Government Activism in Bankruptcy

By Jared A. Ellias (Bion M. Gregory Chair in Business Law and Professor of Law, UC Hastings College of Law) and George Triantis (Professor of Law and Business, Stanford Law School)

Jared A. Ellias
George Triantis

It is widely recognized that bankruptcy law can stymie regulatory enforcement and present challenges for governments when regulated businesses file for Chapter 11.  It is less-widely understood that bankruptcy law can present governments with opportunities to advance policy goals if they are willing to adopt tactics traditionally associated with activist investors, a strategy we call “government bankruptcy activism.”  The bankruptcy filings by Chrysler and General Motors in 2009 are a famous example: the government of the United States used the bankruptcy process to help both auto manufacturers resolve their financial distress while promoting the policy objectives of protecting union workers and addressing climate change.  A decade later, the government of California applied its bargaining power and used an innovative state law in the Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s Chapter 11 case to protect climate policies and the victims of wildfires.  These examples illustrate that, by tapping into the bankruptcy system, governments gain access to the exceptional powers that a debtor enjoys under bankruptcy law, which can complement the traditional tools of appropriations and regulation to facilitate and accelerate policy outcomes.  This strategy is especially useful in times of urgency and policy paralysis, when government bankruptcy activism can provide a pathway past veto players in the political system.  However, making policy through the bankruptcy system presents potential downsides as well, as it may also allow governments to evade democratic accountability and obscure the financial losses that stakeholders are forced to absorb to help fund those policy outcomes.

The full article is available here.

Hidden Wealth Transfers in Bankruptcy Asset Sales: A Real Option Analysis

By Jordan Neyland (Assistant Professor of Law, Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University) and Kathryn St. John (Legal Associate, Supreme Court of Victoria)

Jordan Neyland
Kathryn St. John

One of the most important decisions that firms and courts face in bankruptcy is how to dispose of company assets. The differences between the available options are not trivial. A popular mechanism is contained in §363 of the bankruptcy code, which enables the sale of a firm’s assets with court approval. This allows for a quick sale of a firm without the need for developing and approving a plan of reorganization under Chapter 11, which can save both time and money, as the firm’s assets may otherwise sit idle or depreciate. 

Despite the benefits of a quicker resolution, 363 sales are contentious because certain classes of claimants, particularly shareholders and unsecured creditors, may lose a valuable opportunity to “wait and see” if the value of the assets will increase. Given that unsecured creditors and shareholders are last in line to get paid, they may gain if the asset value increases, whereas secured creditors prefer a quick sale to cash out before any value is potentially lost. But how much shareholder and unsecured creditor wealth is lost as the lottery-like opportunity, or “option” to wait, disappears? Without an active market for these rights, this value is unseen, yet very real.

In a recent article, we investigate the value of this option and how it affects the wealth of the parties to the bankruptcy. We use well-established financial models (i.e., Black-Scholes-Merton) to put a dollar value on how much shareholders lose with the approval of a 363 sale. We take numerical values from the seminal case In re Lionel Corp., 722 F.2d 1063 (2d Cir. 1983), which provides an ideal case study because most of the firm value was from equity holdings in a publicly traded company. 

The results are dramatic. Under certain conditions, shareholders stand to lose value worth more than one quarter of total firm assets from a 363 sale. That is, by forgoing the “wait and see” option, shareholder value decreases from around one quarter of the firm’s assets to close to zero. In the Lionel case, where the value of the firm’s assets was about $170 million, this decline in value equates to wiping out nearly $45 million in shareholder wealth. Higher priority claimants capture that value.

Even under more conservative estimates, we show that shareholder and lower-priority creditor wealth is dramatically affected by the loss of the “wait and see” option. Large amounts of wealth may be transferred from shareholders to creditors by bringing forward assets sales by just a few months.

We identify factors that are likely to influence the magnitude of the “hidden” shareholder and lower-priority creditor wealth loss. These include the volatility and value of the asset to be sold, in addition to the difference between the time required to arrange an asset sale and the time it may take to finalize a plan of reorganization. We note that the current common law rules governing 363 sales do not require consideration of this set of factors, which are potentially more value-relevant than factors, such as asset depreciation, that courts currently use to determine whether a business justification for a sale exists.

We suggest that courts consider the factors identified in our analysis and the “hidden” wealth effects when deciding whether to approve a 363 sale. This consideration should improve courts’ understanding of parties’ stakes and incentives, leading to better informed decision-making.

The full article is available here.

Bankruptcy Shopping: Domestic Venue Races and Global Forum Wars

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

Anthony J. Casey
Joshua Macey

The United States Bankruptcy Code gives debtors wide discretion to reorganize in the venue of their choice. These lenient venue selection rules long have allowed bankruptcy courts in the District of Delaware and the Southern District of New York to dominate the market for large Chapter 11 cases, though recently the Southern District of Texas has also begun to attract a large number of cases.

This state of affairs has produced a vigorous debate. Critics of liberal venue rules charge that bankruptcy districts are engaged in a “race to the bottom” as judges compete for blockbuster cases. Others counter that competition for cases improves efficiency and predictability as judges develop expertise in overseeing large Chapter 11 cases.

This Article cautions that developments in foreign jurisdictions may limit the effectiveness of these venue reform proposals. In recent years, foreign jurisdictions have emerged as convenient forums for distressed debtors. For instance, in many cases, the English scheme of arrangement now represents a viable alternative to the American bankruptcy system, and over the past decade, a number of companies have chosen to use an English scheme of arrangement to restructure their debt instead of chapter 11, with the first United States-headquartered business doing so in 2019. Other jurisdictions have also sought to entice foreign debtors, with insolvency specialists speculating that Singapore, in particular, could become a restructuring hub.

Because American bankruptcy courts freely recognize foreign insolvency proceedings, firms that are directed to file in less favored districts may instead choose to reorganize in a foreign jurisdiction. In this environment, attempts to limit venue selection within the United States will have the opposite of their intended effect, replacing domestic venue shopping with even worse global forum shopping. By ignoring the availability of global forums, current venue reform proposals could, perversely, drive opportunistic debtors and creditors to restructure in foreign jurisdictions.

To address this, we argue that, rather than limit domestic venue choice, lawmakers should: (1) support the development of ex ante commitment to mechanisms for choosing venue and forum; and (2) whenever possible, resolve inconsistencies in substantive law across venues and forums. These are general principles of reform, and the implementation will depend on context. For example, commitment mechanisms look different for venue than they do for forum. But, if designed properly, these measures can reduce the costs of venue and forum shopping without giving up the benefits that come from allowing some choice of venue and forum.

It is worth noting that the merits of our proposal are independent of one’s view on the current state of venue shopping. If venue shopping is a real problem, the principles we introduce address that problem. If venue shopping is not a problem, the principles do no harm and even expand the choice set for debtors. Similarly, while the principles address the problem of global forum shopping, the benefits with regard to venue shopping exist with or without global forums. The same cannot be said of the status quo or the reforms currently being considered.

The 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.

The Development of Collateral Stripping by Distressed Borrowers

By Mitchell Mengden (Law Clerk, Delaware Court of Chancery)

Mitchell Mengden

In the past decade, private equity sponsors have taken a more aggressive stance against creditors of their portfolio companies, the most recent iteration of which has come in the form of collateral stripping. Sponsors have been using creative lawyering to transfer valuable collateral out of the reach of creditors. This Article delves deeper into the issue by examining the contract terms and litigation claims raised by these transactions.

The lack of protective covenants and ease of manipulating EBITDA and asset valuations are key conditions that permit collateral stripping. Each of these conditions were present in the past decade, primarily due to the protracted expansionary stage of the credit cycle. Lenders, however, can protect themselves from collateral stripping by negotiating stricter covenants and tighter EBITDA definitions, as well as pursuing ex post litigation for fraudulent transfers, illegal distributions, and claims for breach of fiduciary duty.

Contractual opportunism and creative lawyering will almost certainly continue to pervade credit markets. This Article provides a roadmap of ways that lenders can protect themselves from opportunism during contracting and throughout the course of the loan. As this Article concludes, ex post litigation claims are often an inadequate remedy, so lenders should seek to tighten EBITDA definitions and broaden protective covenants—even if to do so requires other concessions—to avoid litigation.

The full article is available here.

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.

Lawyer Networks and Corporate Bankruptcies

By Vidhan K. Goyal (Hong Kong University of Science and Technology), Joshua Madsen (Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota), and Wei Wang (Smith School of Business, Queen’s University)

Vidhan Goyal
Joshua Madsen
Wei Wang

Does having a lawyer who has previously interacted with the judge matter for bankruptcy outcomes? While knowledge obtained through past interactions about the judge’s views and preferences could improve the efficiency of court process, lawyer familiarity with the judge could also result in a capture of economic rents, leading to delays due to the difficulties in measuring lawyer efforts. Furthermore, connected lawyers could also exploit their connections to obtain biased outcomes in favor of their clients.

We examine these questions in the context of corporate bankruptcies by assembling a comprehensive dataset that contains detailed biographical information, professional experiences, and past in-court interactions of 162 bankruptcy judges overseeing 650 large Chapter 11 cases from 1996–2013, and 2,426 unique lawyers from 775 law firms representing those cases as debtor’s counsel. Our results show that cases with a lead counsel lawyer connected to the judge spend 16–21% less time in bankruptcy, a 2.6–3.5-month reduction in bankruptcy duration, translating into aggregated savings of $3.2–4.5 billion in professional fees for our sample firms.

Our empirical strategy exploits a setting where lead counsel lawyers are selected by the firm before the bankruptcy is filed and thus the assignment of a judge, minimizing concerns that connected lawyers are endogenously hired. The results are robust to the inclusion of controls for case complexity, industry effects, lawyer’s expertise, law firm quality, and judges’ fixed characteristics. Our specifications therefore ensure that any effect from having a connected lawyer is not due to unobserved heterogeneity that is specific to courts, judges, or lawyers.

We further document that the most effective lead counsel connections arise through previous clerkships and in-court interactions with the judge assigned to the case. The effects concentrate in cases with smaller legal teams where connected lawyers presumably have more influence. Having a connected non-lead counsel lawyers’ or connected lawyer representing the unsecured creditors committee only weakly affects case duration.

Lastly, we investigate other bankruptcy outcomes, including the probability of emergence, the bankruptcy refiling rate, operating performance post emergence, the likelihood of a Chapter 7 conversion, and the likelihood of loss of exclusivity extension. We find no evidence that the faster restructurings come at a cost of higher refiling rates or poorer operating performance after emergence. More importantly, there is no evidence that connections lead to judge favoritism or pro-debtor biases.

How do connected lawyers accelerate the bankruptcy process? The most likely explanation is connected lawyers’ knowledge of a judge’s preferences. Judges are extremely busy, and must devote enormous effort to keep straight all the facts and legal nuance under consideration. Connected lawyers are plausibly more familiar with the assigned judge’s preferences and expectations as well as the cases, legal precedents, and statutes that the judge will rely on. They can exploit this knowledge to help the “light shine through.” Idiosyncrasies across judges and their preferences imply that lawyers’ experience with other judges may not be as useful as a connection to the assigned judge and that there is likely no one “magic bullet” used by all connected lawyers. That is, lawyers’ knowledge of judges’ preferences are largely non-transferrable. These findings have implications for the design of bankruptcy institutions, where institutions that lead to lawyers’ increased awareness of a judge’s preferences could produce efficiency gains.

The full article is available here.

Oversecured Creditor’s Right to Contractual Default-Rate Interest Allowed Under State Law

By Stacey L. Corr-Irvine and Mark G. Douglas (Jones Day)

Stacey L. Corr-Irvine
Mark G. Douglas

It is generally well understood that an “oversecured” creditor is entitled to interest and, to the extent provided for under a loan agreement, related fees and charges as part of its secured claim in a bankruptcy case. Although section 506(b) of the Bankruptcy Code provides that fees, costs or charges allowed as part of a secured claim must be “reasonable,” the provision does not expressly impose any restrictions on the amount or nature of interest allowable as part of a secured claim. A Bankruptcy Appellate Panel for the Eighth Circuit recently considered whether a secured creditor is entitled to contractual default-rate interest under section 506(b).

In In re Family Pharmacy, Inc., 614 B.R. 58 (B.A.P. 8th Cir. 2020), the panel reversed a bankruptcy court’s order disallowing a secured creditor’s claim for interest at the default rate under the parties’ contract using a penalty-type analysis generally applied to liquidated damages provisions. According to the panel, such an analysis cannot be applied to default interest provisions. The panel also held that the bankruptcy court erred when it held that the default interest rate was unenforceable based on “equitable considerations.”

The full article is available here.

Secured Creditor’s “Net Economic Damages” Estimate of Disputed Claims “Plainly Insufficient” to Establish Collateral Value

By Paul M. Green and Mark G. Douglas (Jones Day)

Paul M. Green
Mark G. Douglas

Valuation is a critical and indispensable part of the bankruptcy process. How collateral and other estate assets (and even creditor claims) are valued will determine a wide range of issues, from a secured creditor’s right to adequate protection, postpetition interest, or relief from the automatic stay to a proposed chapter 11 plan’s satisfaction of the “best interests” test or whether a “cram-down” plan can be confirmed despite the objections of dissenting creditors. Depending on the context, bankruptcy courts rely on a wide variety of standards to value estate assets, including retail, wholesale, liquidation, forced sale, going-concern, or reorganization value. Certain assets, however, may be especially difficult to value because valuation depends on factors that may be difficult to quantify, such as the likelihood of success in litigating estate causes of action.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit recently addressed this issue in In re Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, Ltd., 956 F.3d 1 (1st Cir. 2020) (“MMA Railway”). The First Circuit affirmed a ruling that a secured creditor failed to satisfy its burden of establishing that collateral in the form of indemnification claims settled by the estate had any value entitled to adequate protection. According to the court, with respect to a disputed claim, a showing of possible damages is not enough. Instead, the creditor must establish the likely validity of the claim and the likelihood of recovery.

MMA Railway is a cautionary tale for secured creditors. Creditors bear the ultimate burden of proof in establishing the value of their collateral under section 506(a) of the Bankruptcy Code—a determination that has important consequences in many contexts in a bankruptcy case. The First Circuit’s ruling highlights the importance of building a strong evidentiary record to support valuation. It also indicates that certain types of collateral (e.g., disputed litigation claims) are more difficult to value than others.

The full article is available here.

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