Bankruptcy Law as a Liquidity Provider

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Authors: Kenneth Ayotte & David Skeel

Since the outset of the recent financial crisis, liquidity problems have been cited as the cause behind the bankruptcies and near bankruptcies of numerous firms, ranging from Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers in 2008 to Kodak more recently.  As Kodak’s lead bankruptcy lawyer explained to the court on the first day of the case: “We’re here for liquidity.” In this Article, we offer the first theoretical analysis of bankruptcy’s crucial role in creating liquidity for firms in financial distress.

The dominant normative theory of bankruptcy (the “Creditors Bargain theory”) argues that bankruptcy should be limited to solving coordination problems caused by multiple creditors. Using simple numerical illustrations, we show that two well-known problems that cause illiquidity–debt overhang and adverse selection– are more severe in the presence of multiple, uncoordinated creditors.  Hence, bankruptcy is justified in addressing them.

We discuss the Bankruptcy Code’s existing liquidity-providing rules, such as the ability to issue new senior claims, and the ability to sell assets free and clear of liens and other claims.  In addition to identifying this function in a variety of provisions that have not previously been recognized as related, our theory also explains how the recent trend toward creditor control in Chapter 11 cases can be explained as an attempt to create illiquidity for strategic advantage.  Although bankruptcy’s liquidity providing rules are essential, especially in the current environment, they also carry costs, such as the risk of “continuation bias.”  To address these costs, we propose qualitative principles for striking the balance between debtor liquidity and respect for nonbankruptcy rights.

University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 80, Fall 2013.  A draft is available on SSRN.

Bankruptcy and Economic Recovery

Authors: Thomas Jackson & David Skeel

A striking feature of the recent economic crisis was the long period of subpar economic growth that continued even after the crisis had officially ended.  Although discussion about how to spur economic recovery has focused on the efficacy of Keynesian stimulus spending, this is only one of many factors that might plausibly encourage growth.  For a book entitled “Financial Restructuring to Sustain Recovery,” published by the Brookings Institution, we were asked to discuss the role that bankruptcy policy plays, or might play, in economic recovery.

After summarizing how bankruptcy posits a collective solution to a common pool problem of individual creditors and thereby improves the efficient use of assets, we consider two obstacles to its effectiveness.  The first is that bankruptcy proceedings often seem to begin too late.  The increased influence of debtors’ principal lenders probably counteracts this problem in part, but we suspect not fully.  We consider a wide range of strategies that lawmakers might use to encourage timely filing, some of which are fairly simple, while others are more speculative.

The second major issue is the relationship between bankruptcy and jobs.  The question whether bankruptcy should be used to protect jobs is a recurring theme that came to the fore most recently when the government used bankruptcy to bail out Chrysler, justifying its intervention as preserving jobs.  We caution that distorting the standard bankruptcy rules—focused on efficient use of assets—to save jobs in the short run may have more problematic effects overall.

The full-length article can be found here.

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