What Small Businesses Need Most Is A Little More Time

By Brook Gotberg (University of Missouri Law School; Chair, Small Business Committee of the Bankruptcy & COVID-19 Working Group)

Brook Gotberg

In the wake of the national shutdown of most commercial activity in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many small businesses are struggling with financial disruption, restrictions on reopening, and uncertainty regarding future business prospects.  Small businesses make up the vast majority of private firms in the United States, and provide nearly two-thirds of all new jobs.  These businesses have been the most visible economic casualties of the global pandemic, with many already closing for good, and many others reevaluating their prospects.  Certain industries, particularly dining and entertainment, have been particularly hard-hit, and could face large-scale obliteration.

A group of interdisciplinary scholars, the Small Business Committee of the Bankruptcy & COVID-19 Working Group, has been meeting regularly since March to discuss policy proposals for bankruptcy that would best protect viable small businesses from unnecessary death.  Although bankruptcy serves as a method to discharge debt, it also operates to stop collection efforts, which may be essential even for companies with little to no debt.  We fear that many formerly profitable small businesses will unnecessarily fail in the face of the current constraints on bankruptcy protection – constraints which assume a functioning economy, not the current reality.  Moreover, a mass filing of bankruptcies could overwhelm the bankruptcy system itself, particularly in light of the accelerated time frames currently designated for small businesses under the Bankruptcy Code.

We therefore recommend that the Code be temporarily adjusted to put a six-month freeze on most typical deadlines, affording debtors additional time to propose a plan of reorganization.  Furthermore, we recommend that debtors be allowed an amortized schedule to repay past-due rent.

Our reasoning for this proposal is simple.  While bankruptcy law in normal times can distinguish viable companies from non-viable companies and recommend reorganization or liquidation accordingly, these are not normal times.  Baseline assumptions for the value of businesses depend on revenues, which are now artificially constrained.  Creditors, trustees, and judges cannot make informed decisions on the viability of a given enterprise based on the recent past, and that uncertainty is unlikely to be resolved in the near future.  It is therefore essential to allow bankrupt firms more time to take advantage of the automatic stay while reassessing options for reorganization.

Furthermore, the hit to revenues will likely create debt overhang for otherwise profitable businesses that could prove impossible to overcome in the short run. This is particularly true for rental obligations.  For many small businesses, past-due rent is likely to be the primary obligation, but the law does not permit debtors to repay past-due rent over time, as is permitted for other forms of debt.  Current bankruptcy rules require a debtor to commit to its outstanding rental agreements within 60 days of filing, and then to repay all past-due rental obligations “promptly” (see 11 U.S.C. § 365(b) and (d)(4)(A)).  Our policy recommendation would permit small business debtors to repay rental obligations over the life of the plan – three to five years, under the Small Business Reorganization Act (SBRA).

Similarly, we also recommend that interest accumulated on oversecured collateral after the date of the national emergency proclamation, March 13, 2020, be disallowed in an effort to preserve the respective positions of all creditors.

Recognizing the burden placed on landlords and secured creditors by these recommendations, our proposed changes to deadlines do not interfere with swift cash collateral motions and motions to obtain alternative financing.  We also recommend that, although most motions to lift the stay would not be permitted, creditors should be allowed to lift the stay in circumstances where it can be shown that the debtor is wasting or spoiling the collateral.

A simultaneous permanent closure of small businesses would be catastrophic for the American economy, as hinted at by the surge in unemployment that followed the temporary closures.  Beyond the loss of jobs, closure of businesses would mean fewer services offered within the community, and closed storefronts would likely invite blight, particularly in already vulnerable communities.  This could erase years of hard-won economic and social progress.

The goal of the Bankruptcy & COVID-19 Working Group is to make workable policy recommendations that will have a meaningful impact in mitigating the harm caused by COVID-19 to the American economy.  The group continues to meet, gather data, and review additional policy recommendations.  The goal is to minimize the long-term damage caused by the global pandemic by exploring how bankruptcy policy can do the most good.

The full letter can be found here.

Estimating the Need for Additional Bankruptcy Judges in Light of the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Benjamin Iverson (BYU Marriott School of Business), Jared A. Ellias (University of California, Hastings College of the Law), and Mark Roe (Harvard Law School)

Ben Iverson
Jared A. Ellias
Mark Roe

We recently estimated the bankruptcy system’s ability to absorb an anticipated surge of financial distress among American consumers, businesses, and municipalities as a result of COVID-19.

An increase in the unemployment rate has historically been a leading indicator of the volume of bankruptcy filings that occur months later.  If prior trends repeat this time, the May 2020 unemployment rate of 13.3% will lead to a substantial increase in all types of bankruptcy filings.  Mitigation, governmental assistance, the unique features of the COVID-19 pandemic, and judicial triage should reduce the potential volume of bankruptcies to some extent, or make it less difficult to handle, and it is plausible that the impact of the recent unemployment spike will be smaller than history would otherwise predict. We hope this will be so.  Yet, even assuming that the worst-case scenario could be averted, our analysis suggests substantial, temporary investments in the bankruptcy system may be needed.

Our model assumes that Congress would like to have enough bankruptcy judges such that the average judge would not be pressed to work more than was the case during the last bankruptcy peak in 2010, when the bankruptcy system was pressured and the public caseload figures indicate that judges worked 50 hour weeks on average.

To keep the judiciary’s workload at 2010 levels, we project that, in the worst-case scenario, the bankruptcy system could need as many as 246 temporary judges, a very large number. But even in our most optimistic model, the bankruptcy system will still need 50 additional temporary bankruptcy judgeships, as well as the continuation of all current temporary judgeships.

Our memorandum’s conclusions were endorsed by an interdisciplinary group of academics and forwarded to Congress.

Congress is ignoring the best solution for troubled companies: bankruptcy

By Jared A. Ellias (University of California Hastings College of the Law), George Triantis (Stanford Law School)

Jared A. Ellias
George Triantis

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress has moved quickly to get trillions of dollars of emergency relief to consumers, small businesses, and large firms. These efforts aim to rescue millions of American consumers and businesses from insolvency.

It is troubling, though, that the federal government is ignoring the law that already exists for cushioning the blows associated with financial distress: the bankruptcy system. In its strategy to provide relief and stimulus, the government is in effect offering roadside emergency assistance when the infrastructure and expertise of a hospital is easily accessible.

Because the bankruptcy system entails a detailed restructuring process, it forces companies to think hard about how they’ve been doing things and whether it makes sense to continue doing them that way. Cash infusions from programs like those in the CARES Act, on the other hand, are only designed to keep businesses’ heads above water. That’s all that some companies need, but for others that were already struggling before the crisis hit, such as J.Crew and Neiman Marcus, bankruptcy can encourage them to focus on their long-term health.

Our existing bankruptcy system isn’t only crucial for helping companies move past their immediate crisis of zero revenue and illiquidity, it will also be essential in helping entire industries adapt to a prolonged period of uncertainty created by the coronavirus pandemic.

For the full opinion piece, click here.

For other Roundtable posts relating to the Covid-19 crisis, see Andrew N. Goldman, George W. Shuster Jr., Benjamin W. Loveland, Lauren R. Lifland, “COVID-19: Rethinking Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Valuation Issues in the Crisis.”

COVID-19 and the Bankruptcy Court Workload

By Taylor Custer (Harvard Law School)

Taylor Custer

The United States’ response to COVID-19 has led to record levels of unemployment and a severe contraction in real GDP. The economic shock has already pushed companies such as J.C. Penney and J.Crew into bankruptcy. And many more, such as AMC and Hertz, may quickly follow. If that happens, the nation’s bankruptcy courts could soon face unprecedented levels of stress. There are at least four ways to address a potential surge.

First, Congress could authorize more permanent bankruptcy judges. It has currently authorized the federal courts of appeals to appoint 316 permanent bankruptcy judges throughout the country. But three years ago, when the economy was much stronger, the Judicial Conference argued that more judges were still needed.

Second, Congress could authorize more temporary bankruptcy judges. It has currently authorized about three dozen of them. Temporary bankruptcy judgeships expire when the occupant dies, retires, resigns, or is removed from office 5 years after the seat was created or extended. The most recent extension was in 2017, so the current temporary bankruptcy judgeships will remain vacant once occupants begin to depart after 2022 if the seats are not extended.

Third, the judicial council of each federal court of appeals could recall retired bankruptcy judges to serve.

Fourth, the judicial councils for the federal courts of appeals could agree to temporarily transfer bankruptcy judges around the country. Although this would do little to alleviate stress from an absolute rise in bankruptcies, it could help manage bottlenecks in places with disproportionate bankruptcy filings—such as Delaware, New York, and Texas. Under 28 U.S.C. § 152(d), “[w]ith the approval of the Judicial Conference and of each of the judicial councils involved, a bankruptcy judge may be designated to serve in any district adjacent to or near the district for which such bankruptcy judge was appointed.” And, under 28 U.S.C. § 155(a), “[a] bankruptcy judge may be transferred to serve temporarily as a bankruptcy judge in any judicial district other than the judicial district for which such bankruptcy judge was appointed upon the approval of the judicial council of each of the circuits involved.”

Bankruptcy and COVID-19 Working Group

An interdisciplinary group of bankruptcy scholars from the “Large Corporations Committee of the Bankruptcy & COVID-19 Working Group” recently sent an open letter to the United States Senate/House of Representatives on the potential impact of a sharp rise in bankruptcies on the bankruptcy court system. In the letter, the bankruptcy scholars pointed to the deteriorating market for corporate debt and the rising unemployment rate as likely to induce increased bankruptcies in the next months. If the economy does not prepare, the level of demand on the bankruptcy court system could become overwhelming. Accordingly, the scholars urge Congress to start planning and create additional resources to support the existing court system, such as adding temporary bankruptcy judges, recalling of retired judges, and moving judges from less-busy districts to busier districts.

The full letter can be found here.

Amending insolvency legislation in response to the COVID-19 crisis

By Gert-Jan Boon, Leiden University (The Netherlands)

Gert-Jan Boon

The COVID-19 (corona) virus has reached pandemic status. It currently spreads over the world and is expected to infect a majority of all people within the next month(s), according to health experts. The medical urgency justifies the current extraordinary measures taken by many governments globally, measures that, at the same time, also have devastating effects on businesses and entrepreneurs as sectors slow down or are effectively closed down.

Weathering the storm: a European perspective

In Europe and beyond, strong appeals have been made to prevent bankruptcies caused by the COVID-19 crisis. The exogenous economic shock hits both financially reasonably healthy companies, which depend on a smooth inflow of liquidity, and companies with fundamentally solid business models. Many companies with a viable business model at start of 2020 would now be forced to file and possibly suffer a piecemeal liquidation in the resulting insolvency proceedings. Under the current, distressed market conditions there is a significant risk of sales at an under value.

Not surprisingly, many governments and institutions have announced economic measures to prevent an outbreak of businesses entering into liquidation proceedings. This includes the US Government with the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Similarly, measures to strengthen economies have been taken by many European countries and institutions such as the World Bank, IMF and ECB.

At a European Union level, the European Commission published several communications dealing with the economic consequences of the COVID-19 crisis. In the first Communication on a coordinated economic approach the Commission announced several liquidity measures and described which complementing measures EU Member States may take that fall outside the scope of EU state aid rules. In the second Communication, the Commission announced a Temporary Framework for State Aid setting out and broadening the scope of state aid measures that fall within current EU state aid rules. Also, the Commission expressed its commitment for ‘using every available euro in every way possible to protect lives and livelihoods’. Furthermore, a bank package has been adopted to facilitate bank lending to businesses.

Prevent unnecessary bankruptcies

The extraordinary economic situation raised by the COVID-19 outbreak requires legislators to undertake extraordinary measures. This extends also to insolvency legislation in order to prevent unnecessary bankruptcies. Insolvency legislation which is effective under normal market conditions may prove insufficient or ineffective in the current situation. Measures in these times should be effective without too many formalities, especially when courts and public authorities may not be fully available due to lockdown measures.

The Executive of the Conference on European Restructuring and Insolvency Law (CERIL) — an independent non-profit organisation of European lawyers and other restructuring and insolvency practitioners, law professors and (insolvency) judges — also considers that existing insolvency legislation in Europe may not provide adequate responses to the situation in which many businesses currently find themselves. In a statement published in March 2020, the Executive calls upon EU and European national legislators to take immediate action to adapt insolvency legislation to prevent unnecessary corona bankruptcies. Although prepared for the European context, these recommendations may also be an inspiration for legislators in other parts of the world.

Adapting insolvency legislation

CERIL suggests that two steps should be taken immediately by European national legislators. First, the duty to file for insolvency proceedings based on over-indebtedness should be suspended. Such duties exist in several EU Member States, for instance Austria, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Poland and Spain. The current economic uncertainty hampers the effectiveness of this duty which is aimed at selecting non-viable businesses. In recent days, some countries have suspended (Germany) or extended (Austria) this duty. Second, in response to a (partial) shutdown of businesses for a number of weeks or months, urgent measures are required addressing the illiquidity of businesses.

In addition, the CERIL statement recommends that EU and national legislators consider further measures. In urgently adapting insolvency legislation, they should include measures to make available interim (crisis) finance, suspend the duty to file based on inability to pay, provide for ‘hibernation’ (going into winter sleep) of (small) businesses by means of a general moratorium or deferral of payments, and provide support for the livelihood of entrepreneurs and their employees.

The CERIL Executive Statement on COVID-19 and insolvency legislation is available here.

This is an amended version of the blog that appeared before on the Oxford Business Law Blog.

* Gert-Jan Boon is Researcher and Lecturer in insolvency law at Leiden University.

Planning for an American Bankruptcy Epidemic

By Ben Iverson (Brigham Young University), Mark Roe (Harvard Law School)

Ben Iverson
Mark Roe

The COVID-19 pandemic looks likely to cause a surge in bankruptcies in the United States—conceivably a surge as rapid and as substantial as the U.S. court system has ever experienced. A significant and rapid increase in judicial capacity to manage the flood of cases is more than appropriate, we argued in a recent op-ed.

Bankruptcy filings in the United States have historically peaked several months after a surge in unemployment. And American unemployment is now rising at an unprecedented rate, with more than 30 million claims filed in the last six weeks. If historical patterns hold, the bankruptcy surge would be on track to be the largest the American bankruptcy system has experienced.

Bankruptcy works well enough and quickly enough in normal times, particularly for restructuring large public firms. But it cannot work as well, and the economy will suffer, if the bankruptcy system is overloaded. Delays in critical vendor orders, DIP loan approvals, pre-packaged bankruptcy confirmations and the like could all slow commerce unnecessarily.

The full op-ed is available HERE.

Don’t Just Do Something—Stand There! A Modest Proposal for a Model Standstill/Tolling Agreement

By Jonathan C. Lipson (Temple University Beasley School of Law), Norman M. Powell (Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, LLP)

Jonathan C. Lipson
Norman M. Powell

As we write, the COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound, and profoundly unpredictable, effect on the economy. We profess no knowledge as to what lies ahead, or the timetable on which it will unfold. Indeed, this unknowing is precisely what led us to produce a model standstill and tolling agreement which you can access here in an annotated version and here in a version without annotations.

The current uncertainty will lead businesses to conserve cash if they have it or to miss scheduled rent or other payments if they don’t, resulting in what could be massive cascades of defaults. Some, perhaps many, will be tempted to take legal action, whether in the form of collection suits, bankruptcy or a combination.

We believe that negotiated resolutions are in most cases preferable to those that are litigated. At the same time, we believe it is particularly unlikely that parties will divine, let alone agree upon, optimal resolutions until they can look to the future with greater certainty.

We’ve prepared a model standstill and tolling agreement that is intended to be a template for businesses facing problems of performance under contracts, including payment or collection, which may soon be overwhelming to the parties, and to the legal system. It provides a balanced way for businesses to place a legal “freeze” on their commercial relationship while the economy stabilizes. This model agreement is, needless to say, neither intended as nor a substitute for legal advice. All users are encouraged to retain counsel when possible.

The full article is available here.

Bankruptcy’s Role in the COVID-19 Crisis

By Edward R. Morrison and Andrea C. Saavedra (Columbia Law School)

Edward R. Morrison
Andrea C. Saavedra

Current COVID-19 policies treat bankruptcy law as a last resort for stressed businesses and consumers. We think that’s a sensible approach for small businesses and consumers, but not for large corporations. What many small businesses and consumers need now is quick access to liquidity and other forms of forbearance or debt forgiveness, not the debt-discharge of bankruptcy. Even for those who need a debt-discharge, it makes sense to offer them liquidity now and thereby ease the burden on our bankruptcy system, which could be overwhelmed by a flood of filings. In our view, it’s better to stabilize households and small businesses immediately and worry about restructuring their balance sheets after the crisis ends.

For large corporations, however, bankruptcy should be a front-line policy tool. Many were financially fragile before the current crisis, due to high leverage or operational problems. For them, government-backed financing should be provided during a bankruptcy process that cures these problems and forces investors, not taxpayers, to bear the costs of cure. Government action should save businesses (and jobs), not investors. This is a crisis-tested policy response, as we saw in the 2008 Financial Crisis: Both Chrysler and General Motors received government-backed financing during their bankruptcy cases. To be sure, an increase in filings by large corporations would burden our bankruptcy courts but our courts, and the professional bar and consultant industry that supports them, are well prepared to assist these corporations (and fairly represent and protect all parties’ interests), as they have done in past crises.

The full article is available here, and a more detailed summary can be accessed here.