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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Auto Bailout's Hidden Danger

As posted by: Wall Street Journal

The key to any magic trick is to focus the audience's attention away from where the action is actually taking place.

That is what Congress did in the failed auto bailout bill. Language in the proposed legislation seemed to uphold the rights of existing car-company creditors while also protecting any taxpayer funds used to prop up Detroit. In reality, the bill raised a chilling prospect for debt investors: that in extreme situations the government could upend the traditional pecking order of the bankruptcy process.

The result could be further instability in credit markets, which the government has been trying to thaw for more than a year. "If someone is thinking of providing a secured loan to another company, they can't ignore this development," said Mark Brodsky, head of Aurelius Capital, which focuses on distressed investments. "It introduces a tremendous amount of uncertainty."

Creditors' rights became an issue in the proposed automotive bailout because the government planned to put its money first in line for repayment in the event of bankruptcy. That seems like a no-brainer for taxpayers. They clearly wouldn't want to shoulder losses before banks. But such a move could contravene the way corporate debt structures work and possibly the U.S. Constitution since senior lenders have their debt secured against company assets.

In response to opposition from the banks, legislators compromised in the bailout bill originally passed by the House of Representatives, but which appears to have died in the Senate. The new language ostensibly made any government loan subordinate to senior, secured lenders.

Problem solved? Not quite. What the government gave with one hand, it took with the other. It also added in some extraordinary protections for any government loans.

These included a provision that, in the case of bankruptcy, the government would be exempt from a legal stay, which freezes creditor claims until the court divides up the assets. It also included language saying the government's loans couldn't be haircut, as often happens to debts in bankruptcy.

These protections mean that in any bankruptcy, the government "would have a strong blocking position that is going to make them the dominant player," said Randy Picker, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. The exemption from a stay in bankruptcy is especially significant, he adds, because it would let the government seize assets when everyone else has to stand put.

In effect, the language creates a new kind of debt and subordinates the senior, secured holders. That is a possible outcome debt investors now have to keep in mind when investing in industries the government may ultimately have to prop up.

The financial crisis already has shaken the confidence of debt investors in everything from ratings to asset values on bank balance sheets. If the government wants to get markets working again, the last thing it needs to do is give these already skittish investors yet another reason to worry.