Tagged: Bankruptcy


Where Have All of the Storefronts Gone?

Have you noticed the number of empty storefronts around? (For a list of recent store closings, see here.) Business failure unfortunately is part of an economic recession, but it also follows changes in consumer patterns and market demands. Although studies debate the advantages of online versus brick and mortar stores (see herehere and here), consumers are increasingly more comfortable shopping online. Increased security and user-friendly return policies (not to mention all of those free shipping deals) appear to be fostering that trend.

Online or virtual stores also have a very different business model and cost structure (see, e.g., here). A small workforce in one location can service all of a company’s online customers. Compare that model with the brick and mortar model where a company operating in more than one location needs, at a minimum, to own or lease property in each location, pay maintenance and taxes for each facility, retain employees at each facility and comply with the law of each jurisdiction.  (For interesting comparisons, see here, here and here.) Accordingly, brick and mortar stores are relying to some extent on certain intangibles—e.g., consumers wanting to touch and see what they are buying, wanting personal service, etc.—to offset these additional costs.

So is it the economy, the changing market or (as is likely) some combination of factors causing companies like Blockbuster, Borders and Harry and David’s to struggle? (For my prior post related to Borders’ financial challenges, see here.) And if it is the latter, will traditional brick and mortar retail stores make a strong comeback when the economy recovers? I am not so sure. I think we may see more retail bankruptcies end like Circuit City’s case—i.e., Circuit City’s core business continues, as does the use of its name, but only in an online form (and under new ownership; see here). Although I appreciate the efficiencies of this model for both the company and the consumer, I do not think it is necessarily the best trend for us as communities and neighbors. As the commercial says, having a face-to-face conversation with a salesperson about your product questions: “priceless.”


Let the Good Times Roll

The PR departments of the Big 3 automakers are working overtime. With the public opening of the North American International Auto Show just days away, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler released financial results showing a significant increase in sales in 2010 and promising outlooks for 2011. And the flurry of news coverage certainly has a different feel than the doom and gloom of the coverage just two years ago (see, e.g., here).

Why the difference? Is the economic recovery helping the Big 3? Is chapter 11 bankruptcy the reason for the apparent rebirth of General Motors and Chrysler? If so, what explains Ford’s current success (for some interesting perspectives on this, see here and here)?

Many commentators have analyzed the General Motors and Chrysler bankruptcy cases, and they thoughtfully dissect what was novel, not so novel and somewhat troubling about those cases (see, e.g., here, here and here). It is difficult to assess exactly what role chapter 11 played in General Motors’ and Chrysler’s recoveries, other than to state the obvious that both companies used the process to reduce overhead and balance sheet liabilities significantly. That certainly can provide new life to a company; the question then becomes what the company does with the opportunity.

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Are You a Winner?

Two lucky people woke up this morning mega millionaires. After yesterday’s lottery ticket buying frenzy, one winning ticket was sold in Idaho and the other in Washington (see here). The winners will share equally the $355 million jackpot.

Sounds like a dream coming true, right? Unfortunately, for many lottery winners, winning the lottery eventually leads to bankruptcy (see here, here and here). Statistics tend to show that a good portion of lottery winners file chapter 7 or chapter 13 personal bankruptcy cases within five years of receiving their jackpots (see here and here). In one sense, the tale of doom attached to big lottery winnings seems similar to the ploy of telling a bride that rain on her wedding day signals good luck—it makes those of us who didn’t win feel a little better. In another sense, however, it highlights a real problem in our approach to financial education.

Yesterday, the American Bankruptcy Institute reported a significant increase in overall personal bankruptcy filings. Undoubtedly, some of those filings are the direct result of the recession, and some filings stem from similar unforeseen changes in circumstances, such as divorce and serious health problems. But many personal bankruptcies involve honest, unsophisticated individuals who simply do not understand or have the skill set to manage their personal finances. Yes, these individuals should take responsibility for their finances, but they also need training and resources to be successful in that endeavor. Studies suggest that many high school graduates do not understand how credit cards and other basic financial instruments work (see herehere and here), yet most carry credit and debit cards in their wallets.

I appreciate the enormous challenges facing the U.S. education system. As we evaluate these challenges, however, we need to consider financial education as part of the core curriculum. We also need to continue working to provide meaningful financial education to adults (for an interesting study concerning financial education and bankruptcy, see here). Although the 2005 amendments to the U.S. Bankruptcy Code incorporate a consumer education component, that requirement has become little more than the potential debtor sitting in front of a computer screen and answering a few questions in order to be able to file her bankruptcy petition (for other perspectives, see here, here and here; for an excellent study regarding the impact of the 2005 amendments on consumer debtors, see here). I hope that as the economy recovers, so too do our financial education initiatives  (see here and here) so that more individuals have a real chance at sustainable financial health.


Flaming the Victims

Two recent items have me wondering about overinvesting in victim claims: (1) Christine Hurt’s new article on the implications of the Madoff scandal, Evil has a new name, and (2) Janet Tavakoli’s claim (if the link doesn’t work, this is also squibbed in the margin) that financial institutions caused the mortgage mess, the “biggest fraud in history.”  Both tell important—and perhaps accurate—stories about massive frauds that certainly produced victims. But both overlook an obvious point:  Not all victims are created equal.  As Pogo said, “we’ve seen the enemy, and he is us.”

Pogo victim dance

When Madoff first hit, I heard two interesting things from (reasonably) reliable sources which complicate the victim calculus.  First, one person who claimed to know a number of Madoff investors, said that many  believed that Madoff was able to guarantee outsized returns because of his access to inside information.  This, of course, is a kind of securities fraud. So, my friend said, “everyone knew Madoff was committing fraud—they just thought it was a different fraud.” You have to wonder how innocent investors were if, as Hurt reports, they were sworn to secrecy when they gave him their money.

I realize I will likely be flamed by holocaust survivors for insensitivity to their losses.  To the extent they were innocent, of course, I have nothing but sympathy for them.  The point, however, is that, as Madoff’s bankruptcy trustee is learning, there is little moral clarity in some of these claims.

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Mad Glee-actica: The Virtues of Extreme Recycling

I don’t watch much TV.  So, I am hardly the person to make strong claims about its quality or trends.  That said, I find it fascinating that three of the best shows of the past few years—Battlestar Galactica, Madmen, and Glee—share a really odd structural feature:  They have all taken ridiculously bad ideas from cringe-able eras and turned them around completely, made them not only fresh, but evocative, disturbing, intriguing.

Where's the goo?

They are, in short, evidence of the virtues of extreme recycling.

Just imagine the pitch meeting for Galactica:  We’ll take what has to have been one of the dumbest pop-culture packing peanuts ever and make it stronger, faster, better:  How about an allegory about civil liberties and faith after 9/11 using Cylons and vats of goo?

Or what about Madmen:  Let’s explore the most virulent cancers on our culture with lovingly pornographic attention to detail, to demonstrate the complex symbiosis among banality, beauty, evil and exculpation.  Madmen is the money shot of commodity fetishism, proving once again the truth of Chomsky’s admonition that if you want to learn what’s wrong with capitalism, don’t read The Nation, read the Wall Street Journal.

And Glee?  Well, all I can say is:  Don’t Stop Believing.

Which may lead you to this question:  No one really takes the “and everything else” part of CoOps’s desktop mantra seriously, so what the frak does this have to do with law? Read More


Conflicts and Competitive Advantage

This week, Toyota announced a massive recall of some of its most popular models, including Highlander, Corolla, Venza, Matrix and Pontiac Vibe. Specifically, “Toyota has recalled 2.3 million vehicles for sticky accelerator pedals . . . and has shut down sales and production of eight models while it works on a fix.” (See here.) Notably, “[t]he Obama administration said it pressed Toyota to protect consumers who own vehicles under recall and to stop building new cars with the problem.” (See here.) Although I understand and appreciate the administration’s concern for consumer safety, I cannot help also seeing a glaring conflict of interest in the administration’s conduct.

As you might recall, the government owns stock in General Motors and Chrysler—key competitors of Toyota. And consider the following: “GM announced today it will offer interest-free loans and other incentives. In and of itself, this is no big deal, but GM is making the offer exclusively to Toyota owners who may now want to get rid of their vehicles because of the recall involving faulty gas pedals.”  (See here.)

GM’s decision might be good business; companies often seek to capitalize on a competitor’s misfortunes. And I suspect that the administration’s involvement in the Toyota recall was unrelated to GM’s business decision regarding the Toyota incentive plan. But it just does not look good, and it highlights the significant issues with the government intervening in and owning private businesses. (For a more detailed discussion of these issues, see here and here.)

Also, as a follow up on my prior post regarding the General Motors and Chrysler bankruptcies and the government’s decision to grant arbitration rights to dealers who are party to rejected franchise agreements, recent reports suggest that over 1,400 dealers are pursuing their arbitration rights. Chrysler also has agreed to participate in the arbitration program.


Making Money in a Down Economy

For the past few years, many businesses have struggled to meet payroll and keep the doors open. But such challenges are not bad news for everyone. At least one group of investors (a/k/a distressed debt investors) has found a way to capitalize on the financial troubles of businesses. In fact, recent reports (see here and here) suggest significant above-market returns for hedge funds that utilize a distressed debt investment strategy (e.g., Avenue Capital Group, Third Avenue Funds, Third Point Funds).

A distressed debt investor basically buys the debt of a troubled company and then flips the debt for a quick profit or seeks returns through a longer investment horizon. Investors that fall in the latter category may simply wait for the debt to be refinanced or cashed out, or they may seek to utilize the leverage associated with the debt instrument upon a default or potential default by the company. In fact, “activist” distressed debt investors may use their distressed debt holdings to influence management decisions (think of Carl Icahn’s letter to CIT bondholders) or gain control of the company through a debt-for-equity exchange or credit bid at an asset sale (think of Carl Icahn’s recent acquisition of Tropicana Entertainment and bid for Trump Entertainment).

The existence of an activist investor in a company’s debt holdings can swiftly change the dynamics of the company’s restructuring negotiations. These investors typically want to achieve their objective at the lowest cost (thereby maximizing their upside), which often conflicts with the objectives of other stakeholders. Conflict can lead to delay, expense, litigation and even liquidation. Many companies, such as Adelphia, Aleris, Foamex, Fairpoint, Lyondell and Tropicana Entertainment, have experienced this type of conflict firsthand.

That being said, hedge funds and private equity firms that typically invest in distressed debt may be a good (or the only) source of funding for troubled companies. And their investment objective (maximizing their upside) is understandable given their obligations to their own fund investors and, let’s be honest, the typical fund fee structure.  So the question then becomes who is or should be protecting the interests of other stakeholders to mitigate conflict and obtain a fair deal for the company? Is management, particularly in a distressed situation, up to the task? Even if it is, management typically does not learn about the presence of a distressed debt investor in the company’s capital structure until it is too late. Notably, this issue is beyond the scope of the proposed Hedge Fund Transparency Act of 2009 and the Financial Regulatory Reform: A New Foundation proposal submitted by the Group of 30. Moreover, proposed revisions to Bankruptcy Rule 2019 (requiring some disclosure of holdings) may help some companies and other stakeholders in the bankruptcy context, but again the information may come too late and only for bankrupt companies. And whether you focus on disclosure, representation or accountability in considering the creditor control issue, you certainly need to target more players than just hedge funds and private equity firms.