Bail-outs and Bail-ins are better than Bankruptcy: A Comparative Assessment of Public Policy Responses to COVID-19 Distress

By Kristin van Zwieten (University of Oxford), Horst Eidenmüller (University of Oxford), and Oren Sussman (University of Oxford)

Kristin van Zwieten
Horst Eidenmüller
Oren Sussman

In a recent paper we argue that bail-outs or bail-ins are better than bankruptcy for the treatment of COVID-19 distress, even where there exists a reorganization procedure that functions well in normal conditions.

COVID-19 has severely disrupted the conduct of business around the globe. In jurisdictions that impose one or more “lockdowns,” multiple sectors of the real economy must endure prolonged periods of reduced trading or even total shutdowns. The associated revenue losses will push many businesses into bankruptcy. No public policy response can recover these losses. States can, however, act to reduce the amplification of the shock by the way in which they treat the cohort of newly bankrupt businesses.

In jurisdictions where a well-functioning reorganization procedure can produce value-maximizing outcomes in normal conditions, the temptation may be to subject this cohort to such procedures. This temptation should be resisted, not only because of the (significant) costs of these procedures, or because of concerns about institutional capacity to treat a high volume of cases, but also because such procedures are likely to be a poor “fit” for the treatment of COVID-19 distress. Distorting such procedures to accommodate the features of COVID-19 distress (or, in jurisdictions where there is not a reorganization procedure, introducing one designed with COVID-19 distress in mind) risks inhibiting the availability of credit for new projects in future, slowing the path to economic recovery.

The more attractive routes to relief are bail-ins (one-time orders to creditors or counterparties, or some class thereof, to forgive), bail-outs (offers to assume the debtor’s liabilities, or a class thereof), or some combination of the two.

In our paper, we explain why a public policy response is necessary to mitigate the amplification of the shock caused by trading shut-downs, and we compare treatment by the prevailing bankruptcy law with treatment by bail-ins or bail-outs along a range of dimensions. We conclude by developing principles to help guide the choice between bail-ins and bail-outs, and the design of either form of intervention.

We suggest that policymakers should intervene in ways that are proportionate, in the sense that they ought to confine themselves to that which is thought necessary to minimize the amplification of the economic shock caused by periods of trading shutdowns; that interventions should be designed to minimize distortions to efficient private bargains and private law rules; that transfers should be from the less financially constrained to the more financially constrained; that interventions should “fit” with the institutional apparatus responsible for administering them; and that the process of designing and delivering relief should be transparent.

We suggest these principles tentatively, mindful of the fact that policymakers may or may not be working with common conceptions of fairness and responsibility, and of the fact that some of our principles may only be able to be fully pursued at the partial expense of others. But we nevertheless hope that they offer a useful starting point for thinking about the design and delivery of novel forms of relief to debtors distressed by COVID-19 related revenue losses.