The COVID pandemic put unprecedented pressure on all economies around the world. Many predicted that this economic dislocation would lead to an unprecedented number of corporate bankruptcies. This did not happen. The American government and other governments responded with extraordinary measures. While these measures allowed companies to ride out the worst of the pandemic, they did have consequences. Many large companies were left with unprecedentedly large amounts of debt on their balance sheets.
Perhaps a robust economy will allow companies to grow their way out from under their debt burden. But perhaps not. To prepare for the possible future increase in large companies filing for bankruptcy, Congress should act now to build up a bankruptcy infrastructure sufficient to handle an influx in cases. Specifically, Congress should require that every circuit create a “business bankruptcy panel” designed to administer the Chapter 11 filing of large companies. As is well-known, three bankruptcy districts currently serve as dominant venues for large cases – the District of Delaware, the Southern District of New York and the Southern District of Texas. It is by no means clear that these three courts could handle a significant increase in caseloads. Creating expertise across the country would help prepare the system for any future rise in cases. A secondary benefit of this reform is that it may also ameliorate some of the concerns that have been raised over the years by the dominance of a small number of venues for large corporate cases.
By Diane Lourdes Dick (Professor of Law, Seattle University School of Law)
Over the last year, publicly traded companies have provided thoughtful commentary in their public company disclosures regarding the financial decisions they have made in response to the COVID-19 crisis. Meanwhile, public and private companies have filed for bankruptcy protection, providing detailed narrative accounts of the events leading up to the filing and the various steps they have taken to stem losses and maintain the company as a going concern.
In a recent article, I use public disclosures and declarations of this sort to take a closer look at the firm-level decision-making process in response to the sudden liquidity crisis caused by the pandemic. Specifically, I analyze the recapitalization and restructuring decisions made by twelve large and mid-sized companies in the cruise, airline, health care, and consumer sectors in the spring and summer of 2020. Although the case studies are mere snapshots in time, they help to shed further light on the key factors that have influenced firm-level bankruptcy, bailout, and other recapitalization decisions.
The case studies reveal that, outside of bankruptcy, corporate managers of the profiled companies have followed a remarkably similar decision pathway. First, firms slashed costs and reduced employee headcount. Of course, many of these cuts are the natural consequence of voluntarily or involuntarily scaling back operations; in other cases, firms likely chose to make reductions of this sort because there are typically few if any legal impediments to doing so. But whether voluntary or involuntary, the choice to scale back operations generally means allocating economic burdens to employees, vendors, suppliers, and, in the case of firms that provide an essential service, the broader communities they serve.
A firm’s subsequent choices appear to be constrained by its overall financial condition and its new or existing legal commitments. For instance, companies with substantial open lines of credit were able to draw down available funds to shore up cash. Meanwhile, those with stronger balance sheets were able to obtain new debt and equity financing from the capital markets. Virtually all of the profiled companies that were eligible to receive governmental bailouts accepted the assistance—in both grant and loan form—with little apparent concern for the conditions and restrictions attached to such funds. Participation in bailout programs, in turn, constrained the firm’s choices regarding how to allocate economic burdens. For instance, the restrictions and limitations in the CARES Act were designed to delay or prevent companies from allocating economic burdens to employees and, in the case of airlines and health care facilities providing essential services, their broader communities.
The case studies suggest that to the extent these other liquidity options are available, corporate managers may view bankruptcy primarily as a legal or strategic tool rather than as a true financial restructuring option. Perhaps because of certain underlying assumptions about bankruptcy, no company seems to have weighed participation in a governmental bailout—with or without strings attached—against the option of filing for bankruptcy. Rather, these alternatives—like all of the major decisions firms make in response to a sudden liquidity crisis—appear to have been independently examined at very different points in the lifecycle of the distressed firm.
By Anthony J. Casey (The University of Chicago Law School)
In the spring of 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic shut down economies around the world, pressure arose for governments to respond to the growing threat of pandemic-related market distress. In the United States, the initial proposals for government action varied in nature and focus. Some proposals targeted the financial system while others targeted small businesses and individuals. Others were intended to bail out large businesses and specific industries. Still other proposals took a more institutional focus. In the context of bankruptcy law, many imagined building up the bankruptcy system as a primary bulwark against a seemingly imminent wave of economic and financial distress.
With the exception of measures related to financial markets, the actual responses formed a chaotic mix of disconnected half-measures that neither stabilized the economy nor provided meaningful relief to those most affected. While that failure may be attributed in part to general government dysfunction and legislative gridlock, a large part of the problem arises from the lack of a clearly identified framework to guide government responses.
The main lesson here is that the appropriateness of tools deployed to alleviate a crisis depends on the nature of the specific problem at hand, and scattershot approaches are unlikely to work. As obvious as that principle may seem, it was largely ignored in 2020. Much of the confusion in the pandemic responses is attributable to using the wrong tools and implementing measures that lacked any clear purpose.
In particular, governments and commentators lost sight of two important distinctions in deciding how to act. The first is the distinction between tools appropriate for addressing economic distress and those appropriate for addressing financial distress. The second is the distinction between a systemic crisis where distress is spreading and an instance of firm-specific distress where the harm—though perhaps large—is contained.
These distinctions present four types of market distress: specific economic, systemic economic, specific financial, and systemic financial. Each type is distinct from the others, and for each there is a category of appropriate government responses (respectively): direct subsidies, general stimulus, bankruptcy proceedings, and financial bailouts. We thus have this matrix:
The importance of understanding these classifications is most evident in the flawed proposals for pandemic-related fixes to bankruptcy law and in the lack of a centralized economic plan to support failing small businesses around the country.
In a new article, I lay out this framework for identifying the right tools for responding to different forms of market distress. I describe the relationship between the category of tools and the type of distress. Having presented the framework, I then use it to closely examine the interaction between pandemic responses and bankruptcy law. This analysis is particularly important because efforts to understand the bankruptcy system’s role during the pandemic provide the starkest example of confused analysis of appropriate responses to systemic crises, and because a striking decline in bankruptcy filings in 2020 has puzzled many commentators.
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.