By Andreas Kostøl (Arizona State University – W.P. Carey School of Business; Norges Bank), Morten Grindaker (Norwegian Business School; Norges Bank), and Kasper Roszbach (Norges Bank; University of Groningen)
Policymakers have long been concerned about the potential negative effects of bankruptcy for CEOs and business dynamics. Fear of reputational scarring caused by bankruptcy could lead managers to take less risk than desired by owners, which could manifest in lower performance and lower rates of entrepreneurship and job growth.
CEOs influence a wide range of decisions, such as organizational practices, debt financing and whether to file for corporate bankruptcy or not. Empirical studies of Chapter 11 bankruptcy show that CEOs of large bankrupt firms suffer significant financial losses. The prospect of individually-borne income loss due to a corporate bankruptcy carries in it a risk that CEOs take decisions that are not aligned with the interest of the owners.
It remains an open empirical question, however, whether the observed personal costs should be attributed to the selection of CEOs with lower managerial skills, firm-specific human capital, or stigma in the executive labor market.
Our analysis attempts to answer this question by disentangling the stigma and skill effects by examining the causal effects of corporate bankruptcy on the personal income and career of CEOs in small and medium-sized companies in Norway. To this end, we exploit that bankruptcy petitions in Norway are randomly assigned to judges who have different degrees of strictness in their approval of bankruptcy filings. This institutional feature generates variation in firms’ likelihood of being declared bankrupt that is unrelated to firm or CEO characteristics. We use administrative panel data that identifies CEO’s sources of wealth and income and corporate positions to examine the effects of bankruptcy on their careers.
Two broad conclusions emerge from our empirical analysis.
First, we find that corporate bankruptcy has a long-lasting impact on CEOs’ careers. CEOs whose firms are declared bankrupt are 25 percentage points more likely to exit the executive workforce. Displaced CEOs find new employment quickly but do so by moving to lower-ranked positions in new firms. Bankruptcy also has an economically significant impact on CEO remuneration; we document an annual fall in capital income equal to about five percent of annual gross income. While the net present value of the average decline in capital income over the remainder of a CEO’s working-age career is equal to 60 percent of pre-bankruptcy annual income, we find no enduring effect on CEOs’ labor income after five years.
Second, our analysis shows that the displacement effects are much larger when default rates in the firms’ industry are low. For example, a CEOs is five times less likely to remain in the executive workforce if her/his firm experiences a bankruptcy while the bankruptcy frequency in the same industry is low. By contrast, variation in CEO wages is not driven by industry conditions. Post-bankruptcy, we find a greater mobility of CEOs between industries and an increased tendency to move to more productive firms with a higher-paid workforce, suggesting that managerial skills are portable.
Taken together, our findings suggest that negative career effects of bankruptcy can be attributed to stigma. When we eliminate the risk of low-skilled CEOs sorting into bankrupt firms, we find that the executive labor market interprets bankruptcy as a signal of lower managerial talent. This stigma effect is greater during better economic times. More details can be found in the full paper that is available here.
Since March, executives of 18 large companies received over $135 million total in bonuses prior to their companies filing under Chapter 11, while “[t]hose same companies laid off tens of thousands of workers,” according to a Washington Post report. These recent examples are illustrative of gaps left by the last major reform targeting bankruptcy bonuses. Further reforms have been introduced in Congress every few years since 2005. Referencing inequality and perceived abuses in the context of COVID-19, the House Judiciary Committee advanced the current House bill to the full chamber on September 29, 2020, marking the proposed legislation’s furthest progress thus far.
H.R. 7370, the Protecting Employees and Retirees in Business Bankruptcies Act of 2020 (PERBB) would present significant changes to the Bankruptcy Code aimed at protecting workers. The bill would expand from existing regulation of insider retention bonuses to include a broader set of payments to insiders, senior executive officers, the 20 highest compensated employees who are not insiders or senior executives, department and division managers, and any consultants providing services to the debtor.
Through expanding the scope of executive compensation subject to restrictions, PERBB may more effectively reduce management bonuses paid in bankruptcy. However, the House version of PERBB fails to address bonus payments prior to filing for bankruptcy, a key issue identified at the outset of the post. The related Senate bill has an additional provision which would designate any transfer made to management “made in anticipation of bankruptcy” as a §547 preference avoidable by the trustee.
The full post, including a summary of proposed changes to the Code, is available here.
The full text of the House bill can be accessed here. A redline of relevant 11 U.S.C. provisions reflecting amendments proposed in H.R. 7370 is available here. The full text of Senate bill can be accessed here.
By Jared Ellias (University of California, Hastings)
In 2005, the perception that wealthy executives were being rewarded for failure led Congress to ban Chapter 11 firms from paying retention bonuses to senior managers. After the amendment became effective, Chapter 11 debtors could only pay executive bonuses through court-approved “Key Employee Incentive Plans,” which required managers to earn their pay by accomplishing specific performance goals, such as increasing revenue or moving the firm through the bankruptcy process.
In my article, I use newly collected data on the compensation practices of Chapter 11 debtors between 2002 and 2012 to examine how the reform changed bankruptcy practice. I find that relatively fewer firms used court-approved bonus plans after the reform, but the overall level of executive compensation appears to be similar. I hypothesize that three problems undermined the efficacy of the reform. First, the 2005 law asks bankruptcy judges to police the line between “incentive” bonuses and “retention” bonuses, which is extremely hard to do – judges are poorly equipped to assess the “challenging-ness” of a proposed performance goal. Second, creditors have limited incentives to police executive compensation themselves and help bankruptcy judges perform their inquiry, and the Department of Justice’s US Trustee program, while vigilant, lacks expertise in executive compensation. Third, gaps in the new regime make it easy for firms to bypass the 2005 law and pay managers without the judges’ permission. I support each of these hypotheses with empirical evidence. Further, there is also evidence that the reform significantly increased the litigation surrounding bonuses plans and, unsurprisingly, the attorneys’ fees associated with them. In many ways this paper examines what happens when Congress tries to change the balance of bargaining power between managers and creditors, and the result appears to be that firms found ways to get around a poorly written rule.
By Andrea Pawliczek, Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado – Boulder
The structure of executive compensation will influence an executive’s behavior. For debt holders, this influence becomes especially important when a firm nears bankruptcy because this is when the debt holders’ value is at risk.
Consider the actions of an executive of a financially distressed firm depending on his compensation. As bankruptcy becomes likely, an executive with only equity compensation (i.e. stock and options) is likely to gamble for solvency as his wealth is entirely dependent on the firm’s stock price. For example, RadioShack, whose CEO had no debt-like compensation, undertook such a strategy, purchasing a 2014 Super Bowl ad for $4 million when the company was already in significant financial distress. Although the ad was popular and resulted in a 12% jump in the firm’s stock price the next morning, it did not help the fortunes of the company, which declared bankruptcy just over a year later on February 15, 2015. Alternatively, an executive with debt-like compensation (e.g., pensions and deferred compensation) does not lose everything in the case of bankruptcy. This executive would have incentives to preserve firm value (i.e. assets that have value in liquidation or more value to the reorganized firm) to generate higher recoveries for himself and other debt holders in the event of bankruptcy.
While this prediction is established theoretically, there is no prior empirical evidence supporting this idea. Using a sample of 104 Chapter 11 bankruptcies of large public firms, I find that debt-like compensation – specifically Supplemental Executive Retirement Plans (SERPs) – is associated with higher recoveries to unsecured debt in bankruptcy. (SERPs are in almost all cases a form of unsecured debt that is at risk in bankruptcy. The only exception is if SERP assets are held in a secular trusts. Secular trusts are rarely used in compensation of executives at large public firms, however, because they result in the loss of tax deferral.) Recoveries to unsecured debt are 22% higher for a firm whose CEO holds sample mean levels of debt-like compensation compared to a firm whose CEO holds no debt-like compensation. I also document that debt-like compensation is associated with efforts to preserve more liquid assets prior to bankruptcy (e.g., cuts to research and development expenses).