MAS Releases “A Guide to Digital Token Offerings”

On 14 November 2017, the Monetary Authority of Singapore (the “MAS”) released  “A Guide to Digital Token Offerings” providing general guidance on the application of the securities laws administered by the MAS in relation to offers or issues of digital tokens in Singapore.

The main consideration is whether the digital token is designed in a way that would make it a product regulated under Singapore’s securities laws i.e. if it behaves like a share, debenture or some other form of security. If a token does not function like a security, then technically, neither will the security laws apply.

In the first case study in the guide, Company A plans to set up a platform to enable sharing and rental of computing power amongst the users of the platform. In order to raise funds to develop this platform, Company A intends to offer and sell digital tokens wherein the token will have utility upon completion. The MAS states that the digital token in this case study would not constitute a security under the Securities and Futures Act (Cap. 289). It appears that this is because other than the right to access the issuer’s platform to rent computing power, the digital token in question did not appear to have any other “rights” or “features” that made it look like a security.

Therefore, if a digital token is structured in a similar way as set out in this case study, then it would presumably not trigger the relevant Singapore securities laws, notwithstanding the fact that the sale of the token may have been used to fund the building of the platform.

The practical issue to consider then is this:- How will a company convince its investors to purchase such digital tokens in the first place, given that they do not appear to offer any type of rights or features that would give potential purchasers of those digital tokens a return on their investment?

Singapore is devoting huge resources to building the FinTech industry and offering many incentives to new entrants in the jurisdiction. Initial Coin Offerings (“ICOs”) structured like the example herein would seem to be acceptable.

This post was written by Nicholas M. Hanna & Samantha See of  K& L Gates., Copyright 2017

Equity Plan Share Reserves: How to Increase Its Life Expectancy: Executive Compensation Practical Pointers

Efforts to conserve an equity plan’s share reserve should begin the day the issuer’s stockholders approve the plan (or share increase), and should continue going forward. Issuers that do not make such efforts tend to face problems relating to dwindling share reserves, including moving to cash-based programs, hiring proxy solicitation firms to garner stockholder support for share increases, and overcoming possible negative reactions from ISS.

The following are some ideas an issuer could use to extend the life of its plan share reserve:1

  • Grant awards that are settled in cash – Depending on the terms of the plan, a cash-settled award may not draw from the share reserve.2 An alternative would be settling a portion of the award in shares (e.g., up to target), with any achievement above that settled in cash.
  • Grant full value awards like restricted stock or RSUs – Such grants provide greater value to the holder than options or SARs, the latter providing incentive only to the extent the share price exceeds the exercise/strike price, but draw from the share reserve the same as full value awards.3
  • Permit net-exercise of stock options – Depending on the terms of the plan, the shares subject to the option that are netted in a net-exercise may not draw from the share reserve. Also, a net-exercise could be helpful to a Section 16 insider to avoid a blackout (i.e., no open market transaction occurs with a net-exercise).4
  • Amend the plan to permit maximum withholding – A recent change in accounting rules provides that maximum withholding will not result in liability accounting treatment. Depending on the terms of the plan, withholding of shares to cover taxes may not draw from the share reserve.
  • Grant stock-settled SARs rather than options – A stock-settled SAR will provide the same economic result as a net-exercised option, but since a SAR is settled in shares with respect to only the excess over the strike price, fewer shares are burned than with a net-exercised option.
  • Use inducement awards for new executive-level hires and certain M&A events – The award must be a material inducement to getting the executive/employee to accept the position. If properly structured, these awards can be made outside of the plan and do not require stockholder approval under NYSE or NASDAQ rules.5
  • Implement an ESOP or ESPP – ESOPs, which are subject to ERISA, do not require stockholder approval under NYSE or NASDAQ rules. Depending upon the structure of an ESPP, stockholder approval may be required.6

1. Some of these methods involve liberal share counting, which is disfavored by ISS.

2. Liability classification would apply for accounting purposes and settlement in cash will not count towards satisfying any share ownership requirements.

3. This method will not work if the plan contains fungible share counting provisions.

4. However, a net-exercise of an incentive stock option could jeopardize the ISO’s favorable tax treatment.

5. Without stockholder approval, such awards could not qualify for deduction under Section 162(m), if applicable.

6. Broad participation requirements may apply.

This post was written by Matthew B. Grunert  & Carolyn A. Exnicios of Andrews Kurth Kenyon LLP.,© 2017
For more legal analysis go to The National Law Forum 

New York Court Has Sufficient Jurisdiction Over Foreign Bank Where Bank Purposefully Uses Correspondent Bank Account in New York

In a recent New York  District Court decision in Official Comm. Of Unsecured Creditors of Arcapita Bank B.S.C. v. Bahr, Islamic Bank, 2016 U.S. Dist Lexis 42635 (S.D.N.Y. 2016), the court considered whether the use of a correspondent bank account provides a sufficient basis to exercise personal jurisdiction over a foreign bank. There, the Bahraini banks set the terms of investment placements and designated New York correspondent bank accounts to receiver the funds. The banks then actively directed the funds at issue into the New York accounts.

The Committee’s cause of action for the avoidance of preferential transfers arose from the use of the correspondent bank accounts. Hence, the heart of the claim was the receipt of the transferred funds in the New York correspondent bank accounts. The Bahraini banks deliberately chose to receive funds in US dollars and designated the correspondent bank accounts in New York to receive the funds. This deliberate choice made the exercise of jurisdiction constitutional. “Where, as here, the defendant’s in-forum activity reflects its ‘purposeful availment’ of the privilege of carrying on its activities here, the defendant has established minimum contacts sufficient to confer a court with jurisdiction over it, even if the effects of the defendant’s conduct are felt entirely outside of the United States.”

Thus, if a foreign party deliberately choses to use the US banking system to effectuate a transaction and a cause of action arises from that transaction, the foreign party can be forced to defend itself in the US courts.

© Horwood Marcus & Berk Chartered 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Foreign Correspondent Banking – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Foreign correspondent accounts have long been used by financial institutions to facilitate cross-border transactions. However, as a result of its susceptibility to money laundering and terrorist financing, this practice is encountering heightened concern among U.S. banking regulators. In this rigorous environment, it is increasingly important for financial institutions to take positive actions designed both to safeguard their operations against illicit transactions and, in the event their correspondent business comes under regulatory scrutiny, to establish a defensible position.

What is a foreign correspondent account?

A “correspondent account” is statutorily defined as “an account established to receive deposits from, make payments on behalf of a foreign financial institution, or handle other financial transactions related to such institution.”1 Laying the foundation for its Anti-Money Laundering (AML) guidance on foreign correspondent accounts, the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council (FFIEC) adds some detail explaining, “An ‘account’ means any formal banking or business relationship established to provide regular services, dealings, and other financial transactions. It includes a demand deposit, savings deposit, or other transaction or asset account and a credit account or other extension of credit.”2 Moving from that neutral view, the FFIEC later takes a more positive tone, stating, “Foreign financial institutions maintain accounts at U.S. banks to gain access to the U.S. financial system and to take advantage of services and products that may not be available in the foreign financial institution’s jurisdiction. These services may be performed more economically or efficiently by the U.S. bank or may be necessary for other reasons, such as the facilitation of international trade.”3

The Good: Benefits of foreign correspondent banking

The concept of foreign correspondent banking is an accepted practice that can be very beneficial to financial institutions and their customers. Correspondent banks essentially act as a domestic bank’s agent abroad in order to service transactions originating in foreign countries. Championing a positive view, the Bank for International Settlements observes, “Through correspondent banking relationships, banks can access financial services in different jurisdictions and provide cross-border payment services to their customers, supporting international trade and financial inclusion”.4

The Bad: Challenges of foreign correspondent banking

Notwithstanding the benefits related to foreign correspondent banking, this practice also presents significant challenges, with regulatory burden featured prominently. Extensive rules governing foreign correspondent accounts implement the provisions found in USA PATRIOT Act sections 312 (imposing due diligence and enhanced due diligence requirements on U.S. financial institutions maintaining foreign correspondent accounts), 313 (preventing foreign shell banks from having access to the U.S. financial system) and 319(b) (authorizing federal law enforcement to investigate any foreign bank maintaining a U.S. correspondent account). The decline in correspondent banking relationships has much to do with the challenge of regulatory compliance, as recently noted by the American Bankers Association, “[O]ne key factor leading to the decline in correspondent/respondent banking relationships is the heightened regulatory burden on banks related to anti-money laundering and counter terrorism compliance.”5

The Ugly: Foreign correspondent banking as a means to launder money and finance terrorism

The regulatory strictures are not without good reason. There have been instances of foreign correspondent accounts being used to launder money and to potentially finance terrorism. Even in the early rush to implement the USA PATRIOT Act, the OCC, though taking a balanced view, expressed its concern, stating, “Although [correspondent] accounts were developed and are used primarily for legitimate purposes, international correspondent bank accounts may pose increased risk of illicit activities.”6 In recent years, the U.S. government has sent a strong message to financial institutions that fail to create a process to prevent criminal behavior. Financial institutions that disregard their obligations under the Bank Secrecy Act or operate without effective anti-money laundering programs have been the subject of enforcement actions resulting in hefty penalties. In 2012, a Virginia-based bank that allowed itself to be used to launder drug money flowing out of Mexico agreed to pay a record $1.92 billion to U.S. authorities, including hundreds of millions of dollars in civil money penalties to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, the Federal Reserve, and the Treasury Department.7 In 2015, a German-based bank and its U.S. branch accused of violating laws barring transactions with Iran, Sudan, Cuba and Myanmar, as well as abetting a multi-billion dollar securities fraud, agreed to pay $1.45 billion in fines.8 In both of these high-profile cases, government authorities cited Bank Secrecy Act violations including: (1) failure to have an effective AML program, (2) failure to conduct adequate due diligence or to obtain “know your customer” information with respect to foreign correspondent bank accounts, and (3) failure to detect and adequately report evidence of money laundering and other illicit activity. Mirroring the U.S. actions, the international Financial Action Task Force has sounded this stern warning in addressing the cross-border financial activities of Iran and North Korea: “Jurisdictions should also protect against correspondent relationships being used to bypass or evade counter-measures and risk mitigation practices … .”9

The Solution: How financial institutions can best protect themselves from a harmful correspondent banking relationship

In order to meet its obligations to measure, monitor and control risks, a financial institution should consider the following actions:

1. Ensure BSA/AML policies and procedures are reviewed at least annually and adjusted to address any new risks related to correspondent banking activities.

2. Perform an annual risk assessment to determine the adequacy of its BSA/AML/OFAC program, especially as it relates to correspondent banking.

3. Conduct due diligence on counterparties to understand the nature and extent of the various aspects of the correspondent’s business, including, but not limited to, ownership, products, services, customers, locations, etc. Due diligence should be ongoing based upon the nature and scope of the correspondent activities and should include periodic validation of the counterparties and their activities by the correspondent bank.

4. Ensure that adequate expertise and resources are available to establish a BSA/AML/OFAC program capable of effectively and timely monitoring the volume and nature of activities processed through the correspondent account.

5. Ensure that the correspondent bank, and not the initiating bank, administers the systems used to process correspondent banking transactions, thus allowing the correspondent bank to independently identify exceptions, generate reports and analyze data to support its BSA/AML/OFAC program.

6. Perform monitoring of processed correspondent banking transactions in a timely manner, preferably through the use of an automated system that can effectively aggregate transactions and create “alerts” in order to identify potentially suspicious transactions.

7. Ensure that the correspondent bank establishes an enhanced due diligence (EDD) protocol that will be followed for investigative purposes when transactions trigger a BSA/AML alert in the monitoring system.

Steven Szaroleta and Walter Donaldson are co-authors of this article.

Steven Szaroleta and Walter Donaldson are co-authors of this article.
© 2016 Dinsmore & Shohl LLP. All rights reserved.

1 31 U.S. Code § 5318A(e)(1)(B)
2 https://www.ffiec.gov/bsa_aml_infobase/pages_manual/OLM_027.htm
3 http://www.ffiec.gov/bsa_aml_infobase/pages_manual/olm_047.htm
4 http://www.bis.org/cpmi/publ/d136.pdf
5 http://www.aba.com/Advocacy/commentletters/Documents/cl-BIS-CorrespondentBanking2015Dec.pdf
6 http://www.occ.gov/topics/bank-operations/financial-crime/money-laundering/money-laundering-2002.pdf
7 http://www.reuters.com/article/us-hsbc-probe-idUSBRE8BA05M20121211
8 http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/commerzbank-ag-admits-sanctions-and-bank-secrecy-violations-agrees-forfeit-563-million-and
9 http://www.fatf-gafi.org/documents/documents/public-statement-october-2015.html#DPRK

Bank Regulators Require Changes to Tax Allocation Agreements

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Acting in response to divergent results in recent court decisions, the Federal bankregulatory agencies have adopted an Addendum to their longstanding rules regardingincome tax allocation agreements between insured depository institutions (“IDI”) and their parent holding companies.[i] The Addendum requires holding companies and their IDI subsidiaries to review their existing income tax allocation agreements and to add a specified provision. The review and modifications must be effected as soon as reasonably possible, which the regulators expect to be prior to October 31, 2014.

Background

Most banks and thrift institutions holding deposits insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (“FDIC”) are subsidiaries in a holding company structure. The Federal and State income tax returns of these IDI, as members of a consolidated group, are usually filed by the holding company parent. Refunds and other tax benefits of the consolidated group attributable to the IDI subsidiaries received by a parent holding company must be allocated to the IDI subsidiaries.

Since 1998, the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (“Board”), the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and the FDIC (collectively, the “Agencies”) have applied uniform rules regarding such allocations. They are set forth in their Interagency Policy Statement on Income Tax Allocation in a Holding Company Structure (the “Policy”).[ii]

The Policy generally mandates that inter-corporate settlements between an IDI and its parent holding company be conducted in a manner that is no less favorable to the IDI than if it were a separate taxpayer. It also establishes a supervisory expectation that a comprehensive written tax allocation agreement will be entered into between a parent holding company and its IDI subsidiaries.

Among other things, the Policy specifies that a parent holding company that receives a tax refund from a taxing authority holds such funds as agent for the members of the consolidated group. It also requires that neither the tax allocation agreement nor the corporate policies of the parent holding company should purport to characterize refunds attributable to an IDI subsidiary received from a taxing authority as being property of the parent.

Addendum to the Policy

In several holding company bankruptcies since 2008, the FDIC has been unsuccessful in recovering for IDI subsidiaries tax refunds received and held by the parent holding company. In those cases, the courts have interpreted the applicable tax allocation agreement as creating a debtor-creditor relationship between the parent holding company and its IDI subsidiaries. Those courts have reached that result notwithstanding the Policy and its mandate that a parent holding company act as an agent for its IDI subsidiaries.[iii]Although other decisions have interpreted tax allocation agreements consistently with the Policy, the Agencies determined to modify the Policy and require additional action by holding companies and IDI with a view to avoiding such situations in future.

Under the Addendum to the Policy, each tax allocation agreement must be reviewed and revised to ensure that it explicitly acknowledges an agency relationship between the holding company and its subsidiary IDI with respect to tax refunds and does not contain any other language to suggest a contrary intent. A sample paragraph which the Agencies regard as sufficient is included in the Addendum.

The Addendum to the Policy also makes clear that tax allocation agreements are subject to the requirements of Sections 23A and 23B of the Federal Reserve Act. Among other things, this means that the parent holding company must promptly transmit tax refunds received from a taxing authority to its subsidiary IDI. An agreement that permits a parent holding company to hold and not promptly transmit tax refunds owed to an IDI may be regarded by the Agencies as inconsistent with Section 23B, and may subject the holding company and IDI to supervisory action. Similarly, an agreement that fails to clearly establish the agency relationship between the parent holding company and its IDI subsidiaries may be treated as subject to the loan collateralization and other requirements of Section 23A.

Conclusion

The Addendum the Agencies have made to the Policy does not represent a change in supervisory approach to these issues. It is a clarification in light of adverse bankruptcy experience and constitutes a reaffirmation of the Policy. Parent holding companies and IDI subsidiaries should arrange for a review of their existing tax allocation agreements and the inclusion in those agreements of the provision specified in the Addendum to the Policy. Action is required as soon as reasonably possible, but in any event before October 31, 2014.

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[i] Board Press Release (June 13, 2014). The Addendum will be published in the Federal Register.

[ii] 63 Fed. Reg. 64757 (Nov. 23, 1998).

[iii] See, e.g., FDIC v. Siegel (In re IndyMac Bancorp, Inc.), 2014 WL 1568759 (9th Cir., 2014).

© Copyright 2014 Dickinson Wright PLLC

Letters of Credit Overview and Fundamentals

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Letters of Credit (“L/Cs”) have evolved over nearly three centuries of commerce into an essential tool for banks and their customers in international business transactions, financings and government contracting. This Update provides an overview of some of the key legal and practical concepts that are necessary to use this tool effectively.

The FDIC’s examiner’s handbook defines a letter of credit as “a document issued by a bank on behalf of its customer authorizing a third party to draw drafts on the bank up to a stipulated amount and with specified terms and conditions,” and states that an L/C is a bank’s “conditional commitment…to provide payment on drafts drawn in accordance with the document terms.”

Governing Law

The sources of “law” governing L/Cs are:

  • Statute: UCC Article 5 applies to “letters of credit and to certain rights and obligations arising out of transactions involving letters of credit.” UCC Section 5-108(e) provides that an issuing bank “shall observe standard practice of financial institutions that regularly issue letters of credit.”
  • Practice codes: Derived from two sources: the UCP600 (Uniform Customs and Practice for Documentary Credits 2007 Revision, International Chamber of Commerce Publication No. 600) and the ISP98 (Institute for International Banking Law and Practice Publication 590; International Standby Practices (1998)).
  • Contract law: With some limited exceptions, any provision of Article 5 may be modified by contract. Thus, if the UCP600 or ISP98 is incorporated into an L/C, it supersedes any contrary provision of Article 5. The exceptions include the “Independence Principle” (discussed below) and certain other rights and obligations of the issuing bank.

Terminology

Certain terms are important to an understanding of the parties’ respective rights and obligations, with some of the most basic being:

  • Issuer – the bank that issues the L/C and is required to Honor a Draw by the Beneficiary;
  • Applicant – the customer for whose account the L/C is issued;
  • Beneficiary – the person in whose favor the L/C is issued and who is entitled to Present/Draw and receive payment from the Issuer;
  • Honor – performance of the Issuer’s undertaking (in the L/C) to make payment; and
  • Presentation (also called a Draw) – delivery of document(s) to an Issuer for (or to induce) Honor of the L/C.

The Independence Principle

Central to an understanding of L/C law and practice is that an L/C is a self-contained whole. This is known as the “Independence Principle” based upon language in UCC §5-103, which states that the rights and obligations of an Issuer to a Beneficiary under an L/C are “independent of the existence, performance, or nonperformance of a contract or arrangement out of which the letter of credit arises or which underlies it, including contracts or arrangements between the issuer and the applicant and between the applicant and the beneficiary.”

The Independence Principle protects all parties. The Issuer is protected because, as long as the Presentation requirements in the L/C are strictly complied with, the Issuer must Honor it without looking into the relationship between the Applicant-customer and the Beneficiary making the Draw. The Applicant and Beneficiary are also both protected because the Issuer’s obligations under the L/C are not affected by the relationship between the Applicant-customer and the Issuer itself. Thus, the Applicant may be in default of its obligations to the Issuer, but the Issuer must nevertheless Honor a proper Presentation.

Types of L/Cs

L/Cs fall into two general categories: “commercial/documentary L/Cs” (which are the primary focus of the UCP600) and “everything else,” consisting mainly of what are known as “Standby L/Cs” which, themselves, come in several varieties and are covered by the ISP98.

Commercial/Documentary L/Cs” are typically issued to facilitate specific transactions and to assure payment in trade or commerce (usually international). Generally, Presentation is made when the underlying transaction is consummated. These are referred to as “documentary L/Cs” because a Draw requires documentary proof that the underlying transaction has occurred.

For example, an exporter and importer might agree that goods will be paid for at the time of shipment. The exporter won’t ship without assurance of getting paid, and the importer won’t pay without assurance that the goods have been shipped. Thus, the importer (Applicant) arranges with its Bank (Issuer) for an L/C that gives the exporter (Beneficiary) the right to Draw when the exporter provides the Issuer with an original Bill of Lading proving shipment. Anecdotally, this is partly why documentary L/Cs were conceived – to avoid having the Issuer bank independently verify shipment, which might have involved the banker making a trip to the dock and watching the goods being loaded and the ship sailing off beyond the horizon.

“Consummation” of the underlying transaction – i.e., the goods being placed on the ship – is defined by the terms of the L/C, as are the documentation requirements, which are either spelled out in the L/C or incorporated from the UCP600.

Standby L/Cs“. The ISP98 defines eight types of Standby L/Cs, of which the most common are “Financial Standbys.”

A Financial Standby is an irrevocable guarantee by an Issuer of Applicant’s payment or performance in an underlying transaction. The Beneficiary may Draw, and the Issuer must Honor, if its customer (Applicant) does not pay, deliver or perform. Some event, usually a default by Applicant under its contract with Beneficiary, “triggers” the Beneficiary’s right to Draw. Although independent proof of the Beneficiary’s right to Draw is not required, a Financial Standby is still “documentary” in the sense that the Beneficiary must make the Draw in writing and (typically) represent to the Issuer that Applicant has defaulted. Due to the Independence Principle, the Issuer (without verifying the default) must Honor if the Draw complies with the Presentation requirements spelled out or incorporated into the L/C.

Financial Standbys present an Issuer with both a credit benefit and a credit risk. Because Applicant’s default under its contract with the Beneficiary is a condition to the Issuer having to Honor the Beneficiary’s Draw, the Issuer may never have to “fund” (Honor) as long as Applicant doesn’t default; BUT, if the Issuer does have to fund, it will be on account of a customer who has already defaulted on a (probably material) business obligation.

A “Direct Pay L/C” is a type of Financial Standby. While it is also an Issuer’s guarantee of Applicant’s payment of a debt or other obligation, the difference is that Applicant’s default is not a condition to Draw – all payments are made by Draws on the L/C. Direct Pay L/Cs are useful in cases where the “Beneficiary” is a group of unaffiliated debt holders (i.e., holders of publicly-traded bonds) because this payment method provides liquidity and avoids bankruptcy preference claims against debt service payments. Because of the Independence Principle, the Issuer is the primary obligor for payment of debt service; thus, Applicant’s default is of no concern to bondholders and bonds backed by an irrevocable Direct Pay L/C are marketed on the strength of the Issuer’s credit, not the Applicant’s.

Of special note are Standby L/Cs required by governmental entities. Various Wisconsin Statutes and Administrative Rules require or permit a person transacting business with a state agency (obtaining a license or permit, for example) to provide a Standby L/C primarily to demonstrate proof of financial responsibility in cases where the license or permit, for example, creates a potential monetary obligation to the State. Many Wisconsin state agencies’ regulations make reference to such L/Cs, but only the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Transportation have prescribed forms.

Issuer’s Risks

An Issuer’s most obvious risk is its customer’s default: failure to reimburse the Issuer after a Draw has been Honored. The reimbursement obligation can be a requirement to deposit funds with the Issuer immediately upon a Draw, but can also be part of an ongoing credit relationship where Draws are simply treated as “advances” on a term or revolving credit agreement.

Issuer banks also face other risks, such as fraud (a legitimate Beneficiary makes a fraudulent Draw), forgery (impostor Beneficiary makes a Draw) and sovereign, regulatory and legal risks. Regulatory issues created by L/Cs involving lending limits, contingent liabilities, off-balance sheet treatment and regulatory capital requirements also come into play but are beyond the scope of this overview.

Common Problems

Among the more common L/C problems we have seen with our Issuer bank clients are:

  • Standby L/Cs that incorrectly incorporate provisions of the UCP600 or, less frequently, Commercial/Documentary L/Cs that incorrectly incorporate from the ISP98;
  • not being aware of automatic renewal and reinstatement provisions, and potential post-expiry obligations;
  • failing to insist on strict adherence to the Presentation requirements, especially if they are incorporated from the UCP600 or the ISP98;
  • failing to Honor a proper Draw as an “accommodation” to its customer/Applicant who has informed the bank of a dispute with the Beneficiary; and
  • poorly-drafted L/Cs that make inappropriate reference to non-documentary issues.

Banks issuing L/Cs to assist customers in export-import transactions, or providing proof of financial responsibility or liquidity/credit support, should be aware that their obligations and rights are often not obvious from simply reading the L/C without being familiar with the underlying laws and practice codes that are summarized in this Update. As noted above, a carefully-considered and well-drafted L/C protects all parties, including the Issuer.

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von Briesen & Roper, S.C.

Where Do Your Interests Lie Under Chapter 15 of the Bankruptcy Code?

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Determining a foreign debtor’s “center of main interests” and its effect on creditors’ rights

When doing business with a foreign company, it is important to identify the company’s “center of main interests” (“COMI”) as creditors may find themselves bound by the laws of the COMI locale. If a company initiates insolvency proceedings outside the U.S., it must petition a U.S. court under Chapter 15 of the Bankruptcy Code for recognition of the foreign proceeding. If the foreign proceeding is found to be a “foreign main proceeding” (i.e., a proceeding pending where the debtor has its COMI), Chapter 15 provides certain automatic, nondiscretionary relief, including an automatic stay of all proceedings against the debtor in the U.S. Therefore, when faced with a foreign insolvency proceeding, U.S. creditors’ rights will often be determined in the jurisdiction where the debtor’s COMI is located. However, despite its significance, COMI is left undefined by the statute, which prompted the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in Morning Mist Holdings Ltd. v. Krys, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 7608 (2nd Cir. April 16, 2013) to determine the relevant factors for locating a COMI and the appropriate time frame to consider those factors.

In Morning Mist, Miguel Lomeli and Morning Mist Holdings Limited (collectively, “Morning Mist”) filed a derivative action in New York state court against Fairfield Sentry Limited (the “Debtor”). The Debtor was one of Bernie Madoff’s largest “feeder funds,” having invested over $7 billion in the scheme. Shortly after the commencement of the derivative action, the Debtor initiated liquidation proceedings in the British Virgin Islands (the “BVI”). Then, in accordance with Chapter 15 of the Bankruptcy Code, the Debtor petitioned the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Southern District of New York for recognition of the BVI liquidation proceeding. The bankruptcy court granted the Chapter 15 petition, recognizing the BVI liquidation as a “foreign main proceeding” and imposing an automatic stay on all proceedings against the Debtor in the U.S., including the derivative action. The district court upheld the bankruptcy court’s decision, and Morning Mist appealed to the Second Circuit, arguing that the lower courts improperly found the BVIs to be the Debtor’s COMI.

To determine the Debtor’s COMI, the Second Circuit examined which factors should be considered and over what time period. Tackling the temporal element first, the Court concluded that the Chapter 15 petition filing date is the relevant review period, subject to an inquiry into whether the process has been manipulated. To offset a debtor’s ability to manipulate its COMI, a court may also review the period between the initiation of the foreign liquidation proceeding and the filing of the Chapter 15 petition. The Court squarely rejected Morning Mist’s suggestion that courts must consider a debtor’s entire operational history.

As for the appropriate factors to consider in locating a COMI, the Second Circuit held that any relevant activities, including liquidation activities and administrative functions, may be considered in a COMI analysis. Elaborating, the Court held that Chapter 15 creates a rebuttable presumption that the country where the debtor has its registered office will be its COMI, but recognized that courts have focused on a variety of other factors as well, including the location of the debtor’s headquarters, the location of those who actually manage the debtor, the location of the debtor’s primary assets, the location of the majority of the debtor’s creditors or the majority of the creditors who would be affected by the case, and/or the jurisdiction whose law would apply to most disputes. However, the Second Circuit emphasized that consideration of these factors is neither required nor dispositive.

Finally, Morning Mist argued that Chapter 15’s public policy exception (“Nothing in this chapter prevents the court from refusing to take an action governed by this chapter if the action would be manifestly contrary to the public policy of the United States.”) applied because the BVI proceedings were confidential and therefore “cloaked in secrecy.” The Second Circuit quickly dismissed this argument explaining that the public policy exception should be read restrictively and invoked only under exceptional circumstances concerning matters of fundamental importance for the enacting State. Recognizing that court pleadings can be sealed in U.S. cases, including bankruptcy cases, the Second Circuit found that the confidentiality of the BVI bankruptcy proceedings did not offend U.S. public policy.

The Morning Mist case adds some clarity to a significant issue in cross border insolvencies by highlighting the importance of understanding the internal operations and structure of foreign companies—factors that could affect the ability of U.S. creditors to seek redress in U.S. courts.

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