Bankruptcy’s Cathedral: Property Rules, Liability Rules, and Distress

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.

Bankruptcy Sales: Is A Public Auction Required to Assure That Property Is Sold for The Highest and Best Price?

By Vicki R. Harding (Vicki R. Harding, PLLC)

A buyer negotiating acquisition of commercial real estate from a Chapter 7 trustee or a Chapter 11 debtor-in-possession will almost always hear the mantra: “I have a fiduciary duty to maximize value for the benefit of the bankruptcy estate” – which the seller insists means the property must be sold through a public auction. The potential buyer may be designated as the stalking horse (e.g. its offer will be treated as an opening bid), and it may have input on the bidding procedures (bidder qualifications, minimum overbid, purchase price payment terms, etc.). But at the end of the day it runs a risk that after investing time and money in pursuing the acquisition someone else may be selected as having made a “higher and better” offer.

However, that is not always the case.  In re 160 Royal Palm, LLC, 600 B.R. 119 (S.D. Fla. 2019) presents an interesting case study. As discussed in Bankruptcy Sales: Highest Is Not Always Best, the bankruptcy court allowed a debtor to withdraw property from a previously authorized public auction and to proceed with a private sale to a designated buyer, subject only to an overbid by the stalking horse from the public auction. The court approved the private sale over the objection of a third party that claimed that in a public auction it would bid at least $1 million more than the private sale purchase price.

The full article is available here.

Selling Innovation in Bankruptcy

posted in: 363 Sale, Valuation | 0

By Song Ma (Yale School of Management), (Joy) Tianjiao Tong (Duke University, Fuqua School of Business), and Wei Wang (Queen’s School of Business).

The past decades have witnessed the emergence of patent sales in corporate bankruptcies. Yet we know little about the facts and rationales of these important economic transactions.

In this working paper, we assemble a comprehensive data set of US Chapter 11 filings, USPTO patent transaction documents, and court records on assets sales from the past three decades. We document three stylized facts on patent sales in bankruptcy. First, patent sales are pervasive — more than 40% of bankrupt firms sell at least one patent, and on average they sell 18% of their patent portfolios. Second, patent transactions occur immediately after bankruptcy filing — concentrating largely within the first two quarters after filing. Third, patents are frontloaded in general asset sales in bankruptcy — firms sell a disproportionately large quantity of patents in asset sales during the early period of reorganization.

Why do firms sell patents during bankruptcy? We design a set of empirical tests to study the economic decisions behind patent sales based on the two economic views on assets reallocation in bankruptcy, namely asset restructuring and financing through asset sales. Our results show that bankrupt firms reallocate patents that are more redeployable and trade in a more liquid market . We find no evidence that they sell underexploited or underperforming patents. This pattern of selling more liquid patents holds stronger in firms with financial distress, firms undergoing poor industry conditions, and firms lacking external financing. The combined evidence lends support to the view that firms sell innovation during bankruptcy for financing purposes rather than for asset restructuring. Additionally, we find that bankrupt firms try to retain the inventors of sold patents and continue to cite sold patents after their sale. The evidence overall suggests that a firm’s imminent financing needs interact with its intent to avoid bankruptcy costs in shaping a firm’s decision to sell patents in bankruptcy.

The full paper is available here.


The Roundtable will be off for the holidays. We’ll be back early after the New Year.