The Downsides of Bankruptcy

The parent company of Reader’s Digest magazine recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy the second time in less than four years. The U.S. arm of Atari, the video game maker that brought the world the classic game “Pong,” also recently filed for Chapter 11.

Even though it won an Academy Award this year for best visual effects for “Life of Pi,” the visual effects company Rhythm & Hues filed for bankruptcy.

Despite these high profile filings, the American Bankruptcy Institute recently reported that commercial Chapter 11 bankruptcies actually fell a whopping 36 percent from January 2012 to January 2013, from 749 to 479.

Although the decrease in bankruptcy filings may be partly a result of the slowly improving economy, it’s also due to the fact that companies are increasingly looking to alternatives to filing bankruptcy. It’s no longer assumed to be the leading default option for companies in financial distress.

In my work as the Turnaround Authority, I generally discourage my clients from declaring bankruptcy. While bankruptcy does offer several tools that may not otherwise be available, such as the ability to sell assets free and clear of liens and claims, and the ability to accept and reject contracts, I want companies to carefully consider the downsides to bankruptcy before making that move. Here are just a few I want them to consider.

It results in loss of control. While the client may still be running the daily operations, he is no longer in control of the major decisions. The judge approves all major decisions.

It’s expensive. High attorney fees can actually result in businesses being forced to liquidate to pay all the fees. Fees in excess of $1 million dollars are not uncommon. Companies have paid in excess of $1,000 an hour during a bankruptcy reorganization.

In addition to paying for its own lawyers and financial advisors, the company has to pay those of the creditors’ committee and the secured lenders.

The law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges was lead counsel for the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, raking in $389 million in fees and expenses in 3 ½ years. But that wasn’t all of it. The total paid out to all of the firms on Lehman’s tab? More than $1.4 billion.

An interim CEO or Chief Restructuring Officer, like me, may be brought in to handle the process, which adds another layer of costs.

It harms the company’s reputation and may discourage future investments. Just a rumor about the impending filing of Chapter 11 bankruptcy by American Airlines parent company AMR caused the shares of stock to plummet by a third and 67 million frequent flyer members fretted over what would happen to their miles.

Owners and stockholders may lose a great deal of money. The bankruptcy court determines the order in which creditors are paid back, with secured creditors first in line. Stockholders are always at the back of the line and generally need to invest additional funds into the restructured entity in order to maintain equity in the new company.

The actions of the firm’s leadership are closely examined and may lead to criminal charges. After Enron filed for bankruptcy, dozens of its executives were subsequently charged with criminal acts that included insider trading, money laundering and fraud.

I tell this story in my new book, “How Not to Hire a Guy Like Me: Lessons Learned from CEOS’ Mistakes.” I was brought in as an interim CEO for a company that had filed for Chapter 11. On its books was $50 million of inventory at a plant in Ireland. I decided to go take a look. Turns out the plant was actually a vacant lot, but had been claimed as inventory to inflate the value of the company so it could qualify for a larger loan than it would have.

Few companies emerge intact. Less than 10 percent of companies filing for bankruptcy protection emerge as they were when they filed. Generally, assets, divisions, or the entire company are sold to provide the funds to work out a Plan of Reorganization.

Bankruptcy is a viable and helpful alternative for some companies. I’ve worked with many over the years and was successful in bringing them out of bankruptcy.  But it’s difficult and takes time and money. It’s not the best tool for every company and alternatives should be carefully considered.

Liquidity versus Solvency: A Lesson in Lacking Money, a guest post by Vic Taglia

As managing partner of GGG and the Turnaround Authority, I get the pleasure of providing guest posts by our other partners. The following post is by our newest Partner, Vic Taglia.

Lehman: From Illiquidity to Insolvency to Bankruptcy to Liquidation

You’re likely familiar with the Lehman failure of 2008. The business model of Lehman and other investment banks relied on leverage of up to 50 to 1 (a 2% capital ratio) and its creditors’ belief that the collateral pledged for these borrowings would maintain its value.

The investment bank business model relies on the market to provide liquidity to allow the investment bank to carry billions of dollars of securities. When Lehman’s creditors began to doubt the value of the securities already pledged, they demanded more collateral.

This led to a liquidity problem; Lehman couldn’t get the cash it needed to operate. When Lehman ran out of collateral to pledge, it had a solvency problem. Bankruptcy and liquidation followed.

Game over.

Understanding the Path to Illiquidity or Insolvency

An industrial business frequently relies on its bankers and other creditors to provide liquidity to operate through open accounts payable and lines of credit. That’s normal.

So long as the business cycle from purchases of raw material through production, distribution and collection remains on schedule, a business can continue to operate. If the schedule is disrupted however, a liquidity problem emerges. Now the business needs to find cash.

Working capital fixes include lengthening payment terms to vendors, offering prompt payment discounts to customers and finding external financing from a friend, a bank or a partner.

This will work until someone loses faith in the business and decides to stop participating in the extended payment terms, the prompt payment discount or the rolling over of bank debt. At this juncture, a new plan becomes critical.

What asset can the business convert to cash? What can it sell for cash now? Equipment, vehicles and real estate are all illiquid assets, but they all have value today—probably much less today than if you had six months to sell, but if you need cash now, you become a very motivated seller.

The end game starts when you discover that these illiquid assets are really illiquid.

Surviving Illiquidity or Insolvency

You can’t sell them fast enough or for enough money to save your business, for instance. If you collect all your receivables, sell all your equipment, all your real estate, all your inventory and still can’t cover your debts, you are now insolvent.

A liquidity problem can lead you to a reorganization filing in the bankruptcy court. Your business can survive a reorganization, perhaps with different owners, employees, and strategies, but insolvency will lead to liquidation.

Illiquidity can be temporary and fixed with relatively simple steps – but you must act quickly. First, identify what can be sold now, for cash.

Insolvency is more difficult; you need more capital, debt relief (forgiveness, payment holiday, etc.) or other more drastic help, and you don’t have a compelling story to attract this help.

Obviously you want to avoid both of these situations. Remember, though, you can survive illiquidity, but rarely insolvency.

What are your experiences with illiquidity and insolvency? Please ask any questions about these differences or what to do if they arise in the comments section below.