From a functional law and economics perspective, the recent European restructuring directive (the ‘Directive’) brings both welcome innovations and multiple pitfalls. Its final text bears the traces of the divergent objectives and inspirations of its drafters. In a recent paper, I attempt to provide a thorough analysis of the different hidden ‘models’ and important measures of the Directive, as well as its unfortunate oversights.
The first part of the paper lays the theoretical foundations of the subsequent analysis. It has long been argued that insolvency law should pursue two objectives: (i) facilitating debtor’s ex ante access to finance; and (ii) ensuring an efficient ex post distribution of resources in the economy, by restructuring economically viable companies with bad capital structures and swiftly liquidating companies with an unsustainable business. Together, the two should result in wealth maximization, the default (but by no means only) criterion for assessing business law’s merits.
The paper takes a ‘functional’ approach, which is fueled by a deep skepticism towards any extensive cost-benefit analysis. It suggests that the ex ante focus should be on ensuring that a suitable epistemic framework is in place when the decision as to the redistribution of resources has to be taken. This implies incentivizing decision-makers to reliably reveal their preferences and bear the costs of their actions while diminishing coordination failures and potential conflicts of interests. Starting with this intuition, I attempt to reformulate the classical creditors’ bargain theory, underlining that so called ‘preventive’ proceedings are no exception.
In the second part of the paper, I rely on this theoretical framework to provide a critical analysis of the main measures of the Directive. I show that the apparent complexity of its final text (the contemplated proceedings could potentially take more than 70 forms) is owed to its drafters pursuing divergent objectives: economic efficiency or short-term preservation of businesses and jobs at all costs, with an unfortunate bias in favor of the latter (especially concerning SMEs).
Moreover, two coherent formal ‘models’ of proceedings are offered. The first is a unitary, public proceeding, with a potential general moratorium for up to four months. The second is a two-step proceeding—partially inspired by the current French model—that would start with an amicable phase devoid of wide publicity and would be accompanied by individual moratoria granted on a casuistic basis where they seem justified. The second, short and public ‘closing’ phase would be triggered in the specific circumstances where the restructuring plan has to be forced upon dissenting stakeholders. Once a decision has been made as to the objectives and formal model, most of the subsequent transposition options follow.
The Directive implies a devolution of decision-making powers to classes of affected stakeholders, although the court preserves a far too important role. Indeed, stakeholders are in the best position to identify and exploit any restructuring gain. It remains to be seen which criteria will be used to ensure that the interests of members of a class are aligned and no abusive behavior takes place. Where a plan is not approved by all classes of stakeholders, the Directive provides for a cross-class cram-down, where a majority of classes or at least one class of stakeholders who are ‘in the money’ must approve the plan. The latter option could potentially lead to abuses and uncertainties, given the meagre experience of European practitioners with valuations as a going concern. The cram-down can involve a debt-equity swap imposed both on shareholders, who should be treated as any other class of stakeholders and dissenting creditors. This possibility is not trivial, as it forces creditors to continue financing the business, and should be duly justified.
Unfortunately, the contemplated protections of stakeholders’ interests are somewhat underwhelming. For instance, instead of ensuring that all stakeholders share the restructuring gain in accordance with their respective ranks in the capital structure, the Directive provides for a confusing and dangerous ‘relative’ priority rule, which will likely render the negotiations unpredictable, or, alternatively, for an incomplete ‘absolute’ priority rule. Moreover, no protection is provided against debtor’s potentially abusive behavior before the opening of proceedings.
Finally, the paper offers some insights into the expected impact of its transposition into French law. In particular, its last part suggests that any transposition needs to aim at increasing the transparency and predictability of restructuring proceedings in order to foster secondary debt markets, and therefore to ensure that impatient creditors can easily be replaced by those interested in the restructuring gain.
Vasile Rotaru is head of the Restructuring Group at Droit & Croissance / Rules for Growth Institute.