Douglas G. Baird, University of Chicago School of Law
Over the last few years, reorganization practice has undergone a massive change. A new device—the restructuring support agreement—has transformed Chapter 11 negotiations. This puts reorganization law at a crossroads. Chapter 11’s commitment to a nonmarket restructuring with a rigid priority system requires bankruptcy judges to police bargaining in bankruptcy, but the Bankruptcy Code gives relatively little explicit guidance about how they should do this policing.
In the past, the debtor initiated multiple rounds of negotiations in which everyone participated. Each party would push back against the claims of the other, and a consensus eventually emerged that left things roughly in equipoise. This has now changed. Instead of bargaining in which everyone participates, there is now a sequence of two-party bargains, beginning with the key players.
Changing the structure of negotiations in this fashion would not matter much if there were not much to bargain over. If bankruptcy’s substantive rules allowed for little variation in what each party received or if the debtor had an incentive to limit what each creditor group received, changing the rules would not change outcomes. But neither is the case, at least not any more.
Priority rights in bankruptcy are sufficiently uncertain that there are a broad range of confirmable plans in any case, each with radically different distributional consequences for the various creditor groups. And modern debtors are interested in a speedy and successful exit from Chapter 11. They are relatively indifferent to how rights in the firm are divided among competing creditors.
These changes have become manifest only in the last few years, and there is little wisdom about how the bankruptcy judge should respond. This essay suggests that long-established principles inform how bankruptcy judges should go about this task. In assessing whether a plan is “fair and equitable” and whether it has been filed in “good faith,” judges should focus not on how the plan apportions rights in the reorganized firm, but whether the process that has led to the plan ensures that everyone’s cards are on the table.
In particular, judges should ensure that restructuring support agreements do not interfere with the flow of information to the judge. Negotiations that lead to a confirmable plan should be problematic to the extent, but only to the extent, that they keep the judge in the dark and limit her ability to ensure that the plan complies with the terms of the Bankruptcy Code.
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