Book Rec: Range (or Yet Another Paean to Learning from Failure)

posted by Jason Kilborn

With summer upon us, I thought others might be searching for good new reading, as I was when I took up a smart friend's longtime recommendation to read Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. So much good stuff in here. Perhaps contrary to the topic of the book, my brain is constantly in "insolvency policy" mode, so I was particularly interested in the many passages about famous people's meandering struggles to find their passion that catapulted them to success.

Among my favorites was a description of Nike co-founder Phil Knight's entrepreneurship philosophy: [155] "his main goal for his nascent shoe company was to fail fast enough that he could apply what he was learning to his next venture. He made one short-term pivot after another, applying the lessons as he went." This is exactly the advice offered to country after country hoping to develop more effective SME-friendly bankruptcy regimes ... as they unfortunately continue to stick to Old English draconian policies of imposing various restrictions and disabilities on post-bankruptcy entrepreneurs. Range offers yet another extended analysis of why this mindset is so persistent and so counterproductive. We need to let people fail, learn from whatever caused that failure (either mistakes or general economic volatility ... or COVID) and get back on their feet quickly to move on to other ventures.

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Bankruptcy Filing Rates Not Rising, May Go Lower

posted by Bob Lawless

UntitledThe latest data from Epiq Systems shows that year-over-year bankruptcy filings dropped again in May after an increase in April. The April and May figures are particularly important because they give us two months of year-over-year comparisons with post-Covid data.

In April, there was an average of 1,860 filings per day which was an increase of 6.4% from the previous April. That uptick made me wonder whether we were beginning to see the long-predicted increase in bankruptcy filings because of the pandemic. That speculation proved premature because the May figure was 1,738 filings per day, which was not only a decrease from April but a year-over-year decline of 13.1%.

Whether the April increase or the May decrease ends up being the one-month blip is something we will learn over the next few months. It is that kind of insight you are looking for when you come to this blog--the future will reveal the future. It is much easier, however, to come up with a story that April was the anomaly than vice versa.

Bankruptcy filings are seasonal, spiking in the early spring. Ronald Mann and Katie Porter persuasively documented the reason for that is tax refunds going to pay the cost of the bankruptcy filing. Usually the effect runs from February to April with a peak in March. This year, the IRS tax filing statistics show that refunds ended up being higher overall than last year but started more slowly. There was also a third round of stimulus payments in March that capped out at lower-income levels and at levels that are more typical for bankruptcy filers. For these reasons, what we saw in April might have just been the usual annual seasonality in the filing rate, just pushed back a bit by later-filing tax filers and the stimulus money.

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Elliott, Apollo, Caesar's Palace and a Bunch of Bankruptcy Law Professors

posted by Mitu Gulati

One of the most dramatic stories in corporate finance and bankruptcy over the past decade has been the Caesar's Palace battle between a bunch of hard nosed distressed debt hedge funds and big bad private equity shops.  A bunch of masters of the universe types fighting it out to the death. (For my part: I'm interested in this because some of the big players from the Argentine pari passu battle are involved and there was a battle over the aggressive use of Exit Consents).

Turns out that this Caesar's story is going to be front and center at an upcoming bankruptcy conference that three good friends, Bob Rasmussen, Mike Simkovic and Samir Parikh are running, where one of the authors of "The Caesar's Palace Coup", the FT's Sujeet Indap, is going to be on a panel with the heavy hitters, Ken Liang, Bruce Bennett and Richard Davis. I always find it fascinating to hear how financial journalists and law professors, both of whom have dug deep into a set of events, tell the same story. 

The formal announcement, courtesy of Samir Parikh, is here:

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Judge Shopping in Bankruptcy

posted by Adam Levitin

Several months ago, I did a long post about how Purdue Pharma's bankruptcy was the poster child for dysfunction in chapter 11.The gist of the argument is that the procedural checks and balances that make chapter 11 bankruptcy a fair and credible system have broken down because of a confluence of three trends:

  1. increasingly aggressive and coercive restructuring techniques;
  2. the lack of appellate review for many key issues; and
  3. the rise of “judge-shopping” facilitated by bankruptcy courts’ local rules.

I've written it up into a full length paper, forthcoming in the Texas Law Review and available here.

While writing the paper I was surprised to learn just how bad and concentrated the judge shopping has become in chapter 11. There are 375 bankruptcy judges nationwide. Yet last year, 39% of large public company bankruptcy filings ended up before a single judge, Judge David R. Jones in Houston. A full 57% of the large public company bankruptcy cases filed in 2020 ended up before either Jones or two other judges, Marvin Isgur in Houston and Robert D. Drain in White Plains. 

I discuss the implications of the supercharged judge shopping in the paper, but let me say here what no no practicing attorney (or US trustee) is able to say, because I don't have to worry about appearing before these judges in the future: these judges should be recusing themselves from hearing any case that bears indicia of being shopped into their courtroom, if only to avoid an appearance of impropriety. 

The $900 Million Back Office Error

posted by Mitu Gulati

I love this story -- a bank erroneously sends money to a bunch of lenders who are angry with the bank and the debtor for other reasons. The bank discovers the computer error and asks for its money back. The angry lenders refuse to give back what was clearly an erroneous deposit. There is litigation. And the court says to the lenders who received the erroneous deposit: You can keep the money.  

I remember telling my students in Contracts about it when the news was first reported, and the matter had not been to court yet. I told them that this was an easy case and that the lenders would have to give the money back.  If memory serves, I told them something along the lines of: "If a bank erroneously deposits money in your account, you don't get to keep it. You have to give back what is not yours. Finders are not automatically keepers." I was wrong, to put it mildly.

Elisabeth de Fontenay has a delightful piece on this that is coming out soon in the Capital Markets Law Journal (here). Among other things, Elisabeth asks the deeper question of why it is that lenders and borrowers these days seem to be asserting what look to be highly opportunistic claims on a much more frequent basis than in the past. It used to be -- or so the veteran lawyers in this business tell me --  that reputation and norms constrained these repeat players from misbehaving. Not these days.

Of course, there is more to the story, like why the judge (Jesse Furman) ruled the way he did. Turns out that there was a wormy precedent directing him and he was not willing to turn the usual judicial cartwheels to produce the "fair" outcome. Or maybe, in terms of weighing bad behavior on the two sides, he found shenanigans on both sides and decided to just follow precedent? Or maybe Judge Furman hates the big banks? I'm kidding (I think very highly of Judge Furman), but he has decided a number of big commercial cases recently that have caused drama (e.g., here (Windstream) and here (Cash America)).

The abstract for Elisabeth's paper is here:

The Citibank case dealt with a $900 million payment sent in error to the lenders of Revlon, Inc., in the midst of a fraught dispute over the loan restructuring. Surprising most market participants, the court ruled that the lenders who refused to return the funds to the administrative agent were entitled to keep the money. The case (currently on appeal) attracted commentary primarily due to the sheer size of the payment error, and the corresponding risks posed by “back-office” functions at financial institutions. But Citibank also highlights the widening gap in leveraged finance between the wishes and expectations of market participants and the actual outcomes they achieve under either (1) common-law default rules or (2) heavily negotiated contracts. In particular, the case raises questions such as (1) whether New York law remains an appropriate default choice for financing transactions; (2) whether the common-law of contracts does or should continue to have relevance for financing transactions among sophisticated parties; and (3) whether parties truly can contract for their desired outcomes when opportunistic behavior is prevalent in the market.

For more, Matt Levine of Bloomberg has a hilarious piece, here. It talks about the back office disaster in India and how this goof actually happened (as an aside, the firm involved on the Indian side is a highly respected one -- this was no fly by night operation).  Matt also talks about the wonderfully named Banque Worms case.  One could not make this stuff up even if one wanted to.

I'm hoping that my favorite business law podcaster, Andrew Jennings (here), will do an episode on this soon.

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