1. STRUCTURALLY EMBEDDED LAWS OF GENERAL APPLICATION
1.1 Insolvency Laws
If a debtor becomes subject to bankruptcy proceedings, creditors will, with some exceptions, be automatically stayed from collecting and enforcing against the debtor and any posted collateral. Lifting the stay may be time-consuming and costly, and subject to the broad statutory and equitable powers of the bankruptcy court. The court also has the power to:
- release the creditors' rights to excess collateral;
- allow additional debt to be secured by the collateral;
- substitute collateral; and
- reject executory contracts.
Creditors may also be restricted from exercising rights that trigger off a debtor's bankruptcy or financial condition (so-called ipso facto clauses). Unlike many other jurisdictions where bankruptcy effectively amounts to liquidation proceedings, bankruptcy proceedings in the USA also encompass a workout regime (Chapter 11 bankruptcy). Workouts are highly variable and facts and circumstance specific, which makes it difficult to predict the duration of the stay and the impact on a particular creditor.
Consequently, a key aspect of securitisations is to isolate the issuer and its assets from such bankruptcy risks by:
- transferring the securitised assets to the issuer in a perfected true sale;
- reducing the risk of the issuer becoming subject to involuntary or voluntary bankruptcy proceedings; and
- reducing the risk of the issuer becoming substantively consolidated with any affiliates should they become subject to bankruptcy proceedings.
As an alternative to a true sale structure, it is also possible to transfer exposure to the securitised assets using contracts that are protected against the most troublesome bankruptcy powers.
1.2 Special-Purpose Entities
Establishing a bankruptcy-remote special-purpose entity (SPE) is a key aspect of a typical securitisation transaction.
The transaction documents typically include non-petition clauses that restrict involuntary bankruptcy filings against the issuer.
However, an outright prohibition against the SPE itself voluntarily filing for bankruptcy is unenforceable as against public policy and such risk must therefore be mitigated by more indirect means. Limiting the SPE's unrelated activities and restricting the SPE from having employees and unrelated property reduces the risk of unrelated liabilities. Appointing an independent director whose fiduciary duty runs to the SPE and not to its shareholders, and employing an entity type that allows for such redirection of fiduciary duties reduces the risk of a filing for the benefit of its shareholders.
The independent director(s) also provide(s) important protection against dissolution of the SPE, in part by requiring such director's participation in a dissolution decision and in part by providing that such independent director becomes a "springing member" or "springing partner" if the absence of a member or partner would cause dissolution. The number of independent directors should be at least equal to the minimum number of members or partners required to continue the SPE's existence.
Substantive consolidation is an equitable doctrine that permits a bankruptcy court to disregard the separateness of an entity that itself is not otherwise in bankruptcy and that provides an alternative pathway for an SPE to become entangled in its affiliate's bankruptcy proceedings. Although the analysis differs somewhat between various US circuits, in general a bankruptcy court may order substantive consolidation where the separateness of the entities has not been sufficiently respected or where the affairs of the debtor entities are so entangled that unscrambling will be prohibitive and hurt all creditors.
Under older practice, which still applies in some circuits, the courts may rely on a multi-factor analysis. Consequently, the risk of substantive consolidation is generally addressed by requiring the SPE and its credit to be separate from its affiliates based on factors that speak for substantive consolidation identified in the case law. One list of such factors is collected in the Tenth Circuit opinion of Fish v East, 114 F2d 117 (10th Cir 1940):
- the parent corporation owns all or a majority of the capital stock of the subsidiary;
- the parent and subsidiary corporations have common directors or officers;
- the parent corporation finances the subsidiary;
- the parent corporation subscribes to all the capital stock of the subsidiary or otherwise causes its incorporation;
- the subsidiary had grossly inadequate capital;
- the parent corporation pays the salaries or expenses or losses of the subsidiary;
- the subsidiary has substantially no business except with the parent corporation or no assets except those conveyed to it by the parent corporation;
- in the papers of the parent corporation and in the statements of its officers, the subsidiary is referred to as such or as a department or division;
- the directors or executives of the subsidiary do not act independently in the interest of the subsidiary but take direction from the parent corporation; and
- formal legal requirements of the subsidiary as a separate and independent corporation are not observed.
A second commonly cited list of such factors appears in the case of in re Vecco Constr Indus 4 BR 407, 410 (Bankr ED Va 1980):
- degree of difficulty in segregating and ascertaining individual assets and liabilities;
- presence or absence of consolidated financial statements;
- profitability of consolidation at a single physical location;
- commingling of assets and business functions;
- unity of interests and ownership between the various corporate entities;
- existence of parent or intercorporate guarantees or loans; and
- transfer of assets without formal observance of corporate formalities.
An additional factor, articulated by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Stone v Eacho, 127 F2d 284, 288 (4th Cir 1942), has also been cited by a number of cases, namely whether "by... ignoring the separate corporate entity of the [subsidiaries] and consolidating the proceeding... with those of the parent corporation... all the creditors receive that equality of treatment which is the purpose of the bankruptcy act to afford."
The presence or absence of some or all of these factors does not necessarily result in substantive consolidation. In fact, many of these elements are present in most bankruptcy cases involving holding company structures or affiliated companies without thereby leading to substantive consolidation. Various courts have noted that some factors may be more important than others; in particular, the "consolidation of financial statements", "difficulty of separating assets", "commingling of assets" and "profitability to all creditors".
1.3 Transfer of Financial Assets
For a sale of financial assets to be valid and enforceable against third parties, it has to "attach" and be "perfected" similar to what applies to a security interest in collateral. The rights of a purchaser of such assets attaches if:
- "value" has been given;
- the transferor has rights in the relevant asset, or the right to grant rights in the relevant asset; and
- there is a signed agreement that reasonably identifies the relevant rights and assets.
Although it is possible for a security interest to attach in some circumstances without a written agreement, it is not practicable to rely on those circumstances always being present in a securitisation transaction.
The available mode of perfection differs based on the type of asset and type of transfer. Broadly speaking, perfection can be (i) automatic, (ii) by control (or possession), or (iii) by the filing of a UCC statement. The general means of perfecting a security interest in financial assets other than a deposit account is by filing a UCC financing statement in the applicable filing office. A security interest in deposit accounts can only be perfected by control. The perfection of a security interest in a financial asset automatically also perfects a security interest in related supporting rights, such as collateral or letter of credit rights. A security interest perfected by control or possession often has higher priority than a security perfected by other means. Nevertheless, since filing a UCC financing statement is easy and cheap, and would provide perfection regardless of whether the transfer is respected as a sale or whether it is characterised as a loan, such filing is typically the primary means of perfection.
True Sale v Secured Loan
If the transfer of an asset is respected as a sale, then such asset will cease to belong to the seller and therefore the buyer's rights in such assets will typically not be affected by a subsequent bankruptcy of the seller. On the other hand, if such transfer is treated only as a granting of a security interest in collateral, then a bankruptcy of the seller will subject the buyer's rights with respect to such assets to the automatic stay and other bankruptcy powers. In determining whether a transfer is a true sale or a disguised loan, courts look to a number of factors. Not surprisingly, the more numerous the secured loan characteristics, the greater the likelihood that the transaction is viewed as such. Conversely, the more numerous the sale characteristics, the greater the likelihood that a purported sale will be respected as such. However, not all factors are given equal weight in this analysis.
Key factors include:
- the parties' intent, though courts typically de-emphasise the language used in a document and instead consider the intent reflected by the economic substance and actual conduct;
- recourse and collection risk, which generally is the most important factor;
- the transferor's retention of rights to redeem the transferred property or to receive any surplus from the asset; and
- the seller's continued administration and control of the assets, particularly if the obligor is not notified of the sale (however, under current market practice, sellers often act as servicer of the sold assets and such continued involvement is generally not viewed as dispositive of the loan or sale characterisation).
The courts have also identified a variety of other factors that do not fall within the categories above but may be indicative of a secured loan, including:
- the transferor being a debtor of the transferee on or before the purchase date;
- the transferor's ability to extinguish the transferee's rights in the transferred assets by payments or repurchase by the transferor or from sources other than collections on the asset; and
- the transferor's obligation to pay the transferee's collection costs for delinquent or uncollectible financial assets.
Some states have sought to bolster securitisations by restricting recharacterisation of a purported sale transaction. However, there is significant uncertainty around a bankruptcy court's acceptance of such statutes, and securitisations are therefore typically structured to comply with the judicially created true sale criteria.
It is common to obtain a true sale opinion in securitisation transactions that evaluates the relevant facts in light of the factors outlined above. Generally the opinion will describe the salient facts and analyse these facts in light of the factors identified by the courts as relevant to the true sale determination. The opinion will usually identify these key factors and draw a conclusion based on the overall analysis and reasoning in the opinion letter.
1.4 Construction of Bankruptcy-Remote Transactions
Most derivatives, certain mortgage repo transactions and many securities contracts are protected against the automatic stay and some of the most troublesome bankruptcy powers. These types of contracts can therefore be used as a means of transferring exposure to the assets underlying a securitisation as an alternative to a true sale. Synthetic securitisations typically use credit default swaps (CDSs) to transfer such exposure. If the CDS counterparty becomes subject to bankruptcy proceedings, the SPE will nevertheless have the right to terminate and close out each swap entered into with that counterparty, and realise against any collateral or other credit support relating to such swap, without being subject to the stay or the prohibition against ipso facto clauses.
It is, however, not common to obtain a bankruptcy opinion for such protected contracts.
2. TAX LAWS AND ISSUES
2.1 Taxes and Tax Avoidance
In the USA, taxes can theoretically be assessed at federal, state and local level. There is no federal value added tax, sales tax or stamp tax on the transfer of financial assets to a securitisation SPE, but in some cases the transfer of loans or leases accompanied by transfers of the underlying assets securing such loans or leases could trigger certain state or local sales tax.
The sale of loans and other receivables can also trigger certain gains or losses, generally depending on whether the SPE is part of the same tax consolidated group as the transferor, and may, depending on applicable law and the characterisation of the transfer, also have consequences for the transferor's continued ability to deduct losses from bad loans.
Many of these issues are addressed as part of the structuring of the SPE. For example, a single-member limited liability company (LLC) is, for federal tax purposes, disregarded (in the absence of the SPE electing any contrary tax treatment) and therefore any transfer of assets from a parent to its wholly owned LLC will not be a taxable event. An SPE that is organised as a partnership or an LLC that has elected to be treated as a partnership for tax purposes would not be subject to entity-level tax, but transfers to a securitisation SPE that is treated as a partnership for tax purposes may have different tax consequences than transfers to a disregarded entity and, as such, it is possible to structure the SPE (and use a multi-SPE structure) so as to optimise the securitisation for the desired tax neutrality.
From an investor's perspective, if an SPE is treated as a partnership for tax purposes, and the notes issued by the SPE to such investor were to be treated as equity for tax purposes, then the noteholder would be taxed individually on its share of the SPE's income, gain, loss, deductions and credits attributable to the SPE's ownership of the assets and liabilities of the SPE without regard to whether there were actual distributions of that income. This, in turn, could affect the amount, timing, character and source of items of income and deductions of the noteholder compared to what would be the case if the notes were respected as debt for tax purposes.
2.2 Taxes on SPEs
An SPE that is subject to entity-level tax, such as a corporation or a partnership that is taxed as a corporation, will potentially incur tax liability for any gains resulting from the sale of financial assets and any income otherwise paid with respect to the financial assets in excess of deductible expenses.
Consequently, the SPE is usually structured to avoid entity-level taxation. For example, this can be done by using a tax-transparent organisational form or by incorporating the SPE in a jurisdiction that does not impose such taxes. SPEs established as single-member LLCs or Delaware statutory trusts can be readily structured to avoid entity-level tax. Partnerships and entities treated as partnerships are also generally treated as pass-through entities for tax purposes, depending on the number of partners, the trading activities in any equity (or securities deemed to be equity for tax purposes) in such partnerships and the availability of relevant safe harbours.
A partnership that is deemed to be a publicly traded partnership for US tax purposes could be subject to entity-level tax as if it were a corporation. Applicable tax laws may also cause debt instruments to be characterised as equity interests for purposes of that determination. As such, it is typical to obtain an opinion of counsel relating to the treatment of the notes issued by the SPE as debt for tax purposes and, depending on the activities of the SPE and the level of comfort provided under such opinions, to include additional transfer restrictions on instruments that are, or could be, equity for tax purposes so as to avoid the SPE becoming taxed as a corporation.
2.3 Taxes on Transfers Crossing Borders
Payments based on US-source income to foreign individuals and corporations are potentially subject to withholding tax. Interest paid or accrued by a typical securitisation SPE to a foreign person will – subject to the satisfaction of certain requirements relating to the investor's US activities and equity or control person relationship with the SPE and related persons – usually be exempt from withholding tax by virtue of falling within the "portfolio interest" exemption from withholding. In circumstances where that exemption does not apply, the withholding tax could still be reduced or eliminated by virtue of applicable income tax treaties.
In addition, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) imposes a withholding tax on certain payments (including interest in respect of debt instruments issued by a securitisation SPE and gross proceeds from the sale, exchange or other disposition of such debt instruments) made to a foreign entity if the entity fails to satisfy certain disclosure and reporting rules. FATCA generally requires that:
- in the case of a foreign financial institution (defined broadly to include a hedge fund, a private equity fund, a mutual fund, a securitisation vehicle or other investment vehicle), the entity must identify and provide information in respect of financial accounts with such entity held directly or indirectly by US persons and US-owned foreign entities; and
- in the case of a non-financial foreign entity, the entity must identify and provide information in respect of substantial US owners of such entity.
Foreign entities located in jurisdictions that have entered into intergovernmental agreements with the USA in connection with FATCA may be subject to special rules or requirements.
2.4 Other Taxes
Another tax issue that arises in connection with the use of foreign SPE issuers that are treated as corporations for US federal tax purposes is whether the SPE is engaged in a US trade or business for US federal income tax purposes. If a foreign securitisation issuer were to be engaged in US trade or business for US federal income tax purposes, it would become subject to US federal income tax and potentially also subject to state and local income tax. To avoid this outcome, foreign securitisation issuers tend to conduct their activities in accordance with detailed guidelines that are aimed at ensuring that they are not engaged in loan origination or otherwise treated as conducting a lending or other financial business in the USA.
2.5 Obtaining Legal Opinions
In a securitisation transaction it is common for tax counsel to provide an opinion addressing the tax treatment of the issued securities; in particular, whether the offered notes would be treated as debt securities for US federal income tax purposes. The level of comfort is reflected in terms such as "will", "should" and "more likely than not", where will is the highest level of comfort and should still provide a high level of confidence but with a more than insignificant risk of a different conclusion. It is also common as part of the closing opinions for a securitisation to include an opinion that the securitisation entity would not be taxed as a corporation for federal tax purposes. The latter opinion is frequently also required in the case of certain amendments to the corporate documents.
In the case of foreign SPEs that are treated as corporations for US income tax purposes and that rely on not being taxed in the USA, there are various sensitive activities that could give rise to adverse tax treatment. Because of the significant consequences to the securitisation transaction, the rating agencies tend to require an opinion to the effect that the SPE's activities would not amount to it engaging in a US trade or business.
3. ACCOUNTING RULES AND ISSUES
3.1 Legal Issues with Securitisation Accounting Rules
The intersection of legal and accounting requirements often plays a significant role in structuring a securitisation transaction. For example, whether, and with whom, to consolidate a securitisation SPE can be a complex analysis that hinges on identifying who controls the aspects of the SPE that most significantly impact the SPE's performance. This analysis will typically focus on the entities that have the ability to direct the SPE's activities (and may also look at activities that took place prior to the relevant transaction). While that analysis is not a legal analysis per se, it will involve a review of the various contractual rights existing in the transaction documents.
As such, an awareness of the types of features that drive the consolidation analysis is often important in structuring the SPE and drafting the relevant transaction documents.
Legal and accounting criteria also come together as part of the true sale analysis. One of the requirements for achieving sale accounting for financial assets under US Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) is that the transferred financial assets have been isolated from the transferor even in bankruptcy or other receivership, and a part of that analysis looks to the legal true sale analysis.
3.2 Dealing with Legal Issues
Under the GAAP accounting rules, "a true sale opinion from an attorney is often required to support a conclusion that transferred financial assets are isolated from the transferor and its consolidated affiliates. In addition, a non-consolidation opinion is often required if the transfer is to an affiliated entity" (ASC 860-10-55-18A), although the opinion may not be required if the accountants are comfortable "that the appropriate legal opinion(s) would be given if requested" (id at 55-18B).
The accounting literature includes commentaries on the legal opinion requirements, including the opinion expressly mentioning each area of continued involvement between an originator and its affiliates and the securitisation SPE. The accounting standards also include a discussion of various types of qualifiers and assumptions that are deemed not to be appropriate for accounting purposes. For example, an opinion assuming that the transfer is a true sale for accounting purposes would have to carve out the legal isolation analysis from such assumption. Consequently, a true sale and non-consolidation opinion delivered as part of a securitisation transaction may receive additional comments from accountants relating to assumptions and qualifications that are viewed as potentially problematic under applicable accounting literature.
4. LAWS AND REGULATIONS SPECIFICALLY RELATING TO SECURITISATION
4.1 Specific Disclosure Laws or Regulations
Securitisation disclosure requirements are in part governed by generally applicable securities laws, and in part by some ABS-specific requirements. The principal laws that govern securities-related disclosures are the Securities Act of 1933, as amended (the "Securities Act"), and the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, as amended (the "Exchange Act"). The Securities Act is the principal law governing the offer and sale of securities, and the Exchange Act provides the SEC with broad powers to regulate various market participants and prohibit certain types of conduct in the market, and empowers the SEC to require certain periodic reporting.
Following the 2007–08 financial crisis (the "Global Financial Crisis"), the Exchange Act has been amended to require certain additional disclosure requirements that apply to all ABSs, including:
- disclosure of the form and determination of retained risk as specified in the risk retention rules;
- reporting of repurchases and replacements of securitised assets in connection with breaches of representations and warranties and of the conclusions and findings of third-party due diligence reports; and
- disclosure requirements for communications with rating agencies, which, amongst others, require all information provided to hired Nationally Recognized Statistical Ratings Organizations (NRSROs) in relation to the initial credit rating or any on-going credit surveillance to be posted to a password-protected website, referred to as the 17g-5 website.
Registered ABS offerings are subject to additional disclosure requirements as set forth in Regulation AB, which was significantly revised and updated in 2014 ("Reg AB II") to address a number of perceived shortcomings in prior practices and to enhance investor protection in the ABS market. In particular, Reg AB II includes expanded asset-level disclosure requirements for registered offerings of securities backed by specified asset classes that reflects a significant departure from the pool-level information that historically has been given and that is still the dominant form of disclosure in private placements. The information must be published at least three days prior to bringing a covered securitisation to market. Reg AB II enables the SEC to extend the asset-level disclosure requirements to 144A private placements and to additional asset classes. However, the SEC has to date not done so, and the Treasury has recommended against such expansion.
Regulation AB II introduced new ABS-specific registration statement forms, Forms SF-1 and SF-3, to reflect the additional disclosure requirements and shelf-eligibility requirements under Reg AB II. The required asset-level disclosure must be provided in a standardised format in a tagged XML format and filed on the SEC's Electronic Data Gathering, Analysis, and Retrieval (EDGAR) system.
Regulation AB II deviates from the typical shelf registration practice of using a base prospectus and a supplemental prospectus, and instead requires the filing of one integrated prospectus.
4.2 General Disclosure Laws or Regulations
The general construct of the Securities Act is that an offer or sale of securities has to be registered unless made pursuant to an available exemption; ie, a private placement. A security that has been issued in a private placement will typically be subject to resale limitations that may restrict the liquidity of the issued securities. However, transactions that comply with Rule 144A and Regulation S permit "qualified institutional buyers" and foreign persons to freely sell to other "qualified institutional buyers" or other foreign persons.
Only a small minority of new ABS issuances are made in SEC registered form. About 90% of the US securitisation market consists of mortgage-backed securities that were issued or guaranteed by Ginnie Mae, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and are expressly exempt from registration pursuant to the relevant Congressional act by which such entities were formed. Most of the remaining ABSs are issued in private placement, typically in a manner that permits resales in compliance with Rule 144A.
Agency securities and private placements are not subject to ABS-specific disclosure requirements other than the disclosure requirements relating to risk retention, repurchase requests, the third-party due diligence disclosure and rating agency communication requirements. However, such securities offerings generally will look to, and to the extent practicable seek to comply with, the disclosure requirements applicable to registered offerings. However, asset-level disclosures of the level of detail required in Reg AB II offerings are not commonly included in private placements.
4.3 Credit Risk Retention
The Dodd–Frank Act introduced a mandate to the SEC and the bank regulatory agencies to promulgate rules requiring "securitisers" to retain credit risk, which are codified in the relevant sections for the relevant banking regulator (12 CFR part 43 for the OCC, 12 CFR part 244 for the federal reserve system, 12 CFR part 373 for the FDIC, 12 CFR part 1234 for the Federal Housing Finance Agency and 12 CFR part 373 for the SEC (the latter also referred to as "Regulation RR")). The Risk Retention Rules require a "sponsor" or one of its "majority-owned affiliates" to retain the required risk exposure in one of the prescribed forms under the rules. For most securitisations, risk retention may take any of three standard forms:
- vertical risk retention by holding of at least 5% of each class of "ABS interests" issued;
- horizontal risk retention by holding junior most interests in an amount equal to at least 5% of the "fair value" of all ABS interests issued; and
- "L-shaped" risk retention, by holding a combination vertical and horizontal risk retention that adds up to 5%.
The person required to retain the risk is the "sponsor", defined as a "person who organises and initiates an asset backed securities transaction by selling or transferring assets, either directly or indirectly, including through an affiliate, to the issuer", a phrase that is substantially identical to the definition of sponsor under Regulation AB.
Notably, the DC Court of Appeals ruled in 2018 that subjecting managers of open-market CLOs to the Risk Retention Rules exceeded the statutory authority under Section 941 of the Dodd–Frank Act and consequently such CLOs are currently not subject to the risk retention requirements.
The Exchange Act allocates enforcement authority for the risk retention rules to the appropriate federal banking agency with respect to any securitiser that is an insured depository institution and the SEC with respect to any other securitiser.
Penalties for Non-compliance
The Federal Deposit Insurance Act (FDIA) provides the bank regulatory agencies with broad enforcement powers against individuals and entities for violation of the applicable banking laws and regulations, including the Risk Retention Rules. As such, the banking agencies may seek cease-and-desist orders requiring cessation and potential corrective actions. The agencies may also impose civil monetary penalties that can range between USD5,000 and USD1 million per day, and it may seek to impose removal and prohibition orders against any "institution-affiliated party" (a potentially broad list of persons), which may remove and potentially bar the person from participating in the business of the relevant banking entity or other specified entities.
The SEC's enforcement authority and remedies for violations of the Risk Retention Rules would be the same as its general enforcement authority against those for violation of securities laws and regulations and their "control persons", including permanent or temporary cease-and-desist orders, fines, withdrawal of registrations and restrictions on acting as officers or directors of SEC registered companies and otherwise may strip a person or entity of privileges afforded to registered persons. Any Exchange Act violation could also result in equitable remedies, including the right of rescission. If the violation of the Risk Retention Rules also amounts to a disclosure violation, there could be separate SEC or private action on that basis, as discussed in 4.2 General Disclosure Laws or Regulations.
Wilful violations of the Risk Retention Rules may also give rise to federal or state criminal actions.
4.4 Periodic Reporting
The sponsor must file Form 15-G on EDGAR at the end of any quarter in which there has been a repurchase demand made under the transaction documents for breach of representations and warranties. If there have been no such requests, an annual Form 15-G filing must be made certifying to that fact.
Issuers of securities offered and sold in a registered offering, and issuers with assets in excess of USD10 million at fiscal year end and a class of securities (other than exempted securities) held by more than 2,000 persons (or more than 500 persons that are not accredited investors) may be subject to additional reporting requirements, including:
- annual reports on Form 10-K (with certain ABS-specific modifications specified in Reg AB II);
- current events on Form 8-K; and
- Issuer Distribution Reports on Form 10-D.
Given that privately placed ABS securities are not likely to be so widely held that these requirements are triggered, they will, as a practical matter, only apply to securities sold in a registered offering.
4.5 Activities of Rating Agencies
Registered rating agencies, referred to as NRSROs, are regulated by the SEC. Sections 15E and 17 of the Exchange Act and the rules promulgated thereunder establish a detailed set of records that must be created and disclosed to the SEC, and mandate that some of this information must be made publicly available free of charge, including the assigned credit rating and any subsequent upgrade or downgrade.
An NRSRO must:
- post specific portions of its Form NRSRO registration on its website;
- maintain certain records, including in relation to its control structure, for three years;
- furnish certain financial reports, including audited financial statements and an annual certification, to the SEC;
- maintain and enforce written policies and procedures to prevent misuse of material non-public information and to address conflicts of interest; and
- abstain from engaging in certain abusive or anti-competitive conduct.
Exchange Act Rule 17g-5 divides conflicts of interest into two categories:
- conflicts that must be disclosed and managed by the NRSRO; and
- prohibited conflicts.
As part of the conflict rules in 17g-5, an NRSRO is required to obtain a representation from the issuer, sponsor or underwriter of an asset-backed security that it will post on a real-time basis information any of them provides to any hired NRSRO in connection with the initial credit rating or subsequent credit surveillance to a password-protected website. The purpose is to allow NRSROs that have not been hired to have access to the same information in real-time that is provided to the hired NRSROs.
Rule 17g-7 provides further transparency by requiring the NRSRO to prepare and disclose a comparison of the asset-level representations, warranties and enforcement mechanisms available to investors that were disclosed in the offering document for the relevant ABS and how they differ from the corresponding provisions in other, similar, securitisations.
The SEC has the power to enforce its rules. Penalties for violating the rules can include suspension or revocation of an NRSRO's registration if the SEC makes a finding under certain specified sections of the Exchange Act that the NRSRO violated the conflicts of interest rule and the violation affected a credit rating.
4.6 Treatment of Securitisation in Financial Entities
The US bank regulators have generally implemented the Basel III capital and liquidity rules but with some important distinctions. The US bank capital rules distinguish between "traditional" and "synthetic" securitisations, each with different operational requirements.
The Basel III definition of securitisation is tied to a tranched exposure to a "pool" of underlying exposures. The corresponding rules as implemented in the USA also refer to tranched credit risk, but do not include the pool requirement.
The minimum risk weight that will be given to a securitisation exposure is 20%. Resecuritisations are subject to separate risk weight calculations.
The USA also does not include ABS securities among high-quality liquid assets (HQLA) in which a bank may invest to cover for its projected net cash outflows over a 30-day period (in the case of the liquidity coverage ratio).
Insurance companies' capital requirements are subject to state regulation. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) has adopted a risk-based capital (RBC) methodology intended to be a minimum regulatory capital standard based on the insurance company's risk profile and is one of the tools that give regulators legal authority to take control of an insurance company.
The specific RBC formula varies depending on the primary insurance type and focus on asset risk, underwriting risk and other risk. The formulae are focused on capturing the material risks that are common for the particular insurance lines of business.
The NAIC has its own credit rating scale that largely ties to ratings from NRSROs, except for an alternative methodology applied to non-agency RMBS and CMBS. As such, the mapping of ABS assets to a NAIC rating will often dictate the attractiveness of a particular asset-backed security for an insurance company.
4.7 Use of Derivatives
Title VII of the Dodd–Frank Act establishes a comprehensive regulatory framework for OTC derivatives to address a number of aspects of OTC derivatives that were identified as causing vulnerabilities in the financial system; in particular, the complexity, lack of transparency and interconnectivity of the OTC market and the lack of consistent margin requirements. This framework is built around the principles of:
- requiring clearing of standardised OTC derivatives through regulated central counterparties;
- requiring trading of standardised transactions to occur on exchanges or electronic trading platforms when appropriate;
- increasing transparency through regular data reporting; and
- imposing higher capital requirements on non-exchange-traded OTC derivatives.
In addition, Title VII imposes registration, oversight and business conduct standards for dealers and large participants in the derivatives market.
The regulatory authority is primarily divided between the CFTC and the SEC, with the US banking regulators setting capital and margin requirements for banks. The CFTC has authority over most OTC derivatives, referred to as "swaps" in the Commodity Exchange Act (CEA), whereas the SEC has authority over OTC derivatives that fall within the Exchange Act definition of "security-based swaps", which covers derivatives linked to single-name loans or securities, narrow-based indexes of loans or securities, or events relating to such loans or securities, or their issuers. The Dodd–Frank Act had the effect of causing swaps to be included in the definition of "commodity pool" under the CEA and under the definition of "security" for purposes of the Securities Act and the Exchange Act.
The industry has been focused on obtaining permanent relief against those aspects of the new regulations that are particularly burdensome for securitisation SPEs.
For example, the CFTC has issued no-action letters exempting from the definition of commodity pool certain securitisation entities that are operated consistent with SEC Regulation AB or Investment Company Act Rule 3a-7. To be eligible for the relief provided under these no-action letters, the securitisation issuer must:
- hold primarily self-liquidating assets;
- make payments based on cash flows and not based on changes in the issuer's assets;
- not acquire or sell assets primarily for the purpose of realising market gains or minimising market losses; and
- only hold derivatives for uses permitted under Regulation AB, such as credit enhancement and the use of derivatives to alter the payment characteristics of the cash flow.
The CFTC has also issued various interpretations that allow certain securitisation SPEs that are wholly owned subsidiaries of non-financial entities to avail themselves of certain exceptions from otherwise applicable clearing and margin requirements available to non-financial end users.
It is also worth noting that the non-recourse language typically included in agreements with SPEs, including derivative agreements, would cause such derivatives to fall outside the standard terms for derivatives that are currently centrally cleared and traded, although that may change should swaps with such terms be included as part of a traded standard.
Finally, the SEC has proposed, but not finalised, conflict of interest rules intended to address conflicts of interest inherent in synthetic securitisations that would have made such securitisations impracticable in many circumstances.
Enforcement and Penalties for Non-compliance
Violations of rules pertaining to security-based swaps promulgated by the SEC will be subject to similar enforcement and penalties as other violations of securities laws, as discussed in 4.2 General Disclosure Laws or Regulations. Violations of the "swaps" rules promulgated by the CFTC will be subject to enforcement and penalties by the CFTC. Furthermore, CFTC's authority to penalise manipulation and fraud is similar to SEC's authority under Section 10(b) of the Exchange Act.
In addition, the CFTC has anti-avoidance authority to treat as swaps transactions that are wilfully structured to evade the requirements of the Dodd–Frank Act and to bring enforcement actions where such transactions fail to satisfy applicable criteria. Furthermore, the attorneys general of the various US states and territories also have certain authority to bring enforcement actions under Section 13a-2 of the CEA where their citizens are adversely affected. The penalties range from injunction or restraining orders, writs or orders mandating compliance, to fines. The CFTC can also impose equitable remedies, including restitution and disgorgement of gains. Wilful violations and abuse of the end-user clearing exception are felonies punishable by a fine up to USD1 million or imprisonment for up to ten years, or both, together with cost of prosecution (see CEA Section 13).
4.8 Investor Protection
The primary investor protections follow from the general and specific securities laws described in this chapter. As noted above, transactions that violate the securities laws may be voidable and may give rise to both private and public enforcement.
4.9 Banks Securitising Financial Assets
Banks are highly regulated entities and are also subject to a separate insolvency regime compared to other entities and they are therefore not eligible for bankruptcy protection. The comprehensive regulation applicable to banks results in a parallel regulatory structure in the context of banks sponsoring securitisations that will apply to certain aspects of a securitisation transaction by banks. The most relevant of the securitisation-specific rules are:
- the safe harbour provisions of 12 CFR 360.6 relating to transfer of assets in connection with a securitisation, which are discussed in 1.1 Insolvency Laws;
- the Basel III capital requirements discussed in 4.6 Treatment of Securitisation in Financial Entities; and
- the Volcker Rule discussed in 4.11 Activities Avoided by SPEs or Other Securitisation Entities.
The banks are also subject to risk retention but the rules are the same as those applicable to non-banking entities. General banking rules may also come into play when structuring a bank-sponsored securitisation, such as restrictions on affiliate transactions set forth in Sections 23A and 23B of the Federal Reserve Act and the implementation thereof set forth in Regulation W.
4.10 SPEs or Other Entities
Organisational Forms of SPEs Used in Securitisations
SPEs used in securitisations can theoretically take almost any organisational form, including a limited liability company, a corporation, a trust or a partnership. However, as a practical matter, SPEs organised in the USA overwhelmingly tend to be organised as a limited liability company or a statutory trust. For certain asset classes it is also typical to use securitisation SPEs organised as foreign corporations in a jurisdiction that does not impose entity-level tax on such corporations. The rules governing such entities will be a combination of:
- the relevant laws relating to the relevant form of organisation in its jurisdiction of formation;
- applicable tax laws; and
- bankruptcy or other applicable insolvency laws.
Factors in Choosing an Entity
The primary factors driving the type and jurisdiction of the securitisation entity will be bankruptcy remoteness and tax. Other important factors include market practice and acceptance. As outlined earlier, common law trusts are disfavoured compared to statutory entities for bankruptcy-remoteness purposes in light of the separate existence afforded to such statutory trusts. US domestic corporations are generally disfavoured, in part because of the entity-level tax applicable to corporations and in part because of the mandatory fiduciary duty that directors have to the shareholders, which can cause difficulties in delinking the SPE from its parent.
Delaware statutory trusts (DSTs) and Delaware limited liability companies (DLLCs) are often the entities of choice for securitisations. Delaware is viewed as a favourable jurisdiction for forming business entities. Delaware has up-to-date business entity laws that provide for efficient and quick formation, a sophisticated judiciary and a significant volume of decisions that together provides additional certainty and acceptance.
4.11 Activities Avoided by SPEs or Other Securitisation Entities
Investment Company Act
As a point of departure, any entity of which more than 40% of its relevant assets (ie, excluding cash or US Treasuries) consists of securities within the meaning of the Investment Company Act (a broad term that includes loans) may have to register as an investment company absent an available exemption. Registered investment companies are subject to leverage and capital structure requirements that are incompatible with a securitisation.
The exemptions most commonly used for securitisations are Rule 3a-7, Section 3(c)(5) and Section 3(c)(7). Rule 3a-7 is available for entities holding primarily self-liquidating assets that are only sold or purchased in accordance with the terms of the transaction, and not for the purpose of capturing market gains or avoiding market losses. The securitisation must also satisfy some additional requirements, including having a trustee with certain minimum qualifications holding either title or a security interest in the assets and investors in securities that are either below investment grade or not fixed-income securities must satisfy certain qualification requirements.
The Section 3(c)(5) exemption is available for issuers securitising accounts receivable, loans to manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers or purchasers of specified merchandise, insurance or services, as well as for mortgages and other liens on and interests in real estate as long as a holder of any such issuer's securities does not have the right to require early redemption of such securities.
Section 3(c)(7) provides a general registration exemption for issuers that do not publicly offer their securities and limits their investors to "qualified purchasers". The Volcker Rule discussed below has made it less attractive for securitisation SPEs to rely on Section 3(c)(7), although the exemption is still relied on by actively managed CLOs.
The Volcker Rule prohibits banks from holding an "ownership interest" in, or sponsoring entities that are, "covered funds" for purposes of the Volcker Rule. Ownership interest is a broad term that captures, amongst others, any security with equity-like returns or voting rights (including the right to replace the investment manager, which is typically a right of the senior-most class of investors in the event of such manager's default). Consequently, in order to be attractive to banks, securitisation entities tended to avoid becoming a "covered fund" under the Volcker Rule. This may change based on the most recent amendments to the rule, which, effective 1 October 2020, clarify that a right to remove an investment manager for "cause" (as defined in the rule) is not an ownership interest.
The covered fund definition only captures entities that would have to register under the Investment Company Act but for the exemption set forth in Section 3(c)(7) or 3(c)(1), or that are commodity pools for which the commodity pool operator has claimed an exemption from registration and record-keeping requirements pursuant to Section 4.7 of the Commodity Exchange Act, or that are "substantially similar" commodity pools. Consequently, the traditional means of addressing the Volcker Rule has been to avoid relying on any of these exemptions. If that strategy is not available, there are a number of potential exclusions from the covered fund definition in the Volcker Rule itself, of which the "loan securitisation" exemption is most important in the securitisation context.
While "loans" is a broad term for the purposes of that exclusion, there are significant limitations on an SPE's ability to hold derivatives (other than for the purposes of hedging interest and currency risk) and securities (other than for certain short term cash-management purposes). However, the recent October amendments to the Volcker Rule allow for a small bond basket, thereby removing one of the restrictions that have prevented CLO managers from engaging in a bond/loan arbitrage that was popular prior to the promulgation of the Volcker Rule.
4.12 Material Forms of Credit Enhancement
The most typical credit enhancements include over-collateralisation, subordination of junior tranches, cash reserves and excess yield on the underlying assets compared to what is needed to service the ABS fixed-income securities. The exact levels and types of credit enhancement will depend on the ratings requirements relating to the desired ratings levels, in addition to commercial constraints on the securitisation.
Some securitisations also include liquidity facilities that can be used to service the outstanding securities during periods of liquidity shortfalls. These can be provided by third-party liquidity providers or as part of the servicing rights and obligations.
4.13 Participation of Government-Sponsored Entities
Ginnie Mae, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are the principal agencies and government-sponsored entities (GSEs) engaged in the securitisation of mortgages. Ginnie Mae does not itself issue MBS, but instead provides a guarantee, backed by the full faith and credit of the US government, of securitisations by participating institutions of government-insured mortgages.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are GSEs chartered by Congress for the purpose of providing a stable source of liquidity for the purchase and refinancing of homes and multi-family rental housing. These GSEs purchase loans that satisfy their origination criteria and issue securities backed by pools of such loans that are guaranteed by the relevant GSE. In addition, the GSEs issue some risk transfer securitisations that are not guaranteed.
The GSEs traditionally used separate, but similar, platforms to issue their pass-through securities. Starting 3 June 2019, they have transitioned to a single security and single securitisation platform initiative referred to as Uniform Mortgage-Backed Securities (UMBSTM). The agency securitisation model and the related guarantees allow investors to focus primarily on the payment characteristics of the underlying pools of mortgages rather than the credit risk. In turn, this has allowed for the emergence of a highly liquid "to-be-arranged (TBA) market", where pools of MBS are deemed to be fungible, and traded, on the basis of a few basic characteristics, such as the issuer, amortisation type (eg, 30 years or 15 years), the coupon rate, the settlement date and the maximum number of mortgage securities per basket. There is a liquid TBA market for settlement up to three months after the trade date. The actual information about the pool only needs to be provided two business days prior to settlement. As such, the TBA market permits lenders to lock in rates for mortgages before they are originated, which, in turn, allows borrowers access to lower, locked-in rates.
Agency securitisations represent the biggest part of the securitisation market by far.
4.14 Entities Investing in Securitisation
Investors in securitisations include banks, asset managers, insurance companies, pension funds, mutual funds, hedge funds, high net worth investors and others. A detailed description of the regulatory and other investment drivers for each of these diverse investor classes is beyond the scope of this summary; however, a few points that affect the structuring and offering of ABS securities are worth noting. For example, the Basel III capital rules penalise banks that invest below the senior-most position in a securitisation, thereby impacting banks' willingness to invest in mezzanine tranches and below. Banks that are primarily constrained by the leverage ratio, as compared to the risk-weighted assets (RWA) ratio, will also typically view highly rated, but lower-yielding, senior securities as less attractive investments, whereas insurance companies and banks that are primarily constrained by the RWA requirements may find the highly rated senior tranche highly attractive due to the small amount of regulatory capital required. Furthermore, FDIC-insured banks may face higher insurance premiums for taking on exposures in securitisations collateralised predominantly by sub-prime and other high-risk assets, which reduces the attractiveness of such securitisations.
Insurance companies' capital rules typically are more closely tied to ratings. In addition, insurance regulations typically specify concentration limits for various categories of investments. Insurance companies are also often focused on obtaining longer-duration assets. The flexibility to structure securitisations to such needs often makes securitisations particularly attractive to insurance companies.
Originally published by Chambers Global Practice Guide: Securitisation.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.