Monday, January 12, 2009

Bankruptcy has macroeconomic consequences

Thank you, Mr. Icahn. But my gratitude has its limits.

The positive first. I've been seeking to make the point for some time now that bankruptcy laws have macroeconomic consequences, and that in particular the depth of this present bust has a lot to do with malfunctions in the corporate re-organization system. (Follow that link to an entry on my other blog where I made this point back in sunny July.)

Nobody has listened to me, and I've been hoping somnebody who can command a broader audience than lil' old Christopher Faille would come along and say the same thing.

Now Mr. Icahn has stepped forward as that somebody. See his op-ed piece in Friday's Wall Street Journal.

That's all for the positive side, though. On the negative side, Icahn's agenda for bankruptcy reform seems to me wrong. The spotlight is good (thanks again) the proposal is bad. Icahn wants to abolish the rule that gives incumbent management (the debtor in possession) an exclusive opportunity to prepare a re-organization plan for the first 18 months after a filing.

He asks: "Why should the same management that got the company in trouble have the right to lock up its assets for an extended period of time?"

The simple answer to that question is that the management of a corporation has to make the decision to file for bankruptcy in the first place. Legislators have decided it is better to give them some incentive to do so than to have them continue to preside over an empty shell of a company until creditors force bankruptcy on them. The 18 month period that riles Icahn is part of a package aimed at inducing voluntary filings while there is still enough fo a company left for the filing to be in the public interest.

Maybe the legislature has made the wrong call there, but it isn't an inherently irrational call.

The problem with bankruptcy law, Mr. Icahn, isn't with the managers. It is with the overly aggressive liquidation trustees who bring "avoidance" actions and their kin at the real or imagined drop of a hat.

As trustees have become more aggressive in pressing such actions, financial entities all along the spectrum have become more sensitive about ending up as defendants therein. Regardless of the eventual outcome, just being a party to such a dispute is a catastrophe. What does one do to stay clear of that? In the absense of a time machine, the only way to avoid "avoidance" lawsuits is to refuise to be the counter-party of any institution that seems weak, or is even rumored to be considering a bankruptcy filing.

The trustees, in other words, have collectively created a hairtrigger mentality. If a hedge fund manager hears a rumor that his prime broker may be in trouble, he may not be able to afford to wait for evidence that the rumor is true. He has an incentive to sever his ties with that prime broker (read: Bear Stearns) on the rumor.

As Judge Posner wrote in the matter of Maxwell v. KPMG, "While the management of a going concern has many other duties besides bringing lawsuits, the trustee of a defunct business has little to do besides filing claims that if resisted he may decide to sue to enforce."

Bankruptcy reform has to focus on the task of reining-in such trustees.

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