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Debt Limits ... and Poison Pills

posted by Jason Kilborn

The Russian Duma last week adopted on first reading a bill that attempts to solve the biggest problem with the new Russian personal insolvency law, but the bill contains a poison pill provision that will all but kill its effectiveness if the bill makes it past the second and third readings and becomes law.  The problem lawmakers are trying to solve is that far fewer than the anticipated (and desired) number of overindebted individuals are seeking relief. While policymakers estimate a stock of nearly 800,000 potential debtor-beneficiaries of the new bankruptcy relief, only a small fraction have applied, mostly due to the prohibitive cost of the procedure. The obvious solution? Make it less expensive by cutting out the needless and counterproductive formalism, especially the court process. Well, while that message is clearly reflected in the new bill and its proposed solution, the poison pill is in a different and easy-to-miss access restriction: The proposed out-of-court procedure (run and financed by self-regulating organizations of insolvency trustees, a clever and unique approach) is available only to debtors with no seizable income or assets and less than 50,000 rubles (US$2000 PPP) in all bank accounts over the past three months ... and with a total debt burden of no more than 500,000 rubles (US$20,000 PPP, or about $10,000 using official exchange rates). The estimate of 800,000 expected debtors, by the way, includes only individuals with more than 500,000 rubles in debt, so this new bill will not make any headway at all toward solving the existing problem. The English bankruptcy system has struggled with a similar problem of overly complex and therefore expensive access, too, and the English have "solved" this problem in a similar way, by making light-admin Debt Relief Orders available only to debtors with debts below £20,000. English analysts have estimated that more than 75% of bankruptcy debtors meet the "no income, no asset" DRO restriction, like that in the new Russian law, but the debt ceiling excludes them from the cheaper and more efficient form of DRO relief. This is pernicious and counterproductive, as Joseph Spooner argues in his terrific new book (see pp. 122-30). What is the purpose of excluding no-income, no-asset debtors from an efficient bankruptcy procedure because they have too much debt? It is extremely disheartening that the otherwise very clever and progressive new Russian NINA procedure contains the seeds of its own undoing. The new clinic will not treat patients with anything more than a common cold.

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