The most important paragraph of unreadable legalese in Europe today

Another problem for the Spanish bailout

The most important paragraph of unreadable legalese in Europe today is this (via Dealbreaker):

"Subordination" means, with respect to an obligation (the "Subordinated Obligation") and another obligation of the Reference Entity to which such obligation is being compared (the "Senior Obligation"), a contractual, trust or similar arrangement providing that (i) upon the liquidation, dissolution, reorganization or winding up of the Reference Entity, claims of the holders of the Senior Obligation will be satisfied prior to the claims of the holders of the Subordinated Obligation or (ii) the holders of the Subordinated Obligation will not be entitled to receive or retain payments in respect of their claims against the Reference Entity at any time that the Reference Entity is in payment arrears or is otherwise in default under the Senior Obligation. … For purposes of determining whether Subordination exists or whether an obligation is Subordinated with respect to another obligation to which it is being compared, the existence of preferred creditors arising by operation of law or of collateral, credit support or other credit enhancement arrangements shall not be taken into account, except that, notwithstanding the foregoing, priorities arising by operation of law shall be taken into account where the Reference Entity is a Sovereign.

What does it mean?

The passage contains, somewhere within it, the answer to whether Spain's bailout constitutes a "credit event"; in other words, whether all the people who had bought insurance against Spain defaulting get paid off or not.

The problem is that the money for the Spanish bailout is coming from the European stability mechanism and the European financial stability fund (the ESM and EFSF), both of which insist on being "preferred creditors". We touched on this yesterday, but being a preferred creditor means that these loans must be paid off, in full, before any other debt can be paid down.

To the holders of the other debt, that means that at a stroke, they became less likely to be paid back. The debt they now hold is "subordinated" to the European debt. Those who purchased insurance (in the form of CDSs, or "credit default swaps") against that outcome would quite like to be compensated for it, and so the investigation into whether it constitutes a credit event begins.

But there's a wrinkle in the wrinkle. While both the ESM and EFSF are preferred creditors, only the former is legally enshrined as one. In practice, they both get repaid before anything else, but the credit event is concerned with legality rather that practicality (as with so much in finance). Hence the long discussion above as to the exact nature of subordination.

Reuters got a financial lawyer to look at the problem, and the basic conclusion is that, while the debt is subordinated, it's not "subordinated". For the purposes of paying out to CDS holders, the key question is whether or not Spain is entitled to pay off its subordinated bonds while it is in default with its European debt. The answer to that lies in Spanish law, not European, so unless Spain passes a law to that effect, CDS holders don't get a payout.

Even if the subordination doesn't trigger a credit event, it's still hugely problematic for Spain. It's what triggered the spike in the cost of Spanish debt, with yields currently up almost half a percentage point from Friday. The issue that the country is now having to battle with is that nobody wants to lend to a country with preferred creditors, because they may not get their money back. No wonder it's been called a failout.

A vampire, pictured with a puppet. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.