The COVID pandemic put unprecedented pressure on all economies around the world. Many predicted that this economic dislocation would lead to an unprecedented number of corporate bankruptcies. This did not happen. The American government and other governments responded with extraordinary measures. While these measures allowed companies to ride out the worst of the pandemic, they did have consequences. Many large companies were left with unprecedentedly large amounts of debt on their balance sheets.
Perhaps a robust economy will allow companies to grow their way out from under their debt burden. But perhaps not. To prepare for the possible future increase in large companies filing for bankruptcy, Congress should act now to build up a bankruptcy infrastructure sufficient to handle an influx in cases. Specifically, Congress should require that every circuit create a “business bankruptcy panel” designed to administer the Chapter 11 filing of large companies. As is well-known, three bankruptcy districts currently serve as dominant venues for large cases – the District of Delaware, the Southern District of New York and the Southern District of Texas. It is by no means clear that these three courts could handle a significant increase in caseloads. Creating expertise across the country would help prepare the system for any future rise in cases. A secondary benefit of this reform is that it may also ameliorate some of the concerns that have been raised over the years by the dominance of a small number of venues for large corporate cases.
By Jassmine Girgis (University of Calgary, Faculty of Law)
This chapter explores the evolution of corporate rescue in both Canada and the U.S. The timing and specific circumstances surrounding the legislation’s enactment were different in each country, but the underlying concepts and goals within the broader context of bankruptcy legislation were the same. Both countries had experienced the profound effects of business failure on directly impacted stakeholders, as well as on surrounding communities, and they recognized that saving companies would protect investments, preserve jobs, maintain the supplier and customer base, and prevent the wider impact of bankruptcy on society. To that end, both countries devised proceedings to restructure and rehabilitate financially distressed companies, allowing them to re-emerge with new debt or equity structures and continue operating as going concerns. Historically, traditional restructurings – that is, proceedings in which the debtor company engages in lengthy negotiations with its creditors to restructure its debt obligations and business operations, all under the supervision of the court – were used extensively, dissolving unsuccessful companies while allowing others to emerge and continue operating. But these proceedings were slow, expensive, and cumbersome, and as changes in technology, firm assets, the economy and financial instruments modified the ways companies operated, and globalization altered their business methods and interactions with the community, a different process emerged. Rather than rescuing companies, this new process liquidated or merged them with other companies, and though traditional restructurings continued to occur, they have largely given way to sales or liquidations. Importantly, these emerging liquidation proceedings did not occur under bankruptcy or receivership regimes, but under the statutes that governed restructurings. They also occurred without meaningful consideration as to how this shift affects the public interest goals of the legislation. The first part of this chapter discusses what happened: the history of these statutes, the reasons traditional restructurings emerged, and the eventual move to liquidations. The second part explores the three broad reasons liquidation plans replaced restructuring. First, an increase in secured debt left secured creditors in control of the financially distressed debtor corporations, and secured creditors typically prefer liquidation over restructuring. Second, the decline in the manufacturing and industrial era and growth of a service-oriented economy impacted firm assets; assets became less firm-specific and more fungible. Finally, increasingly complex financial instruments altered the composition of creditors; creditors at the table now include hedge funds and other non-traditional lenders, and they may be motivated by factors beyond saving the distressed company or maximizing its asset value. The third part of this chapter addresses the consequences of using rescue legislation to liquidate companies. First, the governing legislation was not meant to be used in this way, and stakeholders in these expedited sales do not have the benefit of the procedural and substantive safeguards that arise in restructuring proceedings. Second, it is arguable that these liquidation proceedings do not fulfil the public policy goals of restructuring legislation. Finally, embedded within public policy is the concept of value-maximization, but what ‘value’ means and how it can be maximized, is not static, and may have different connotations under traditional restructurings than under liquidations. The last part considers the most feasible way forward for each country: where does corporate rescue go from here? This section examines whether the bankruptcy forum should be abandoned in favour of non-bankruptcy legislation or private contracts, or whether the answer lies in improving the current legislative schemes. Although many do not want to see restructuring legislation overhauled, they do recognize that this legislation was enacted under different circumstances, in a different market, when corporations looked vastly different than they do today, and that to remain relevant, it must come to reflect today’s society and corporations. Doing so requires reconceptualizing how liquidation fits into the public policy goals of the statute and reassessing the concept of value to determine what it should encompass.
Coupled with continued efforts in financial deleveraging and industrial reorganization, China delivered a number of changes to its bankruptcy law in 2019 in an effort to further accommodate smooth market exits for non-profitable businesses and to provide greater opportunities for viable businesses that experience temporary liquidity issues to be restructured as going concerns.
Currently, a lack of detailed rules and practical solutions to issues arising out of bankruptcies often deters parties from initiating such proceedings in China. The new rules will provide further clarification on extensively litigated/disputed issues and enhance transparency and consistency in the bankruptcy courts’ handling of cases. The developments encourage more usage of restructuring and compromise proceedings to find market solutions to address insolvency of Chinese companies.
“China’s bankruptcy laws and practices will be more and more market-driven,” said Xu Shengfeng, a Shenzhen-based bankruptcy and restructuring partner of Zhong Lun Law Firm, notwithstanding perceptions among foreign investors that “China’s bankruptcy regime is rather bureaucratic and administrative, with a certain level of involvement by local governments.”
“The goal is to build an institution in which the government’s role can be minimized, until its complete exit,” Xu said. “It cannot be done within a year or two, but this is certainly where things are headed.”
Market players, in particular financial institutions and asset management companies, are becoming more active and playing a greater role in leading restructuring and compromise proceedings. “Right now, many of the restructuring cases need capital injection from outside investors, and it is a great time for asset management companies,” Xu said. The recent U.S.-China Trade Deal promises to open doors for U.S. firms to obtain asset management licenses to acquire Chinese NPLs – see Article 4.5 of the US-China Economic and Trade Agreement.
Key changes to China’s restructuring regime in 2019 included:
establishment of specialized bankruptcy courts in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Wenzhou and Hangzhou;
Supreme People’s Court’s Judicial Interpretation III on the Enterprise Bankruptcy Law (EBL);
joint announcement of the Plan for Accelerating Improvement of the System for Market Entity Exits by 13 major state departments;
further establishment of regional bankruptcy administrator associations, including those in Beijing and Shanghai;
comment solicitation and final issuance of the Minutes of Conference on National Courts’ Civil and Commercial Trial Work, which devoted a section specifically for amendment of bankruptcy rules and restructuring regimes; and
“It was definitely a year of highlights,” said Xu. “The professionalism of bankruptcy trial teams, the establishment of online bankruptcy information disclosure platform, the promotion of pre-packaged restructurings and so on. The Supreme People’s Court is also making headways in the areas of personal bankruptcy and cross-border bankruptcy.”