facts as the general rule for determining issue price. Generally, the issue price of bonds is the first price at which a substantial amount (at least 10%) of the bonds is sold to the public.  For bonds issued in a private placement to a single buyer, the Final Regulations clarify that the issue price of the bonds is the price paid by that buyer.

In recognition of the need in the tax-advantaged bond community for certainty as of the sale date (particularly in the case of advance refundings), the Final Regulations offer a special rule in the event a substantial amount of bonds has not been sold to the public as of the sale date. The special rule allows reliance on the initial offering price to the public if certain conditions are satisfied including evidence that the bonds were actually offered at the initial offering price and the written agreement of each underwriter that it will not offer or sell the bonds to any person at a price higher than the initial offering price during the period starting on the sale date and ending on the earlier of (i) the close of the 5th business day after the sale date, or (ii) the date on which the underwriters have sold at least 10% of the bonds to the public at a price that is no higher than the initial offering price.

Procedures for satisfying the conditions for use of this special rule will have to be developed but it is reasonable to expect that changes will need to be made to bond purchase agreements and underwriter selling agreements to comply with these requirements.

The special rule for competitive sales provides that in a competitive sale meeting certain requirements, an issuer may treat the reasonably expected initial offering price to the public as of the sale date as the issue price if the winning bidder certifies that its winning bid was based on this reasonably expected initial offering price as of the sale date. This special issue price rule for competitive sales has been repeatedly requested by practitioners and is a welcome improvement over the prior proposed regulations which treated both negotiated sales and competitive sales in the same manner.

The Final Regulations will be effective for obligations that are sold on or after June 7, 2017 and there is no option to rely upon the Final Regulations with respect to obligations that are sold prior to that date. This delayed effective date should allow bond counsel and underwriters time to develop effective and hopefully uniform procedures and documentation to implement the new regulations.

By LEN WEISER-VARON

The linked Mintz Levin client advisory discusses a recent Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that held a “make-whole” optional redemption premium to be due upon a refinancing of corporate debt following its automatic acceleration upon bankruptcy. As noted in the linked advisory, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals also is considering this issue; whether it will come to the same conclusion remains to be seen. One way or another, these decisions will have spillover effect on judicial interpretation of optional redemption provisions in municipal bond transactions, and shine a spotlight upon the discrepancies between optional redemption provisions and other early payment provisions in most municipal bond indentures.

The Third Circuit case involved a debtor, Energy Future Holdings, that filed for bankruptcy for the explicit purpose of refinancing the debt at favorable interest rates while avoiding the hefty make-whole premiums payable upon an optional redemption of the refinanced notes. The bankruptcy court and the federal district court found nothing in the applicable corporate indenture requiring payment of a make-whole following an acceleration.  The Third Circuit reversed, interpreting the applicable corporate indenture’s “optional redemption” provisions to be applicable to the bankruptcy-triggered acceleration followed by repayment of the accelerated debt via a refinancing.

The Third Circuit’s ruling that the repayment following acceleration was an “optional redemption” may have been driven by the factual context of what could be characterized as an “optional bankruptcy” filed solely or primarily to jettison the make-whole payments and lock in lower rate replacement financing. The indenture’s acceleration provision was, as is usual, a remedial provision entirely separate from the indenture’s optional redemption provisions, and, as is typical but not universal, did not specify a premium to be due upon payment of the accelerated debt. Although once the accelerated payment was due there was nothing “optional” about paying it, the appellate panel opined that the payment on the applicable date was “optional” because the issuer chose to file for bankruptcy and chose not to deaccelerate the debt after the bankruptcy triggered the automatic acceleration.  The fact that the bondholders objected to repayment without a make-whole premium also seems to have factored into the court’s determination that the payment by the issuer was “optional.”

The federal appellate court also concluded that under New York law a “redemption” may occur at or before maturity of bonds, and that therefore a “redemption” is not synonymous with a prepayment.  (Indeed, the court suggested that if the make-whole premium had been labeled a “prepayment” premium rather than an “optional redemption” premium, it may have held the make-whole inapplicable, a curious distinction that leads back to the question of under what circumstances payment of an amount that has become due can be deemed optional.) The court disregarded indenture provisions that were technically inconsistent with its determination that the payment was an “optional redemption”, such as the optional redemption requirement of prior notice from the issuer to the bondholders. According to the court: “[The issuer] offers no reason why it could not have complied with [the redemption] notice procedures. In any event, it cannot use its own failure to notify to absolve its duty to pay the make-whole.”

By interpreting the indenture’s optional redemption provisions as applicable to the payment of the accelerated debt, the Third Circuit panel mooted and declined to address the noteholders’ alternate argument that the bankruptcy court should have granted relief from the bankruptcy stay to permit the bondholders to deaccelerate the accelerated debt. Whether that would have provided a more straightforward means of getting to the same result is debatable, as debt generally is deemed accelerated upon a bankruptcy whether or not it is contractually accelerated by the terms of the indenture.

The optional redemption provisions that are typical in municipal bond indentures refute the equivalence found by the Third Circuit between an optional redemption and a payment after acceleration. In contrast to the permissibility in corporate transactions of optional redemption at any time at a make-whole premium, the norm in municipal bond transactions is a lockout period (often 10 years) during which optional redemption is impermissible, followed by a declining fixed optional redemption premium. The fact that municipal indentures permit acceleration whenever there is an event of default, including upon bankruptcy, while imposing a lockout period for optional redemption, suggests that in the municipal bond context there may be less receptiveness by courts to the notion of deemed equivalence between an optional redemption and a payment following acceleration. Accordingly, a court may be less likely to deem an optional redemption premium applicable to a post-acceleration payment on a municipal bond absent express language requiring a premium in a post-acceleration context.

Whether corporate or municipal bonds are at issue, the best way to ensure the intended result is to draft clearly and specifically.  Municipal bond indentures often permit or require bonds to be paid ahead of schedule not only upon acceleration but upon a so-called extraordinary redemption.  These provisions, which typically permit payment ahead of schedule at par, are infrequently deployed relative to optional redemption provisions. Use of bankruptcy as a means of avoiding a prepayment premium is less likely in the municipal context, where the prepayment premium is typically 3% or less versus the often substantially larger make-whole premium, but “default refundings” of municipal bonds have been attempted to circumvent the optional redemption lockout period. There is no difference in the economic impact to a bondholder of early payment, no matter the degree of optionality or lack of optionality from the issuer’s perspective, and whether an early payment premium is expressly provided by the indenture in cases other than “optional redemption” is primarily a risk allocation question.

Drafting acceleration provisions and/or extraordinary redemption provisions in a manner that applies an equivalent premium to the optional redemption premium upon their exercise during the post-lockout period, and a make-whole or other premium during the optional redemption lockout period, provides better protection against any perceived risk of abuse of those provisions than reliance on the courts to figure out what the parties intended and/or is equitable in borderline scenarios.

By MAXWELL D. SOLET

On November 13, the IRS issued Notice 2015-78, providing favorable guidance on topics of interest to providers of “supplemental” or “alternative” student loans financed with tax-exempt bonds and to underwriters of such student loan bonds. Such guidance confirms that loans financeable under such programs include (i) parent loans as well as student loans and (ii) loans that refinance or consolidate prior loans that were or could have been financed on a tax-exempt basis.

Tax-exempt bonds used to finance student loans, so-called “qualified student loan bonds,” come in two flavors under the Internal Revenue Code, those issued to finance federally-guaranteed loans made under the Federal Family Education Loan Program (“FFELP”) and those issued to finance certain loans issued under programs created by the states, generally known as “supplemental” or “alternative” loan programs. While the FFELP program, historically much larger, terminated in 2010, tax-exempt financing for new loans under state supplemental programs has continued in approximately fifteen states.

Notice 2015-78 appears to have been prompted by recent efforts by governmental issuers to provide refinancing of student loan debt through non-federally guaranteed “consolidation loans”, which presented questions on which the IRS had not previously provided guidance.  The IRS also used the notice as an opportunity to address selected other issues applicable to all tax-exempt financed supplemental loans, not just refinancing loans. The Notice clarifies the following:

  • Eligible Borrowers.  Notwithstanding the widespread practice of making higher education loans to parents, a practice provided for by statute under FFELP through the Parent Loan to Undergraduate Students (PLUS) program, the IRS had expressed concerns in the context of ruling request discussions about whether loans to parents were bond-financeable student loans.  Notice 2015-78 clarifies that the student, the parent, or both can be an eligible borrower of a bond-financed “student loan.”  The Notice attempts to provide a similar rule for refinancing loans, stating, “An eligible borrower of a refinancing loan … is the student or parent borrower of the original loan.”  In the refinancing loan context the Notice’s particular wording leaves unclear whether if the sole borrower on the original loan was the parent, the sole borrower on the refinancing loan can be the proud young graduate who wishes to take on the debt through a consolidation loan.  Such a fact pattern clearly satisfies the policy underlying this otherwise expansively drafted notice.
  • Nexus to State.  The Internal Revenue Code requires the student to be a resident of the state which provides the “volume cap” allocation for the bonds or enrolled at an educational institution in that state.  In the case of a refinancing or consolidation loan, there has been some question whether such “nexus” is required to be established at the time the original loan was made or at the time the refinancing loan is made.  The Notice provides the broadest rule, stating that a “refinancing loan,” including a loan which allows the borrower to consolidate prior debt, complies with the statutory nexus requirement either if that requirement was satisfied at the time of the original loan or if it is satisfied at the time of the refinancing loan.  If reliance is placed on nexus at the time the original loan is made,  in the case of a consolidation loan care may need to be exercised to establish nexus for all underlying loans.
  • Loan Size.  The Code limits supplemental loans to “the difference between the total cost of attendance and other forms of student assistance … for which the student borrower may be eligible.”  The “may be eligible” language has resulted in troublesome challenges in IRS audits, where IRS agents have suggested that issuers might be responsible for documenting that students actually had applied for all other potentially available student assistance, or obligated to downsize loans by the amount of other student assistance that was hypothetically available but not received by the student.  The Notice confirms that tax-exempt bond issuers may rely on certifications from the student’s school as to total cost of attendance and as to other student assistance.  Further, the school may rely on definitions provided under the Higher Education Act, including a definition of “estimated financed assistance” which looks only to assistance the student “will receive.”
  • Type of Loans Eligible for Refinancing.  The Notice states that supplemental student loan bonds can be used to refinance not only original loans which were themselves supplemental loans but also other loans, “for example, a FFELP loan or a student loan made by a private lender, provided that the refinancing loan meets all of the requirements for a State Supplemental Loan.”   Although not addressed by the Notice, it should be noted that tax-exempt bonds issued to refinance prior loans, including consolidation of prior loans, generally will require an allocation of state volume cap, which in some states is a scarce commodity.  The need for volume cap may be avoided to the extent the refinancing loans made with proceeds of a bond issue refinance loans financed with other tax-exempt bonds issued by the same issuer or a related issuer and the payoffs on the refinanced loans are applied to redeem such other tax-exempt bonds in a manner that qualifies for the volume cap exception for current refunding bonds.

As a general proposition, the national student loan market is growing and dynamic.  Notice 2015-78 will assist governmental issuers in fulfilling their intended role.

By MAXWELL SOLET and CHRISTIE MARTIN

Treasury and IRS today announced a decision to withdraw the much-criticized portion of the notice of proposed rulemaking published in the Federal Register on September 16, 2013 (the “2013 Proposed Regulations”) related to the definition of issue price for tax-advantaged obligations and to propose a revised definition of issue price in its place. A determination by the IRS that the “issue price” has been erroneously calculated can have ramifications, including for the calculation of arbitrage yield, that could ultimately cause loss of tax-exempt status in the case of tax-exempt bonds and loss of federal subsidy in the case of Build America Bonds (BABs), hence the importance to the tax-exempt bond community of a clear and predictable definition.

The new proposed regulations (the “2015 Proposed Regulations”) are scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on June 24, 2015 and can be found here. A 90-day comment period will be followed by a hearing on October 28, 2015.

The 2015 Proposed Regulations eliminate most of the troublesome features of the 2013 Proposed Regulations, including maintaining a 10% standard rather than the 2013 Proposed Regulations 25% standard for what constitutes a “substantial amount” of obligations sold to the public. However, the 2015 Proposed Regulations do not maintain the long-established “reasonable expectations” standard for establishing issue price. Instead, the 2015 Proposed Regulations look to actual facts as the general rule.

In recognition of the need in the tax-advantaged debt world for certainty as of the sale date (particularly in the case of advance refundings), the 2015 Proposed Regulations helpfully provide an alternative method in the event a substantial amount of bonds have not been sold to the public as of the sale date. The alternative method allows reliance on the initial offering price if certain conditions are satisfied.

Procedures for satisfying the conditions for use of this alternative method will have to be developed, and underwriters may conclude that compliance will be difficult. In particular, a preclusion of sales at prices above the initial offering price unless it can be demonstrated that the differential is based on market changes could be problematic.

The 2015 Proposed Regulations will be effective for obligations that are sold on or after 90 days after final regulations are published in the Federal Register. However, issuers may rely upon the 2015 Proposed Regulations with respect to obligations that are sold on or after June 24, 2015, the date the 2015 Proposed Regulations will be published in the Federal Register.

By LEN WEISER-VARON and BILL KANNEL

A few reactions to today’s oral arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit regarding the validity of Puerto Rico’s Recovery Act:

  • On the three judge panel, Chief Judge Lynch seemed prepared to uphold the lower court decision invalidating the Recovery Act; she suggested  that Congress’s amendment of the Bankruptcy Code to eliminate the Chapter 9 eligibility of Puerto Rico’s instrumentalities could be interpreted as reflecting Congressional intent that Congress, and not Puerto Rico, should determine how to deal with Puerto Rico’s municipal insolvencies.  Judge Torruella seemed more sympathetic to Puerto Rico’s arguments that the statutory language does not articulate any such intent, that there is no legislative history as to the rationale for the removal of Puerto Rico from Chapter 9 eligibility, and that Congressional intent to preempt Puerto Rico’s use of its police power to enact bankruptcy legislation addressing a fiscal crisis cannot be assumed absent affirmative evidence of such intent.  The third judge on the panel, Judge Howard, asked fewer questions, but asked some pointed ones relating to the potential severability of certain provisions of the Recovery Act.  At the end of the arguments, Chief Judge Lynch characterized the case as an important one and pledged that the court would “work hard” on its decision.
  • On the basis of the judges’ questions, it seems more likely that the panel will uphold the lower court’s decision than that it will reverse it, although the decision may be a close one.  It is possible that the court will remand the case back to the District Court with instructions to determine whether provisions of the Recovery Act that do not impact nonconsenting creditors can be salvaged by severing those that do (versus invalidating the entire Recovery Act), but it is questionable that such a statute, and such an exercise, would be of any utility.
  • Either way, there is a good chance that the First Circuit’s opinion will turn out to be a way station on a longer road, the next segment of which will be an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • The appellants pressed their arguments that, read literally, Section 903 of the Bankruptcy Code is only applicable in situations involving a Chapter 9 debtor, which Puerto Rico instrumentalities by definition cannot be, and that the lower court therefore misconstrued Section 903 in holding its restrictions on nonfederal bankruptcy statutes applicable to Puerto Rico. The oral arguments then focused primarily on whether a literal interpretation of Section 903 as inapplicable to Puerto Rico would or would not lead to absurd results and/or results that Congress could not have intended, and on what Congressional intent can be inferred (given little, if any, applicable legislative history) from the chronology of revisions to provisions of federal bankruptcy statutes impacting the inclusion or exclusion from federal bankruptcy eligibility of the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and other territories.  Each side construed the legislative chronology as clearly supporting their clients’ views of whether Congress’s ultimate exclusion of Puerto Rico’s instrumentalities from Chapter 9 eligibility was or wasn’t intended to leave Congress with the sole power to enact any bankruptcy statute for such excluded instrumentalities.  When Judge Torruella asserted that it would be highly unusual for Congress to leave Puerto Rico in a “no man’s land” with no recourse to any bankruptcy process, Chief Judge Lynch countered that perhaps Congress did not intend to leave Puerto Rico’s municipalities in limbo forever, but that it might take time for Congress to decide what approach to take.
  • Addressing arguments by the appellees that it would make no sense for Congress to eliminate Puerto Rico’s Chapter 9 eligibility while permitting Puerto Rico to “xerox Chapter 9 and make it worse” through a statute such as the Recovery Act, appellants’ counsel reminded the judges that Puerto Rico would be subject to substantial federal law constraints, such as the contracts clause, that would not be applicable in a Chapter 9 proceeding.   That is accurate, and brings to the fore the question of whether, even if Puerto Rico were to persuade the First Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court that Section 903 does not preempt the Recovery Act or invalidate its key provisions, it will have done itself any favors.  Although the contracts clause is not impregnable, it sets a high bar for a public instrumentality’s restructuring of its own debts.  The Section 903 litigation is only the first salvo in an armada of facial and as applied legal assaults that would face any Puerto Rico issuer attempting to break its bond contracts.  Puerto Rico clearly believes that having a Recovery Act gives it more leverage in creditor negotiations than not having it, but any meaningful restructuring under the Recovery Act might well be legally ineffectual.  Whatever happens to the Recovery Act, Puerto Rico needs to find other ways to address its fiscal issues.

By LEN WEISER-VARON

The MSRB has put out for comment a proposed interpretive notice http://www.msrb.org/Rules-and-Interpretations/Regulatory-Notices/2012/2012-04.aspx designed to eliminate or reduce instances in which underwriters of new bonds issued under a parity indenture or bond resolution consent to amendments to such instrument on the issuance date of the new bonds during the brief period in which the underwriter owns the bonds prior to their resale to the underwriter’s customers.  According to the MSRB’s request for comment: “While underwriters may technically be bondholders during the period between the time they purchase an issuer’s bonds and the time they distribute the bonds to investors, they are still underwriters while they hold bonds with a view to distribution.  As such, they will not be negatively affected by the amendments to which they consent.  In fact, they may have a monetary incentive to consent to the amendments and, accordingly, a conflict of interest.”

The proposed interpretive release would characterize such underwriter consents to amendments  as a potential violation of MSRB Rule G-17, which requires broker-dealers to “deal fairly with all persons in the conduct of their municipal securities activities.”   The notice does not impose a blanket prohibition on such consents, and declines to establish any standard (such as amendments that are materially adverse to existing bondholders) for what might constitute an unfair consent by an underwriter.  The notice does provide, as an example of an underwriter consent that could be deemed a violation of MSRB Rule G-17, a consent to amendments that would reduce the security for existing bondholders (e.g., eliminating or reducing a debt service reserve requirement, releasing collateral or loosening additional indebtedness tests.) 

The notice provides that such underwriter consents would not constitute a duty of fair dealing violation if (i) the indenture or resolution expressly provide that an underwriter can provide bondholder consent and (ii) the offering documents for the outstanding previously issued bonds disclosed that bondholder consents could be provided by underwriters of other securities issued under the indenture or resolution.  The voting of bonds acquired by a broker-dealer without an intent to distribute also would be exempted, as would underwriter consents to amendments to the terms of variable rate demand obligations at the time of their mandatory tender.   .

The notice is interesting in that it interprets a broker-dealer’s fair dealing duty as applying literally to “all persons”, including prior bondholders with which it has no relationship.  The notice does not address other techniques used by issuers to facilitate indenture amendments, such as disclosure in offering documents that purchasers of newly offered bonds will be “deemed” to have consented to specified amendments.  Such other techniques may not raise the same concerns, as they typically involve new bondholders that will actually have long-term exposure to the amended security provisions.  In any event, to the extent such other techniques do not involve action by the underwriter, the MSRB has no jurisdiction to regulate such techniques.     

The MSRB’s release indicates that the interpretive notice, when finalized, will have prospective application only.  Comments are due to the MSRB by March 6, 2012.     

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