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.

Fiduciary Duties in Bankruptcy and Insolvency

By John A. E. Pottow (University of Michigan Law School).

Although discussed nowhere in the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, fiduciary duties play a central role in guiding the administration of an insolvent debtor’s assets. Regulatory oversight of trustees is only loosely circumscribed by statute, but significant lacunae exist regarding specification of the duties of loyalty.  In assessing what fiduciary obligations are owed to secured creditors, unsecured creditors, and debtors, some courts build upon the general principle that the trustee’s fiduciary duty of loyalty flows to all creditors. Other courts, though, work from the premise that secured creditors are better situated to look after themselves and that a trustee’s primary obligation is to unsecured creditors, perhaps especially non-priority general creditors. The Supreme Court has also weighed in, stating that a DIP’s fiduciary duties run directly (if somewhat delphically) to “the corporation.” How then does a trustee choose between beneficiaries of the estate, and what remedies are there for losing parties disappointed with this allegiance decision?  This book chapter explores the fiduciary obligations of trustees (including DIPs) under both statute and common law. There is a special focus on the intrinsic conflicts that arise within the “menagerie of heterogeneous creditors” that constitute the claimants of a bankruptcy estate.  A single normative theory seems unlikely to explain the results (so much for the “residual fiduciary beneficiary”!).  What does seem clear is that trustees are “more fiduciary” for some constituencies than for others.  Fortunately, U.S. bankruptcy courts are accustomed to shifting allegiances and disalignments of interest. Thus, the bankruptcy system may be well-suited to handle the endemic conflicts of interest between corporate constituencies through various bankruptcy-specific mechanisms, such as the institution of the Creditors Committee and the norm of engaged judicial oversight.

The full article is available here.

Equitable Mootness Doctrine Persists in Bankruptcy Appeals

By Shana A. Elberg, Amy Van Gelder, and Jason M. Liberi (Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP)

In recent years, some courts have become critical of the doctrine of equitable mootness, a judicially created abstention doctrine — unique to the corporate bankruptcy world — that allows appellate courts to dismiss appeals from a bankruptcy court’s confirmation order if the relief sought on appeal threatens to unwind a complex debtor reorganization previously approved by the bankruptcy court. The doctrine promotes finality of confirmation orders, encourages the global consensual resolutions often crucial to complex reorganizations, and protects third parties that have justifiably relied upon the bankruptcy court’s confirmation order or transactions effectuated pursuant to that order.

Despite significant concerns expressed by courts regarding the impact of the doctrine on parties’ fundamental appellate rights, equitable mootness persists in some form within every circuit that has jurisdiction over bankruptcy appeals. Thus, plan proponents and objectors alike must be aware of its implications on contested plan confirmation proceedings and prepared to act quickly to advance their interests following plan confirmation.

This article provides a brief overview of the doctrine of equitable mootness, its application by appellate courts, and key considerations for bankruptcy and non-bankruptcy practitioners faced with contested plan confirmations and subsequent appeals.

The article is available here.