Detroit turns bankruptcy precedents upside down

March 11, 2014

By Kevin Allison
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Bondholders in Detroit’s $18 billion bankruptcy must feel like they’re in a mirror universe. A restructuring plan filed by the city’s emergency manager would effectively turn bankruptcy precedents upside down by paying equity holders – in this case, ordinary Detroiters – at the expense of secured creditors. Such a shareholder-friendly approach might save the city and anoint Judge Steven Rhodes a hometown hero. But it may yet come at a market price.

Detroit’s Chapter 9 case is a long way from a more familiar Chapter 11 bankruptcy. When a company can’t make good on its debts, shareholders get wiped out first, with creditors carving up what’s left.

Cities don’t have shareholders, and there are few precedents to the bankruptcy of a major municipality, but viewed through a financial lens, residents arguably play a similar role. They appoint management to run the city and they benefit from its expenditures, whether it is police protection, sanitation or other services – a bit like equity holders sharing in a firm’s profits.

Far from getting wiped out, Detroit’s citizen-shareholders appear on track to get paid something. A plan of adjustment put forward by the city’s state-appointed emergency manager would set aside $1.5 billion over 10 years for essential services like hiring cops and firefighters, getting the street lights working and bulldozing abandoned buildings.

Meanwhile, even supposedly secured creditors are getting squeezed. Judge Rhodes twice rejected the city’s attempts to strike a deal with UBS and Merrill Lynch over roughly $290 million they were owed to terminate a bad interest rate hedge. The judge said the city was being too generous – even though swaps claims effectively function as secured debt under normal bankruptcy law.

The banks have since agreed to accept just $85 million to terminate the swaps. The compromise could help the emergency manager force through a plan that calls for most unsecured creditors, including general obligation bondholders, to receive just 20 cents on the dollar. Many retired city workers might get more like 70 cents on their pensions.

Of course, a restructuring that skimped on city services wouldn’t give Detroit much of a shot at rebuilding. Taking up Motown’s cause could also cement the legacy of Rhodes, set to retire from the bench at the end of the year, as a hero in the city where he spent his career. But the full cost of sticking it to creditors may come eventually, and be shared widely by all municipal borrowers, in the form of higher interest rates.

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