Are Judges Randomly Assigned to Chapter 11 Bankruptcies? Not According to Hedge Funds

By Niklas Hüther (Indiana University) and Kristoph Kleiner (Indiana University)

Niklas Hüther
Kristoph Kleiner

”The bankruptcy system is supposed to work for everyone, but in many cases it works only for the powerful.”  – House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, July 28th, 2021

Researchers have long recognized that judicial outcomes are subject to the biases of the ruling judge. To alleviate concerns of fairness, courts in both the U.S. and abroad claim to assign judges to individual court cases randomly. From a policy perspective, randomization promotes public confidence in the judicial process by limiting forum shopping and the individual influence of any individual judge. From an academic perspective, recent empirical research in economics and finance exploits the random assignment of judges to causally identify of a wide range of legal outcomes.

This paper revisits the claim of randomized judicial assignment in the context of U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Our research is motivated by legal scholarship arguing that debtors in recent cases are influencing judicial assignments (Levitin, 2021), as well as renewed interest in these issues from policy makers and the public (Merle and Bernstein, 2019; Randles 2020). Despite these arguments, there are reasons to believe assignment is random. For instance, after contacting all U.S. Bankruptcy Courts, Iverson et al. (2017) found that only one court (the Eastern District of Wisconsin) reports assigning cases to judges non-randomly. In addition, a range of research including Bernstein et al. (2019) provides convincing evidence that debtor characteristics fail to predict judicial assignments. Missing from this literature is any large-scale empirical evidence of non-random assignment.

Analyzing U.S. corporate bankruptcy filings between 2010 and 2020, we provide new evidence that assignment is not random, but predicted by the lending decisions of hedge funds. By focusing on investments made before the assignment of a bankruptcy judge, our technique is not suspect to standard critiques that predictability is merely an outcome of ex-post data mining; instead, in order for investors to systemically invest in firms that are later assigned a preferred judge, it must be possible to infer future judicial assignments. In addition, we focus on hedge funds, as they routinely influence a wide range of bankruptcy outcomes including emergence and debt restructurings.  The prevalence of these investors allows us to explore a new channel of activism in the distress debt market: activist influence in judicial assignment process prior to filing.

In our setting, judges can decide whether to convert a Chapter 11 bankruptcy to a Chapter 7 liquidation; while secured creditors may have a preference for liquidation, unsecured creditors recover more under reorganization.  Exploiting this distinction, we confirm unsecured hedge fund creditors (relative to secured hedge funds) are significantly less likely to be assigned a judge with a tendency to convert Chapter 11 cases.  We also extend our analysis to an alternate bankruptcy outcome measure: the unsecured creditor recovery rate according to the confirmed plan. We find unsecured hedge funds are far more likely to be assigned a judge with a high past unsecured recovery rate.

We next test whether these estimates differ across the filings in our sample. First, we find that unsecured hedge fund claimants are assigned a preferable judge more commonly when the hedge fund invested shortly before the bankruptcy filing, suggesting hedge funds choose to invest explicitly to influence the filing. Second, we show the effects are greatest when the hedge fund is on the board of directors of the debtor at the time of filing, providing further support for the role of communication between debtor and creditor.

Finally, we conduct three robustness tests. First, we find no evidence that a judge’s future conversion rate (after controlling for the past conversion rate) is predicted by hedge fund investment, suggesting hedge funds are explicitly influencing judicial assignment based on information regarding past information. Second, focusing on the subset of districts that explicitly state random assignment within their district, we continue to find hedge fund investments predict assignment. Third, we include district-office-year fixed effects in our analysis and continue to find a relationship between hedge fund investments and assignment.

Moving forward, we believe there are two potential policies that can alleviate these issues. The first, and simplest, is for policy makers to develop a truly randomized process. Alternatively, policy makers can instead increase the number of bankruptcy judges, leading to lower predictability even if assignment is not fully randomized. Policy makers intent on a fairer judicial system should consider both proposals.

The full article is available here.

This piece previously appeared on the Oxford Business Law Blog.

Corporate Bankruptcy Has Lasting Effects on CEO Careers through Frictions in Executive Labor Market

By Andreas Kostøl (Arizona State University – W.P. Carey School of Business; Norges Bank), Morten Grindaker (Norwegian Business School; Norges Bank), and Kasper Roszbach (Norges Bank; University of Groningen)

Andreas Kostøl
Morten Grindaker
Kasper Roszbach

Policymakers have long been concerned about the potential negative effects of bankruptcy for CEOs and business dynamics. Fear of reputational scarring caused by bankruptcy could lead managers to take less risk than desired by owners, which could manifest in lower performance and lower rates of entrepreneurship and job growth.

 

CEOs influence a wide range of decisions, such as organizational practices, debt financing and whether to file for corporate bankruptcy or not. Empirical studies of Chapter 11 bankruptcy show that CEOs of large bankrupt firms suffer significant financial losses. The prospect of individually-borne income loss due to a corporate bankruptcy carries in it a risk that CEOs take decisions that are not aligned with the interest of the owners.

It remains an open empirical question, however, whether the observed personal costs should be attributed to the selection of CEOs with lower managerial skills, firm-specific human capital, or stigma in the executive labor market.

Our analysis attempts to answer this question by disentangling the stigma and skill effects by examining the causal effects of corporate bankruptcy on the personal income and career of CEOs in small and medium-sized companies in Norway. To this end, we exploit that bankruptcy petitions in Norway are randomly assigned to judges who have different degrees of strictness in their approval of bankruptcy filings. This institutional feature generates variation in firms’ likelihood of being declared bankrupt that is unrelated to firm or CEO characteristics. We use administrative panel data that identifies CEO’s sources of wealth and income and corporate positions to examine the effects of bankruptcy on their careers.

Two broad conclusions emerge from our empirical analysis.

First, we find that corporate bankruptcy has a long-lasting impact on CEOs’ careers. CEOs whose firms are declared bankrupt are 25 percentage points more likely to exit the executive workforce. Displaced CEOs find new employment quickly but do so by moving to lower-ranked positions in new firms. Bankruptcy also has an economically significant impact on CEO remuneration; we document an annual fall in capital income equal to about five percent of annual gross income. While the net present value of the average decline in capital income over the remainder of a CEO’s working-age career is equal to 60 percent of pre-bankruptcy annual income, we find no enduring effect on CEOs’ labor income after five years.

Second, our analysis shows that the displacement effects are much larger when default rates in the firms’ industry are low. For example, a CEOs is five times less likely to remain in the executive workforce if her/his firm experiences a bankruptcy while the bankruptcy frequency in the same industry is low. By contrast, variation in CEO wages is not driven by industry conditions. Post-bankruptcy, we find a greater mobility of CEOs between industries and an increased tendency to move to more productive firms with a higher-paid workforce, suggesting that managerial skills are portable.

Taken together, our findings suggest that negative career effects of bankruptcy can be attributed to stigma. When we eliminate the risk of low-skilled CEOs sorting into bankrupt firms, we find that the executive labor market interprets bankruptcy as a signal of lower managerial talent. This stigma effect is greater during better economic times. More details can be found in the full paper that is available here.