Involuntary Bankruptcy: Limited Remedy and Strong Sanctions for Abuse

By Michael L. Cook (Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP)

Involuntary bankruptcy cases are relatively rare. According to the Second Circuit “far fewer [cases] are initiated as involuntary petitions by creditors, much less a single creditor,” citing statistics from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. In re Murray, 900.

F.3d 53, 59 (2d Cir. 2018) (less than 1/10 of 1% of all bankruptcies). The numbers suggest that involuntary bankruptcy is a limited creditors’ remedy, causing at least 5 courts of appeals to pen strong opinions in the past 4 years that define the limits of this remedy and describe the sanctions available to an aggrieved debtor.

This article shows why courts have declined to allow bankruptcy courts to become collection agencies for a single creditor when available state law remedies are adequate. The courts have also not shied away from sanctions and damage awards to discourage the filing of improper involuntary bankruptcy petitions. The Third Circuit even held that “bad faith provides an independent basis for dismissing an involuntary petition,” despite the creditors’ having met all of the “statutory requirements,” stressing the “equitable nature of bankruptcy…” In re Forever Green Athletic Fields Inc., 804 F.3d 328, 334 (3d Cir. 2015).

The article also discusses a well-reasoned bankruptcy court decision sanctioning creditors who had “abuse[d]. . . the power given to [them] to file an involuntary bankruptcy petition.” In re Anmuth Holdings LLC, 2019 WL 1421169, *1 (Bankr. E.D.N.Y. Mar. 27, 2019). In that case, after trial, the court awarded not only attorneys’ fees and costs of about $115,000, but also punitive damages of $600,000, noting the petitioning creditors’ “egregious bad faith conduct,” their “lack of remorse and threats of future involuntary petitions,” plus their “knowingly false statements.”

Involuntary bankruptcy, when used as part of a collective process for all creditors, can insure the orderly and fair distribution of a debtor’s estate. But it is hardly a mechanism for resolving a two-party dispute. Whatever an involuntary bankruptcy petition may be, it is always a risky, limited remedy.

The full article is available here.

The Rise and Fall of Regulatory Competition in Corporate Insolvency Law in the European Union

By Horst Eidenmüller (University of Oxford; European Corporate Governance Institute – ECGI)

In a recent paper, I discuss the rise and fall of regulatory competition in corporate insolvency law in the European Union. The rise is closely associated with the European Insolvency Regulation (EIR, 2002), and it is well-documented. The United Kingdom (UK) has emerged as the ‘market leader’, especially for corporate restructurings. The fall is about to happen, triggered by a combination of factors: the recasting of the EIR (2017), the European Restructuring Directive (ERD, 2019) and, most importantly, Brexit (2019). The UK will lose its dominant market position. I present evidence to support this hypothesis.

Regulatory competition in European corporate insolvency law happened by accident: it was the unwelcome consequence of the entering into force of the EIR in 2002. The EIR was designed to eliminate forum shopping and to harmonize Member States’ jurisdiction and conflicts rules for international insolvencies. However, in practice, it did not achieve this end. The Regulation’s test for main insolvency proceedings, a company’s ‘Centre of Main Interests’, can be manipulated. Forum shopping became almost a signature feature of the EIR, and the UK emerged as the ‘market leader’ for corporate restructurings in the European Union (EU). The available data clearly confirms this assessment. The popularity of the UK as a restructuring venue also stems from the attractiveness of the Scheme of Arrangement—a procedure that is not within the scope of the EIR. Under the applicable European rules, restructuring decisions taken by courts in one Member State must be automatically recognized in all other Member States.

The regulatory landscape for corporate insolvency law in the EU is changing. The EIR was recast in 2017, the EU passed the ERD in 2019, seeking to harmonize Member States’ pre-insolvency restructuring regimes so that local businesses get local access to restructuring processes, and the UK will probably leave the EU in 2019.

I argue that the recast EIR will not significantly affect forum shopping and regulatory competition in corporate restructurings. However, the ERD will have such an effect, i.e. it will significantly reduce forum shopping and regulatory competition in corporate restructurings. This is because the ERD mandates that Member States implement certain key features of pre-insolvency restructuring regimes by 2021, effectively ruling out radical legal innovations departing from the new European standard. Unfortunately, the ERD is a ‘defective product’: it mandates inefficient procedures and should be repealed.

Most importantly, Brexit will eliminate the dominant competitor in the European restructuring market, i.e. the UK. This is because Member States will no longer be forced to automatically recognize decisions taken in UK restructuring proceedings. It appears that the restructuring market already anticipates this effect: one can observe a decline of the popularity of the Scheme of Arrangement in cross-border cases from 2016 onwards. I present evidence in the form of hand-collected data on cross-border Schemes of Arrangement to support this hypothesis.

The full article is available here.

Indenture Trustee Duties: The Pre-Default Puzzle

By Steven L. Schwarcz (Duke University School of Law)

Indenture trustees act for the benefit of the investors in a company’s bonds. They perform this role for virtually all companies that issue bonds, whether in the United States or abroad. The existing scholarship on their duties focuses on the post-default scenario. In many countries, including the United States, the law then imposes a ‘prudent person’ standard. This Article, in contrast, examines an indenture trustee’s “pre-default” duties.

It is critical to try to define those duties because activist investors, including hedge funds and so-called “vulture fund” investors that purchase defaulted bonds at deep discounts, increasingly are making pre-default demands on indenture trustees, who must know how to respond. Also, the manner in which they respond can have widespread economic consequences because the bond market is huge—in 2018, approximately $43 trillion in the United States and $103 trillion worldwide.

Activist investors are also suing indenture trustees for losses on their bonds, alleging they should have taken pre-default actions to protect the bonds. To avoid the risk of liability, indenture trustees should know how they should discharge their pre-default duties.

The indenture trustee’s pre-default duties have not been seriously re-examined since enactment of the Trust Indenture Act of 1939, although the bond market has changed dramatically since then. Institutional investors now dominate; there are few individual retail investors. By virtue of their sophistication and the size of their bondholding, institutional investors face less of a collective action problem than retail investors had faced. Also, as mentioned, certain activist investors increasingly are engaging in high-risk strategic investing.

Whether or not due to these market changes, there are at least two views today of the indenture trustee’s pre-default role. By far the dominant view—and the view that comports with existing law and the plain language of indentures—is that indenture trustees have no pre-default fiduciary duties to investors. Rather, their duties are ministerial and limited to the usually administrative functions specified in the indenture. Since the 2007-08 financial crisis, however, some investors argue that indenture trustees—especially those of securitized bond issues, who act for the benefit of investors whose right to payment is limited to collections on specified financial assets (such as mortgage loans)—should have some pre-default fiduciary duties.

My Article analyzes what an indenture trustee’s pre-default duties should be, starting by considering the possible normative frameworks for legally imposing duties in a business context. I consider two potentially overlapping frameworks: to correct market failures, and to maximize efficiency. I also consider a formalistic rationale for legally imposing duties—because securitized bond issues involve purchased financial assets, they more closely resemble a traditional trust; and trustees of a traditional trust have fiduciary duties.

Based on its analysis, the Article concludes (among other things) that, pre-default, the indenture trustee’s duties should only be those specified in the indenture. The Article also applies that standard to the types of issues that may arise in lawsuits against indenture trustees.

For example, even prior to a formal default, one or more investors may demand that the indenture trustee take some enforcement or other remedial action to try to correct a problem. Compliance with that demand could be expensive, reducing the value of the estate for investors generally. Taking remedial action could therefore create a conflict if it would disproportionately benefit only certain investors. Absent instructions from the requisite investor threshold contractually required to direct the indenture trustee, the trustee should have the right to refuse to take a demanded action. In case of doubt, an indenture trustee could itself seek instructions. The Article also examines practical issues—and practical ways to resolve those issues—that might sometimes impair formation of the requisite investor threshold to direct the indenture trustee.

The full article is available here.

Establishing Corporate Insolvency: The Balance Sheet Insolvency Test

By Dr. Kubi Udofia

Cash flow and balance sheet insolvency tests are the two predominant means of determining insolvency. A company is cash flow or commercially insolvent if it is unable to pay its debts as they fall due. Balance sheet or technical insolvency occurs where the value of a company’s assets is less than the amount of its liabilities, taking into account both contingent and prospective liabilities. The term liabilities is broader than debts as it encompasses liquidated and unliquidated liabilities arising from contracts, tort, restitution etc. This article compares the two insolvency tests and introduces the English approach to the balance sheet insolvency test.

Commercial insolvency is the more prominent of the tests. It is also comparatively easier to establish. In restructuring, a creditor’s immediate concern is often the debtor’s ability to make payments as they mature as opposed to whether its assets are sufficient to meet its present and future liabilities. Despite its seeming obscurity, balance sheet insolvency test is commonly employed in commercial transactions as an event of default. This provides counterparties with early warning signs in long-term contracts where there are no avenues of making demands capable of triggering commercial insolvency.

In BNY Corporate Trustees Services Ltd v Eurosail-UK 2007-3BL Plc [2013] UKSC 28, the English Supreme Court stated that balance sheet insolvency test required a court to be satisfied that, on the balance of probabilities, a company has insufficient assets to meet its liabilities, taking into account prospective and contingent liabilities. This is easier said than done. It has been rightly observed that valuation of assets and liabilities is not an exact science but a matter of judgment as to the amount a willing buyer would pay in the market when dealing with a willing seller. The valuation process may understandably be laborious, detailed and complex. Courts may not be capable of effectively dealing with such intricacies.

The full article is available here.

Simple Insolvency Detection for Publicly Traded Firms

By J.B. Heaton (J.B. Heaton, P.C.)

Solvency plays important substantial roles in both bankruptcy and corporate law. In practice, however, balance-sheet solvency testing is fraught with difficulties. Mechanically, the balance-sheet solvency test asks if the market value of assets exceeds the face value of debt.  As for assets, direct market values of assets are rarely if ever available (closed-end funds may be an exception, but these are hardly run-of-the-mill businesses). Analytical valuation tools—including discounted cash flow analysis, comparable company multiples, and comparable transaction analysis—require considerable subjective judgment and can lead to large valuation errors. As for debt, much debt that is on the balance sheet does not trade in the market, and it is often impossible even to identify all the contingent liabilities like pensions, guarantees, insurance liabilities, and obligations to involuntary creditors like tort claimants, all of which should be valued appropriately and included in determining the total face value of debt.

In a new paper forthcoming in Business Lawyer, I develop a simple balance-sheet solvency test for publicly traded firms. I derive the test from an elementary algebraic relation among the inputs to the balance-sheet solvency calculation: The solvency test requires only the assumption that the market value of assets equals the sum of the market value of the firm’s debt plus the market value of the firm’s equity. The test requires that at least one class of the firm’s debt is traded, and that the equity is traded as well. The result is a generated upper bound on the total amount of debt the firm can have and still be solvent.

The virtue of the method—apart from its ease of implementation—is that it makes possible the detection of balance-sheet insolvent firms notwithstanding the possibility that not all of the firm’s liabilities—including hard-to-quantify contingent liabilities—can be identified. As a result, the method allows for the detection of balance-sheet insolvent firms that otherwise might escape detection. This may assist in a wide variety of situations where it is necessary to analyze solvency.

The full article is available here.

Restructuring Italy’s New York Law Bonds

By Andrea E. Kropp (Duke University School of Law)

Little attention has been paid to Italy’s bonds issued under New York law in discussions of Italy’s debt stock and how it will be restructured should the need arise. Because these New York law bonds have no collective action clauses and had been presumed to contain very creditor-friendly pari passu language, they appeared to be too difficult to restructure. As a result, it has been assumed that they would remain untouched, with an Italian debt restructuring impacting only local law bonds. No proposals had previously addressed how to restructure the New York law bonds because of this assumption. This article fills that gap by creating an actionable strategy to restructure the bonds and by demonstrating how the long-held presumption about the creditor-friendly pari passu language is flawed.

The article advocates for the use a set of exit amendments in an exchange offer effectuating the restructuring of the New York law bonds. These exit amendments will be used to secure execution and attachment immunity and to extend the period before creditors holding the non-exchanged bonds can accelerate. This set of exit amendments act to make the bonds quite unattractive to would-be holdout creditors. In addition, these creditors’ motivation to hold out is decreased even further because of the pari passu language in the indentures for the issuances. While the pari passu language in the bonds appeared to pose an insurmountable challenge to a restructuring, this presumption is grounded in a reading of the sales documents rather than the underlying Fiscal Agency Agreements that actually control the issuances. In contrast to the sales documents, the Fiscal Agency Agreements contain language that is much less creditor-friendly. Consequently, a recalcitrant creditor’s calculus in determining whether to hold out in a restructuring has changed significantly, making the exit amendment strategy a truly viable option.

The full article is available here.

What’s Wrong with Chapter 11?

By Charles J. Tabb (University of Illinois College of Law)

The time has come to cast a discerning eye at chapter 11, the United States corporate bankruptcy reorganization statute, and examine how it is currently broken and what fixes can be made to improve it.

This Article first identifies five core normative goals that chapter 11 should promote: (1) maximize the value of the debtor firm; (2) distribute the maximized value of the firm fairly and equitably; (3) save jobs; (4) minimize the ripple effect of the firm’s failure; and (5) ensure that in pursuing those normative goals, the cure is not worse than the disease.

The Article then examines five critical ways in which chapter 11 in practice fails to achieve the normative ideals: (1) traditional chapter 11 restructurings are largely a thing of the past, and have given way to quick all-asset sales of the company; (2) secured lenders control everything and get a disproportionate share of the firm’s value; (3) a small number of other creditors are able to apply leverage to obtain unfair and inequitable payments on their claims compared to other creditors; (4) venue forum shopping has triggered a race to the bottom; and (5) bankruptcy judges routinely ignore the statute as written and legislate judicially.

The Article concludes by identifying seven possible reforms that could help transform chapter 11 from the current nightmare to the normative ideal dream: (1) making sales once again just sales; (2) resurrecting the “perishability” or “emergency” test for sales; (3) limiting secured creditors to foreclosure value; (4) opening up DIP financing terms and eliminating draconian terms; (5) eliminating all preferential priority-altering payments; (6) curtailing venue choice and forum shopping; and (7) eradicating judicial legislation.

The full article is available here.

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.

The Dark Side of Bank Resolution: Counterparty Risk through Bail-in

By Wolf-Georg Ringe and Jatine Patel (University of Hamburg – Institute of Law & Economics, University of Oxford)

Bail-in and its supplementary capital requirements have much touted potential. Beyond their promise to reign in financial institutions’ bail-out moral hazard, bail-in intends to stem systemic risk whilst maintaining “critical” banking functions. It seeks to do this by allocating responsibility for recapitalization of banks to their individual creditors, immediately upon resolution, and in a pre-defined manner, for each financial institution individually. Counterparties to banking capital are therefore intrinsic to the current regulatory framework.

In our recent paper, we show, however, that bail-in legislation may have had counterproductive effects. Our key finding is that the introduction of bail-in has led to increased interconnectedness among banks, which involves more rather than less systemic risk. Worse still, increased interconnectedness between banks may jeopardize the effectiveness of the bail-in regime altogether since resolution authorities may be reluctant to exercise bail-in powers in the face of highly interconnected and contagious banks.

Using a difference-in-differences methodology, we provide evidence for this from the introduction of bail-in powers at the Eurozone level on January 1, 2016 when it entered into force under the European legislation known as the Bank Recovery and Resolution Directive, and the corresponding Single Resolution Mechanism (as part of the Banking Union) became effective. Using data from the European Central Bank’s Securities Holdings Statistics, we demonstrate that beginning in early 2016, financial institutions’ investments in securities issued by other financial institutions has been following a markedly increasing rate. What is more, at the same time non-banks have continued to decrease their investments in the same issuances. Put differently, banks’ holdings of securities in each other increased following the introduction of bail-in legislation, while non-banks continued to divest their holdings of bank securities.

We interpret these findings as evidence of a relative cost advantage that financial institutions have in comparison with other investors when investing in banks’ securities. We know from prior literature that increased interconnectedness may stabilize the banking sector for small external shocks (Acemoglu et al. 2015). For large, systemic shocks, in contrast, bank interconnectedness may frustrate any bail-in decision due to the systemic risk it creates (Bernard, Capponi, and Stiglitz 2017).

We subsequently discuss the challenges in regulating this problem, noting that in addition to the incentive problems mentioned above, there are also extensive knowledge and incentive challenges. Those challenges are symptomatic of the same legal and economic difficulties expressed in the literature and evident in recent bail-in cases.

Whilst some aspects of the current regulatory framework, including the Basel III and the TLAC framework, and standardized information disclosure under IFRS 9, indirectly affect those knowledge and incentive issues, they insufficiently address the bail-in counterparty problem especially because those measures address pre-resolution systemic risk perceptions, and not post-resolution systemic risk. More crucially perhaps, they do not facilitate optimization, or the who should hold corollary.

Finally, we explore some potential regulatory supplements to the current framework that may assist in reducing the challenge of knowing who should hold banking issuances, particularly ensuring that markets are better informed and able to allocate banking securities to optimal holders in accordance with principles of portfolio management, as opposed to attempting to prescribe ideal holders. More analysis and further holistic research are required to understand better what combination of regulatory instruments would be appropriate.

The full article is available here.

Financially Distressed Companies, Restructuring and Creditors’ Interests: What is a Director to Do?

By Andrew Keay (University of Leeds)

Out of court restructuring is a popular and, according to many, optimal way of resolving the circumstances of insolvent companies in the UK, and probably more so since the advent in the UK of the Enterprises Act 2002. One concern that some commentators have raised is the fact that the opportunities to engage in such restructuring are likely to be reduced given the way that the courts have approached claims that directors who have initiated restructuring strategies are liable for breach of duty in failing to take into account the interests of company creditors when their company is insolvent or near to it (as applied by section 172(3) of the Companies Act 2006 in the UK). Allied to this is the concern that if directors are not granted freedom to use their discretion in entering into a restructuring process companies might be placed into administration or liquidation when they have some prospect of continuing to trade and to do so profitably, because directors may choose to be risk averse in placing a company into administration or liquidation rather than take the risk of being held liable for breach of the duty if they attempt restructuring. This paper examines whether the aforementioned concerns are realistic, given the law, and, if they are, what directors should be doing to ensure that they do not breach the obligation in relation to creditors. These are important issues as little consideration has been given in the UK to the issue of liability of directors for breach of duty in the wake of a restructuring. The issues are considered in light of section 172(3) of the Companies Act 2006 which makes the director’s duty to promote the success of the company for the benefit of the shareholders (as under section 172(1) and providing for what is known as ‘enlightened shareholder value’) subject to any rule of law that requires directors to consider the interests of creditors. It is a rule of law in the UK (and in many Commonwealth countries and Ireland) that when their company is insolvent or in dire financial distress directors must take into account the interests of creditors.

The paper finds that while directors might be subject to liability in entering into restructuring attempts, this is only going to occur in limited cases and so there should not be particular concern over liability. This is because first of all courts will not hold directors liable if they acted in good faith and took into account the interests of creditors, and regarded these interests as paramount in their considerations. Even if the directors failed to take into account the interests of creditors or failed to make them paramount, they will not be liable where the court finds that the honest and intelligent director, taking into account creditors’ interests, would have entered into the restructuring in any event on the basis that it would benefit creditors. Obviously if directors restructure in such a way as to benefit themselves or specific creditors, or they have improper motives, then liability is more likely to ensue. But, where the directors have acted reasonably then they should be safe from challenge.

The full article is available here.

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