The Changing Face of Bankruptcy

A need for speed, a shortage of DIP financing, government bailouts, and a complex web of debt structures are the hallmarks of the most recent crop of Chapter 11 filings.

There was a heightened sense of urgency to the Chrysler bankruptcy petition. When the company signed an agreement in May to sell most of its assets to Italy’s Fiat, the clock began ticking. The American carmaker needed to make a quick exit from bankruptcy.

Fiat said it wouldn’t wait past June 15 to ink the deal. Meanwhile, Chrysler was being pressed by dealers and vendors to restart idle factories, as those groups had about three months before they ran out of inventory and working capital, respectively.What’s more, the Obama Administration said it was willing to provide financing to restructure the company, but only for about the same three-month period.

In a notable effort, Chrysler emerged from bankruptcy 45 days after it filed its Chapter 11 petition using what is known as a Section 363 sale. Now other companies that succumb to Chapter 11 protection may want to follow, and in fact many already have. Since the beginning of the year, General Motors, Midway Games, Nortel, and Tropicana Atlantic City Casino and Resort have all initiated 363 sales.

Unlike traditional bankruptcies, a petitioner that files a 363 transaction — which is named for the bankruptcy code provision under which it falls — does not submit a reorganization plan to the court. Rather, the company arranges to sell assets to a buyer in an expedited process that does not require buy-in from the debtor or its shareholders.

Creditors balk at such deals, as the speedy sale process leaves little but unwanted assets and liabilities to be liquidated in a Chapter 7 proceeding. In contrast, buyers love the idea of quickly purchasing assets at fire-sale prices, free and clear of liens and claims.

In some cases, all parties agree that a 363 sale makes sense. The classic time-sensitive example involves a bankrupt vegetable wholesaler that runs out of money to pay its growers for the broccoli, lettuce, and spinach that sit rotting in boxcars while Chapter 11 proceedings drag on. The faster the company emerges from bankruptcy and pays its creditors, the faster the veggies make it to grocery-store shelves.

Of course, Chrysler and GM were not hampered by rotting broccoli. However, industry experts believe no automaker could survive protracted bankruptcy proceedings, simply because of their interdependency with dealers and major suppliers. It was very possible that none of the three would have survived had production lines remained idle for an extended period of time, and it was virtually impossible for the carmakers to ramp up production with demand tumbling and cash dwindling. For them, the fast 363 sales seemed necessary.

While there is no central repository that tracks 363 sales, there is reason to believe these accelerated transactions are becoming more popular. The number of Chapter 11 filings rose 69%, year-over-year, for the 12-month period ending March 31, 2009, according to the U.S. Bankruptcy Courts. That “sheer number of bankruptcies,” combined with the lack of availability of debtor-in-possession financing, probably means that more 363 sales are being completed, posits Douglas Pugliese, managing director at valuation consultancy Marshal & Stevens. “Companies are going straight into liquidation” because there is not enough DIP financing in the market, Pugliese tells CFO.com.

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