When we last blogged in January about what borrowers can do to prepare for a potential cessation of the London interbank offered rate (“LIBOR”), there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding whether LIBOR would actually be replaced, what that replacement would be, and whether the market would have sufficient time to react.  Due to this uncertainty, we advised taking a “wait-and-see” approach with respect to borrowers reaching out to affirmatively modify their existing loan documents that reference a LIBOR rate to include LIBOR fallback language, except in the cases where borrowers were already in the process of negotiating an amendment for other reasons.  Although there has been some significant movement in both the development of LIBOR fallback language and the determination of the replacement rate since our last blog post, there has not yet been enough movement for us to change our advice at this time.

ARRC FALLBACK LANGUAGE

One major development since our last blog post is the publication by the Alternative Reference Rates Committee (the “ARRC”) of its Consultation Regarding More Robust LIBOR Fallback Contract Language for New Originations of LIBOR Syndicated Business Loans (the “Consultation”) on September 24, 2018.  As noted in our last blog post, the ARRC was established in 2014 by the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York for the purpose of recommending a LIBOR alternative, identifying best practices for contract sturdiness in the interest rate market, and creating a plan to implement the new reference rate.  In the Consultation, the ARRC offered two general proposals for sample LIBOR fallback language and asked market participants for their commentary up until November 8, 2018.  The LIBOR fallback language was developed by a working group of the ARRC co-chaired by the Loan Syndications and Trading Association (“LSTA”), a highly influential trade group in the syndicated loan market, which gives it a lot of credibility in the marketplace.

Although the fallback language is not yet finalized, even in its current unfinished state, it provides some valuable guidance for borrowers who are currently involved in negotiations over either a new credit agreement or an amendment to their existing credit agreement.  At a high level, the Consultation takes two basic approaches to LIBOR fallback language, the amendment approach and the hardwired approach, each of which is discussed below.  Please note that the Consultation also discusses the different consent requirements under the amendment approach and hardwired approach, which are not addressed in this article.

THE AMENDMENT APPROACH

The amendment approach provides a streamlined mechanic for negotiating a replacement to LIBOR and a replacement LIBOR spread upon the occurrence of a “trigger event.”  A trigger event is essentially an action that gives rise to the conversion from LIBOR to a new reference rate.  Under the amendment approach, a trigger event is basically either (i) a public statement that LIBOR will fail to be published, or the actual failure of LIBOR to be published (a “Benchmark Discontinuance Event”), or (ii) a determination by the administrative agent or required lenders that new or amended loans are incorporating a new rate to replace LIBOR.  If either of these trigger events occur, the Borrower and the administrative agent may amend the agreement to replace LIBOR with an alternate benchmark rate (including a replacement benchmark spread), in each case giving due consideration to then-existing market convention and endorsements or recommendations by relevant governmental bodies such as the Federal Reserve Board, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York or a committee convened by either or both of them (each a “Relevant Governmental Body”).

As you can see from the above, the amendment approach is flexible in many respects, which is positive in some ways and negative in others.  On the positive side, it allows for LIBOR language to be amended if other lenders are incorporating a rate other than LIBOR, which could be well before the time, if any, that LIBOR becomes unavailable.  This gives borrowers and lenders the flexibility to get well ahead of the LIBOR issue if they desire.  Additionally, the amendment approach does not automatically replace LIBOR with a fixed replacement rate such as the Secured Overnight Financing Rate (“SOFR”), the alternative replacement rate selected by the ARRC.  Instead, it gives borrowers and lenders the ability to choose both the replacement rate and the applicable spread.  On the negative side, the ARRC pointed out in the Consultation that it may not be practicable to use the amendment approach if thousands of loans must be amended simultaneously due to a potential LIBOR cessation.  Moreover, this added flexibility comes at the price of allowing the lender or borrower to “game” an amendment depending on whether the credit market is then lender-friendly or borrower-friendly.  In a lender-friendly market, the lenders could block a proposed rate and force the borrowers into a higher interest rate (such as the alternate base rate).  In a borrower-friendly market, the borrowers could block any proposed spread to the replacement rate.  Although the hardwired approach addresses these concerns, it has its pros and cons as well, which are discussed below.

THE HARDWIRED APPROACH

As suggested by its name, under the hardwired approach the LIBOR replacement language is hardwired into the agreement, which is obviously much less flexible than the amendment approach.  Similar to the amendment approach, the replacement language also becomes effective upon the occurrence of a trigger event, which is either (i) a Benchmark Discontinuance Event, or (ii) an agreed upon number of outstanding publicly filed syndicated loans being priced over term SOFR plus a replacement benchmark spread.  If either of these trigger events occur, LIBOR is automatically replaced in accordance with a waterfall approach where the first available option is chosen from the following: first (1) Term SOFR, or, if not available for the appropriate tenor, interpolated SOFR, then (2) Compounded SOFR, then (3) Overnight SOFR, then (4) a rate chosen giving due consideration to then-existing market convention and endorsements or recommendations by any Relevant Governmental Body.  In addition, the existing LIBOR spread is automatically replaced by a spread adjustment, or method of calculating a spread adjustment, that has been selected, endorsed or recommended by the Relevant Governmental Body or, if not available, the spread adjustment or method of calculating the spread adjustment is selected by the International Swaps and Derivatives Association, Inc.

Like the amendment approach, the hardwired approach has its pros and cons.  On the pro side, it provides borrowers and lenders with the certainty that if and when LIBOR is discontinued, it is highly likely that some version of SOFR will be inserted as a replacement rate with a market replacement spread.  On the con side, as of now SOFR is only being quoted as an overnight rate, so it is currently unclear what the actual replacement to LIBOR (and the replacement spread) will look like if LIBOR is discontinued.  That being said, the ARRC has said that part of its transition plan for implementing SOFR will include the development of multiple forward rates, so it is likely that the waterfall will be fully populated well before LIBOR’s potential cessation.

In summary, although the ARRC has made great strides in drafting LIBOR fallback language, at the current time we do not think it is far enough along to advise borrowers to proactively request amendments to their existing credit agreements with LIBOR-based loans.  However, if a borrower is currently involved in an amendment or a new credit, we still recommend that they consider including either the amendment approach or the hardwired approach in its current form.  Although neither approach is perfect, both are preferable to the option of automatically defaulting to the alternate base rate.   

On June 14, 2018, the SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance Director, William Hinman, gave a speech titled “Digital Asset Transactions: When Howey Met Gary (Plastic).”  This speech provides additional insight into the SEC’s view as to whether cryptocurrencies and initial coin offerings (“ICOs”) are securities.  Here is a summary:

In his speech, Hinman explains that ICOs typically involve passive investors who purchase tokens in hopes that a promoter builds a successful network.  He posits that the networks involved are rarely functional, and that the token purchase “looks a lot more like a bet on the success of the enterprise and not a purchase of something used to exchange for goods or services on the network.”  These circumstances, combined with token marketing efforts that “are rarely narrowly targeted to token users,” are indicators that an ICO is a securities transaction.

ICO issuers have recently tried to avoid their tokens being classified as securities by labeling them “utility tokens” and arguing that the tokens are for consumptive use.  Hinman directly addresses this practice, stating that labeling something a “utility token” does not prevent it from being a security. While he conceded that tokens by themselves and tokens purchased for consumption only are likely not securities, he emphasized that the “economic substance of the transaction” determines whether a token sale is a securities transaction.  Specifically, the speech focused on the “investment strategy” used, and states that “virtually any assets” can be securities “provided the investor is reasonably expecting profits from the promoter’s efforts.”

To support the above concept that securities can be broadly defined to include an “investment strategy,”  Hinman explains that, as outlined in Gary Plastic Packaging Corp. v. Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner & Smith, Inc., the Howey test “is not static and does not strictly inhere to the instrument.”  The non-static interpretation of Howey is critical because it indicates that tokens which start as securities can lose that designation over time as a token’s network becomes “sufficiently decentralized.”  Hinman clarified that a security-token loses its status as a security when it becomes decentralized enough that purchasers “no longer reasonably expect a person or group to carry out essential managerial or entrepreneurial efforts,”  noting that, as a system becomes increasingly decentralized, “material information asymmetries recede” and the “ability to identity an issuer or promoter to make the requisite disclosure [required in securities offerings] becomes difficult, and less meaningful.”  This interpretation rewards systems that prioritize decentralization with a shield from securities laws, but creates ambiguity regarding the requirements for a network to become “sufficiently decentralized.”

In light of the above, Hinman finds that Bitcoin and Ethereum’s native token, Ether, are not securities because they are decentralized enough that the efforts of others are not a “key determining factor” in whether an investment in Bitcoin or Ether is successful.  The speech adds that applying the disclosure regime of the federal securities laws to Bitcoin and Ethereum transactions would “add little value”, and that, “[o]ver time, there may be other sufficiently decentralized networks and systems where regulating the tokens or coins that function on them as securities may not be required.”

As the State of New Jersey continues to evaluate the expansion of current legislation related to medicinal use cannabis and the legalization of recreational cannabis, proposed legislation advancing in the New Jersey legislature has set its sights on marijuana’s less psychotropic relative – industrial hemp.

If passed, Assembly Bill No. 1330 (the “Bill”), introduced in February of 2018 and sponsored by Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, would enable licensed businesses to plant, grow, harvest, possess, process, distribute, buy and sell industrial hemp for commercial purposes. The Bill defines industrial hemp as an agricultural product that is part of the plant of any variety of Cannabis sativa L. with a delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (“THC”) concentration of 0.3% or less on a dry weight basis. This threshold of THC is intended to ensure that legally harvested industrial hemp maintains no more than a small percentage of THC, the psychoactive, “high-producing” ingredient in marijuana. To ensure compliance, the Bill requires that licensees submit, on an annual basis, documentation confirming that such industrial hemp is of a permissible type and THC concentration.

Pursuant to the Bill, prospective growers and distributors must apply to the Secretary of Agriculture (the “Secretary”) for an industrial hemp license, which must include specific documentation with respect to, and a legal description of, the land to be used for growth and production of the crop. Applicants are also required to submit to fingerprinting and both a nationwide and statewide criminal history and background check by the Department of Law and Public Safety and/or the Federal Bureau of Investigation. All issued licenses will be valid only for the site or sites specified in the license, and for a period of one (1) year from the date of issuance, unless otherwise adjusted by the Department of Agriculture to align with the normal growing season and to facilitate reasonable harvesting, processing and sale or distribution timing.

The Bill also tasks the Secretary, in consultation with the Attorney General, to adopt certain rules and regulations facilitating administration and enforcement. These regulations include (1) the establishment of approved varieties of industrial hemp and methods to distinguish it from other types of marijuana, (2) testing protocol for THC levels, (3) licensing requirements, fees and renewal procedures, and (4) penalties for administration and enforcement. Finally, the Bill requires that licensees notify the Secretary and the Attorney General of all sales or distributions of industrial hemp during the calendar year, and identify by name and address each distributee of industrial hemp for such calendar year.

Beyond the Bill, industrial hemp would be subject to the protections of the Right to Farm Act, and the land used for its cultivation may be eligible for valuation and taxation benefits provided by the New Jersey Farmland Assessment Act of 1964 – an Act permitting land actively devoted to agricultural use to be assessed at its productivity value, which is often less than the property tax assessment value of the property.

The enactment of the Bill is poised to offer a substantial boost to New Jersey’s agricultural industry, introducing what some view as a new “cash crop” to New Jersey’s repertoire and would afford New Jersey farmers the opportunity to diversify their products and compete in a nearly $500 million industry, catalyzing manufacturing and economic opportunity across the State. The Bill now also finds federal legislative support, following introduction of the Hemp Farming Act of 2018 in late April, co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-NY). The federal bill, among other things, would remove industrial hemp from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, and would empower the states to be the primary regulators of the industry.

After months of uncertainty surrounding the enforceability of state marijuana legislation in light of federal prohibitions, President Trump may have offered the legal cannabis industry some solace.

Late last week, President Trump promised to abandon Justice Department efforts to target recreational marijuana in states that have legalized adult use. The threat of increased federal enforcement came in early January, with Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s rescission of the Obama-era “Cole Memorandum”. The issuance of the Attorney General’s competing memo garnered opposition from Senator Cory Gardner – a top Senate Republican from the State of Colorado, who immediately blocked nearly twenty Justice Department nominees in retaliation. After a months-long stalemate, President Trump assured Senator Gardner that rescission of the Cole Memo would not adversely impact the legal cannabis industry in Colorado, and committed to supporting a “federalism-based legislative solution to this states’ rights issue”.

For many, including Senator Gardner, this proclamation by the President assuages concerns about a cannabis industry stifled by federal regulation and fear of prosecution.  At a minimum, many feel that this demonstrates a shift in the federal narrative toward looser regulation, governed on a state-by-state basis. On the other hand, many remain cautious in light of mixed signals from the administration, fearing that the President’s commitment applied only to Colorado under these narrow circumstances.

With this backdrop, lawmakers continue to pursue a bi-partisan legislative solution, aimed at prohibiting the use of federal funds and resources to target recreational marijuana businesses operating legally under state law. If successful, these measures would provide much needed comfort to the legal cannabis industry, likely fostering rapid growth and increased investment opportunities.

On March 23, 2018,  in response to Governor Murphy’s Executive Order 6 which directed the New Jersey Department of Health (“Department”) to review New Jersey’s Medical Marijuana Program (the “Medical Marijuana Program” or “Program”), the Department issued  its report  focusing on how to expand the Program’s scope and patient access to medical marijuana (the “Report”).

The Report focused on the following four principal areas:

  • The rules for siting of dispensaries and cultivation facilities and the number of alternative treatment center (“ATC”);
  • The conditions for physicians participating in the Program and prescribing medical marijuana;
  • The number of medical conditions which qualify for the Program; and
  • The maximum monthly product limit, THC dosage limits and the types of medical marijuana products available for patient use.

Certain aspects of these recommendations may be affected by Department regulatory action, while others will require amendment of the existing New Jersey Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act (the “Act”).

In order to service the growing population of patients with conditions treatable by medical marijuana, the Department plans to amend the existing regulations to permit ATCs to dispense medical marijuana at satellite locations and permit more than one cultivation site per ATC, subject to Department approval. The Department also plans to create an endorsement system to allow ATCs to engage in some combination of production (including edibles), cultivation, and dispensing designed to increase the supply and availability of medical marijuana.  As stated in the Report, the goals of these amendments are to increase the supply and access to medical marijuana for qualifying patients. The Report also makes the statutory recommendation to amend the Act to permit the existing six (6) licensed ATCs, which are statutorily required to be non-profits, to operate as for-profit companies.

The current regulations require that a physician interested in providing care to patients who qualify for medicinal marijuana to first register with the Department, creating a limited number of doctors who can prescribe and treat qualifying patients. The Report indicates that the Department plans to eliminate the physician registry in Spring of 2018 to ensure that any and all New Jersey doctors meeting the good standing  requirements set forth in N.J.A.C. 8:64-2.5 may prescribe medicinal marijuana for patients meeting Program requirements.

Prior to March 22, 2018, the conditions that qualified for treatment by medicinal marijuana under the  Act  were limited to (i) seizer disorders, intractable skeletal muscular spasticity or glaucoma (provided that  such conditions were resistant to conventional medical therapy), (ii) HIV, acquired immune deficiency syndrome or cancer (provided that  sever or chronic pain, nausea, vomiting, cachexia or wasting syndrome resulted from such condition or treatment thereof), (iii) amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, terminal cancer, muscular dystrophy or inflammatory bowel disease, (iv) a terminal illness (provided that a physician determined a prognosis of less than 12 months of life), or (v) other medical conditions approved by the Department by way regulation. As outlined in the Report, a final agency decision was made to effectuate the addition of the following categories to conditions qualifying for treatment by medical marijuana: chronic pain related to musculoskeletal disorders, migraines, anxiety, chronic pain of visceral origin, and Tourette’s syndrome. The Report also recommends an amendment to the Act permitting medical marijuana to be used as a first-line treatment rather than a last resort for the illnesses described in section (i) above.

Under the current Program, physicians are limited to prescribing two ounces of medicinal marijuana to patients within a 30 day time period. According to the Department’s findings set forth in the Report, physicians should have discretion to authorize more than the Program’s current two ounce limit. As a result, the Department is recommending that the statutory limit be increased to four ounces, which aligns more with our neighboring states such as New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware. The Act presently restricts use of edible marijuana products to qualifying patients who are minors. As stated in the Report, the ingestion of medical marijuana is healthier than smoking, the Report, therefore, also recommends amending the Act to permit the manufacture of edible and topical products and their use by patients.  The Report also provides that the Department will eliminate the regulatory dosage limit of 10% THC limit to allow for more effective treatment of the debilitating medical conditions covered under the Program.

The Report and recommended expansions to New Jersey’s Program  set forth above evidence both the Governor’s and the Department’s goal of growing all aspects of the Program related to the production of and access to medicinal marijuana.