Corporate Reorganization as Labor Insurance in Bankruptcy

By Diana Bonfim (Banco de Portugal; Catholic University of Portugal – Catolica Lisbon School of Business and Economics) and Gil Nogueira (Bank of Portugal – Research Department)

Diana Bonfim
Gil Nogueira

How does corporate reorganization affect labor outcomes in bankruptcy? The existing literature argues that corporate reorganization affects the reallocation of labor because it retains workers in bankrupt firms. In some cases, bankrupt firms remain alive for too long and retain workers inefficiently. In other cases, reorganization reduces the probability of inefficient liquidation.

In this paper we show that resource retention is not the only determinant of labor outcomes in bankruptcy. The decision process in bankruptcy creates a principal-agent problem between firms’ claimholders and other stakeholders (e.g., workers, suppliers). Claimholders decide bankruptcy outcomes but other stakeholders with limited say in the bankruptcy process are also affected by these outcomes. 

Workers are among these stakeholders. They use job contracts with firms as a form of insurance in times of adversity. In the absence of corporate reorganization, workers lose these job contracts and experience persistent costs of job loss. Reorganization improves labor outcomes because it reduces the probability that workers lose the insurance provided by job contracts when the costs of job loss are high.

We test this hypothesis empirically using data from Portuguese reorganization cases. The institutional setting has several features that help design an adequate empirical strategy. First, reorganization cases are randomly allocated across judges. We use this random assignment as a source of variation in the probability of reorganization that is not affected by other factors that also influence workers’ careers. Second, Portuguese firms report financial statements annually, which we use to check whether reorganization affects labor reallocation to more productive or profitable firms. Finally, we link this data to a rich administrative employer-employee matched dataset, which allows us to track workers who eventually change jobs. This dataset is unique because it contains rich job descriptors. We use this data to establish a relationship between corporate reorganization and the scarring effect of bankruptcy on workers’ job functions.

We uncover three main findings. First, we measure the effect of corporate reorganization on the sorting of workers to productive and profitable firms. In five years, only about 20% of the workforce remains in reorganized firms. Many workers from reorganized firms find jobs with new employers. We find no evidence that reorganization affects the reallocation of labor to efficient or profitable firms.

Second, reorganization is an important source of labor insurance against negative productions shocks. In the short term, reorganization increases the probability that workers are employed. In the long term, reorganization increases wages and reduces the scarring effect of job downgrading that is often observed in recessions. Reorganization reduces the probability that workers move to less skill-intensive occupations and increases occupation wage premia. 

Third, we show that reorganization improves job transitions to new employers. Reorganization increases the average time it takes to leave a firm that files for bankruptcy by one year. Reorganization reduces the probability that workers move to low-paying jobs and increases the probability that workers find high-paying jobs with new employers.

Overall, our results show that corporate reorganization is an important source of labor insurance in bankruptcy, thereby mitigating the scarring effect of job loss. The full article is available here.

Bankruptcy and Economic Recovery

Authors: Thomas Jackson & David Skeel

A striking feature of the recent economic crisis was the long period of subpar economic growth that continued even after the crisis had officially ended.  Although discussion about how to spur economic recovery has focused on the efficacy of Keynesian stimulus spending, this is only one of many factors that might plausibly encourage growth.  For a book entitled “Financial Restructuring to Sustain Recovery,” published by the Brookings Institution, we were asked to discuss the role that bankruptcy policy plays, or might play, in economic recovery.

After summarizing how bankruptcy posits a collective solution to a common pool problem of individual creditors and thereby improves the efficient use of assets, we consider two obstacles to its effectiveness.  The first is that bankruptcy proceedings often seem to begin too late.  The increased influence of debtors’ principal lenders probably counteracts this problem in part, but we suspect not fully.  We consider a wide range of strategies that lawmakers might use to encourage timely filing, some of which are fairly simple, while others are more speculative.

The second major issue is the relationship between bankruptcy and jobs.  The question whether bankruptcy should be used to protect jobs is a recurring theme that came to the fore most recently when the government used bankruptcy to bail out Chrysler, justifying its intervention as preserving jobs.  We caution that distorting the standard bankruptcy rules—focused on efficient use of assets—to save jobs in the short run may have more problematic effects overall.

The full-length article can be found here.