The South Bay Law Firm Law Blog highlights developing trends in bankruptcy law and practice. Our aim is to provide general commentary on this evolving practice specialty.
 





 
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    Archive for April, 2011

    Finding New Ways to Sell Troubled Assets “Free and Clear” of Liens

    Sunday, April 24th, 2011

    One of the most effective vehicles for the rescue and revitalization of troubled business and real estate to emerge in recent years of Chapter 11 practice has been the “363 sale.”

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    Named for the Bankruptcy Code section where it is found, the “363 sale” essentially provides for the sale to a proposed purchaser, free and clear of any liens, claims, and other interests, of distressed assets and land.

    The section has been used widely in bankruptcy courts in several jurisdictions to authorize property sales for “fair market value” . . . even when that value is below the “face value” of the liens encumbering the property.

    In the Ninth Circuit, however, such sales are not permitted – unless (pursuant to Section 363(f)(5)) the lien holder “could be compelled, in a legal or equitable proceeding, to accept a money satisfaction of such interest.”

    A recent decision issued early this year by the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Panel and available here) provides a glimpse of how California bankruptcy court are  employing this statutory exception to approve “363 sales.”

    East Airport Development (EAD) was a residential development project in  San Luis Obispo which, due to the downturn of the housing market, never came completely to fruition.

    Originally financed with a $9.7 million construction and development loan in 2006, EAD’s obligation was refinanced at $10.6 million in mid-2009.  By February 2010, the project found itself in Chapter 11 in order to stave off foreclosure.

    A mere  two weeks after its Chapter 11 filing, EAD’s management requested court authorization to sell 2 of the 26 lots in the project free and clear of the bank’s lien, then to use the excess proceeds of the sale as cash collateral.

    In support of this request, EAD claimed the parties had previously negotiated a pre-petition release price agreement.  EAD argued the release price agreement was a “binding agreement that may be enforced by non-bankruptcy law, which would compel [the bank] to accept a money satisfaction,” and also that the bank had consented to the sale of the lots.  A spreadsheet setting forth the release prices was appended to the motion.  The motion stated EAD’s intention to use the proceeds of sale to pay the bank the release prices and use any surplus funds to pay other costs of the case (including, inter alia, completion of a sewer system).

    The bank objected strenuously to the sale.  It argued there was no such agreement – and EAD’s attachment of spreadsheets and e-mails from bank personnel referencing such release prices ought to be excluded on various evidentiary grounds.

    The bankruptcy court approved the sale and cash collateral use over these objections.  The bank appealed.

    On review, the Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellant Panel found, first, that the bankruptcy court was within the purview of its discretion to find that, in fact, a release price agreement did exist – and second, that such agreement was fully enforceable in California:

    It is true that most release price agreements are the subject of a detailed and formal writing, while this agreement appears rather informal and was evidenced, as far as we can tell, by only a few short writings. However, this relative informality is not fatal. The bankruptcy court is entitled to construe the agreement in the context of and in connection with the loan documents, as well as the facts and circumstances of the case. Courts seeking to construe release price agreements may give consideration to the construction placed upon the agreement by the actions of the parties. . . . Here, the parties acted as though the release price agreement was valid and enforceable and, in fact, had already completed one such transaction before EAD filed for bankruptcy. On these facts, [EAD] had the right to require [the bank] to release its lien on the two lots upon payment of the specified release prices, even though [the bank] would not realize the full amount of its claim. More importantly, [EAD] could enforce this right in a specific performance action on the contract. For these reasons, the sale was proper under § 363(f)(5).

    The Ninth Circuit Bankruptcy Appellate Panel‘s East Airport decision provides an example of how bankruptcy courts in the Ninth Circuit are creatively finding ways around legal hurdles to getting “363 sales” approved in a very difficult California real estate market.  It likewise demonstrates the level of care which lenders’ counsel must exercise in negotiating the work-out of troubled real estate projects.

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    Nobody Does It Better . . . Than Government Regulators

    Tuesday, April 19th, 2011

    Title II of the Dodd-Frank Act provides “the necessary authority to liquidate failing financial companies that pose a systemic risk to the financial stability of the United States in a manner that mitigates such risk and minimizes moral hazard.”

    Under this authority, the government would have had the requisite authority to structure a resolution of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. – which, as readers are aware, was one of the marquis bankruptcy filings of the 2008 – 2009 financial crisis.

    Readers are also aware that Dodd-Frank is an significant piece of legislation, designed to implement extensive reforms to the banking industry.  But would it have done any better job of resolving Lehman’s difficulties than did Lehman’s Chapter 11?

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    Predictably, the FDIC is convinced that a government rescue would have been more beneficial – and in “The Orderly Liquidation of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. under the Dodd-Frank Act” (forthcoming in Vol. 5 of the FDIC Quarterly), FDIC staff explain why this is so.

    The 19-page paper boils down to the following comparison between Chapter 11 and a hypothetical resolution under Dodd-Frank:

    [U]nsecured creditors of LBHI are projected to incur substantial losses. Immediately prior to its bankruptcy filing, LBHI reported equity of approximately $20 billion; short-term and long-term indebtedness of approximately $100 billion, of which approximately $15 billion represented junior and subordinated indebtedness; and other liabilities in the amount of approximately $90 billion, of which approximately $88 billion were amounts due to affiliates. The modified Chapter 11 plan of reorganization filed by the debtors on January 25, 2011, estimates a 21.4 percent recovery for senior unsecured creditors. Subordinated debt holders and shareholders will receive nothing under the plan of reorganization, and other unsecured creditors will recover between 11.2 percent and 16.6 percent, depending on their status.

    By contrast, under Dodd-Frank:

    As mentioned earlier, by September of 2008, LBHI’s book equity was down to $20 billion and it had $15 billion of subordinated debt, $85 billion in other outstanding short- and long-term debt, and $90 billion of other liabilities, most of which represented intracompany funding. The equity and subordinated debt represented a buffer of $35 billion to absorb losses before other creditors took losses. Of the $210 billion in assets, potential acquirers had identified $50 to $70 billion as impaired or of questionable value. If losses on those assets had been $40 billion (which would represent a loss rate in the range of 60 to 80 percent), then the entire $35 billion buffer of equity and subordinated debt would have been eliminated and losses of $5 billion would have remained. The distribution of these losses would depend on the extent of collateralization and other features of the debt instruments.

    If losses had been distributed equally among all of Lehman’s remaining general unsecured creditors, the $5 billion in losses would have resulted in a recovery rate of approximately $0.97 for every claim of $1.00, assuming that no affiliate guarantee claims would be triggered. This is significantly more than what these creditors are expected to receive under the Lehman bankruptcy. This benefit to creditors derives primarily from the ability to plan, arrange due diligence, and conduct a well structured competitive bidding process.

    Convinced?  You decide.

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    Political Will and Fiscal Federalism in Municipal Bankruptcy

    Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

    When a municipality faces municipal distress, who ultimately picks up the tab?  More importantly, who should pick up the tab?

    That’s the issue taken up by Clayton P. Gillette, NYU’s Max E. Greenberg Professor of Contract Law, in a recent paper titled “POLITICAL WILL AND FISCAL FEDERALISM IN MUNICIPAL BANKRUPTCY.”  Though the academic prose doesn’t read quite like the Economist, Professor Gillette’s discussion is a timely and important one for observers of US municipalities and their current financial troubles.

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    In essence, Professor Gillette argues that Chapter 9 of the Bankruptcy Code (municipal bankruptcy) is often perceived as a “dumping ground” for governmental entities who could raise taxes, but simply don’t have the political gumption to do so.  Historically, municipal debtors have attempted to utilize Chapter 9 as a means of shifting the burden of imprudent debt onto creditors.  But Gillette argues that in an age of government bailout and centralized governmental assistance for failing municipalities, Chapter 9 also effectively acts as a “bargaining chip” for municipal debtors dealing with federal and state agencies who would prefer to address municipal financial distress outside of bankruptcy – albeit at a moderate cost to local officials.

    In support of this argument, Gillette explains that the structure of Chapter 9 offers municipalities a shot at having it both ways:  They can run up a tab, then determine whom (other than themselves or their taxpayers – i.e., private creditors or states and federal agencies) they’d prefer to pick it up.

    What’s the answer to this perceived recipe for irresponsibility?  For Professor Gillette, it involves giving bankruptcy courts the power to impose affordable tax increases:

    As a general proposition, fiscal federalism requires each level of government to internalize both the costs and the benefits of its activities.  Centralized governments should, therefore, subsidize decentralized governments only to control negative spillovers of local activity or to induce activities that generate positive spillovers.  Concomitantly, decentralized governments should be discouraged from engaging in activities that impose adverse external effects. In at least some cases of fiscal distress, however, – primarily those involving localities that have substantial state or national importance – municipalities can externalize some costs of idiosyncratic choices or local public goods onto more centralized levels of government or creditors. As a result, municipalities have tendencies both to overgraze on the commons of more centralized budgets and to avoid the exercise of political will to satisfy the debts they incur. The current legal structure for addressing municipal fiscal distress may interfere with, rather than advance the objectives of fiscal federalism insofar as it insulates local decisions from centralized influence and reduces the need for distressed localities to internalize the consequences of fiscal decisions. The result is that while theories of federalism typically focus on the security that decentralization confers against an onerous centralized government, the capacity of sub-national governments to exploit the financial strength of more central governments raises the possibility that the latter requires protection from the former. The claim of this Article is that judicially imposed tax increases may be used as a means of providing such protection by reducing the incentives of municipalities to [strategically] exploit bankruptcy proceedings . . . .

    Whatever readers may think of the constitutionality of his idea, Professor Gillette’s article is an intriguing contribution to evolving thought on municipal distress.

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    Regulatory Bankruptcy: How Bank Regulation Causes [Real Estate] Firesales

    Tuesday, April 5th, 2011

    It is axiomatic in American business bankruptcy practice that though they may disagree strenuously on the particulars, all parties to a Chapter 11 case are interested in the same basic goal: maximization of the debtor’s asset values.

    Or are they?

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    NYU Professor Sarah Woo has recently published an empirically-based analysis of this assumed common goal, and the results of that analysis are striking.  As she describes her own research (presented in an article titled “Regulatory Bankruptcy: How Bank Regulation Causes Firesales“):

    This Article demonstrates empirically that this assumption is inaccurate: the actions of banks in bankruptcy proceedings are not necessarily driven by value maximization. The findings in this Article have groundbreaking implications for bankruptcy policy which focuses on the debtor and overlooks exogenous creditor-specific factors. Where banks, which extend the bulk of the outstanding credit in the United States, are driven by financial regulatory policy to over-liquidation of their own borrowers, these actions lead to fire sales which potentially amplifyliquidity shocks and systemic risk.

    Ms. Woo’s working hypothesis is that changes in the banking sector over the past decade, including increased consolidation and increased leverage, eventually pushed banks to pursue higher portfolio returns.  As a result, many banks over-concentrated their portfolios in commercial real estate – a strategy which worked well during frothier times, but which proved disatrous in the aftermath of 2008’s economic collapse.

    In the aftermath of the banking crisis, over-concentration by banks drew significant regulatory scrutiny – and, ultimately, significant new regulation designed to pressure banks to reduce their concentration risk.  According to Professor Woo:

    As with many episodes of financial instability which can be traced to misguided attempts to use regulatory power, pervasive regulatory pressure with capital adequacy as a centerpiece affected bank behavior in bankruptcy, interfering with investment expectations and diminishing asset values. In the case of IndyMac Bank, the bank shed more than a billion dollars of construction and development loans in the first six months of 2008 under regulatory pressure, partly through liquidations in bankruptcy. The actions of bank regulators thus had unintended but dire consequences of rendering the standard assumption of value maximization in bankruptcy policy obsolete by creating a different set of incentives dependent on the bank creditor’s own health. The phenomenon of regulatory bankruptcy thus demands a comprehensive reevaluation of current bankruptcy policy which has not kept up with these developments in the banking industry.

    Professor Woo’s work is important, not only for the specific question of how and why banks behave the way they do in bankruptcy, but also as an example of how industry dynamics can mold and shape the bankruptcy process – and further, how empirical data can be marshalled for the benefit of informed legislative change and judicial decision-making.

     
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