Sale assailed: NBFC crisis may put Indian securitisation transactions to trial

-By Vinod Kothari (vinod@vinodkothari.com)

Securitisation is all about bankruptcy remoteness, and the common saying about bankruptcy remoteness is that it works as long as the entities are not in bankruptcy! The fact that any major bankruptcy has put bankruptcy remoteness to challenge is known world-over. In fact, the Global Financial Crisis itself put several never-before questions to legality of securitisation, some of them going into the very basics of insolvency law[1]. There have been spate of rulings in the USA pertaining to transfer of mortgages, disclosures in offer documents, law suits against trustee, etc.

The Indian securitisation market has faced taxation challenges, regulatory changes, etc. However, it has so far been immune from any questions at the very basics of either securitisability of assets, or the structure of securitisation transactions, or issues such as commingling of cashflows, servicer transition, etc. However, sitting at the very doorstep of defaults by some major originators, and facing the spectrum of serious servicer downgrades, the Indian securitisation market clearly faces the risk of being shaken at its basics, in not too distant future.

Before we get into these challenges, it may be useful to note that the Indian securitisation market saw an over-100% growth in FY 2019 with volumes catapulting to INR 1000 billion. In terms of global market statistics, Indian market may now be regarded as 2nd largest in ex-Japan Asia, only after China.

Since the blowing up of the ILFS crisis in the month of September 2018, securitisation has been almost the only way of liquidity for NBFCs. Based on the Budget proposal, the Govt of India launched, in Partial Credit Guarantee Scheme, a scheme for partial sovereign guarantee for AA-rated NBFC pools. That scheme seems to be going very well as a liquidity breather for NBFCs. Excluding the volumes under the partial credit enhancement scheme, securitisation volumes in first half of the year have already crossed INR 1000 billion.

In the midst of these fast rising volumes, the challenges on the horizon seem multiple, and some of them really very very hard. This write up looks at some of these emerging developments.

Sale of assets to securitisation trusts questioned

In an interim order of the Bombay High court in Edelweiss AMC vs Dewan Housing Finance Corporation Limited[2], the Bombay High court has made certain observations that may hit at the very securitisability of receivables.  Based on an issue being raised by the plaintiff, the High Court has directed the company DHFL to provide under affidavit details of all those securitisation transactions where receivables subject to pari passu charge of the debentureholders have been assigned, whether with or without the sanction of the trustee for the debentureholders.

The practice of pari passu floating charge on receivables is quite commonly used for securing issuance of debentures. Usually, the charge of the trustees is on a blanket, unspecific common pool, based on which multiple issuances of debentures are covered. The charge is usually all pervasive, covering all the receivables of the company. In that sense, the charge is what is classically called a “floating charge”.

These are the very receivables that are sold or assigned when a securitisation transaction is done. The issue is, given the floating nature of the charge, a receivable originated automatically becomes subject to the floating charge, and a receivable realised or sold automatically goes out of the purview of the charge. The charge document typically requires a no-objection confirmation of the chargeholder for transactions which are not in ordinary course of business. But for an NBFC or an HFC, a securitisation transaction is a mode of take-out and very much a part of ordinary course of business, as realisation of receivables is.

If the chargeholder’s asset cover is still sufficient, is it open for the chargeholder to refuse to give the no-objection confirmation to another mode of financing? If that was the case, any chargeholder may just bring the business of an NBFC to a grinding halt by refusing to give a no-objection.

The whole concept of a floating charge and its priority in the event of bankruptcy has been subject matter of intensive discussion in several UK rulings[3]. There have been discussions on whether the floating charge concept, a judge-made product of UK courts, can be eliminated altogether from the insolvency law[4].

In India, the so-called security interest on receivables is not really intended to be a security device – it is merely a regulatory compliance with company law rules under which unsecured debentures are treated as “deposits”[5]. The real intent of the so-called debenture trust document is maintenance of an asset cover, which may be expressed as a covenant, even otherwise, in case of an unsecured debenture issuance. The fact is that over the years, the Indian bond issuance market has not been able to come out of the clutches of this practice of secured debenture issuance.

While bond issuance practices surely need re-examination, the burning issue for securitisation transactions is – if the DHFL interim ruling results into some final observations of the court about need for the bond trustee’s NOC for every securitisation transaction, all existing securitisation transactions may also face similar challenges.

Servicer-related downgrades

Rating agencies have recently downgraded two notches from AAA ratings several pass-through certificate transactions of a leading NBFC. The rationale given in the downgrade action, among other things, cites servicer risks, on the ground that the originator has not been able to obtain continuous funding support from banks. While absence of continuing funding support may affect new business by an NBFC, how does it affect servicing capabilities of existing transactions, is a curious question. However, it seems that in addition to the liquidity issue, which is all pervasive, the rating action in the present case may have been inspired by some internal scheme of arrangement proposed by the NBFC in question.

This particular downgrades may, therefore, not have a sectoral relevance. However, what is important is that the downgrades are muddying the transition history of securitisation ratings. From the classic notion that securitisation ratings are not susceptible to originator-ratings, the dependence of securitisation transactions to pure originator entity risks such as internal funding strengths or scheme of arrangement puts a risk which is usually not considered by securitisation investors. In fact, the flight to securitisation and direct assignments after ILFS crisis was based on the general notion that entity risks are escaped by securitisation transactions.

Servicer transitions

The biggest jolt may be a forced servicer transition. In something like RMBS transactions, outsourcing of collection function is still easy, and, in many cases, several activities are indeed outsourced. However, if it comes to more complicated assets requiring country-wide presence, borrower franchise and regular interaction, if servicer transition has to be forced, the transaction will be worse than originator bankruptcy.

Questions on true sale

The market has been leaning substantially on the “direct assignment” route. Most of the direct assignments are seen by the investors are look-alikes and feel-alikes of a loan to the originator, save and except for the true-sale opinion. Investors have been linking their rates of return to their MCLR. Investors have been viewing the excess spread as a virtual credit support, which is actually not allowed as per RBI regulations. Pari-passu sharing of principal and interest is rarely followed by the market transactions.

If the truth of the sale in most of the direct assignment transactions is questioned in cases such as those before the Bombay High court, it will not be surprising to see the court recharacterise the so-called direct assignments as nothing but disguised loans. If that was to happen in one case of a failed NBFC, not only will the investors lose the very bankruptcy-remoteness they were hoping for, the RBI will be chasing the originators for flouting the norms of direct assignment which may have hitherto been ignored by the supervisor. The irony is – supervisors become super stringent in stressful times, which is exactly where supervisor’s understanding is required more than reprimand.

Conclusion

NBFCs are passing through a very strenuous time. Delicate handling of the situation with deep understanding and sense of support is required from all stakeholders. Any abrupt strong action may exacerbate the problem beyond proportion and make it completely out of control. As for securitisation practitioners, it is high time to strengthen practices and realise that the truth of the sale is not in merely getting a true sale opinion.

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[1] For example, in a Lehman-related UK litigation called Perpetual Trustees vs BNY Corporate Trustee Services, the typical clause in a synthetic securitisation diverting the benefit of funding from the protection buyer (originator – who is now in bankruptcy) to the investors, was challenged under the anti-deprivation rule of insolvency law. Ultimately, UK Supreme Court ruled in favour of securitisation transactions.

[2] https://www.livelaw.in/pdf_upload/pdf_upload-365465.pdf. Similar observations have been made by the same court in Reliance Nippon Life AMC vs  DHFL.

[3] One of the leading UK rulings is Spectrum Plus Limited, https://www.bailii.org/uk/cases/UKHL/2005/41.html. This ruling reviews whole lot of UK rulings on floating charges and their priorities.

[4] See, for example, R M Goode, The Case for Abolition of the Floating Charge, in Fundamental Concepts of Commercial Law (50 years of Reflection, by Goode)

[5] Or partly, the device may involve creation of a mortgage on a queer inconsequential piece of land to qualify as “mortgage debentures” and therefore, avail of stamp duty relaxation.

2 replies
  1. Vinod Kothari
    Vinod Kothari says:

    All eyes may be on what happens before the Bombay High Court when DHFL matters are taken up by the Court on 11th Nov.
    By way of updates as gathered from people who are in the know of the matter:
    (a) There are similar stays in plaints filed by several other asset management companies too.
    (b) It appears that one of the securitisation investors made an intervention before the Court, seeking clarification from the court that the interim orders in the earlier matters did not stop any payments to securitisation investors. The earlier orders were limited to payments to unsecured creditors, not to MBS investors. It also appears that the AMCs who had applied for the interim orders also concurred that the interim orders did not extend to payments to securitisation investors.
    If securitisation transactions were done by the originator when the asset cover required for the secured bonds already issued was in breach, there is a case of breach of representations and warranties. Such a case is not one of true sale, but restraints on the originator on assignment.
    In any case, it will be important to watch out for the outcome of this ruling, as it may be one of the solitary challenges, whether actual or inferred, to securitisation transactions in India. If securitisation comes clear from the ruling, it is a shot in the arm and will establish the robustness of the instrument, even if exposes the contractual breaches on the part of the originator.

    Reply
  2. Vinod Kothari
    Vinod Kothari says:

    Today, on 13th Nov., 2019, it seems that the Bombay High court amended its earlier order specifically permitting payments to securitisation investors. There is, thus, a sigh of relief for securitisation transactions. Whether this episode is a test of true-sale for securitisation transactions, or just a problem which got averted, is a separate question. However, it is quite apparent that AMCs as well as several of the banks that joined as intervening parties have worked out a solution that serves the interest of the securitisation market. The best part is – the payment to securitisation investors, in a case of acute distress, may also continue uninterrupted.

    Reply

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