Update on Corporate Bankruptcy Tax Refund Litigation

By Michael L. Cook (Schulte Roth & Zabel)

Michael L. Cook

Federal courts regularly resolve consolidated corporate tax refund disputes in bankruptcy cases.  In the current economic downturn, the ownership of a large tax refund paid to an affiliated group of corporate debtors can be significant.  See, e.g., FDIC v. AmFin Corp., 757 F.3d 530, 532 (6th Cir. 2014) ($170 million refund).  If a corporate debtor’s parent owns the refund, it is part of the parent’s bankruptcy estate, and the subsidiary may be an unsecured creditor for any claimed benefits.  But if the debtor parent is an agent or trustee for its affiliates, the parent cannot use the refund to repay its creditors.

Corporate parents and their subsidiaries often file a consolidated tax return.  That enables affiliates to offset their losses against each other so as to reduce the group’s overall tax liability.  Because only the corporate parent may file a consolidated return, any refund is also paid to the parent, not to individual affiliates.  Affiliated groups, therefore, usually enter into tax sharing or allocation agreements.  These agreements – or their absence – have generated a spate of litigation.

The Circuit Courts of Appeals had been sharply split on how to resolve tax refund ownership issues until the U.S. Supreme Court resolved the issue this past February in Rodriguez v. FDIC (In re Western Bancorp, Inc.), 589 U.S. ___, 140 S. Ct. 713 (Feb. 25, 2020).  Without deciding the merits, the Court remanded the case to the Tenth Circuit, directing it to apply state law to resolve the refund ownership dispute between the parent’s bankruptcy trustee and a subsidiary.  The Supreme Court also rejected a purported federal default rule promulgated by the Ninth Circuit in 1973 that had been adopted by a few other Circuits, describing it as inappropriate federal “common lawmaking.”  On May 26, 2020, following the Supreme Court’s remand, the Tenth Circuit, applied Colorado law, construed the relevant group tax sharing agreement, and held for the subsidiary bank, now in the hands of a FDIC receiver.

This article describes relevant issues litigated over the past fifty years.  It also notes open issues that will continue to be litigated following the Rodriguez decision.

The full article is available here.

Challenges of Emerging Market Restructurings in the Age of COVID-19

By Steven T. Kargman (Kargman Associates/International Restructuring Advisors)

Steven T. Kargman

As part of the overall global economic slowdown in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, many emerging market economies around the globe have suffered sharp economic downturns, particularly in light of the lockdowns of economies that were imposed in many of these countries.  With the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic in emerging economies, a number of these economies have been faced with a veritable perfect storm.

Specifically, many of these economies have been adversely affected by, among other things, a sharp drop in prices for commodities such as oil and various metals, the drying up of foreign tourism revenues in view of the disruption of international air travel and the closing of national borders, and the major decrease in remittances due to layoffs of overseas foreign workers.  In addition, many major emerging market currencies have experienced significant depreciation vis-à-vis hard currencies such as the US dollar.

Moreover, emerging economies as a whole have also faced what economists term a “sudden stop”—i.e., a sudden outflow of foreign investment capital that had previously been flowing into these economies.  Furthermore, the public finances of governments in the emerging markets have become strained as such governments have been forced to make expenditures on economic recovery programs as well as public health responses to the pandemic.

The article discusses the implications of the global economic slowdown associated with COVID-19 for restructuring activity in the emerging markets around the globe.  In particular, the article examines how the economic slowdown may give rise to several different types of emerging market restructurings, namely, sovereign debt restructurings, corporate debt restructurings, and infrastructure project restructurings.  It also examines how the economic slowdown in the emerging markets might affect restructuring-related matters involving state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and non-performing loans (NPLs) in national banking systems.

The article also considers special issues associated with China’s newly prominent role as the largest official creditor to the emerging markets and developing countries and China’s sponsorship of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects around the world.  Further, the article discusses other legal and policy issues that have become more salient in recent years in the context of emerging market restructurings, such as the role of holdouts in sovereign debt restructurings as well as the relevance in corporate debt restructurings in these jurisdictions of any potential gap that may exist between insolvency/restructuring law and practice.

The full article can be found here.

Bankruptcy Process for Sale

By Kenneth Ayotte (University of California Berkeley School of Law) and Jared A. Ellias (University of California Hastings College of the Law)

Kenneth Ayotte
Jared A. Ellias

The lenders that fund Chapter 11 reorganizations exert significant influence over the bankruptcy process through the contract associated with the debtor-in-possession (“DIP”) loan. In this Article, we study a large sample of DIP loan contracts and document a trend: over the past three decades, DIP lenders have steadily increased their contractual control of Chapter 11. In fact, today’s DIP loan agreements routinely go so far as to dictate the very outcome of the restructuring process. When managers sell control over the bankruptcy case to a subset of the creditors in exchange for compensation, we call this transaction a “bankruptcy process sale.” We model two situations where process sales raise bankruptcy policy concerns: (1) when a senior creditor leverages the debtor’s need for financing to lock in a preferred outcome at the outset of the case (“plan protection”); and (2) when a senior creditor steers the case to protect its claim against litigation (“entitlement protection”). We show that both scenarios can lead to bankruptcy outcomes that fail to maximize the value of the firm for creditors as a whole. We study a new dataset that uses the text of 1.5 million court documents to identify creditor conflict over process sales, and our analysis offers evidence consistent with the predictions of the model.

The full article is available here.

Claims, Classes, Voting, Confirmation and the Cross-Class Cram-Down

By Tomas Richter (Clifford Chance) and Adrian Thery (Garrigues)

Tomas Richter
Adrian Thery

Under EU Directive 2019/1023 promulgated in June 2019, the 27 Member States of the European Union must enact rules supporting preventive restructurings of businesses threatened by insolvency. The restructuring frameworks to be enacted are in a large part modelled after the U.S. Chapter 11 yet they are not carbon copies of it. Also, the 27 Member States have widely differing insolvency laws against whose background the preventive restructuring frameworks must operate, and significantly diverging institutions by which they will have to be applied. The implementation tasks will be both varied and formidable.

However, certain threshold questions are very similar across jurisdictions when it comes to particular topics relevant to corporate restructurings. In the context of agreeing to and adopting a restructuring plan, some of the key questions arise in relation to classification of investors’ claims and interests, grouping these claims and interests into classes, voting in the classes, and obtaining an official approval of the restructuring plan after investors have expressed their opinions on it via the voting mechanism.

The purpose of this first guidance note, published by INSOL Europe, is to flag some of the key issues that national legislators will want to consider in this particular context when implementing the restructuring frameworks prescribed by Title II of the Directive, and, at least at times, also to respectfully suggest which approaches, in the authors’ humble opinions, might perhaps be explored more productively than others.

The full article is available here.

Rethinking Priority: The Dawn of the Relative Priority Rule and a New ‘Best Interest of Creditors’ Test in the European Union

By Axel Krohn (Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany)

Axel Krohn

The European Directive on restructuring and insolvency (“Directive”), which came into force in July 2019, has triggered a series of interesting debates. The possibility for EU Member States to subject the cram-down from Article 11 to a “relative priority rule” (“EU RPR”) when implementing the Directive into national law has proven to be particularly controversial.

Despite a confusing conceptual overlap with approaches presented in the U.S., the European interpretation of “relative priority” breaks new ground. The rule stipulates that, under a restructuring plan, dissenting voting classes have to be treated merely more favorably than any junior class. Although the Directive allows national lawmakers to refrain from the EU RPR and introduce a familiar “absolute priority rule” (“APR”)—that is, that a dissenting class of creditors must be paid in full before junior parties may receive any distributions—the EU RPR has already found supporters in various jurisdictions and should therefore be thoroughly examined.

This article identifies one aspect of the cram-down that has received little attention to date. In addition to the EU RPR, the European legislature has introduced a new “best interest of creditors” test (“EU BIT”), which does not—as in 11 U.S.C. § 1129(a)(7)(ii)—use the value that a party could expect in a hypothetical liquidation as a comparator, but refers to the “next-best-alternative scenario.” Although the concept of combining the EU RPR and the EU BIT is coherent in theory and may even eliminate some misconceptions about the EU RPR, the interaction of the two cram-down elements is likely to raise problems in practice.

First, this article discusses the concepts of the two priority rules and traces the motives of the European legislature for introducing the EU RPR.

Three aspects in particular appear to have motivated the legislature in drawing up the rule. For one, the legislature wished to create more flexibility in plan negotiations and thus respond in particular to special needs in the restructuring of smaller businesses. The rule may bring advantages, especially when it is reasonable to enable existing shareholders to participate in the continued business by means of an equity interest. Second, with regard to some Member States, the desire has arisen to create an instrument to overcome structural blocking positions of certain preferential (priority) creditors, in particular tax authorities. Finally, there is a trend in Europe which sees in the Directive a procedure that enables a structured contractual renegotiation of debts and detaches itself from the “traditional laws of insolvency law,” including the APR.

This article then deals with the new EU BIT and examines its interaction with the EU RPR.

It is worth noting that the EU BIT plays a much more important role in an EU RPR cram-down than under an APR. By moving away from the traditional liquidation benchmark and instead linking to the “next-best-alternative scenario,” the test protects precisely the value that can be achieved from the perspective of a creditor outside insolvency without cooperating with other parties. The then remaining reorganization surplus, which is subject to the EU RPR, is that fraction of the going concern surplus which can only be achieved through the combined efforts of all parties involved, but which creditors cannot claim in an individual case of enforcement.

Despite this harmonious interaction in theory, doubts may be expressed as to whether the combination of the EU RPR and the EU BIT would work in practice. The new focus on the hypothetical next-best-alternative scenario value will likely lead to an additional stress point in plan negotiations. The EU RPR, which does not itself contain a clear guideline for the distribution of the remaining surplus, is then to be applied between two unclear values, namely the hypothetical next-best-alternative value and the presumed reorganization value. It is reasonable to assume that the resulting distributional uncertainty will cause new hold-up potential and render it difficult to realize consensual plans, especially in larger restructuring cases. Also, it seems likely that unsophisticated junior creditors will face difficulties in defending their rights adequately in view of the potentially unclear next-best-alternative scenario value, and that others will try to use this to their advantage in complex negotiations.

The full article is available here.

The Law and Economics of Investing in Bankruptcy in the United States

By Jared A. Ellias (University of California Hastings College of the Law)

Jared A. Ellias

When commentators describe American bankruptcy law as “the model to which European restructuring laws should aspire,” they are really speaking about an ‘American bankruptcy ecosystem’ of which law is only a significant part. The American bankruptcy ecosystem is best understood as a complex system inhabited by bankruptcy judges, law firms, investment bankers and activist investors. In this Report, I focus on one of the major components of this ecosystem: specialized investors that participate in the ‘bankruptcy claims trade.’ As I discuss, American bankruptcy courts today are best understood not as a place of shame and failure but rather as an integrated part of the capital markets, similar to the private equity firms of New York and the venture capital investors of Palo Alto. As this view of bankruptcy law took hold, investors, typically hedge funds, began to raise a large stock of capital to deploy in it. Importantly, while these investors were born of the bankruptcy bar’s development of institutions that situated bankruptcy courts within the capital markets, they have deployed their capital to accelerate it. This Report chronicles the rise of claims trading and the state of the academic literature on activist investing. In sum, the best interpretation of the available empirical evidence is that claims trading and activist investing have, at the very least, not harmed Chapter 11 or distressed corporations, and may have actually improved the capacity of the American bankruptcy system to reorganize distressed assets.

The Report is available here.

How Cities Fail: Service Delivery Insolvency and Municipal Bankruptcy

By Clayton Gillette (New York University School of Law)

Clayton Gillette

Courts in municipal bankruptcy cases have confronted the inherent vagueness in the statutory tests for municipal “insolvency” by embracing a test of “service delivery insolvency.” That test is typically evaluated in terms of a significant reduction in the availability of city services. Focus on a municipality’s failure to deliver services certainly serves as a plausible proxy for fiscal health, since provision of services is a primary function of local governments and thus a function that a financially healthy municipality would satisfy. Initially, such a test appears to be viable, since it invites both temporal and interlocal comparison service levels as a measure of fiscal health. Nevertheless, this article indicates severe limitations of a service delivery insolvency test. Reductions in service may indicate efforts to recover fiscal health rather than indicating fiscal distress, because that distress was generated by overspending on services. In addition, focus on particular service reductions as a measure of insolvency creates perverse incentives for local officials who desire to obtain debt relief to diminish those services most susceptible to measurement. When determining eligibility for Chapter 9, two potential measures other than service delivery insolvency may serve as alternative or complementary proxies for the need to adjust municipal debt: population outflows and loss of agglomeration benefits.

Population outflows may serve as an alternative indicator of fiscal distress. A city that fails to provide services at a level commensurate with its tax prices may lose mobile residents, and population declines imply that the per capita debt of the municipality is increasing. But that measure does not necessarily distinguish among emigrants. If those who exit consumed more services than they paid for, then exit will not necessarily betoken fiscal distress.

Local fiscal health is often dependent on the capacity of the locality to obtain the benefits of agglomeration. As a result, and notwithstanding measurement difficulties, one promising proxy for fiscal distress entails identifying whether those who have exited would otherwise have contributed agglomeration benefits to the locality. Agglomeration effects are related to the benefits that individuals or firms receive from being located within a network of other individuals or firms, such as sharing of knowledge and information, reducing spatial mismatches between jobs and places of residence, and neighborhood effects which are necessary for the development of social capital. Agglomeration may affect decision making by prompting residents to remain when they might otherwise emigrate because they would lose network benefits in excess of the gains they would obtain from exit. Demonstrable declines in agglomeration benefits could, more than population declines or rough measures of service delivery insolvency alone, inform judgments about the potential sources of fiscal distress and the likelihood that debt adjustment would be appropriate. If population decline is largely attributable to exit by firms that tend to generate local agglomeration benefits, then continued and declining fiscal distress is more likely to occur without intervention than if population decline results from exit that creates less of a reduction of those benefits.

The full article is available here.

Net-short Creditor Activism is an Urban Legend

By Vincent S.J. Buccola (University of Pennsylvania – The Wharton School), Jameson K. Mah (Cyrus Capital Partners), Tai Yi Zhang (University of Pennsylvania – The Wharton School)

Vincent S.J. Buccola
Jameson K. Mah

Bankruptcy scholars have worried about the potential for credit derivatives to frustrate sensible out-of-court reorganizations since such derivatives became widespread in the 2000s. The basic problem they saw was that derivative contracting could complicate dealmaking by disguising investors’ true interests vis-à-vis a distressed company. Most perniciously, derivatives could lead creditors to oppose value-maximizing restructuring plans that offer fair treatment—not just for the familiar purpose of furthering a holdout strategy, but with the very aim of opposing the general welfare. In particular, a creditor with a large derivative position betting against its debtor could actively use its rights as creditor to drive the debtor into a messy and value-destroying default.

Many debt-market observers are sure that a recent episode pitting the hedge fund Aurelius against Windstream was a case in point. That episode has only increased attention on the subject, and issuers are experimenting with contractual devices that purport to muffle the influence of net-short activists at the expense, presumably, of secondary-market liquidity.

Our recent article argues that commotion over net-short creditor activism is misplaced—indeed that such activism is implausible. The nub of our skepticism lies in the incentives and capacities of investors other than a hypothetical net-short activist to foil the activist’s plans. The objective of net-short tactics, according to the story’s logic, is to cause a liquidity crisis that will reduce a targeted company’s value and prompt default. This objective implies, however, as a matter of arithmetic, that others can make money supplying offsetting liquidity.

Our article explores some of the channels through which this responsive liquidity is most likely to flow. We conclude that in the ordinary case one should expect parties other than the would-be saboteur to undermine its plans. If we are right, then it is a puzzle why a sophisticated potential activist would think it could succeed. A net-short activist bets not just on debt prices falling, as all short investors do. It bets rather on its own ability to cause the prices to fall. But in placing such a bet, the activist must know it is daring rival investors to profit by punishing it. The whole approach seems misguided. Which brings us to Windstream. Why did Aurelius think it could prevail at sabotage? As the article explains, we don’t believe it did and don’t believe it tried. We can’t say for sure, because lack access to the fund’s books and records. But so do the many other commentators who have opined on the story.

To us, then, one of the most intriguing features net-short activism is its rhetorical appeal. We suggest that the appeal lies in a kind of mythological function—that net-short sabotage has, in particular, the cautionary form of a good urban legend.

The article is available here.

Where Past is Prologue: Applying Lessons from the Past to Protect ABL Lenders in a World of Future Distress

By Shana A. Elberg, Seth E. Jacobson, & George R. Howard (Skadden)

Shana A. Elberg
Seth E. Jacobson
George R. Howard

Today, U.S. borrowers are more indebted than ever before. Borrowers have become increasingly aggressive in using secured leverage, and in taking advantage of “cov-lite” loan documents to engage in creative (and sometimes controversial) transactions to transfer assets beyond the reach of existing secured lenders by way of distributions to shareholders or contributions to unrestricted subsidiaries and then utilize those assets to raise additional secured financing. While the debt levels and cov-lite structures of leveraged loans may create risks for many stakeholders, lenders under asset-based loan facilities (“ABL facilities”) should be well-positioned to weather any storm. ABL facilities typically offer lenders greater protections in a liquidation scenario. In addition, ABL facilities often are a critical lynchpin of debtor-in-possession financing facilities when borrowers are looking to effectuate comprehensive restructurings through chapter 11. There are several tools available to ABL lenders to protect their credit position in the event that a borrower finds itself in a distressed situation. Lenders should position themselves to understand and use the chapter 11 process to ensure their debt claims retain, and even gain, protections in bankruptcy.

The full article is available here.

Secured Credit Spreads

By Efraim Benmelech (Northwestern University – Kellogg School of Managemen, Nitish Kumar (University of Florida), and Raghuram Rajan (University of Chicago – Booth School of Business)

Efraim Benmelech
Nitish Kumar
Raghuram Rajan

Is collateral at all valuable to creditors in corporate lending? At one level, it is clear why collateral should be important for lenders: it consists of hard assets that are not subject to asymmetric valuations in markets and that the borrower cannot alter easily. Collateral gives comfort to a lender that, even if the lender does little to monitor the borrower’s activity and the borrower’s cash flows prove inadequate to service the debt, the lender’s claim is protected by underlying value.

Yet even if assets are important to lending, why does debt need to be secured by them? After all, in a bankruptcy filing the firm’s assets will all be there to support the lender’s claim. Why protect the lender further through claims on specific collateral? In a related work (The Decline of Secured Debt), we find that firms tend to issue more secured debt when their credit quality is low or at times when average credit spreads across firms are higher or economic growth is slower. These are times when firms may find access to credit more difficult, creditors may fear greater stockholder-debtholder conflicts, and borrowers may need to collateralize debt issuances in order to regain access to funding. Moreover, with new lenders unwilling to lend without the comfort of collateral, existing lenders might rush to secure their claims so as not to be diluted. Indeed, negative pledge clauses (whereby the borrower commits to a lender that it will not issue secured debt to any other lender, failing which the debt payment will be accelerated) allow creditors to large companies to stay unsecured until they sense a greater likelihood of borrower distress, at which point they will move to secure their claims.

If collateral matters to creditors for the enforcement of debt claims, even in the case of large, mature companies but in a more contingent way, we should see it reflected in the pricing of secured claims vis-à-vis unsecured claims, especially in how that pricing moves with the state of the firm and the economy. Security should be of little value to lenders when a firm is far from distress or the economy is healthy, and it should become much more valuable (and hence secured debt should promise lower interest rates than unsecured debt) as a firm nears distress or the economy deteriorates.

The difficulty in identifying the effects of security on debt pricing derives from the circumstances under which it is offered. Since riskier firms will offer security at riskier times, a comparison of rates offered by secured debt issuances against rates offered by unsecured debt issuances across firms, or by the same firm over time, will tend to be biased toward suggesting higher rates for secured debt issuances.

In this paper, we use multiple data sets to get at the true pricing of secured debt, stripped as best as possible of the selection bias. Our identification strategy compares spreads on secured and unsecured credit of the same firm and at the same point in time.

We conclude from all these ways of obtaining the value of security that the selection bias is important, and correcting for it suggests that security is valuable to creditors – creditors typically require a lower spread when their claim is secured. Most important, however, we show that creditors value security differently for different firms and at different times.

For highly rated firms, creditors pay almost nothing for the added protection afforded by security, whereas for low-rated firms, they pay a lot. Yields on bonds issued by investment grade firms (those with an S&P rating of BBB− or better) are 20 basis points lower when secured, whereas this yield differential (unsecured versus secured) jumps to 112 basis points for a firm having a non-investment grade rating. Similarly, implied yields from bond trades in secondary market suggest that investors are willing to give up almost 161 basis points in spread for the added protection of security for non-investment grade issuers, whereas they are not willing to reduce spread at all for the added protection of security in the case of investment grade issuers.

Equally important, as a firm’s credit quality deteriorates, we see the valuation of secured claims improve relative to unsecured claims, suggesting that security becomes more valuable. We also find that secured spreads decline relative to unsecured spreads as the economy’s health – as reflected in GDP growth or the economywide Baa–Aaa spread – deteriorates.

The upshot is that collateral does not seem to matter for debt enforcement in normal times for a healthy firm, since debt linked to specific assets do not seem to enjoy better prices. Indeed, given the negligible pricing benefit, firms may want to avoid any loss in financial slack and operational flexibility at such times by not issuing secured debt. However, in tougher times, creditors do seem to value security, and firms do issue secured debt, either because creditors demand it or because of the better pricing.

The full article is available here.

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