So Just What Is Corporate Bankruptcy?
December 21, 2009 at 4:00 AM (PT)
What happens when a public company files for protection under the federal bankruptcy laws? Who protects the interests of investors? Do the old securities have any value when, and if, the company is reorganized? The SEC published this information answers these and other frequently asked questions about the lengthy and sometimes uncertain bankruptcy process.
What Happens to the Company? How Are Assets Divided in Bankruptcy?
1. Secured Creditors -- often a bank, is paid first.
2. Unsecured Creditors -- such as banks, suppliers, and bondholders, have the next claim.
3. Stockholders -- owners of the company, have the last claim on assets and may not receive anything if the Secured and Unsecured Creditors' claims are not fully repaid.
Federal bankruptcy laws govern how companies go out of business or recover from rippling debt. A bankrupt company, the "debtor," might use Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code to "reorganize" its business and try to become profitable again. Management continues to run the day-to-day business operations but all significant business decisions must be approved by a bankruptcy court.
Under Chapter 7, the company stops all operations and goes completely out of business. A trustee is appointed to "liquidate" (sell) the company's assets and the money is used to pay off the debt, which may include debts to creditors and investors.
The investors who take the least risk are paid first. For example, secured creditors take less risk because the credit that they extend is usually backed by collateral, such as a mortgage or other assets of the company. They know they will get paid first if the company declares bankruptcy. Bondholders have a greater potential for recovering their losses than stockholders, because bonds represent the debt of the company and the company has agreed to pay bondholders interest and to return their principal.
Stockholders own the company, and take greater risk. They could make more money if the company does well, but they could lose money if the company does poorly. The owners are last in line to be repaid if the company fails. Bankruptcy laws determine the order of payment.
What Will Happen to My Stock or Bond?
A company's securities may continue to trade even after the company has filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11. In most instances, companies that file under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code are generally unable to meet the listing standards to continue to trade on NASDAQ or the NEW YORK STOCK EXCHANGE. However, even when a company is delisted from one of these major stock exchanges, their shares may continue to trade on either the OTCBB or the Pink Sheets. There is no federal law that prohibits trading of securities of companies in bankruptcy.
Note: Investors should be cautious when buying common stock of companies in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It is extremely risky and is likely to lead to financial loss. Although a company may emerge from bankruptcy as a viable entity, generally, the creditors and the bondholders become the new owners of the shares. In most instances, the company's plan of reorganization will cancel the existing equity shares. This happens in bankruptcy cases because secured and unsecured creditors are paid from the company's assets before common stockholders. And in situations where shareholders do participate in the plan, their shares are usually subject to substantial dilution.
If the company does come out of bankruptcy, there may be two different types of common stock, with different ticker symbols, trading for the same company. One is the old common stock (the stock that was on the market when the company went into bankruptcy), and the second is the new common stock that the company issued as part of its reorganization plan. If the old common stock is traded on the OTCBB or on the Pink Sheets, it will have a five-letter ticker symbol that ends in "Q," indicating that the stock was involved with bankruptcy proceedings. The ticker symbol for the new common stock will not end in "Q". Sometimes the new stock may not have been issued by the company, although it has been authorized. In that situation, the stock is said to be trading "when issued," which is shorthand for "when, as, and if issued." The ticker symbol of stock that is trading "when issued" will end with a "V". Once the company actually issues the newly authorized stock, the "V" will no longer appear at the end of the ticker symbol. Besure you know which shares you are purchasing, because the old shares that were issued before the company filed for bankruptcy may be worthless if the company has emerged from bankruptcy and has issued new common stock.
During bankruptcy, bondholders will stop receiving interest and principal payments, and stockholders will stop receiving dividends. If you are a bondholder, you may receive new stock in exchange for your bonds, new bonds, or a combination of stock and bonds. If you are a stockholder, the trustee may ask you to send back your old stock in exchange for new shares in the reorganized company. The new shares may be fewer in number and may be worth less than your old shares. The reorganization plan will spell out your rights as an investor, and what you can expect to receive, if anything, from
The bankruptcy court may determine that stockholders don't get anything because the debtor is insolvent. (A debtor's solvency is determined by the difference between the value of its assets and its liabilities.) If the company's liabilities are greater than its assets, your stock may be worthless. Contact your local Internal Revenue Service (IRS) office or call 1-800-829-1040 for information about how to report worthless securities as a loss on your income tax return. If you don't know whether your stock has value, and you can't find a stock or bond price in the newspaper, ask your
broker or the company for information.
Why Would a Company Choose Chapter 11?
"Prepackaged Bankruptcy Plans" -- Sometimes companies prepare a reorganization plan that is negotiated and voted on by creditors and stockholders before they actually file for bankruptcy. This shortens and simplifies the process, saving the company money. For example, Resorts International and TWA used this method.
If prepackaged plans involve an offer to sell a security, they may have to be registered with the SEC. You will get a prospectus and a ballot, and it's important to vote if you want to have any impact on the process. Under the Bankruptcy Code, two-thirds of the stockholders who vote must accept the plan before it can be implemented, and dissenters will have to go along with the majority.
Most publicly-held companies will file under Chapter 11 rather than Chapter 7 because they can still run their business and control the bankruptcy process. Chapter 11 provides a process for rehabilitating the company's faltering business. Sometimes the company successfully works out a plan to return to profitability; sometimes, in the end, it liquidates. Under a Chapter 11 reorganization, a company usually keeps doing business and its stock and bonds may continue to trade in our securities markets. Since they still trade, the company must continue to file SEC reports with information about significant developments. For example, when a company declares bankruptcy, or has other significant corporate changes, they must report it within 15 days on the SEC's Form 8-K.
How Does Chapter 11 Work?
The U.S. Trustee, the bankruptcy arm of the Justice Department, will appoint one or more committees to represent the interests of creditors and stockholders in working with the company to develop a plan of reorganization to get out of debt. The plan must be accepted by the creditors, bondholders, and stockholders, and confirmed by the court. However, even if creditors or stockholders vote to reject the plan, the court can disregard the vote and still confirm the plan if it finds that the plan treats creditors and stockholders fairly. Once the plan is confirmed, another more detailed report must be filed with the SEC on Form 8-K. This report must contain a summary of the plan, but sometimes a copy of the complete plan is attached.
Who Develops the Reorganization Plan for the Company?
Committees of creditors and stockholders negotiate a plan with the company to relieve the company from repaying part of its debt so that the company can try to get back on its feet. One committee that must be formed is called the "official committee of unsecured creditors." They represent all unsecured creditors, including bondholders.
The "indenture trustee," often a bank hired by the company when it originally issued a bond, may sit on the committee. An additional official committee may sometimes be appointed to represent stockholders.
The U.S. Trustee may appoint another committee to represent a distinct class of creditors, such as secured creditors, employees or subordinated bondholders. After the committees work with the company to develop a plan, the bankruptcy court must find that it legally complies with the Bankruptcy Code before the plan can be implemented. This process is known as plan confirmation and is usually completed in a few months.
Where Can I Find More Information?
The Company. Contact the investor relations department in the company's home office. They can give you more information on the bankruptcy proceeding, including the name, address, and phone number of the court handling the bankruptcy.
Your Broker. If you can't find information in the newspaper or the library, or you haven't received any correspondence from the company, call the person who sold you the investment.
The SEC. Companies file regular reports with the SEC in a computer database known as EDGAR. For example, a company declaring bankruptcy will file a form 8-K that tells where the case is pending and which chapter of bankruptcy was filed. You can access EDGAR through your computer.