If PDVSA defaults on its debts, then yes. It would be a standard commercial dispute. Once a court made its final ruling, U.S. officials would seize Citgo shares, sell them, and give the proceeds to the creditors after deducting expenses and taxes.
But if the Bolivarian Republic defaults, not PDVSA, then it gets harder. Let’s say I own shares in a company and I default on my debts. Creditors can go after my shares in the company, but they cannot go after the company’s assets. This is true even if I am the only shareholder in the company. (Limited liability goes both ways.)
This principle applies to companies owned by foreign states. An official House of Representatives report (see footnote 185 on page 196) bluntly stated: “Section 1610(b) [of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976] will not permit execution against the property of one agency or instrumentality to satisfy a judgment against another, unrelated agency or instrumentality. There are compelling reasons for this. If U.S. law did not respect the separate juridical identities of different agencies or instrumentalities, it might encourage foreign jurisdictions to disregard the juridical divisions between different U.S. corporations or between a U.S. corporation and its independent subsidiary.”
So far, so clear. Citgo is safe from creditors of the Venezuelan government.
But here’s the thing: I can’t hide from creditors by creating a separate me-controlled firm and transferring my assets to it. In the words of the Supreme Court, “where a corporate entity is so extensively controlled by its owner that a relationship of principal and agent is created, we have held that one may be held liable for the actions of the other.” Morever, there is a “broader equitable principle that the doctrine of corporate entity, recognized generally and for most purposes, will not be regarded when to do so would work fraud or injustice.”
In 1983, the Supreme Court specifically extended that principle to foreign state-owned entities in First National City Bank v. Banco para el Comercio Exterior de Cuba (Bancec).
Here’s the backstory. In 1960, Bancec arranged to sell some Cuban sugar to a Canadian company. Citibank issued a letter of credit to Bancec for the sugar. Bancec handed it to the Cuban central bank (the Banco Nacional) for collection. On September 15, 1960, the Banco Nacional presented the letter to Citibank. The next day, the Cuban government nationalized all Citibank branches. (This was remarkably poor timing.) Citibank, not surprisingly, did not pay Bancec. Bancec sued in the Southern District of New York. The Cubans let the claim sit around until 1975. When they picked it again, they argued that Bancec was an independent state-owned company; why should it be liable the Cuban government’s actions?
The case went all the way up to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court pointed out that under American law, “where a corporate entity is so extensively controlled by its owner that a relationship of principal and agent is created, we have held that one may be held liable for the actions of the other.” It also pointed out that U.S. courts recognize “the broader equitable principle that the doctrine of corporate entity, recognized generally and for most purposes, will not be regarded when to do so would work fraud or injustice.”
And so, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling that “Bancec is not a mere private corporation, the stock of which is owned by the Cuban government, but an agency of the Cuban government in the conduct of the sort of matters which even in a country characterized by private capitalism, tend to be supervised and managed by government. Where the equities are so strong in favor of the counter-claiming defendants, as they are in this case, the Court should recognize the practicalities of the transactions. . . . The Court concludes that Bancec is an alter ego of the Cuban government.”
Alright, then. Easy! It might be impossible to seize Citgo assets because Citgo is clearly not an agent of Caracas, it might be possible to take Citgo shares away from PDVSA. After all, it would not be hard to argue that PDVSA has not been an independent commercial entity since 2002.
So I ran this past a lawyer friend of mine who works on this stuff.
And ... oh boy ... PDVSA does not own Citgo directly. It owns it through PDV America Inc which is in turn a subsidiary of PDV Holding Inc, both incorporated in Delaware. And those two companies are not legally beholden to PDVSA.
So now you have to show that PDVSA has no independence and that PDV Holding Inc and PDV America Inc have no independence. That ain’t so easy. In short, Lex is too sanguine about the prospects for seizing Citgo. It could happen, and my lawyer friends think it will happen ... but only after a long delay.
But there’s another problem! Venezuela has ICSID judgments against it. Unless Venezuela pays them while stiffing bondholders, then ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips will be sniffing around those assets. Their claims rank higher than claims by bondholders, since uncompensated expropriation, unlike default, involves a clear denial of justice.
In short, you have a mess. Sure, the fact that Citgo is there will make the Bolivarian government think six times about defaulting. But the economic mismanagement in that country is of such a scale (sorry, Shah8
☺) that Caracas no longer really has any other options. In terms of getting recovery, it is nice that Citgo is there, but it will take a long time to get at and it is not a sure thing.*
Now, there is another recourse.
The creditors could go after Venezuelan oil exports directly. There is a recent history of this. In 2007, Texas courts ordered American companies to turn over not only royalties but also physical oil due the Congolese Republic. (See here and here; the decision itself is here.) Now the legal approach used in Texas did not have legs. But to be fair, the suits against Chevron were quite different than the suits that might happen regarding Venezuela.
The Venezuelans could sell their oil at the point of embarkation and try to hide it, but that opens up foreign refineries to lawsuits. With the world awash in oil, many will be behooved to avoid going anywhere near the Venezuelan stuff unless they cannot avoid it.
So here is the upshot: a default will cause much pain in Venezuela but it will not make creditors whole. Having Citgo as a target does not cancel out all the problems with legal enforcement of sovereign debt because even if the creditors win it will take forever and a day to collect. But because of the legal challenges to oil sales, default be a big enough disaster for Venezuela that the country will likely make an offer that 75% of its creditors will accept. They will then abandon any attempts to go after Citgo.
Given what Venezuelan bonds are yielding, I’m tempted to buy them. How bad could the restructuring be?