Bankruptcy’s Role in the COVID-19 Crisis

By Edward R. Morrison and Andrea C. Saavedra (Columbia Law School)

Edward R. Morrison
Andrea C. Saavedra

Current COVID-19 policies treat bankruptcy law as a last resort for stressed businesses and consumers. We think that’s a sensible approach for small businesses and consumers, but not for large corporations. What many small businesses and consumers need now is quick access to liquidity and other forms of forbearance or debt forgiveness, not the debt-discharge of bankruptcy. Even for those who need a debt-discharge, it makes sense to offer them liquidity now and thereby ease the burden on our bankruptcy system, which could be overwhelmed by a flood of filings. In our view, it’s better to stabilize households and small businesses immediately and worry about restructuring their balance sheets after the crisis ends.

For large corporations, however, bankruptcy should be a front-line policy tool. Many were financially fragile before the current crisis, due to high leverage or operational problems. For them, government-backed financing should be provided during a bankruptcy process that cures these problems and forces investors, not taxpayers, to bear the costs of cure. Government action should save businesses (and jobs), not investors. This is a crisis-tested policy response, as we saw in the 2008 Financial Crisis: Both Chrysler and General Motors received government-backed financing during their bankruptcy cases. To be sure, an increase in filings by large corporations would burden our bankruptcy courts but our courts, and the professional bar and consultant industry that supports them, are well prepared to assist these corporations (and fairly represent and protect all parties’ interests), as they have done in past crises.

The full article is available here, and a more detailed summary can be accessed here.

Valuation Disputes in Corporate Bankruptcy

Kenneth Ayotte (U.C. Berkeley School of Law); Edward R. Morrison (Columbia Law School)

In bankruptcy, valuation drives disputes. Prior bankruptcy scholarship points to disagreements about valuation and judicial valuation error as key drivers of Chapter 11 outcomes. Avoiding valuation disputes and errors is also the underlying driver of most proposed reforms to Chapter 11.

This paper studies all reported bankruptcy court opinions filed between 1990 and mid-2017 that provide detail about a valuation dispute and methodologies employed. We have two goals. The first is to understand how parties and their expert witnesses justify opposing views, and how judges decide between them. The second is to provide practical guidance to judges.

We find sharper disagreement among experts regarding inputs to the discounted cash flow method (DCF) than regarding inputs to multiples-based methods. In nearly half of cases involving DCF, experts fight over the discount rate; in nearly three quarters, they fight over cash flow projections. By contrast, disagreement over inputs to multiples-based methods, such as the choice of comparable companies, occurs in less than a fifth of the cases. This pattern helps explain why many judges view DCF as far more complex and error-prone than multiples-based methods.

There are also surprisingly pervasive (and often self-serving) errors in expert testimony. This is particularly true when valuation experts apply DCF. The choice of discount rates is frequently unsupported by, and often at odds with, finance theory and evidence. We also find experts strategically weighting methods with values most favorable to their clients.

We propose simple strategies based in finance theory that judges can employ to reduce the scope for valuation disagreements in Chapter 11. For example, we argue that courts should reject the use of company-specific risk premia in discount rates and be highly skeptical whenever experts weight some valuation methods more than others in calculating “average” estimated values.

The full article is available here.