Research


Major Working Papers

Government Activism in Bankruptcy (with George Triantis), forthcoming 37 Emory Bankruptcy Developments Journal ___ (2021) (invited symposium issue)

It is widely recognized that bankruptcy law can stymie regulatory enforcement and present challenges for governments when regulated businesses file for Chapter 11. It is less-widely understood that bankruptcy law can present governments with opportunities to advance policy goals if they are willing to adopt tactics traditionally associated with activist investors, a strategy we call “government bankruptcy activism.” The bankruptcy filings by Chrysler and General Motors in 2009 are a famous example: the Federal government used activist tactics to help both auto manufacturers resolve their financial distress while promoting the policy objectives of protecting union workers and addressing climate change. A decade later, the government of California used its bargaining power in the Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s Chapter 11 case to protect climate policies and the victims of wildfires. These examples illustrate that, by tapping into the bankruptcy system, governments can gain access to the exceptional powers that a debtor enjoys under bankruptcy law, which can complement the traditional tools of appropriations and regulation to facilitate and accelerate policy outcomes. This strategy is especially useful in times of urgency and policy paralysis, when government bankruptcy activism can provide a pathway past veto players in the political system. However, making policy through the bankruptcy system presents potential downsides as well, as it may also allow governments to evade democratic accountability and obscure the real losses that stakeholders are forced to absorb.  

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Summaries: Twitter thread

Bankruptcy Process for Sale (with Kenneth Ayotte), forthcoming 39 Yale Journal on Regulation ___ (2021).

The lenders that fund Chapter 11 reorganizations exert significant influence over the bankruptcy process through the contract associated with the debtor-in-possession (“DIP”) loan. In this Article, we study a large sample of DIP loan contracts and document a trend: over the past three decades, DIP lenders have steadily increased their contractual control of Chapter 11. In fact, today’s DIP loan agreements routinely go so far as to dictate the very outcome of the restructuring process. When managers sell control over the bankruptcy case to a subset of the creditors in exchange for compensation, we call this transaction a “bankruptcy process sale.” We model two situations where process sales raise bankruptcy policy concerns: (1) when a senior creditor leverages the debtor’s need for financing to lock in a preferred outcome at the outset of the case (“plan protection”); and (2) when a senior creditor steers the case to protect its claim against litigation (“entitlement protection”). We show that both scenarios can lead to bankruptcy outcomes that fail to maximize the value of the firm for creditors as a whole. We study a new dataset that uses the text of 1.5 million court documents to identify creditor conflict over process sales, and our analysis offers evidence consistent with the predictions of the model.

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Media Coverage: Bloomberg Distressed Daily Newsletter Bloomberg Reorg (subscription required) Forbes

Summaries: Twitter Thread Singapore Global Restructuring Initiative Blog Harvard Law School Bankruptcy Roundtable

Major Publications

Bankruptcy Hardball (with Robert J. Stark), 108 California Law Review 745 (June 2020) (named a "Top 10 Corporate and Securities Article of 2020" by the Corporate Practice Commentator)

On the eve of the financial crisis, a series of Delaware court decisions added up to a radical change in law: Creditors would no longer have the kind of common law protections from opportunism that helped protect their bargain for the better part of two centuries. In this Article, we argue that Delaware's shift materially altered the way large firms approach financial distress, which is now characterized by a level of chaos and rent-seeking unchecked by norms that formerly restrained managerial opportunism. We refer to the new status quo as “bankruptcy hardball.” It is now routine for distressed firms to engage in tactics that harm some creditors for the benefit of other stakeholders, often in violation of contractual promises and basic principles of corporate finance. The fundamental problem is that Delaware's change in law was predicated on the faulty assumption that creditors are fully capable of protecting their bargain during periods of distress with contracts and bankruptcy law. We show through a series of case studies how the creditor's bargain is, contrary to that undergirding assumption, often an easy target for opportunistic repudiation and, in turn, dashed expectations once distress sets in. We further argue that the Delaware courts paved the way for scorched earth distressed governance, but also that judges can help fix the problem.

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Summaries: Columbia Law School Blue Sky Blog Harvard Law School Bankruptcy Roundtable Oxford Business Law Blog

Media Coverage: Financial Times

Practitioner Coverage: Loan Syndication & Trading Association

Regulating Bankruptcy Bonuses, 92 Southern California Law Review 653 (2019)

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. Under the new law, debtors could still pay bonuses to executives – but only “incentive” bonuses triggered by accomplishing challenging performance goals that go beyond merely remaining employed. In this Article, I use newly collected data to examine how the reform changed bankruptcy practice. While relatively fewer firms use court-approved bonus plans after the reform, the overall level of executive compensation appears to be similar, perhaps because the new regime left large gaps that make it easy for firms to by-pass the 2005 law and pay managers without the judge’s permission. I argue the new law was undermined by institutional weaknesses in Chapter 11, as bankruptcy judges are poorly situated to analyze bonus plans and creditors have limited incentives to police executive compensation themselves.

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Summaries: Harvard Law School Bankruptcy Roundtable Oxford Business Law Blog ABI Journal

Media Coverage: Wall Street Journal The Deal (subscribers only) New York Times Crain's New York

Related Op-Ed: The Hill

Cited in Court: In re Purdue Pharma (Judge Robert D. Drain, US Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York) (mention is on page 143) (September 30, 2020)

Bankruptcy Claims Trading, 15 Journal of Empirical Legal Studies 772-99 (2018)

A robust secondary market has emerged over the past twenty years in the debt of Chapter 11 firms. Critics worry that the trading associated with this market has undermined bankruptcy governance, by forcing managers to negotiate with shifting groups of activist investors in the Chapter 11 bargaining process. This paper investigates whether this is a common problem and concludes that it is not. Although trading of bond debt is pervasive, the activist groups that tend to participate in negotiations usually enter cases early and rarely change significantly. Trading in general, therefore, does not appear to have the impact on governance that many claims trading critics fear, at least insofar as the average case is concerned.

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Summaries: Harvard Law School Bankruptcy Roundtable Oxford Business Law Blog ABI Journal

Reviewed and Discussed: Cayman Financial Review

What Drives Bankruptcy Forum Shopping? Evidence from Market Data, 47 Journal of Legal Studies 119-149 (2018)

Over the past thirty years, the majority of large firms that filed for bankruptcy did so in the Federal Bankruptcy Courts of the Southern District of New York and Delaware. Some believe these experienced courts attract firms because their expertise make bankruptcy more predictable. Critics dispute this explanation, arguing instead that “predictability” is a cloak for the true, self-interested motivation of the managers, lawyers and senior creditors that influence the debtor’s venue decision. In this paper, I look for evidence supporting the views of the proponents and detractors of bankruptcy forum shopping in a large sample of market data. My results suggest that the market is better at predicting the outcomes of bankruptcy cases in the two destination venues, consistent with the hypothesis that the law there is more predictable. I do not find evidence supporting the view that those courts are biased in favor of managers or senior creditors.

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Summary: Oxford Business Law Blog

Media Coverage: Bloomberg

Do Activist Investors Constrain Managerial Moral Hazard in Chapter 11? Evidence from Junior Activist Investing, 8 Journal of Legal Analysis 493 (2016)

This paper examines the hedge fund investment strategy of buying junior claims of Chapter 11 debtors and playing an activist role in the bankruptcy process. These hedge funds are often accused of rent-seeking by managers. I use a new methodology to conduct the first empirical study of this investment strategy. I find little evidence that junior activists abuse the bankruptcy process to extract hold-up value. Instead, the results suggest that they constrain managerial self-dealing and promote the bankruptcy policy goals of maximizing creditor recoveries and distributing the firm’s value in accordance with the absolute priority rule.

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Summaries: CLS Blue Sky Blog ABI Journal

Slides: 2016 ABI Winter Meeting Prezi Summer 2015 PowerPoint Slides

Shorter Projects and Working Papers

Delaware Corporate Law and the “End of History” in Creditor Protection (with Robert J. Stark), in Fiduciary Obligations in Business (Russell & Laby, Eds., forthcoming 2020)

In this Chapter, we briefly survey the common law’s adventures with creditor protection over the course of American history with a special focus on Delaware, the most important jurisdiction for corporate law. We examine the evolution of the equitable doctrines that judges have used to answer a question that arises time and again: What help, if any, should the common law be to creditors that suffer losses due to the purported carelessness or disloyalty of corporate directors and officers? Judges have struggled to answer that question, first deploying Judge Story’s “trust fund doctrine” and then molding fiduciary duty law to fashion a remedy for creditors. In Delaware, the appetite of corporate law judges to protect creditors reached a high point in the early 2000s as judges flirted with recognizing a “deepening insolvency” tort cause of action. Suddenly, though, a new course was set, and Delaware’s judges effectively abandoned this project in a series of important decisions around the time of the financial crisis. In this “third generation” of jurisprudence, Delaware’s corporate law judges told creditors to look to other areas of law to protect themselves from opportunistic misconduct, such as bankruptcy law, fraudulent transfer law, and their loan contracts. However, as this Chapter illustrates, the same question of whether the common law ought to protect creditors has arisen time and again and today’s “settled” law is unlikely to represent the end of history in creditor protection.

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Estimating the Need for Additional Bankruptcy Judges in Light of the COVID-19 Pandemic (with Ben Iverson and Mark Roe), 11 Harv. Bus. L. Rev. (Online Issue) 1 (2021).

In this Article, we present the first effort to use an empirical approach to bolster the capacity of the bankruptcy system during a national crisis—here, the COVID-19 crisis. We provide two analyses, one using data from May 2020, very early on in the crisis, and another using data from September 2020, closer to the publication of this Article. Our analysis is based on an empirical observation: Historically, an increase in the unemployment rate has been a leading indicator of a rise in bankruptcy filings. If this historical trend continues to hold, the May 2020 unemployment rate of 13.3% would have predicted a substantial increase in bankruptcy filings and the lower September 2020 level would still predict noticeably increased filings. Clearly, governmental assistance, the unique features of the COVID-19 pandemic, the possibility of a quick economic recovery, and judicial triage are likely to reduce the volume of bankruptcies and increase the courts’ capacity to handle those that occur. It is also plausible that the recent unemployment spike will be short-lived—indeed, by September 2020, the rate had declined to 7.9%. Further, medical solutions to the underlying pandemic—such as the recent initial distribution of an effective vaccine—would further reduce the pressure on the bankruptcy system. Yet, even assuming that the worst-case scenarios are averted, our analysis suggests that a substantial investment in the bankruptcy system resources should be considered, even if only on a standby basis.

Our model assumes that Congress would like to have enough bankruptcy judges so that the average judge would not work more than the last bankruptcy peak in 2010, when the bankruptcy system was pressured and judges worked 50 hour weeks on cases on average. Because the bankruptcy system before the pandemic was not stretched as severely as it was prior to the 2010 financial crisis, it has some extra capacity to handle extra cases.

To keep judicial workload at 2010 levels, the bankruptcy system would need at least 50 additional temporary judges based on the number of unemployed in May 2020 who did not see themselves as temporarily unemployed. In the worst-case scenario, in which none of the May 2020 unemployed returned to work quickly, the bankruptcy system would have needed as many as 243 temporary judges—which would have represented a considerable expansion, even if only temporary, of the bankruptcy judiciary. The lower September 2020 unemployment rate points to a need for 20 temporary judges. Because of this model’s sensitivity to unemployment data, it reports a wide range of estimations for additional bankruptcy judgeships.

We discovered a considerable administrative lag of about a year or more for appointing additional bankruptcy judges. Therefore, given that economic crises can unfurl much faster, embedding extra capacity in the bankruptcy judicial system in normal economic times is a prudent precaution to prepare for unexpected stress of additional bankruptcy petitions.

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Media Coverage: Marketplace

The Law and Economics of Investing in Bankruptcy in the United States (2020) (presented as a Report at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Nederlandse Vereniging voor Rechtsvergelijkend en Internationaal Insolventierecht, the Netherlands Association for Comparative and International Insolvency Law [NACIIL] in Amsterdam)

Claims trading has become a significant and controversial feature of American bankruptcy practice over the past thirty years. This Report chronicles the rise of claims trading in the second decade of the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1978 and analyzes the various policy concerns it raises. Most importantly, claims trade has led to, and been accelerated by, the development of an industry of specialized distressed investor who raise billions of dollars of capital to buy and sell the claims of Chapter 11 debtors. Despite attracting periodic concerns from policy-makers, the legal institutions of Chapter 11 appear to have mostly proven capable of handling the concerns raised by claims trading. In sum, the best interpretation of the available empirical evidence is that claims trading and activist investing has, at the very least, not harmed Chapter 11 or distressed corporations and may have actually improved the capacity of the American bankruptcy system to reorganize distressed assets.

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Summaries: Harvard Law School Bankruptcy Roundtable Singapore Global Restructuring Initiative Blog

The Shadowy Contours of Bankruptcy Resistant Investments, 114 Columbia Law Review Sidebar 123 (2015)

Baird and Casey recently argued in favor of contractual innovations that allow lenders to contract around bankruptcy law. These innovations, which they call withdrawal rights, are said to increase the efficiency of financing in many cases, and Baird and Casey urge judges to enforce them. This brief Essay uses a case study of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy where withdrawal rights were enforced by operation of foreign law to challenge Baird and Casey’s assumptions. The case study suggests that managers may lack a full understanding of how their actions ex ante affect bankruptcy outcomes. Substantial changes for managerial behavior and corporate regulation may be needed to allow managers and investors to utilize withdrawal rights when doing so would enhance the efficiency of financing.

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