By Jared A. Ellias (University of California Hastings College of the Law), George Triantis (Stanford Law School)
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress has moved quickly to get trillions of dollars of emergency relief to consumers, small businesses, and large firms. These efforts aim to rescue millions of American consumers and businesses from insolvency.
It is troubling, though, that the federal government is ignoring the law that already exists for cushioning the blows associated with financial distress: the bankruptcy system. In its strategy to provide relief and stimulus, the government is in effect offering roadside emergency assistance when the infrastructure and expertise of a hospital is easily accessible.
Because the bankruptcy system entails a detailed restructuring process, it forces companies to think hard about how they’ve been doing things and whether it makes sense to continue doing them that way. Cash infusions from programs like those in the CARES Act, on the other hand, are only designed to keep businesses’ heads above water. That’s all that some companies need, but for others that were already struggling before the crisis hit, such as J.Crew and Neiman Marcus, bankruptcy can encourage them to focus on their long-term health.
Our existing bankruptcy system isn’t only crucial for helping companies move past their immediate crisis of zero revenue and illiquidity, it will also be essential in helping entire industries adapt to a prolonged period of uncertainty created by the coronavirus pandemic.
By Gert-Jan Boon, Leiden University (The Netherlands)
The COVID-19 (corona) virus has reached pandemic status. It currently spreads over the world and is expected to infect a majority of all people within the next month(s), according to health experts. The medical urgency justifies the current extraordinary measures taken by many governments globally, measures that, at the same time, also have devastating effects on businesses and entrepreneurs as sectors slow down or are effectively closed down.
Weathering the storm: a European perspective
In Europe and beyond, strong appeals have been made to prevent bankruptcies caused by the COVID-19 crisis. The exogenous economic shock hits both financially reasonably healthy companies, which depend on a smooth inflow of liquidity, and companies with fundamentally solid business models. Many companies with a viable business model at start of 2020 would now be forced to file and possibly suffer a piecemeal liquidation in the resulting insolvency proceedings. Under the current, distressed market conditions there is a significant risk of sales at an under value.
Not surprisingly, many governments and institutions have announced economic measures to prevent an outbreak of businesses entering into liquidation proceedings. This includes the US Government with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Similarly, measures to strengthen economies have been taken by many European countries and institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and ECB.
At a European Union level, the European Commission published several communications dealing with the economic consequences of the COVID-19 crisis. In the first Communication on a coordinated economic approach the Commission announced several liquidity measures and described which complementing measures EU Member States may take that fall outside the scope of EU state aid rules. In the second Communication, the Commission announced a Temporary Framework for State Aid setting out and broadening the scope of state aid measures that fall within current EU state aid rules. Also, the Commission expressed its commitment for ‘using every available euro in every way possible to protect lives and livelihoods’. Furthermore, a bank package has been adopted to facilitate bank lending to businesses.
Prevent unnecessary bankruptcies
The extraordinary economic situation raised by the COVID-19 outbreak requires legislators to undertake extraordinary measures. This extends also to insolvency legislation in order to prevent unnecessary bankruptcies. Insolvency legislation which is effective under normal market conditions may prove insufficient or ineffective in the current situation. Measures in these times should be effective without too many formalities, especially when courts and public authorities may not be fully available due to lockdown measures.
The Executive of the Conference on European Restructuring and Insolvency Law (CERIL) — an independent non-profit organisation of European lawyers and other restructuring and insolvency practitioners, law professors and (insolvency) judges — also considers that existing insolvency legislation in Europe may not provide adequate responses to the situation in which many businesses currently find themselves. In a statement published in March 2020, the Executive calls upon EU and European national legislators to take immediate action to adapt insolvency legislation to prevent unnecessary corona bankruptcies. Although prepared for the European context, these recommendations may also be an inspiration for legislators in other parts of the world.
Adapting insolvency legislation
CERIL suggests that two steps should be taken immediately by European national legislators. First, the duty to file for insolvency proceedings based on over-indebtedness should be suspended. Such duties exist in several EU Member States, for instance Austria, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Poland and Spain. The current economic uncertainty hampers the effectiveness of this duty which is aimed at selecting non-viable businesses. In recent days, some countries have suspended (Germany) or extended (Austria) this duty. Second, in response to a (partial) shutdown of businesses for a number of weeks or months, urgent measures are required addressing the illiquidity of businesses.
In addition, the CERIL statement recommends that EU and national legislators consider further measures. In urgently adapting insolvency legislation, they should include measures to make available interim (crisis) finance, suspend the duty to file based on inability to pay, provide for ‘hibernation’ (going into winter sleep) of (small) businesses by means of a general moratorium or deferral of payments, and provide support for the livelihood of entrepreneurs and their employees.
The CERIL Executive Statement on COVID-19 and insolvency legislation is available here.
This is an amended version of the blog that appeared before on the Oxford Business Law Blog.
* Gert-Jan Boon is Researcher and Lecturer in insolvency law at Leiden University.
By Thomas J. Salerno, Gerald Weidner, Christopher Simpson, and Susan Ebner, (Stinson LLP)
On March 27, 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was enacted into law. The CARES Act is reported to be “twice as large as any relief ever signed,” and will provide $2.2 trillion in relief to US businesses (with another $1 trillion being promised in the near future). While bankruptcy lawyers are aware that CARES expanded the debt limitations for eligibility for the Small Business Bankruptcy Reorganization Act, there could (and should) be another substantial implication for the brave new bankruptcy world—a new potential source of DIP financing. It is in this context that the CARES financing provisions become particularly interesting.
The authors recognize that there are established underwriting guidelines for SBA loans. Moreover, the existing regulations (and revisions in process) will come into play as to availability of these loans. Accordingly, while there is no express prohibition for some of the loans referenced herein from being accessed in a Chapter 11 proceeding, a de facto prohibition likely comes from existing underwriting guidelines. If the overarching purpose of the CARES Act is to assist businesses in weathering the economic storm while the COVID 19 virus ravages the economy, the authors argue that such underwriting guidelines can, and must, be loosened in order to allow application of some of these programs in Chapter 11 proceedings so that they can be most effectively implemented to stabilize businesses, preserve jobs, continue to keep employees and businesses on the tax rolls, etc.
In this way the stimulus funds will be used where they can be most effectively deployed. If not, those funds will be the equivalent of the federal government sending rubber rafts to a drought stricken area—a sign that the government cares, perhaps, but of certainly no real use to address the problem at hand. The full article is available here.
Two recent amendments to the U.S. Bankruptcy Code impose new hurdles for debtors and trustees to clear before filing an action against a creditor to recover the value of preferential transfers that the debtor made to the creditor prior to filing a bankruptcy petition. One amendment requires debtors and trustees to conduct a due diligence review of the circumstances surrounding a particular transfer and probable affirmative defenses before filing suit. The other amendment increases the amount that debtors and trustees must seek to recover in a preference action if they want to file the action in the court where the bankruptcy case is pending rather than in the court where the creditor is located. These creditor-friendly amendments will take effect in early 2020, and may discourage debtors and trustees from filing some preference actions.
The Dubai International Financial Centre (the “DIFC”), one of the leading international financial hubs in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia (the “MEASA”) region, has recently announced the enactment of the new DIFC Insolvency Law, Law No. 1 of 2019 (the “New DIFC Insolvency Law”), which became effective in June 2019. Importantly, the New DIFC Insolvency Law which will repeal and replace the Insolvency Law of 2009 and was the subject of substantial research and global benchmarking introduces a completely new rehabilitation provision for distressed companies in the DIFC in addition to the previously existing procedures such as company voluntary arrangements, receiverships and liquidations. With the goal of promoting the rehabilitation of viable businesses that are part of the DIFC while addressing the continuing needs of the various stakeholders involved, the DIFC made several key changes as part of its enactment of the New DIFC Insolvency Law including: (1) the introduction of a debtor in possession procedure known as rehabilitation; (2) the introduction of a procedure that allows the management of a company to be replaced by a court-appointed administrator when there has been mismanagement of or misconduct by the company or management; (3) enhancing and modernizing existing rules and procedures; and (4) the incorporation of the UNCITRAL Model Law on Cross-Border Insolvency.
Happily, ultimate resolution of the Blackjewel case later in autumn saw the employees made whole and the company investigated for fraud. But this solution was anything but assured before it was reached, and employees in any event suffered substantial harm in the form of disrupted family budgets and substantial uncertainty as to ultimate recovery for months – including, critically, just as a new school year was commencing for employee families’ children.
It would seem well advised, then, to put in place a more permanent and reliable process for cases like that of Blackjewel and its employees. What is needed is a solution that is uniformly applicable, reliable, and known in advance such that all concerned parties can bargain and plan ‘in the shadow’ of the regime. Our present arrangements are subject to vagaries of state law and state budgets that vary across state jurisdictional space and fiscal time. The obvious solution to the difficulties raised by such variance is to subject this realm, like that of bankruptcy itself, to federal legislation.
A bill I have recently drafted and advocated aims to ‘fit the bill’ in effect called-for by the Blackjewel affair. It does so by (a) assigning the Department of Labor (‘DOL’) a permanent representation role in future employer insolvencies; (b) federalizing the employer bonding requirements now found only in inconsistently administered state laws; (c) establishing an Employee Liquidity Support Fund to tide employees over while bankruptcy proceedings are pending; and (d) holding employing-firms’ executive officers personally liable for violations of the Act’s requirements.
The reason for DOL representation and oversight is to ensure that employees have a coherent and powerful representative ‘at the table’ during insolvency proceedings – one that is endowed with oversight authority not only during, but in advance of insolvencies.
The reason for federalizing employer bonding requirements is that states often vary over time in respect of the seriousness with which they administer such requirements, presumably in part for reasons sounding in lobbying pressures and ideology but also for reasons of basic capacity – large employers, after all, often are ‘bigger’ than the states that would supervise them.
The reason for establishing an Employee Liquidity Support Fund is presumably obvious. What made Blackjewel’s travails so hard on employees was precisely the fact that ultimate resolution was long in coming, while employee families’ daily living expenses couldn’t ‘wait.’ Against such a backdrop it makes sense for DOL to do for employees what our Federal Reserve does for financial institutions while insolvency and consolidation proceedings are underway – viz., provide tide-over funding.
Finally, the reason for holding executive officers personally liable for compliance with the Act’s requirements should be obvious as well. For again as in the case of financial institutions, so here the only surefire way of ‘incentivizing’ firms to comply is to incentivize those through whom all firms act – their executives, as the term ‘executive’ (derived from ‘execute’) itself suggests. Diffuse shareholders, who often lack power over corporate officers, and insider shareholders, who often have interests at odds with the interests of non-executive employees in any event, simply aren’t up to the task.
Employing firms, their executives and their owners have enjoyed multiple forms of state patronage for decades in our nation, while employees have in general enjoyed only sporadic assistance from public sector institutions and, less now than any time since the early 20th century, labor unions. This Act will help further a cause that’s increasingly now recognized once again to be both morally and economically compelling: That is the task of protecting the interests of our own productive citizenry – our labor force.
Vasile Rotaru (Droit & Croissance / The Rules for Growth Institute)
From a functional law and economics perspective, the recent European restructuring directive (the ‘Directive’) brings both welcome innovations and multiple pitfalls. Its final text bears the traces of the divergent objectives and inspirations of its drafters. In a recent paper, I attempt to provide a thorough analysis of the different hidden ‘models’ and important measures of the Directive, as well as its unfortunate oversights.
The first part of the paper lays the theoretical foundations of the subsequent analysis. It has long been argued that insolvency law should pursue two objectives: (i) facilitating debtor’s ex ante access to finance; and (ii) ensuring an efficient ex post distribution of resources in the economy, by restructuring economically viable companies with bad capital structures and swiftly liquidating companies with an unsustainable business. Together, the two should result in wealth maximization, the default (but by no means only) criterion for assessing business law’s merits.
The paper takes a ‘functional’ approach, which is fueled by a deep skepticism towards any extensive cost-benefit analysis. It suggests that the ex ante focus should be on ensuring that a suitable epistemic framework is in place when the decision as to the redistribution of resources has to be taken. This implies incentivizing decision-makers to reliably reveal their preferences and bear the costs of their actions while diminishing coordination failures and potential conflicts of interests. Starting with this intuition, I attempt to reformulate the classical creditors’ bargain theory, underlining that so called ‘preventive’ proceedings are no exception.
In the second part of the paper, I rely on this theoretical framework to provide a critical analysis of the main measures of the Directive. I show that the apparent complexity of its final text (the contemplated proceedings could potentially take more than 70 forms) is owed to its drafters pursuing divergent objectives: economic efficiency or short-term preservation of businesses and jobs at all costs, with an unfortunate bias in favor of the latter (especially concerning SMEs).
Moreover, two coherent formal ‘models’ of proceedings are offered. The first is a unitary, public proceeding, with a potential general moratorium for up to four months. The second is a two-step proceeding—partially inspired by the current French model—that would start with an amicable phase devoid of wide publicity and would be accompanied by individual moratoria granted on a casuistic basis where they seem justified. The second, short and public ‘closing’ phase would be triggered in the specific circumstances where the restructuring plan has to be forced upon dissenting stakeholders. Once a decision has been made as to the objectives and formal model, most of the subsequent transposition options follow.
The Directive implies a devolution of decision-making powers to classes of affected stakeholders, although the court preserves a far too important role. Indeed, stakeholders are in the best position to identify and exploit any restructuring gain. It remains to be seen which criteria will be used to ensure that the interests of members of a class are aligned and no abusive behavior takes place. Where a plan is not approved by all classes of stakeholders, the Directive provides for a cross-class cram-down, where a majority of classes or at least one class of stakeholders who are ‘in the money’ must approve the plan. The latter option could potentially lead to abuses and uncertainties, given the meagre experience of European practitioners with valuations as a going concern. The cram-down can involve a debt-equity swap imposed both on shareholders, who should be treated as any other class of stakeholders and dissenting creditors. This possibility is not trivial, as it forces creditors to continue financing the business, and should be duly justified.
Unfortunately, the contemplated protections of stakeholders’ interests are somewhat underwhelming. For instance, instead of ensuring that all stakeholders share the restructuring gain in accordance with their respective ranks in the capital structure, the Directive provides for a confusing and dangerous ‘relative’ priority rule, which will likely render the negotiations unpredictable, or, alternatively, for an incomplete ‘absolute’ priority rule. Moreover, no protection is provided against debtor’s potentially abusive behavior before the opening of proceedings.
Finally, the paper offers some insights into the expected impact of its transposition into French law. In particular, its last part suggests that any transposition needs to aim at increasing the transparency and predictability of restructuring proceedings in order to foster secondary debt markets, and therefore to ensure that impatient creditors can easily be replaced by those interested in the restructuring gain.
By Vincent S.J. Buccola (University of Pennsylvania – The Wharton School)
What good can a corporate bankruptcy regime do in the modern economy? The question bears asking because the environment in which distressed companies find themselves is so markedly different from the environment of just twenty years ago—to say nothing of the days of the equity receiverships, of sections 77 and 77B, of Chapters X and XI. The most important changes are well known: increased depth and liquidity of financial markets and, especially, increased capacity of financial contracting to say ex ante how distress will be resolved ex post. Recent efforts to take stock of contemporary bankruptcy practice, most notably the ABI’s Chapter 11 reform project, grapple implicitly with the significance of a changing environment. But by leaving the matter implicit, they underscore a lacuna about what the law’s marginal contribution to the economic order might be.
In a forthcoming article, Bankruptcy’s Cathedral, I hazard a general answer and elaborate its implications for a few prominent uses of bankruptcy in today’s practice.
The characteristic function of bankruptcy law, I say, is to recharacterize the mode in which an investor’s relationship to a distressed firm is governed. In particular, bankruptcy frequently toggles the protection of an investor’s economic interests from a property rule, in the Calabresi and Melamed sense, to a liability rule. It swaps out the investor’s unilateral right upon default to withdraw her investment, when such a right would ordinarily prevail, in favor of a judicially mediated procedure designed to give her the official value of her right. The automatic stay furnishes an example. It extinguishes a secured creditor’s power to repossess and sell collateral, and supplies instead a right only to what the bankruptcy judge determines to be “adequate protection” of its interest in the collateral.
This toggling function can be useful, Property rules are often more efficient during a company’s financial health than during distress. A state-contingent meta rule that switches between the two thus might be optimal. But what about financial contracting? Why can’t investors stipulate state-contingent meta rules if indeed they can maximize surplus by doing so? The short answer is that in some cases contract is sufficient, but in other cases legal or practical impediments are insuperable. The marginal contribution of bankruptcy law, then, is to supply toggling rules where investors cannot practically do so on their own.
One implication of my approach is to index the justifiable scope of bankruptcy to contingent facts about the efficacy of financial contracting. In environments where it is difficult for investors to specify state-contingent toggling rules, whether because of legal prohibition or practical impossibility, the compass for bankruptcy law is wider. As contract becomes more efficacious, bankruptcy’s brief grows correspondingly shorter.
This normative schema can be used to assess one-by-one the many actual interventions of bankruptcy laws. I scrutinize three uses of bankruptcy that are important in today’s practice: to confirm prepackaged plans, to effect going-concern sales, and to take advantage of the automatic stay. I find plausible justifications for a legal institution to bind holdout creditors and to extinguish in rem claims against a debtor’s assets. The automatic stay, on the other hand, is harder to justify. (The curious must read within to find out why.) More generally, though, my approach shows how one can weigh the contributions of a bankruptcy regime against its redundant or even counterproductive in light of contracting innovations.
The complete article is available for download here.
By Laura Coordes (Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law)
Many health care providers are experiencing financial distress, and if the predicted wave of health care bankruptcies materializes, the entire U.S. economy could suffer. Unfortunately, health care providers are part of a growing group of “bankruptcy misfits,” in the sense that bankruptcy does not work for them the way it works for other businesses. This is so for two primary reasons. First, the Bankruptcy Code is insufficiently specific with respect to health care debtors. Second, the Code lacks an organizing principle to allow the court to reconcile the competing players and interests in a health care bankruptcy case.
Previous attempts to address these issues have not succeeded. Notably, the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 scattered reforms across the Code, making bankruptcy more complicated for health care debtors. As a result, some have argued that these debtors are better off using bankruptcy alternatives such as state receiverships to address their debts.
In Reorganizing Health Care Bankruptcy, I assert that despite their bankruptcy misfit status, health care providers can realize distinct benefits from bankruptcy relief. To be effective, however, this relief must respond to health care providers’ unique needs. Creating separate Bankruptcy Code subchapters for health care business bankruptcies would allow Congress to clarify many aspects of health care bankruptcy and enable the development of specific procedures and a distinct organizing principle unique to health care provider bankruptcies. Although this proposal contemplates a significant structural change to the Bankruptcy Code, the Article explains why this change is warranted as part of the Code’s necessary evolution.
“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.