The European Union recently adopted a Restructuring Directive intended to facilitate the reorganization of insolvent and other financially troubled firms. Although the central goal of the Directive parallels that of Chapter 11 of US bankruptcy law—to protect and maximize the value of financially distressed but economically viable enterprises by consensually reorganizing their capital structure—the Directive introduces an innovative but controversial option: that EU Member States can decree that reorganization negotiations should be subject to a relative priority default rule, as opposed to the type of absolute priority default rule used by Chapter 11.

The purpose of the default rule—whether relative or absolute priority—is to provide a mechanism whereby a plan of reorganization may be approved notwithstanding failure of the parties to reach a consensus. Such a ‘cram down’ plan reflects that one or more classes of impaired creditors or shareholders dissents. In that case, the EU’s relative priority default rule would allow confirmation of the cram down plan so long as senior classes are treated more favorably than junior classes. In contrast, Chapter 11’s absolute priority default rule would require senior classes to be paid in full before junior classes receive any distribution under the cram down plan.

EU officials argue that relative priority would provide a fairer and more pragmatic default rule than absolute priority. We disagree. As explained below, we believe that a relative priority default rule would, perversely, make consensual reorganization plans less likely. We also illustrate why a relative priority default rule could produce unfair and economically undesirable outcomes.   

A relative priority default rule would make consensual reorganization plans less likely because, unlike an absolute priority default rule, it would not function as a penalty default. Absolute priority functions as a penalty default because it would require a costly and contentious going-concern valuation of the debtor, in order to determine what share of the equity in the reorganized debtor is necessary to pay the claims of senior classes in full before any remaining value may be paid to junior classes. To avoid that cost and contention, the parties are motivated to negotiate a consensual plan, even if they would have to give up some value. 

Relative priority, in contrast, would not operate effectively as a penalty default rule. A debtor could gain approval of a nonconsensual (ie, cram down) plan without any valuation of the reorganized business. Even if a valuation is required, a simple and relatively inexpensive floor or ceiling valuation should suffice, rather than the precise valuation required under absolute priority. Parties therefore would have little incentive to compromise.

A relative priority default rule would also permit unfair outcomes. Our article shows how such a default rule would permit shareholders to retain much of the value in a reorganized business, while forcing creditors to accept significantly less than full payment. That could make debt investments less attractive in EU Member States that adopt a relative priority default rule. At the same time, relative priority would create incentives, as was the case in the early years of the U.S. bankruptcy laws, for senior and junior classes to collude to ‘squeeze’ intermediate classes. Additionally, by reducing the risk of insolvency for shareholders and management, relative priority could operate as a subsidy for overleveraged businesses and encourage risky behavior.

For all of these reasons, we believe that EU Member States should avoid adopting a relative priority default rule. Our article also responds to potential defenses of that option. We demonstrate that relative priority is unnecessary to deter holdout creditors from obstructing the plan negotiation process. We additionally explain why relative priority is not needed to promote successful reorganizations of small and medium sized businesses. To the extent that traditional Chapter 11-style reorganization has not worked well for small businesses in the US, we suggest that the recent Small Business Reorganization Act provides a better restructuring model by permitting such businesses to reorganize on a ‘best efforts’ basis.

Our full article is available here.

Jonathan M. Seymour is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Law at Duke University.

Steven L. Schwarcz is the Stanley A. Star Professor of Law & Business at Duke University.