Disrupting Secured Transactions: Should UCC Article 9 Be Revised to Reflect the Rise of the Internet of Things?

By Christopher G. Bradley (University of Kentucky College of Law)

The “Internet of Things” (IoT) refers to the networks formed by interconnected devices that can communicate, and be communicated with, remotely. The IoT has already affected our daily lives, as a crucial part of our smart phones, Fitbits, smart watches, car navigation units, and so on.  But even more, it has profoundly affected businesses of every sort.  Manufacturing, transportation, and utilities firms alone are estimated to have spent more than $347 billion on IoT technology in 2018. Companies have deployed IoT tools in order to automate operations, streamline supply chains, ease regulatory compliance, and facilitate safer and more reliable production.

The IoT also affects secured creditors’ ability to monitor their collateral. For instance, individual tags can be placed on objects as they are checked in and out of a facility; cameras and temperature sensors can assess warehouse or field conditions to protect against loss or theft; vehicles can be tracked at all times and even remotely disabled upon default.

I argue that just as the rise of the IoT represents a revolution in business practice, it should bring a similar one to UCC Article 9. The article argues that Article 9 should allow–and in fact require–creditors to stake their claims in tangible collateral directly rather than through the now-antiquated means of a filing system routed through the debtor’s name/identity.

The proposed system would require creditors to tag items as collateral, or to use an interactive map administered by the state filing office over the Internet, in order to perfect security interests in tangible collateral. After sketching the proposed system, the article considers some of its major costs and benefits.

The full article is available here.

The Social Costs of Dividends and Share Repurchases

By J. B. Heaton (J.B. Heaton, P.C.)

The issue of share repurchases has captured the attention of United States senators on both sides of the aisle, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-NY, Senator Bernie Sanders, I-VT., and Senator Marco Rubio, R-FL, each proposing legislation limiting share repurchases and dividends. One need not agree with all parts of their plans to acknowledge that excessive dividends and share repurchases can have severe negative social consequences.

In a new paper forthcoming in the Journal of Business, Entrepreneurship and the Law, I explore five negative consequences of dividends and share repurchases. First, they dramatically increase the riskiness of corporate debt, diverting resources into credit monitoring and credit speculation. Voluntary creditors must charge a high price for credit ex ante – subsidized by tax payers through interest expense deductions – to protect them from the ex post effects of the existing legal regime, and many resources are spent on monitoring and trading on the fluctuating risks of default and only partial recovery on corporate debt. Second, the existing legal regime requires a bankruptcy system to process large and complex corporate failures. Third, it leaves firms less resilient to financial crises.  Fourth, it unfairly shifts costs to involuntary and unsophisticated creditors in violation of the implicit social bargain of limited liability.  Finally, it distorts the supply of securities toward riskier debt that is publicly subsidized through the deductibility of interest, reducing the supply of safer assets.

One possible solution that deserves further study is restricting dividends and share repurchases to corporations that have low debt and adequate insurance against harm to involuntary creditors and pay reasonable wages and benefits. Such a rule would still allow corporations with high debt, little insurance, and low wages and benefits to operate, but they could pay shareholders only after meeting all their other obligations.

This proposal is consistent with what corporate law is supposed to provide to investors and society alike. A long-held view in the academy is that shareholders are “residual claimants” in the sense that they are paid in full only after the corporation pays its creditors. The reality, of course, is far different. Corporations give away significant assets to their shareholders in the form of dividends and share repurchases long before they have satisfied creditors, both voluntary contract creditors and involuntary tort creditors.  Existing law is quite permissive in allowing indebted corporations to distribute this cash to shareholders. As a result, shareholders are hardly “last paid” capital providers of corporate-law folklore but rather “first-in, first-out, and then some” capital providers. They receive their capital back and much more while the corporation has often very large liabilities outstanding.  As my paper explores, neither corporate law nor voidable transfer law are strong enough to prevent the destructive social impact of dividends and share repurchases.

***

J.B. Heaton is a data scientist, financial economist and legal scholar. His paper, “The Social Costs of Dividends and Share Repurchases,” is available here.

 

Rethinking “Too Big To Fail”

 By Saule T. Omarova (Cornell University)

“Too big to fail” – or “TBTF” – is a popular metaphor for a core dysfunction of today’s financial system: the recurrent pattern of government bailouts of large, systemically important financial institutions. The financial crisis of 2008 made TBTF a household term, a powerful symbol of the pernicious society-wide pattern of “privatizing gains and socializing losses.” It continues to frame much of the public policy debate on financial regulation even today, ten years after the crisis. Yet, the analytical content of this term remains remarkably unclear.

In a forthcoming article, I take a fresh look at the nature of the TBTF problem in finance and offer a coherent framework for understanding the cluster of closely related, but conceptually distinct, regulatory and policy challenges this label actually denotes. I begin by identifying the fundamental paradox at the heart of the TBTF concept: TBTF is an entity-centric, micro-level metaphor for a complex of interrelated systemic, macro-level problems. I argue that, while largely unacknowledged, this inherent tension between the micro and the macro, the entity and the system, critically shapes the design and implementation of the key post-2008 regulatory reforms in the financial sector.

To trace these dynamics, I deconstruct the TBTF metaphor into its two basic components: (1) the “F” factor focused on the “failure” of individual financial firms; and (2) the “B” factor focused on their “bigness” (i.e., relative size and structural significance). Isolating and examining these conceptually distinct components helps to explain why the potential for failure (and bailout) of individual firms – or the “F” factor – continues to be the principal focus of the ongoing TBTF policy debate, while the more explicitly structural, relational issues associated with financial firms’ “bigness” – or the “B” factor – remain largely in the background of that debate.

Analyzing post-crisis legislative and regulatory efforts to solve the TBTF problem through this simplifying lens reveals critical gaps in that process, which consistently favors the inherently micro-level “F” factor solutions over the more explicitly macro-level “B” factor ones. It also suggests potential ways of rebalancing and expanding the TBTF policy toolkit to encompass a wider range of measures targeting the relevant systemic dynamics in a more direct and assertive manner. Admittedly, implementing such deliberately structural measures would require a qualitative shift in the way we think and talk about the financial system and its dysfunctions – not an easy precondition to meet in practice. Yet, as I argue in the article, this deep attitudinal shift is the necessary first step toward finally achieving the lofty – and persistently elusive – goal of eliminating the TBTF phenomenon in finance.

The complete article is available for download here.

 

Bankruptcy Hardball

By Jared A. Ellias (University of California, Hastings) & Robert Stark (Brown Rudnick LLP)

On the eve of the financial crisis, a series of Delaware court decisions added up to a radical change in law: Creditors would no longer have the kind of common law protections from opportunism that helped protect their bargain for the better part of two centuries. In this Article, we argue that Delaware’s shift materially altered the way large firms approach financial distress, which is now characterized by a level of chaos and rent-seeking unchecked by norms that formerly restrained managerial opportunism. We refer to the new status quo as “bankruptcy hardball.” It is now routine for distressed firms to engage in tactics that harm some creditors for the benefit of other stakeholders, often in violation of contractual promises and basic principles of corporate finance. The fundamental problem is that Delaware’s change in law was predicated on the faulty assumption that creditors are fully capable of protecting their bargain during periods of distress with contracts and bankruptcy law. We show through a series of case studies how the creditor’s bargain is, contrary to that undergirding assumption, often an easy target for opportunistic repudiation and, in turn, dashed expectations once distress sets in. We further argue that the Delaware courts paved the way for scorched earth distressed governance, but also that judges can help fix the problem.

The full article is available here.

Taking Control Rights Seriously

By Robert K. Rasmussen (University of Southern California Gould School of Law)

It is common to observe that investors receive both cash flow rights and control rights against a borrower. The crucial differences between these two “rights” are rarely focused on. Cash flow rights are legal entitlements. Outside of bankruptcy, failure to pay entitles a lender to resort to a legal remedy against the borrower. Inside of bankruptcy, the Bankruptcy Code structures the way in which these legal entitlements will be adjusted. Control rights are different. They do not confer direct power over the business, nor do they provide lenders with a judicial remedy that allows them to assert control. Rather, they work indirectly. The Bankruptcy Code, in turn, pays scant attention to a lender’s control rights.

This disparate treatment stems from the lending contract. That agreement provides enforceable rights to cash and as we have seen in recent years – there is little limit to the creativity in dividing up cash flow rights. The same contract, however, does not place control in the hands of a lender, even on a contingent basis because legal doctrines threaten creditors who put their hands on the levers of power. Outside of bankruptcy, the lingering shadow of lender liability doctrine leads lawyers to counsel clients to avoid contracting for control upon a borrower’s default. Inside of bankruptcy, lenders that exercise what a court finds to be excessive control face the threat of having their claims equitably subordinated. In addition to these threats, it is far from clear that a bankruptcy court would enforce a contract that gave direct control to the debtor’s lenders should the debtor default. These restrictions on contracting, however, are questionable. Opening up the contract space for direct contracting on control could increase contracting surplus.

The full article is available here.

Transplanting Chapter 11 of the US Bankruptcy Code into Singapore’s Restructuring and Insolvency Laws: Opportunities and Challenges

By Gerard McCormack (University of Leeds) and Wai Yee Wan (Singapore Management University – School of Law)

In 2017, Singapore introduced wide-ranging reforms to its insolvency and restructuring laws with a view to enhancing its attractiveness as an international centre for debt restructuring. A key theme of the reforms is the transplantation (with modification) of certain provisions from Chapter 11 of the US Bankruptcy Code including the automatic moratorium, cross-creditor cram-down, rescue financing and pre-packs. These provisions are engrafted into the existing scheme of arrangement framework, which in turn has its roots in the United Kingdom (UK).

In our paper, relying on the US experience and the reactions to similar reform proposals in the European Union (including the UK), we critically evaluate the effectiveness of the legal transplantation and discuss the possible unintended consequences of such transplantation.

We raise three issues. First, the new cross-class cram-down provisions could lead to valuation disputes and satellite litigation, such as whether the directors and scheme managers have properly discharged their duties. Second, the 2017 reforms shift power from the creditors to the management of the debtor company. This may prove to be disadvantageous to creditors in Singapore (and many other Asian countries) where the majority of the companies, including publicly listed companies, have concentrated shareholdings, and managers owe their existence to those who are in control. Finally, there remains the question whether the Singapore schemes will be recognised overseas, which will be important if the scheme proposes to modify debt obligations that are governed by non-Singapore law.

The full article is available here. The article is recently published in Journal of Corporate Law Studies.

 

How Specialized Courts Changed the Chinese Bankruptcy System

By Bo Li (Tsinghua University – PBC School of Finance) and Jacopo Ponticelli (Kellogg School of Management – Department of Finance)

In the last decade, China experienced a massive increase in corporate debt and, more recently, in corporate bankruptcies. Despite the mounting pressure on its insolvency resolution system, little is known about how bankruptcy works in China and the role played by the government.

China’s bankruptcy system experienced two recent changes: the reform of the bankruptcy code in 2007, and the introduction of specialized courts between 2007 and 2017. Before the introduction of specialized courts, bankruptcy cases were filed in local civil courts. Characterized by limited expertise and long delays, local courts tend to operate under the influence of local politicians, who have strong incentives to keep financially distressed state-owned companies alive to reduce unemployment and boost their political career. Thus, even though  the 2007 reform aligned Chinese bankruptcy law with those in the US and Europe, timely resolution of state-owned firms in financial distress remains a problem due to the influence of local governments.

Recently, China’s central government promoted the introduction of courts specialized in bankruptcy, which are modeled on US courts and run by insolvency professionals. In this paper, we study the impact of the introduction of specialized courts across Chinese provinces a on bankruptcy resolution and credit markets. The introduction of specialized courts led to an increase in the share of liquidations of state-owned firms and a faster speed of processing in court. In addition, state-owned firms operating in jurisdictions with specialized courts experienced a decrease in the size of new bank loans, lower access to new loans, and lower investment in physical capital relative to privately-owned firms.

The full article is available here.

 

Director Bankruptcy Experience and Corporate Risk Taking

By Radhakrishnan Gopalan (Washington University in St. Louis – John M. Olin Business School), Todd A. Gormley (Washington University in St. Louis), and Ankit Kalda (Indiana University – Kelley School of Business – Department of Finance)

In our paper, we evaluate the extent to which a director’s past life experience affects the policies their firms follow. The specific experience we focus on is corporate bankruptcy. We identify a set of directors that experience a corporate bankruptcy. We then evaluate the extent to which this bankruptcy experience of the director is associated with the subsequent policies of other firms that these individuals serve as directors.

A corporate bankruptcy can be either a liberating or a traumatic experience. If the bankruptcy allows the firm to shed excess debt and obtain a fresh start, it can be a liberating experience. On the other hand, if the bankruptcy is prolonged and destroys significant value, then it can be traumatic. An inefficient bankruptcy can also affect the future career prospects of the director as the market may partially blame them for the bankruptcy. Either way, a bankruptcy is likely to be a significant life experience and affect the director’s outlook towards risk taking.

We find that, on average, firms take on more risk if they have a director who has experienced bankruptcy in the past. Specifically, such firms finance themselves with more debt, are less likely to issue equity, more likely to take up riskier projects, as reflected in the variability of cash flows, and less likely to diversify their business through acquisitions. These shifts, however, are only present when the original bankruptcy was a less expensive affair. That is, when the previous bankruptcy was quick, resulted in a restructuring of the firm, and was accompanied by a smaller stock price decline. We also find that directors who are associated with such bankruptcies do not experience any adverse career outcomes.

Overall, our results highlight that, on average, a past corporate bankruptcy experience might actually increase a director’s willingness to take on risk in the future.

The full article is available here.

Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Bankruptcy for Banks and Proposed Chapter 14

On November 13, 2018, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on “Big Bank Bankruptcy: 10 Years After Lehman Brothers,” in connection with the proposed “Taxpayer Protection and Responsible Resolution Act” (“TPRRA”). The TPRRA would add a new chapter 14 to the Bankruptcy Code, providing a recapitalization mechanism for bank holding companies or some other financial companies.

This version of chapter 14 would implement the “Single Point of Entry” financial company resolution model in bankruptcy. (The SPOE model contemplates that only a financial company’s top-level holding company would go into bankruptcy proceedings, with losses borne by its creditors, while material subsidiaries continue to operate as going concerns. For more, see here.) The bill contemplates a proceeding where the bank’s holding company would have a large amount of its long-term debt turned into equity over a 48 hour (likely weekend) period. The firm’s subsidiaries would continue to operate, but would be transferred over to a new, debt-free bridge company. The old holding company’s shareholders and creditors would have their claims handled through a bankruptcy process. The bill also included a 48 hour automatic stay on Qualified Financial Contracts (QFCs), but effectively requires their assumption by the new bridge company.

In his opening remarks, Senator Grassley noted that several similar bank bankruptcy proposals have been incorporated into bills introduced into both the Senate and House over the past several Congresses. (For Roundtable coverage of the 2016 and 2017 FIBA bills, click here, here, here, and here.) A principal difference, stressed by Senator Coons in his opening statement, was that the current bill would not affect Title II of the Dodd-Frank Act, as some prior provisions would have. The view that a special chapter 14 should complement, rather than replace the FDIC’s Orderly Liquidation Authority (OLA) is consistent with the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s report on OLA, recommending against its repeal, released earlier this year. (For Roundtable coverage of the OLA, click here and here.)

The Hearing featured testimony by Donald Bernstein (Davis Polk), Professor Mark Roe (Harvard Law School), and Stephen Hessler (Kirkland & Ellis).

Video and testimonies available here.


For previous Roundtable posts on the resolution of financial institutions, see Howell Jackson & Stephanie Massman, “The Resolution of Distressed Financial Conglomerates“; Stephen Lubben & Arthur Wilmarth, “Too Big and Unable to Fail“; Mark Roe’s “Don’t Bank on Bankruptcy”; Mark Roe & Stephen Adams, “Restructuring Failed Financial Firms in Bankruptcy: Selling Lehman’s Derivatives Portfolio”; David Skeel’s “Bankruptcy for Banks: A Tribute (and a Little Plea) for Jay Westbrook”; and, “Financial Scholars Submit Letter to Congress Opposing Repeal of Title II.”

(This post was authored by Ryan Rossner, J.D. ’19.)

Regulating Bankruptcy Bonuses

By Jared Ellias (University of California, Hastings)

In 2005, the perception that wealthy executives were being rewarded for failure led Congress to ban Chapter 11 firms from paying retention bonuses to senior managers. After the amendment became effective, Chapter 11 debtors could only pay executive bonuses through court-approved “Key Employee Incentive Plans,” which required managers to earn their pay by accomplishing specific performance goals, such as increasing revenue or moving the firm through the bankruptcy process.

In my article, I use newly collected data on the compensation practices of Chapter 11 debtors between 2002 and 2012 to examine how the reform changed bankruptcy practice. I find that relatively fewer firms used court-approved bonus plans after the reform, but the overall level of executive compensation appears to be similar. I hypothesize that three problems undermined the efficacy of the reform. First, the 2005 law asks bankruptcy judges to police the line between “incentive” bonuses and “retention” bonuses, which is extremely hard to do – judges are poorly equipped to assess the “challenging-ness” of a proposed performance goal. Second, creditors have limited incentives to police executive compensation themselves and help bankruptcy judges perform their inquiry, and the Department of Justice’s US Trustee program, while vigilant, lacks expertise in executive compensation. Third, gaps in the new regime make it easy for firms to bypass the 2005 law and pay managers without the judges’ permission. I support each of these hypotheses with empirical evidence. Further, there is also evidence that the reform significantly increased the litigation surrounding bonuses plans and, unsurprisingly, the attorneys’ fees associated with them. In many ways this paper examines what happens when Congress tries to change the balance of bargaining power between managers and creditors, and the result appears to be that firms found ways to get around a poorly written rule.

The full article is available here.

 

1 2