Dr. Eugenio Vaccari, Lecturer in Law, University of Essex
England is no stranger to strategic or – at times – abusive use of insolvency provisions.
In the early 2000s, a mechanism frequently used by debtors to retain the control of distressed companies at the expense of their creditors was pre-packaged administration. Following some empirical studies and a public consultation, the Coalition Government introduced some changes to the insolvency system to address the concerns from the industry and practitioners. Yet, it seems that Parliament will have to turn again its attention to similar issues in the not-so-distant future.
In fact, the recent case of Virgin Atlantic, which filed for Chapter 15 protection in the USA to shield itself from the claims of its creditors, as well as other trends in the rescue practice, bring back to the fore the ongoing issue of strategic or abusive use of insolvency provisions.
This blog post briefly discusses whether, and the extent to which, we should be worried by these growing trends in the rescue “industry”.
Pre-packaged administrations are a hybrid form of corporate rescue. These procedures combine the benefits of informal workouts with the properties of formal procedures.
In a pre-packaged administration, the sale of the distressed business is negotiated before the debtor files for insolvency. Usually, the buyer is a person connected to the debtor’s existing shareholders, sometimes even the existing shareholders or directors. The sale is effected shortly after the debtor files for insolvency, leaving the creditors with no remedies and abysmally low returns for the money they lent to the debtor.
In a paper published at the beginning of this year, Dr. Vaccari identified the characteristics that make a pre-packaged administration abusive. This happens when the sale is determined by a close group of players, who collusively act solely to sidestep or subvert insolvency rules and extract value from the company. To be abusive, such actions should cause undue financial harm to the creditors and fail the “next best alternative” valuation standard.
Conscious of the risks associated with pre-packaged administrations, the Coalition Government launched a study into these proceedings which resulted in the Graham Review (2014) as well as in minor regulatory changes. Some of the industry-led measures introduced following the Graham Report are currently under review. The recently enacted Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 introduced an extension to end of June 2021 to the power to legislate on sales to connected persons, which was granted by the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015 (‘SBEEA 2015’) but expired in May 2020.
It seems accurate to claim that the risks of abusive use of pre-packaged administrations, especially in sales to connected parties, have been significantly curtailed since the regulatory and industry-led changes introduced in 2015. Nevertheless, shareholders and directors have not embraced overnight a new, more inclusive and stakeholder-oriented approach to the management of corporate crises. As a result, the rescue industry has developed new mechanisms to sidestep and at times subvert insolvency rules, for the purpose of promoting the interests of out-of-money players (such as shareholders and directors) at the expense of the residual claimants in insolvency (i.e. secured and unsecured creditors).
Some recent, high profile cases show the emergence of new trends in corporate rescue practice, designed to sidestep or subvert insolvency rules. These trends are light-touch administrations (LTAs), temporary stays on creditors’ claims – sometimes effected internationally – and reverse mergers.
In LTAs, administrators rely on paragraph 64(1), Schedule B1 of the Insolvency Act 1986 to allow the existing directors of an insolvent company to continue exercising certain board powers during an administration procedure. This practice, however, undermines one of the pillars of the English corporate insolvency framework, i.e. that those responsible for the debtor’s failure are not allowed to run the company in insolvency. The idea behind this choice is that independent insolvency practitioners are better placed than existing directors to protect and promote the interests of creditors as a whole, without necessarily affecting the chances of the debtor to be rescued or sold on a going concern basis.
In LTAs, the existing directors are not free to do whatever they want. Directors usually sign with the administrator a consent protocol, prepared by the Insolvency Lawyers Association and the City of London Law Society. Such a protocol introduces restrictions to the use of directors’ powers in order to safeguard the interests of other creditors and stakeholders. However, in a recent article yet to be published, Dr. Vaccari conducted a doctrinal analysis of the guidance provided by the courts in running LTAs and concluded that the interests of unsecured creditors are unduly affected by these procedures.
The recent events in Debenhams’ restructuring support the early findings in Dr. Vaccari’s article. Debenhams became the first high street business in the UK to enter a LTA process in April 2020, after sales plummeted under the nationwide lockdown. To date, Debenhams’ lenders and owners are “highly supportive” of the LTA process and are funding the administration fees. The process is likely to result in a sale of the profitable assets of the business by the end of September 2020.
So, all good? Not really. In the meanwhile, Debenhams is not paying its landlords and suppliers, with the exception of essential ones. Many workers are paid by the Government (and the taxpayers) through the Job Retention Scheme. Also, this LTA represented the third time the retailer underwent some form of insolvency procedure in less than a year. Earlier attempts included a pre-packaged administration after rejecting financial support from Sports Direct’s owner Mike Ashley and a company voluntary arrangement.
In other words, Debenhams is a “zombie” business, something out of The Walking Dead. It has already been killed several times by the market; it is a failed business, yet it is still operating for the benefit of existing shareholders and directors.
Debenhams is not the only recent case of strategic use of insolvency provisions. After the rejection of a bailout request by the UK Government, Virgin Atlantic worked on a £1.2 bln rescue deal with some of its shareholders and private investors to stave off collapse. It is likely that the negotiations will go ahead – despite the shaky financial situation of the company – thanks to a moratorium or stay on executory actions by the creditors. This moratorium is one of the innovations introduced by the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 and it has been used as part of a restructuring plan procedure under the newly introduced part 26A of the Companies Act 2006.
However, Virgin Atlantic has assets all over the world. In order to protect them from executory actions, the company sought recognition of the English stay under Chapter 15 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Chapter 15 is a part of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code designed to facilitate cooperation between U.S. and foreign courts. It was added to the code in 2005 by the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, and it allows foreign individuals or companies to file for bankruptcy protection in the U.S. in cases where assets in more than one country are involved. When the order is granted, it is usually recognised all over the world, thus protecting the debtor’s assets against creditors’ predatory actions.
Often, Chapter 15 is filed in conjunction with a primary proceeding brought in another country, typically the debtor’s home country. However, no such proceeding has been opened with reference to Virgin Atlantic. The restructuring plan mentioned above is a company, rather than an insolvency procedure, which means that creditors are less protected than in insolvency. The effect of the Chapter 15 filing is, therefore, to give world-wide recognition to a private agreement negotiated by the company’s directors and key creditors with the support of existing shareholders. A vote on the plan from the wide range of creditors who have legitimate claims against the company will not take place until late August, with a confirmation hearing scheduled for the beginning of September. As a result, the outcome of the Virgin Atlantic case is not dissimilar from Debenhams’ one: the claims of out-of-money shareholders and directors are prioritised against the legitimate interests, rights and claims of other, less sophisticated creditors.
Finally, a practice that it is emerging with renewed preponderance is the use of “reverse mergers” or “reverse takeovers”. A reverse merger is a merger in which a private company becomes public by acquiring and merging with another public company. If the public company files for insolvency first, sells all its assets but keeps its legal standing, the private buyer can go public by merging with the public, insolvent company. In this way, the private buyer avoids the complicated and expensive compliance process of becoming a public company by merging with the insolvent, public debtor. Additionally, all licences, permits, quotas, clearances, registration, concessions etc. conferred on the insolvent debtor will continue with the buyer despite the changing of hands of the controlling interest.
This may, in theory, seem a good idea to maximise the value of the insolvent debtor. Ultimately, the debtor’s listing in the stock exchange (and its public nature) is an asset. What’s wrong in selling it?
First and foremost, the fact is that compliance regulations are sidestepped. Unlike a traditional Initial Public Offering (IPO), reverse merger disclosure documents are generally not reviewed by securities commissions; only by the exchange on which the two companies propose to list. Although this reduces the regulatory burden on issuers, it also dispenses with an important element of investor protection.
These regulations are not simply procedures designed to make life difficult to companies that want to go public. These are procedures designed to protect investors and, ultimately, creditors.
Additionally, another reason to opt for a merger rather than a purchase is if the target company has significant net operating losses that the buyer might be able to use to reduce its tax liabilities. Finally, reverse mergers do not necessarily require concurrent or any kind of financing, as they can take place with a share exchange.
In the U.S. the process has been used by several companies, particularly by start-ups in the automotive sector. These include Nikola Motors, Lordstown, Fisker Automotive, Velodyne Lidar and bus-maker Proterra. At the time of writing, Nikola Motors has a stock exchange value exceeding US$2 bln, while Lordstown has a stock market value of US$1.6 bln. If you haven’t heard these names before, you’re not the only one. Both Nikola and Lordstown have yet to produce their first (electric) vehicle!
It is not surprising that all these companies relied on reverse mergers to go public. Reverse mergers involve less regulatory scrutiny, are cheaper in terms of professional and other expenses, faster than a traditional IPO and able to avoid or minimize market and execution risk on their going-public transactions. Which, ultimately, brings us to the question: are reverse mergers of an insolvent public company a trick or a threat for the debtor’s stakeholders?!?
The Government should respond promptly to these new trends emerging from practice. The commitment to promoting a rescue culture and – more generally – the rescue of distressed yet viable businesses cannot come at the expense of “everything else”. Cases like Debenhams, Virgin Atlantic and the U.S. listing of automotive start-ups suggest that the market is unable at the moment to self-regulate.
The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated a trend towards the strategic or abusive use of insolvency provisions. If unchecked, this trend can only result in more insolvencies and higher taxes.
If suppliers are not paid, the above-mentioned insolvencies will create a domino effect in the industry and they will result in further filings. As for taxes, Dr. Vaccari mentioned in a previous blog post that the re-introduction of the Crown preference is expected to increase the returns to the HMRC. However, higher numbers of insolvency procedures and a downturn of the economy are likely to affect the capacity of companies to generate revenue and – as a result – to pay taxes. If companies pay less taxes and the Government is forced to spend more in subsidies to companies and employees, this is likely to result in cuts to public services and higher rates of taxes for people and companies alike.
 E Vaccari, ‘English pre-packaged Corporate Rescue Procedures: Is There a Case for Propping Industry Self-Regulation and Industry-Led Measures such as the Pre-Pack Pool?’ (2020) 31(3) I.C.C.L.R. 170, 184-185.
 Section 8 of the Act.
 E Vaccari, ‘Corporate Insolvency Reforms in England: Rescuing a “Broken Bench”? A Critical Analysis of Light Touch Administrations and New Restructuring Plans’ (2020) I.C.C.L.R. (forthcoming).
 Sections 1-6 of the Act.