Estimating the Need for Additional Bankruptcy Judges in Light of the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Benjamin Iverson (BYU Marriott School of Business), Jared A. Ellias (University of California, Hastings College of the Law), and Mark Roe (Harvard Law School)

Ben Iverson
Jared A. Ellias
Mark Roe

We recently estimated the bankruptcy system’s ability to absorb an anticipated surge of financial distress among American consumers, businesses, and municipalities as a result of COVID-19.

An increase in the unemployment rate has historically been a leading indicator of the volume of bankruptcy filings that occur months later.  If prior trends repeat this time, the May 2020 unemployment rate of 13.3% will lead to a substantial increase in all types of bankruptcy filings.  Mitigation, governmental assistance, the unique features of the COVID-19 pandemic, and judicial triage should reduce the potential volume of bankruptcies to some extent, or make it less difficult to handle, and it is plausible that the impact of the recent unemployment spike will be smaller than history would otherwise predict. We hope this will be so.  Yet, even assuming that the worst-case scenario could be averted, our analysis suggests substantial, temporary investments in the bankruptcy system may be needed.

Our model assumes that Congress would like to have enough bankruptcy judges such that the average judge would not be pressed to work more than was the case during the last bankruptcy peak in 2010, when the bankruptcy system was pressured and the public caseload figures indicate that judges worked 50 hour weeks on average.

To keep the judiciary’s workload at 2010 levels, we project that, in the worst-case scenario, the bankruptcy system could need as many as 246 temporary judges, a very large number. But even in our most optimistic model, the bankruptcy system will still need 50 additional temporary bankruptcy judgeships, as well as the continuation of all current temporary judgeships.

Our memorandum’s conclusions were endorsed by an interdisciplinary group of academics and forwarded to Congress.

Get in Line: Chapter 11 Restructuring in Crowded Bankruptcy Courts

By Benjamin Iverson, Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University

On average, total bankruptcy filings rise by 32% during economic recessions, leaving bankruptcy judges with far less time per case exactly when financial distress is worst.  The inflexible nature of the bankruptcy system coupled with the varying demands placed upon it, leads to the concern that time constraints might limit the effectiveness of bankruptcy when economic conditions deteriorate.

In my paper, “Get in Line: Chapter 11 Restructuring in Crowded Bankruptcy Courts,” I test whether Chapter 11 restructuring outcomes are affected by time constraints in busy bankruptcy courts.  Using the passage of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act in 2005 as a shock that decreased caseloads dramatically, I show that as bankruptcy judges become busier they tend to allow more firms to reorganize and liquidate fewer firms.  I interpret this as evidence that busy bankruptcy judges defer to the debtor in possession more often, scrutinizing each case less and thereby allowing reorganization more often.  In addition, I find that firms that reorganize in busy courts tend to spend longer in bankruptcy, while firms that are dismissed from busy courts are more likely to re-file for bankruptcy within three years of their original filing.

Perhaps most striking, I also show that busy courts impose costs on local banks, which report higher charge-offs on business lending when caseload increases.  If time constraints create higher costs of financial distress, it appears that these costs are typically passed on to the creditors of the bankrupt firms in the form of higher losses on distressed loans.

The full-length article can be found here.


The Ownership and Trading of Debt Claims in Chapter 11 Restructurings

posted in: Claims Trading | 0

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.