A Cautionary Tale for Claims Traders and Other Contract Counterparties

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By David Griffiths and Leonard Yoo (Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP).

During a negotiation over a sale of claims, when parties agree to a price and preliminarily agree to enter into a final agreement, is there a binding agreement to negotiate in good faith towards a final agreement? 

The bankruptcy court in Westinghouse addressed this very issue.  In Westinghouse, Seaport, on behalf of its client, reached out to Landstar to purchase its claims against Westinghouse Electric Company LLC.  An employee of Landstar negotiated with Seaport to sell the claims but explained to Seaport that, while she was authorized to negotiate a price, all other terms would need to be approved by Landstar’s legal counsel.  Seaport and Landstar’s employee eventually agreed to a price for the claims that was “subject to” executed documentation.  Two days after this agreement, Landstar informed Seaport that it decided to not go through with the sale.  Seaport and its client litigated this matter arguing that there was a binding obligation to negotiate in good faith because it was customary in the claims trading industry for parties to agree on the price over email and negotiate the other terms towards a final agreement. 

The bankruptcy court disagreed and held that a preliminary agreement to negotiate in good faith was not formed because, among other reasons, (i) Landstar reserved its right to not enter into a binding agreement and (ii) Seaport did not explicitly confirm with Landstar that there was an enforceable agreement as to the obligation to negotiate in good faith nor the purchase price.

The full article is available here.

The Ninth Circuit Affirms Creditors’ Ability to Block ‘Cramdown’ by Purchasing Claims

By George P. Angelich and Annie Y. Stoops (Arent Fox).

The Ninth Circuit affirmed the creditor’s ability to block “cramdown” by purchasing junior debt for the purpose of protecting its own existing claim.  In re Fagerdala USA-Lompoc, Inc., 891 F.3d 848 (9th Cir. 2018).  In reversing the bankruptcy court’s decision to designate claims for bad faith under 11 U.S.C. § 1126(e), the Ninth Circuit held that the creditor acting in its self-interest by purchasing unsecured claims to block “cramdown” did not constitute bad faith unless evidence showed the creditor acted with a motive ulterior to the purpose of protecting its economic interest in a bankruptcy proceeding.  Examples of “ulterior motive” included a creditor purchasing claims for the purpose of blocking litigation against it or a debtor arranging to have an insider purchase claims.

Fagerdala clarifies that creditors may purchase claims in defense of their economic interests in bankruptcy proceedings.  In holding that the bad faith inquiry under 11 U.S.C.  § 1126(e) requires evidence of an “ulterior motive,” the Ninth Circuit sets the stage for designation where a non-creditor or strategic investor purchases claims as an offensive move to gain an advantage over the Chapter 11 debtor.

The full article is available here.

Bankruptcy Claims Trading

By Jared A. Ellias (University of California, Hastings)

Over the past twenty years, a robust secondary market has emerged in the debt of Chapter 11 firms. Critics worry that the trading associated with this market has undermined bankruptcy governance, by forcing managers to negotiate with shifting groups of activist investors in the Chapter 11 bargaining process. In my new Article, “Bankruptcy Claims Trading” I perform the first empirical study of trading in the financial claims of Chapter 11 debtors to learn more about how claims trading impacts the average Chapter 11 case. Using the entire record of trading in bond debt for all Chapter 11 debtors that filed for bankruptcy between 2002 and 2012, I find that nearly all Chapter 11 bonds trade very heavily throughout the bankruptcy process. However, I find that claims trading appears to be less important for bankruptcy governance than many critics fear. The activist groups that tend to participate in negotiations usually enter cases early and rarely change significantly. This suggests that bankruptcy claims trading is, on average, much more about passive investment and much less about activist entrance and exit.

The full article is available here.

WSJ Examiners – Claims Trading

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Does claims trading impede chapter 11 reorganizations? And, if so, would disclosure of additional information about traded claims remove the impediments it creates?

Kenneth A. Rosen answers “yes” to both questions. He argues that ownership of an in-the-money claim incentivizes liquidation and thus encourages bad-faith rejections. Disclosure, he contends, would enable courts to assess more accurately whether a party’s rejection of a plan was made in good faith.

Elliot Ganz disagrees on both scores. He maintains that claims traders try to maximize a debtor’s going-concern value rather than immediately lock in paper gains. In so doing, they provide liquidity and expertise that improves the reorganization process. Disclosure, however, would publicize their strategies and thus chill their participation.

Who has the better argument? The Wall Street Journal’s expert panel of Examiners agrees with Mr. Ganz.

Marc Leder, Brett Miller, Anders J. Maxwell, Sharon Levine, Jack Butler, and Mark Roe all agree that claims trading is generally beneficial and that current disclosure requirements are adequate. Mr. Butler also details the history of claims trading to show that Congress was aware of the practice when it adopted the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978.

Finally, Mark Roe addresses a common criticism of claims trading–namely, that it hinders resolution via a negotiated plan because claims traders, fearful of insider trading liability and other risks, will not participate in plan formation. He argues that 363 sales ameliorate this problem because such sales may proceed absent negotiation among the various classes of creditors.

(This post was authored by Ben A. Sherwood, J.D. ’17.)

Purchasing Claims and Changing Votes: Establishing “Cause” under Rule 3018(a)

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By Amir Shachmurove

Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code gives creditors whose rights will be impaired the right to vote to accept or reject a proposed plan of reorganization, subjecting this prerogative to only two limitations. The first is set forth in Section 1126(e), which provides that a vote not cast or “not solicited or procured in good faith” may be nullified. The second appears in the penultimate sentence of Bankruptcy Rule 3018(a), which requires “a creditor or equity security holder” seeking “to change or withdraw” a vote to establish “cause.” Though “cause” has always been the sole constraint on the right to change or withdraw a previously cast vote in the whole of bankruptcy law, Rule 3018(a)’s text and commentary provide no definition or example. Existing precedent, moreover, is threadbare.

In four substantive parts, Purchasing Claims and Changing Votes: Establishing ‘Cause’ Under Rule 3018(a) proposes a new blueprint for the application of Rule 3018(a)’s deceptively plain “cause.” Necessarily, Part II surveys the present and wanting legal landscape. Part III then summarizes the standards for interpreting federal rules generally and shows how bankruptcy law’s specialized character compels these precepts’ alteration when a bankruptcy rule is at issue. Thereafter, Parts III and IV employ these tenets to delineate the effective range of “cause” in Rule 3018(a). In so doing, this article explicates the rarely-noticed interpretive constraints applicable to the Bankruptcy Rules and reads Rule 3018(a) accordingly, demonstrating how bankruptcy’s lone check on a pivotal privilege must be understood in light of such modern phenomena as claims trading.

The full article is published in 89 Am. Bankr. L.J. 511 (2015), and is available here.

Bankruptcy Law as a Liquidity Provider

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Authors: Kenneth Ayotte & David Skeel

Since the outset of the recent financial crisis, liquidity problems have been cited as the cause behind the bankruptcies and near bankruptcies of numerous firms, ranging from Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers in 2008 to Kodak more recently.  As Kodak’s lead bankruptcy lawyer explained to the court on the first day of the case: “We’re here for liquidity.” In this Article, we offer the first theoretical analysis of bankruptcy’s crucial role in creating liquidity for firms in financial distress.

The dominant normative theory of bankruptcy (the “Creditors Bargain theory”) argues that bankruptcy should be limited to solving coordination problems caused by multiple creditors. Using simple numerical illustrations, we show that two well-known problems that cause illiquidity–debt overhang and adverse selection– are more severe in the presence of multiple, uncoordinated creditors.  Hence, bankruptcy is justified in addressing them.

We discuss the Bankruptcy Code’s existing liquidity-providing rules, such as the ability to issue new senior claims, and the ability to sell assets free and clear of liens and other claims.  In addition to identifying this function in a variety of provisions that have not previously been recognized as related, our theory also explains how the recent trend toward creditor control in Chapter 11 cases can be explained as an attempt to create illiquidity for strategic advantage.  Although bankruptcy’s liquidity providing rules are essential, especially in the current environment, they also carry costs, such as the risk of “continuation bias.”  To address these costs, we propose qualitative principles for striking the balance between debtor liquidity and respect for nonbankruptcy rights.

University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 80, Fall 2013.  A draft is available on SSRN.

Activist Investors, Distressed Companies, and Value Uncertainty

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Authors:  Michelle M. Harner, Jamie Marincic Griffin, and Jennifer Ivey-Crickenberger

Hedge funds and other private investment funds often play a key role in chapter 11 cases.  They may hold the debtor’s prepetition secured debt or provide postpetition financing to the debtor.  They also may buy and trade the debtor’s secured and unsecured debt both before and after a chapter 11 filing.  These activities can provide much-needed liquidity to a debtor and foster a robust secondary market for creditors looking to exit the credit.  A fund’s participation in a case, however, sometimes generates litigation and, arguably, both delays the resolution and increases the cost of the case.  Consequently, many commentators and practitioners debate the utility of funds in restructurings.

In our most recent article on funds in chapter 11, we conduct an original empirical study of funds as purchasers of chapter 11 debtors.  Specifically, the study analyzes cases where a fund (individually or as part of a group) acquires control of a debtor through the chapter 11 process by purchasing either substantially all of the debtor’s assets or a majority interest in the reorganized stock.  In the stock acquisition context, we were concerned only with the investment of new capital.

Overall, the data suggest that funds have the potential to provide value in chapter 11.  But neither the participation of funds nor the chapter 11 process itself is a panacea, and more empirical and traditional case studies are needed to understand fully the impact of funds on corporate restructurings.  We hope our study encourages further research.

The full-length article can be found here.

“Trade Away!”—Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York Decides That Original Issue Discount From Fair Value Exchanges Is Allowable in Bankruptcy

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Authors: Richard L. Wynne and Lance Miller, Jones Day

Debt exchanges have long been utilized by distressed companies to address liquidity concerns and to take advantage of beneficial market conditions.  A company with burdensome debt obligations might seek to exchange existing notes for new notes with the same outstanding principal but with borrower-favorable terms (a “Face Value Exchange”).   Alternatively, the company could attempt to exchange existing notes for new notes with a lower face amount (a “Fair Value Exchange”).  Under either scenario, a debt exchange will create “original issue discount” (“OID”) equal to the difference between the face amount of the new notes and the value generated by the exchange for the company (i.e., the fair market value of the old notes).  For tax and accounting purposes, OID is treated as interest that is amortized over the life of the note, with the face amount scheduled to be paid on maturity.

When a company files for bankruptcy, however, unaccrued OID should arguably be disallowed under section 502(b)(2) of the Bankruptcy Code as “unmatured interest.”  However, to encourage out-of-court restructurings, both the Second and Fifth Circuit Courts of Appeal have ruled that unaccrued OID from Face Value Exchanges should not be disallowed.  In In re Residential Capital , LLC, 501 B.R. 549 (Bankr. S.D.N.Y. 2013), the court expanded that rationale to apply to Fair Value Exchanges.  If interpreted broadly and adopted by other courts, the decision will bring certainty to the markets that OID resulting from a debt-for-debt exchange will be allowed in bankruptcy, regardless of how the exchange is structured.

A more detailed discussion of the ruling is available here.

 

Buyer Beware: Courts Put Claims Trades Under a Microscope

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By Rick Antonoff, Mark Pesso, Timothy Bennett and Leah Edelboim, Clifford Chance US LLP

Recent decisions on claims trading in bankruptcy cases further develop the Second Circuit’s seminal ruling in Dish Network Corp. v.  DBSD North America, Inc. that if the primary motive for a secondary market purchase of bankruptcy claims is control of the Chapter 11 process, cause may exist to “designate,” or not count, the votes cast by the purchasers in connection with a Chapter 11 plan.  Read together, these decisions demonstrate the willingness of courts to scrutinize secondary market claim transactions when determining disputes over classification, treatment and, ultimately, the value claims purchasers realize on account of purchased claims.

In our Client Memorandum we discuss four decisions issued in the last year as additional examples of courts examining claims transfers under a microscope.  A Third Circuit Court of Appeals decision affirmed that the purchaser of trade claims is subject to the defenses that a debtor would have against the original creditor.  In another case, the bankruptcy court permitted the debtor to treat a claim differently solely because the claim was assigned to a secondary market purchaser.  A Ninth Circuit appellate panel ruled that insider status does not travel with a claim that is assigned.  And finally, a court sustained a debtor’s objection to an assigned claim because the assignee was unable to produce sufficient evidence of its right to assert the claim.

These cases show that courts increasingly look into relationships between the parties and their respective motives when deciding how purchased claims are treated.  The full Client Memorandum is available for download here.

The Ownership and Trading of Debt Claims in Chapter 11 Restructurings

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By Victoria Ivashina, Ben Iverson, and David C. Smith

The role that active investors play in Chapter 11 reorganization is hotly debated in bankruptcy circles. In our paper, “The Ownership and Trading of Debt Claims in Chapter 11 Restructurings,” we collect comprehensive data on individual claims for 136 large firms that filed for Chapter 11 protection to empirically test how active investors might influence the bankruptcy process. Our data allows us to observe the identities of over 77,000 claimants and precisely measure both ownership concentration as well as claims trading for these cases.

We find evidence that firms with more concentrated capital structures are more likely to enter bankruptcy with pre-negotiated or pre-packaged bankruptcy plans, suggesting that negotiations are easier when creditors are not dispersed. In addition, even if they do not have a pre-packaged plan, firms with more concentrated ownership tend to exit bankruptcy more quickly and are more likely to emerge from Ch. 11 intact rather than being sold or liquidated piecemeal.

In the second half of the paper, we turn to the question of how claims trading in bankruptcy affects the resolution of the case. We find that trading during bankruptcy tends to concentrate ownership even further, and that the bulk of claims purchasing is done by hedge funds and other active investors. Interestingly, as these active investors enter the capital structure the overall recovery rate for the case tends to decrease, suggesting that perhaps active investors shrink the size of the overall “pie” in their efforts to obtain a larger piece of it.

The full-length article can be found here.

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