Disagreement and Capital Structure Complexity

By Kenneth Ayotte (University of California, Berkeley School of Law)

Complex capital structures are prevalent in many recent high-profile Chapter 11 bankruptcy cases.  One recent example is Toys ‘R’ Us, whose debt structure included dozens of subsidiary entities, with separate debt facilities against entities owning the intellectual property, the real estate, and international operations, among other asset groups.  Why do capital structures become fragmented and complex in this way, and what are the implications for bankruptcy law?

In my working paper, I suggest one reason why a firm’s owners may have the incentive to engineer fragmented capital structures, using the idea that investors may disagree about the values of the various assets that make up the firm.  Fragmenting the capital structure horizontally—that is, pledging different assets and asset groups to different creditor classes—allows the firm to sell asset-based claims that are targeted to the investors who value those assets most highly. This targeting is good for the firm’s owners, because it minimizes the firm’s overall cost of capital.

This complexity can become costly, however, when firms encounter financial distress.  The same disagreement-driven fragmentation that allows the company to borrow more cheaply up front can lead to costly valuation disputes in and around bankruptcy, since creditors place a higher valuation on their own collateral than do the other creditors.  This can lead to valuation disputes that are socially costly in terms of professional fees, delays, and lost opportunities.  An example of this is the Energy Future Holdings case.  Following it’s 2007 leveraged buyout, the capital structure was divided into two silos, with one silo of entities (called the “E” side) holding regulated power assets, and a separate silo of entities holding the non-regulated power assets (the “T” side), with separate creditor groups on each side.  The initial plan to avoid bankruptcy by converting E- and T-side debt into parent-level equity failed after more than a year of negotiations, as the two sides could not come to agreement about the relative value of the two sides.  The resulting bankruptcy took over four years to reach plan confirmation and generated over $500 million in professional fees, to the detriment of creditor recoveries.

The theory has several implications.  One is that disagreement about valuation can lead to inefficient liquidation of viable firms, as creditors may prefer to walk away with the collateral they value highly, rather than fight for that value in a reorganization where the other creditors (from their perspective) are clinging to inflated valuations of their own collateral.  These kinds of forces may have been at play in the Toys ‘R’ Us case.  The B-4 term lenders, including the hedge fund Solus Alternative Asset Management, believed they were better off monetizing their intellectual property collateral in a liquidation of Toys ‘R’ Us than backing a deal to keep existing stores open.  The recent cancellation of the auction of this collateral suggests that these lenders may have held optimistic beliefs than the marketplace about the value of these assets.

From an academic standpoint, the theory provides a new answer to a long-standing question in the literature: why do we need a corporate reorganization mechanism in the first place? Traditional answers to this question revolve around the need to solve illiquidity problems.  In the presence of disagreement, I suggest an alternative benefit.  A traditional Chapter 11 reorganization allows parties to walk away with securities backed by the assets they financed before bankruptcy, about which the creditors are likely to be more optimistic.  Thus, the creditors can continue “agreeing to disagree” about the values of their respective pieces, thus promoting settlement and avoiding socially costly valuation disputes.  This is not possible when the firm is sold as a going concern for cash, since cash has a commonly known value.

Finally, my model emphasizes that when capital structures are fragmented, bankruptcy costs can be driven by haggling and litigation over the value of the parties’ entitlements, even when the parties agree about what to do with the bankrupt firm.  This suggests that the time may be ripe for rethinking and improving the resolution of valuation disputes in bankruptcy.  In a related paper, published in University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Edward Morrison and I review valuation opinions in bankruptcy cases.

The full article is available 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.

 

Bankruptcy on the Side

By Kenneth Ayotte (University of California – Berkeley School of Law), Anthony J. Casey (University of Chicago Law School), David A. Skeel, Jr. (University of Pennsylvania Law School)

 

Side agreements—such as intercreditor and “bad boy” agreements—are increasingly at the center of major bankruptcy disputes. Litigation around these disputes can be costly and the results of that litigation can dramatically alter the landscape within which the stakeholders bargain over reorganization.

These agreements commonly include a promise by one party to remain silent by waiving some procedural right they would otherwise have under the Bankruptcy Code. Those waivers are invoked at crucial points in the reorganization process, including the approval of debtor-in-possession financing and plan confirmation.

In our new paper, Bankruptcy on the Side, we show that while side agreements have beneficial potential, the parties entering them often impose negative externalities on outsiders. A promise not to extend new financing, for example, can affect the debtor’s reorganization prospects. Similarly, a promise not to object to a reorganization plan can rob the court of information that might benefit the other classes of creditors.

The paper presents a simple model to derive a proposal that is consistent with the intent of the parties to the side agreement but also limits negative externalities. The core of the proposal is that where there is a nontrivial potential for value-destroying externalities, the court should limit a nonbreaching party’s remedy to its expectation damages. On the other hand, if the agreement is unlikely to cause externalities, a court should enforce the agreement according to its terms. Our proposal is different and superior to the approach taken by most courts, which invokes a narrow interpretative standard to invalidate side agreements. We focus instead on enforcing the provisions under normal interpretative doctrines while limiting the use of special remedies like specific performance and stipulated damages.

The insights of our paper also provide a new answer to thorny questions involved in choosing which courts should resolve disputes over intercreditor agreements, and in deciding whether forum selection clauses should be enforced. Specifically, the bankruptcy courts have no specialized expertise for cases where the plaintiff seeks expectation damages. In those cases, the court should defer to default venue rules and forum selection clauses. Where specific performance or stipulated damages are at issue, by contrast, our model suggests that the dispute should be resolved exclusively in bankruptcy proceedings.

 

Leases and Executory Contracts in Chapter 11

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By Ken Ayotte, University of California at Berkeley Law School

Ayotte_Kenneth_medium_webThis paper offers the first empirical analysis of the timing and disposition decisions large Chapter 11 debtors make with respect to their leases and executory contracts in bankruptcy.  In particular, I analyze the effect of the revised 365(d)(4), which requires tenant-debtors to make decisions on their real estate leases within seven months unless the landlord grants an extension.

I find that the seven month deadline strongly accelerated real estate lease disposition decisions.  This suggests the existence of renegotiation frictions that prevent debtors from buying more time from their landlords.  The accelerated timeline, moreover, may have affected case outcomes.  Using a difference-in-differences methodology, I find that the probability of reorganization fell significantly more for lease-intensive debtors than for non-lease-intensive debtors after BAPCPA.

The paper also offers many new stylized facts.  For example, I find that most assignments occur in the context of a going-concern sale of the whole firm or business unit, rather than on an individual basis.  I also find that many debtors assume contracts early, rather than maximizing the “option value” of waiting.  Examining early assumptions in detail, I find evidence consistent with “implicit contracting” motives, whereby assuming early secures benefits for the debtor that the formal contract alone could not.

The full paper may be found here.

Bankruptcy Law as a Liquidity Provider

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Authors: Kenneth Ayotte & David Skeel

Since the outset of the recent financial crisis, liquidity problems have been cited as the cause behind the bankruptcies and near bankruptcies of numerous firms, ranging from Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers in 2008 to Kodak more recently.  As Kodak’s lead bankruptcy lawyer explained to the court on the first day of the case: “We’re here for liquidity.” In this Article, we offer the first theoretical analysis of bankruptcy’s crucial role in creating liquidity for firms in financial distress.

The dominant normative theory of bankruptcy (the “Creditors Bargain theory”) argues that bankruptcy should be limited to solving coordination problems caused by multiple creditors. Using simple numerical illustrations, we show that two well-known problems that cause illiquidity–debt overhang and adverse selection– are more severe in the presence of multiple, uncoordinated creditors.  Hence, bankruptcy is justified in addressing them.

We discuss the Bankruptcy Code’s existing liquidity-providing rules, such as the ability to issue new senior claims, and the ability to sell assets free and clear of liens and other claims.  In addition to identifying this function in a variety of provisions that have not previously been recognized as related, our theory also explains how the recent trend toward creditor control in Chapter 11 cases can be explained as an attempt to create illiquidity for strategic advantage.  Although bankruptcy’s liquidity providing rules are essential, especially in the current environment, they also carry costs, such as the risk of “continuation bias.”  To address these costs, we propose qualitative principles for striking the balance between debtor liquidity and respect for nonbankruptcy rights.

University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 80, Fall 2013.  A draft is available on SSRN.