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.

The New Bargaining Theory of Corporate Bankruptcy and Chapter 11’s Renegotiation Framework

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

The prevailing theory of corporate bankruptcy law states that its purpose is to vindicate or mimic the agreement that creditors would have reached if they had bargained with each other to write their own rules. That idea – the Creditors’ Bargain theory – has held a central place in the minds of lawyers, judges, and scholars for almost forty years. At the same time, Creditors’ Bargain theorists have struggled to explain what actually prevents creditors from bargaining with each other and how efficient rules that interfere with creditors’ bargained-for rights fit into the theory.

Meanwhile, in other areas of the law, scholars have long recognized the limits of hypothetical contract theories. Notably, scholars have shown that when parties have limited or asymmetric information and incentives to bargain strategically, their contracts will be incomplete in ways that the law cannot remedy with a hypothetical contract. Bankruptcy scholars have never squarely addressed this challenge.

Taking aim at these issues, my article, The New Bargaining Theory of Corporate Bankruptcy and Chapter 11’s Renegotiation Framework, proposes a new law-and-economics theory of corporate bankruptcy. Financial distress routinely presents uncertainty that is not contractible. By its very nature – given the number of parties engaged in strategic bargaining and the number of contingencies – financial distress poses questions that are impossible to predict, define, and negotiate in an ex ante contract. As a result, relationships involving a distressed firm are governed by incomplete contracts that allow parties to hold each other up.

Corporate bankruptcy law’s purpose is to solve this hold-up problem. The problem is familiar in law, but its frequency in the distress context invites a special bankruptcy solution. The noncontractible uncertainty associated with financial distress is a recurring characteristic across all firms. Because every relationship of this type is incomplete and requires judicial intervention upon the occurrence of the same event, a uniform bankruptcy system that deals with those relationships will produce consistency, efficiency, and market predictability.

In Chapter 11 that uniform system takes the form of a structured renegotiation framework. Because of the high level of ex ante uncertainty, the system relies mostly on procedural protection rather than specific substantive prescriptions. The framework allows parties to renegotiate their relationships within a system that imposes prices and burdens on the bargaining process and then subjects the results to high-level judicial oversight. The specifics of this framework are targeted at reducing the worst and most likely instances of hold up that block renegotiation efforts.

Bankruptcy, then, is not about mimicking a hypothetical ex ante bargain. It is about facilitating an actual ex post bargain. The normative claim of my article is that bankruptcy law’s core purpose is to solve the hold-up problem. The descriptive claim is that the ex post renegotiation framework is the fundamental attribute of Chapter 11. The remaining normative question is whether Chapter 11 succeeds at its purpose. This New Bargaining Theory of corporate bankruptcy can help identify the metrics by which to answer that question.

The full article is available here.