The Time Has Come for Disaggregated Sovereign Bankruptcy

By Odette Lienau (Professor, Cornell Law School)

Odette Lienau

The ongoing economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has generated important proposals for addressing countries’ financial distress in the short to medium term. However, it has also made even more apparent the existing gaps in the global financial architecture writ large and highlighted the extent to which key actors pay closest attention to this infrastructure in situations of crisis. By then, of course, it is already too late.

This essay argues that the international community should use the energy generated in the current context to move toward ‘disaggregated sovereign bankruptcy’—which can be understood as a framework by which multiple processes at varying levels simultaneously support or instantiate a shared set of sovereign debt resolution principles and commitments. Such an approach moves beyond overly simplistic and binary framings of market-based versus statutory options, and instead conceives of improvements in the contractual realm, in the multilateral arena, and at the level of domestic legislation as complementary rather than competitive. The essay also clarifies that the explicit embrace of a more disaggregated framework for implementing debt resolution principles need not be disorganized. It argues in favor of establishing an international body purpose-built to recommend, coordinate, and facilitate steady, incremental progress in the architecture for dealing with sovereign debt across multiple vectors. Advocates of more rational debt restructuring should take steps now to adopt an infrastructure that would make future debt crises less severe and perhaps less likely—even when the spotlights are directed elsewhere.

The full article can be found here.

The Proceduralist Inversion – A Response to Skeel

By Edward J. Janger (Professor, Brooklyn Law School) and Adam J. Levitin (Professor, Georgetown University Law Center)

Edward J. Janger
Adam J. Levitin

In Distorted Choice in Corporate Bankruptcy, David Skeel offers a nuanced description of restructuring support agreements (RSAs) and how they can help a debtor to achieve the necessary consensus around a proposed Chapter 11 plan of reorganization. We take issue, however, with Skeel’s permissive view toward RSAs that permits provisions that would short circuit the “process” protections contained in Chapter 11. Such provisions include pre-disclosure lock-ups, milestones, and coercive deathtraps.

Chapter 11 contemplates bargaining in the shadow of certain basic statutory “distributional” entitlements: equal treatment, best interests, full cash payment of administrative expenses, and a guaranteed minimum-cramdown distribution. As such, RSAs can either reinforce the link between entitlement and distribution, or they can sever it.

In our view, Skeel insufficiently appreciates the purpose of process—how procedural protections such as classification, disclosure, and solicitation surrounding the vote forge the crucial link between bankruptcy bargaining and core principles of corporate governance and pre-bankruptcy entitlement. We offer, instead, an approach which sorts between process-enhancing RSAs and those that facilitate end-runs.

The article can be found here.

My Creditor’s Keeper: Escalation of Commitment and Custodial Fiduciary Duties in the Vicinity of Insolvency

By Amir Licht (Professor, Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Israel)

Amir Licht

In several common law jurisdictions, creditors of corporate debtors enjoy legal protections through vicinity-of-insolvency fiduciary duties, beyond what their contracts with those companies afford them.  These duties form a notoriously murky area, where legal space warps.  The contours of this area are fuzzy.  Courts openly acknowledge that it is difficult to identify clear guideposts for its threshold—as to when exactly these duties are enlivened.  In a forthcoming article, I purport to make two main contributions.  First, the article expands the theoretical basis for a special legal regime in virtually insolvent firms by pointing out escalation of commitment as a potent and relevant factor that has been largely overlooked by insolvency scholars.  Second, this article addresses the substantive content of the duty to protect creditors where such duties are recognized.

The standard account that is usually invoked to explain and justify special fiduciary duties to consider creditors’ interest points to the danger of opportunistic high-risk behavior by managers on behalf of shareholders.  I argue that this account may be sound but is nonetheless lacking.  In addition to such risk-shifting opportunism, lawmakers should also be mindful of managers’ tendency to unjustifiably continue failing projects, known as escalation of commitment.  Escalation of commitment refers to a phenomenon, in which people tend to remain married to their original choices and to commit resources to them even when it is no longer rational to do so.  Escalation of commitment is ubiquitous.  It has been observed in organizations large and small, in business corporations and in the public sector.  Escalation of commitment is not only an irrational and emotional personal behavior.  More often than not, it takes place in a broader social context of one’s ingroup—in particular, the board of directors, the organization, and one’s community and culture.

Escalation of commitment poses an equal, if not greater, challenge than risk shifting does to optimal regulation of companies in looming or virtual insolvency.  Being largely detached from rational calculations, escalation of commitment presents a more compelling justification for legal regulation, and a more interventionist one at that.  In this view, managers—especially owner-managers—of virtually insolvent firms may not enjoy the usual level of deference that the law affords to their business judgment in regular times, as their discretion at that point is prone to be clouded by a misplaced motivation to stay the course, weather the storm, and similarly-spirited no-quitting notions.  

Factors that could facilitate de-escalation include better information on costs and benefits of the project, regular evaluation and monitoring of projects, clear criteria for success and minimum target performance levels, and clear feedback about underperforming projects.  Such measures will have limited efficacy, however, if the information they generate is interpreted and acted on by decision-makers who have initiated the failing project and even by different persons who are nonetheless related to those decision-makers.  Change in management is thus essential.

While Delaware law rejects the idea of a pre-insolvency creditor-focused fiduciary duty, several jurisdictions do recognize duties to protect creditors, either as a duty to consider creditors’ interests or as the rule against wrongful (or insolvent, or reckless) trading.  I argue that these duties should be enlivened at the very edge of the zone of insolvency, close to the latter.  At that point, the mission of directors should transform from entrepreneurial to custodial.  That is, they should implement strategies that aim to preserve the firm—in working condition, to the extent possible, with a view to resuming regular business—but avoid seeking new projects with a view to maximizing profits.  This could mean that the shield of the business judgment rule may not be available to the same extent as in regular circumstances.  The Covid-19 pandemic that swept the globe in 2020 provides a fresh context for this approach and underscores the need to implement such a regime sensibly, with high deference to business decisions even if outside the scope of the business judgment rule.  The article concludes with a comparative analysis of creditor-oriented duties in several common law jurisdictions and examines how they could implement a custodial approach.

Bankruptcy & Bailouts; Subsidies & Stimulus: The Government Toolset for Responding to Market Distress

By Anthony J. Casey (The University of Chicago Law School)

Anthony J. Casey

In the spring of 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic shut down economies around the world, pressure arose for governments to respond to the growing threat of pandemic-related market distress. In the United States, the initial proposals for government action varied in nature and focus. Some proposals targeted the financial system while others targeted small businesses and individuals. Others were intended to bail out large businesses and specific industries. Still other proposals took a more institutional focus. In the context of bankruptcy law, many imagined building up the bankruptcy system as a primary bulwark against a seemingly imminent wave of economic and financial distress.

With the exception of measures related to financial markets, the actual responses formed a chaotic mix of disconnected half-measures that neither stabilized the economy nor provided meaningful relief to those most affected. While that failure may be attributed in part to general government dysfunction and legislative gridlock, a large part of the problem arises from the lack of a clearly identified framework to guide government responses.

The main lesson here is that the appropriateness of tools deployed to alleviate a crisis depends on the nature of the specific problem at hand, and scattershot approaches are unlikely to work. As obvious as that principle may seem, it was largely ignored in 2020. Much of the confusion in the pandemic responses is attributable to using the wrong tools and implementing measures that lacked any clear purpose.

In particular, governments and commentators lost sight of two important distinctions in deciding how to act. The first is the distinction between tools appropriate for addressing economic distress and those appropriate for addressing financial distress. The second is the distinction between a systemic crisis where distress is spreading and an instance of firm-specific distress where the harm—though perhaps large—is contained.

These distinctions present four types of market distress: specific economic, systemic economic, specific financial, and systemic financial. Each type is distinct from the others, and for each there is a category of appropriate government responses (respectively): direct subsidies, general stimulus, bankruptcy proceedings, and financial bailouts. We thus have this matrix:

Systemic Specific
Economic General Stimulus Direct Subsidies
Financial Financial Bailouts Bankruptcy Proceedings

(Chapter 11)

 

The importance of understanding these classifications is most evident in the flawed proposals for pandemic-related fixes to bankruptcy law and in the lack of a centralized economic plan to support failing small businesses around the country.

In a new article, I lay out this framework for identifying the right tools for responding to different forms of market distress.  I describe the relationship between the category of tools and the type of distress. Having presented the framework, I then use it to closely examine the interaction between pandemic responses and bankruptcy law. This analysis is particularly important because efforts to understand the bankruptcy system’s role during the pandemic provide the starkest example of confused analysis of appropriate responses to systemic crises, and because a striking decline in bankruptcy filings in 2020 has puzzled many commentators.

Singapore Schemes of Arrangement: Empirical and Comparative Analysis

By Wai Yee Wan (City University of Hong Kong), Casey Watters (Bond University), and Gerard McCormack (University of Leeds)

Wai Yee Wan
Casey Watters
Gerard McCormack

The scheme of arrangement, brought to Singapore through a transplantation of English law, provides one of the most flexible debt restructuring tools for companies. In 2017, Singapore enacted substantial reforms to its insolvency laws, transplanting elements of US Chapter 11, including a moratorium, rescue financing, and cross-class cramdown, into the flexible Singapore restructuring regime. Our paper (published recently in the American Bankruptcy Law Journal) addresses the effectiveness of English-modelled schemes as debt-restructuring tools in Singapore, both pre-2017 reforms and as a hybrid with elements of Chapter 11.

The English scheme of arrangement has been spoken of as a model for ‘early stage’ restructuring procedures. Although the scheme functions as Singapore’s de facto debtor-in-possession restructuring regime, it does not have any bankruptcy or insolvency stigma since it is a procedure based on company law rather than insolvency law. It is activated by the filing of documents with the court and an application to the court to convene meetings of relevant creditors to approve the scheme. The meeting of creditors under schemes is substantially similar to those conducted in Chapter 11 cases under § 341 of the US Bankruptcy code. Creditors whose rights are altered by the scheme are grouped into classes with creditors holding similar legal rights.

This is the first empirical study to date that comprehensively examines schemes of arrangement, including non-reported schemes, over a period. To this end, it employs a mixture of quantitative and qualitative data. To assess the schemes framework in Singapore, we conducted a study of schemes in three parts based on data availability. First, we examine the filings in court-sanctioned schemes of arrangement for the period 1996–2004 (with reported judgments). This period covers the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and includes private and publicly traded companies. Second, similarly, we examine the filings for schemes of arrangement with reported judgments for the period 2006–2015. This period covers the global financial crisis of 2008. We extended the database by including filings in court-sanctioned schemes of arrangement for SGX-listed companies, including non-reported judgments. Third, we examined the filings in court-sanctioned schemes between January 1, 2016 and May 22, 2019. May 22, 2019 was selected as it is the second anniversary from the date that the 2017 reforms came into force. We are able to have a wider sample size because cases during the latter period were tracked by the Supreme Court Registry. On examining the filings, we coded a number of variables related to the schemes of arrangement, including financial information related to the companies, class composition and outcomes of the schemes. Such data were manually collected and coded from all the filings, which were provided by the Singapore Supreme Court.

From our analysis of the data, we identified multiple characteristics of successful schemes, the most significant of which are controlling shareholder support and availability of new financing, often provided by the controlling shareholder. When present, disputes have centred on insufficient disclosure, with informational asymmetry a substantial concern identified in the study. Liquidation values were often missing and, when present, lacked a detailed bases for the stated values.

The results of the empirical study demonstrate the effectiveness of schemes as a debt restructuring tool for large insolvent companies. The scheme reforms, along with other insolvency reforms in Singapore, including adoption of the UNCITRAL Model Law on Cross-Border Insolvency, recent common law developments, and removing a ring-fencing provision that protected domestic creditors at the expense of foreign creditors, provide additional tools and lower barriers to restructuring in Singapore. The flexibility of schemes coupled with Chapter 11 tools make schemes an attractive debt restructuring option for many insolvent companies.

The full article is available here.

For related Roundtable posts, see Gerard McCormack and Wai Yee Wan, Transplanting Chapter 11 of the US Bankruptcy Code into Singapore’s Restructuring and Insolvency Laws. 

The Hertz Maneuver (and the Limits of Bankruptcy Law)

By Anthony J. Casey (Professor of Law, The University of Chicago Law School), Joshua C. Macey (Assistant Professor of Law, The University of Chicago Law School)

Anthony J. Casey
Joshua C. Macey

On June 11, 2020, the Hertz Corporation attempted to become the first corporate debtor to finance a bankruptcy proceeding by issuing new shares of common stock to the public. Though many thought Hertz’s equity was worthless, its stock was trading at a positive value on the secondary markets, and Hertz was attempting to tap into that market value. When the bankruptcy court blessed the plan, many observers responded with outrage on behalf of retail investors who, they argued, were being duped into a worthless investment. They suggested that the law should prevent retail investors from buying these shares. Ultimately, the Securities Exchange Commission signaled that it had similar concerns and effectively killed the proposal.

This essay explores the questions raised by this incident. It argues that commentators were focused on the wrong bankruptcy problem. Contrary to the view of the commentators, Hertz’s bankruptcy does not show that retail investors require bankruptcy-specific protections. The Hertz maneuver does, however, highlight distortions created by bankruptcy law’s distribution rule, known as the absolute priority rule. That rule cuts off future opportunities for those holding equity (or junior claims) in a debtor firm and makes it difficult for stockholders and unsecured creditors to make long-term investments in the firm’s future value. From this perspective, existing proposals to alter bankruptcy’s priority rules begin to look like a form of investor protection that could facilitate investment in a firm’s long-term value.

The full article is available here.

Germany Poised for Big Step Towards Corporate Restructuring Best Practice

By Sacha Luerken (Kirkland & Ellis)

Sacha Luerken

Germany’s insolvency law has only in very few cases – around 1% of filings – been used for a Chapter 11-style going concern restructuring of a debtor company. Initiatives to introduce processes like the scheme of arrangement, an English procedure that was also commonly used to restructure non-English companies and is capable of Chapter 15 recognition in the U.S., were not successful, even though recoveries for unsecured creditors in Germany are remarkably low compared to other jurisdictions.

A paradigm shift occurred when the EU in June 2019 passed its directive 2019/1023 on preventive restructuring frameworks, which requires all EU member states to introduce a restructuring process for companies in financial difficulties, but before an actual insolvency. On September 18, 2020, a draft law was presented to introduce a scheme-like procedure in Germany, which provides for a restructuring of selected liabilities with 75% majority by amount in class, a cross-class cram-down subject to tests similar as in a U.S. Chapter 11 proceeding, a court-approved stay on enforcement and collateral realization, and even a rejection of onerous contracts by the court.

The draft law has been welcomed as a big step towards a restructuring culture in Germany by many advisors and practitioners, and as a potential blueprint for the implementation of the EU directive in other European jurisdictions.

The full article is available here.

Reprinted with permission from the October 06, 2020 edition of the Law.com International 2020 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-257-3382 or reprints@alm.com.

Regulating Bankruptcy Bonuses and Protecting Workers in the Age of COVID-19

By Jessica Ljustina (Harvard Law School)

Since March, executives of 18 large companies received over $135 million total in bonuses prior to their companies filing under Chapter 11, while “[t]hose same companies laid off tens of thousands of workers,” according to a Washington Post report. These recent examples are illustrative of gaps left by the last major reform targeting bankruptcy bonuses. Further reforms have been introduced in Congress every few years since 2005. Referencing inequality and perceived abuses in the context of COVID-19, the House Judiciary Committee advanced the current House bill to the full chamber on September 29, 2020, marking the proposed legislation’s furthest progress thus far.

H.R. 7370, the Protecting Employees and Retirees in Business Bankruptcies Act of 2020 (PERBB) would present significant changes to the Bankruptcy Code aimed at protecting workers. The bill would expand from existing regulation of insider retention bonuses to include a broader set of payments to insiders, senior executive officers, the 20 highest compensated employees who are not insiders or senior executives, department and division managers, and any consultants providing services to the debtor.

Through expanding the scope of executive compensation subject to restrictions, PERBB may more effectively reduce management bonuses paid in bankruptcy. However, the House version of PERBB fails to address bonus payments prior to filing for bankruptcy, a key issue identified at the outset of the post. The related Senate bill has an additional provision which would designate any transfer made to management “made in anticipation of bankruptcy” as a §547 preference avoidable by the trustee.

The full post, including a summary of proposed changes to the Code, is available here.

The full text of the House bill can be accessed here. A redline of relevant 11 U.S.C. provisions reflecting amendments proposed in H.R. 7370 is available here. The full text of Senate bill can be accessed here.

For related Roundtable posts, see Jared Ellias, Regulating Bankruptcy Bonuses; James H. M. Sprayregen, Christopher T. Greco, and Neal Paul Donnelly (Kirkland & Ellis), Recent Lessons on Management Compensation at Various States of the Chapter 11.

The New Mass Torts Bargain

By Samir D. Parikh (Lewis & Clark Law School)

Samir D. Parikh

Mass torts create a unique scale of harm and liabilities. Corporate tortfeasors are desperate to settle claims but condition settlement upon resolution of substantially all claims at a known price—commonly referred to as a global settlement. Without this, corporate tortfeasors are willing to continue with protracted and fragmented litigation across jurisdictions. Global settlements can be elusive in these cases. Mass torts are oftentimes characterized by non-homogenous victim groups that include both current victims and unknown, future victims—individuals whose harm has not yet manifested and may not do so for years. Despite this incongruence, the claims of these future victims must be aggregated as part of any global settlement. This is the tragedy of the mass tort anticommons: without unanimity, victim groups are unable to access settlement resources in a timely or meaningful way, but actual coordination across the group can be impossible.

Current resolution structures have proven ill-equipped to efficiently and equitably address the novel challenges posed by mass torts. Many cases cannot satisfy Rule 23’s requirements for class action certification. Multidistrict litigation is the most frequently invoked resolution structure, but the MDL process is distorted. The process was initially designed for one district court to streamline pretrial procedures before remanding cases for adjudication. Instead, MDL courts have turned into captive settlement negotiations. In response, a new strategy for resolving modern mass torts has emerged. Corporate tortfeasors—including Purdue Pharma, Boy Scouts of America, and USA Gymnastics—have started filing for bankruptcy. These mass restructurings automatically halt the affected MDL cases and transfer proceedings to a bankruptcy court—a process I describe as bankruptcy preemption. Unfortunately, bankruptcy preemption replaces one deficient structure with another. Mass restructuring debtors are exploiting statutory gaps in the bankruptcy code in order to bind victims through an unpredictable, ad hoc structure. The new bargain creates myriad risks, including insolvent settlement trusts and disparate treatment across victim classes.

This Article is the first to attempt a reconceptualization of how modern mass torts should be resolved and delivers an unprecedented normative construct focused on addressing anticommons dynamics through statutory amendments to the Bankruptcy Code. These changes, coupled with an evolved perspective on fundamental structural anomalies, are designed to improve predictability, efficiency, and victim recoveries. More broadly, this Article attempts to animate scholarly debate of this new, non-class aggregate litigation strategy that will reshape the field.

The full article is available here.

Insolvency of Significant Non-Financial Enterprises: What Can We Learn from Bank Failures and Bank Resolution?

By Ilya Kokorin, Leiden Law School (The Netherlands)

Ilya Kokorin

The current economic downturn triggered by the spread of COVID-19 demonstrates that the role of insolvency law should not be restricted to resolving conflicts between private parties (i.e. creditors and debtors). Nevertheless, the very framework of insolvency law remains primarily: (i) microprudential – single entity focused and designed to protect individual debtors and their creditors, (ii) contractarian – implementing the idea of creditors’ bargain and solving coordination problems between creditors of a single entity, and (iii) reactive – centred around post-crisis liquidation of assets and allocation of proceeds among creditors. It may therefore be ill-fitted to serve the public interest in mitigating the negative externalities of large-scale (systemic) corporate debacles (e.g. Chrysler, GM, British Steel, Carillion) or handling the economy-wide instability experienced nowadays.

In contrast to corporate insolvency, in the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008 (GFC), bank resolution in the European Union (EU) and the USA went through fundamental changes that seek to preserve financial stability and ensure continuity of critical functions. Bank resolution has increasingly embraced the macroprudential vision, recognizing the need for an advanced preparation and a speedy intervention to ensure continuity of critical functions, preservation of financial stability and avoidance of bailouts. This vision has resulted in the specific proactive and reactive recovery and resolution strategies. In the recent paper Insolvency of Significant Non-Financial Enterprises: Lessons from Bank Failures and Bank Resolution, I explore whether the modern approaches to bank crises can be extended to non-financial enterprises. I discuss how insolvency law might help minimize social harm stemming from wide-ranging shocks and grand-scale business failures and suggest what we can learn from bank failures and bank resolution.

The failure of Carillion, once the UK’s second-largest construction company, has shown that the reactive approach to crisis resolution, centred around post-crisis intervention, posed significant risks not only for creditors but also for other stakeholders and communities at large. Carillion had around 43,000 workers, of whom 19,000 were based in the UK. It owed around GBP 2 billion to the extensive network of 30,000 suppliers, sub-contractors and other creditors and left the pension liability exceeding GBP 2.5 billion. Even though the signs of financial distress appeared long before Carillion filed for liquidation in January 2018, these warning signals were largely ignored. The failure of Carillion had substantial implications for the provision of public services, raising environmental, health and safety concerns. It ultimately led to a state intervention backed by taxpayers’ money. However, the actual economic and social cost of Carillion’s insolvency are hard to quantify. Financial distress of such a significant enterprise (significant non-financial enterprise or SNFE) required timely state intervention. Nevertheless, its multiple profit warnings came as a surprise to the Cabinet Office.

Insolvency of Carillion was characterized by the absence of timely reaction to prevent crisis escalation, a genuine threat of public disruption and a vast complexity determined by both the debtor’s organizational structure, consisting of more than 320 group members, and the nature of its activities. Many of the same features were observed in the failure of banks and banking groups during the GFC. As a response, both the EU (BRRD) and the USA (Title II of the Dodd-Frank Act) have embraced a proactive and precautionary approach focused on preparation and early response. In my paper, I use the case of Carillion to inquire whether selected bank recovery and resolution tools could have been adopted to prevent the collapse of Carillion, or to mitigate its negative consequences.

In particular, I analyse three such tools, namely: (i) intervention powers granted to state authorities for early (preventive) reaction to the escalation of financial problems before the actual insolvency, (ii) entity and group recovery and resolution planning, and (iii) administrative-led insolvency process. I conclude that while the first two mechanisms may prove beneficial, the last one is rather controversial. While an administrative-led process has certain advantages and prevails in bank resolution, it may be difficult and unnecessary to replicate or transpose to non-financial enterprises. Instead, a transparent court-supervised process with active involvement of creditors and debtors, as well as a limited and targeted engagement of public authorities on matters of public interest should be encouraged.

The full paper is available here.

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