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A Tidal Wave of Bankruptcies Is Coming

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    A Tidal Wave of Bankruptcies Is Coming

    Experts foresee so many filings in the coming months that the courts could struggle to salvage the businesses that are worth saving.

    June 18, 2020

    Already, companies large and small are succumbing to the effects of the coronavirus. They include household names like Hertz and J. Crew and comparatively anonymous energy companies like Diamond Offshore Drilling and Whiting Petroleum.

    And the wave of bankruptcies is going to get bigger.

    Edward I. Altman, the creator of the Z score, a widely used method of predicting business failures, estimated that this year will easily set a record for so-called mega bankruptcies — filings by companies with $1 billion or more in debt. And he expects the number of merely large bankruptcies — at least $100 million — to challenge the record set the year after the 2008 economic crisis.

    Even a meaningful rebound in economic activity over the coming months won’t stop it, said Mr. Altman, the Max L. Heine professor of finance, emeritus, at New York University’s Stern School of Business. “The really hurting companies are too far gone to be saved,” he said.

    Many are teetering on the edge. Chesapeake Energy, once the second-largest natural gas company in the country, is wrestling with about $9 billion in debt. Tailored Brands — the parent of Men’s Wearhouse, Jos. A. Bank and K&G — recently disclosed that it, too, might have to file for bankruptcy protection. So did Weatherford International, an oil field services company that emerged from bankruptcy only in December.

    More than 6,800 companies filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year, and this year will almost certainly have more. The flood of petitions from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression could swamp the system, making it harder to save the companies that can be rescued, bankruptcy experts said.

    Most good-size companies that go into bankruptcy try to restructure themselves, working out payment agreements for their debts so they can stay open. But if a plan can’t be worked out — or isn’t successful — they can be liquidated instead. Equipment and property are sold off to pay debts, and the company disappears.

    Without reform in the system, “we anticipate that a significant fraction of viable small businesses will be forced to liquidate, causing high and irreversible economic losses,” a group of academics said in a letter to Congress in May. “Workers will lose jobs even in otherwise viable businesses.”

    Among their suggestions: increasing budgets to recall retired judges and hire more clerks, and giving companies more time to come up with workable plans to prevent them from being sold off for parts.

    “Tight deadlines may lead to overly optimistic restructuring plans and subsequent refilings that will congest courts and delay future recoveries,” they wrote.

    The pandemic — with its lockdowns, which have just started to ease — was enough on its own to put some businesses under. The gym chain 24 Hour Fitness, for example, declared bankruptcy this week, saying it would close 100 locations because of financial problems that its chief executive attributed entirely to the coronavirus.

    But in many cases, the coronavirus crisis exposed deeper problems, like staggering debts run up by companies whose business models were already struggling to deal with changes in consumer behavior.

    Hertz has been weighed down by debt created in a leveraged buyout more than a decade ago, and added to it with the acquisition of Dollar Thrifty in 2012. As it was battling direct competitors, the ascent of Uber and Lyft further upended the rental-car industry.

    J. Crew and Neiman Marcus were carrying heavy debt loads from leveraged buyouts by private equity firms while struggling to deal with the changing preferences of shoppers who increasingly buy online.

    Neiman Marcus declared bankruptcy the same week as J.Crew, for many of the same reasons.
    Neiman Marcus declared bankruptcy the same week as J.Crew, for many of the same reasons.Mandel Ngan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
    Oil and gas companies like Diamond and Whiting borrowed heavily to expand when commodities prices were much higher. Those prices started to fall as production increased, and plunged further still when Russia and Saudi Arabia got into a price war shortly before the economic shutdowns began.

    (And then there are cases that have nothing to do with the pandemic but nonetheless take up time and energy in the courts. Borden Dairy, a Dallas company with a history that goes back to 1857, declared bankruptcy in January, a victim of declining prices, rising costs and changing tastes.)

    A run of defaults looks almost inevitable. At the end of the first quarter of this year, U.S. companies had amassed nearly $10.5 trillion in debt — by far the most since the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis began tracking the figure at the end of World War II.

    “An explosion in corporate debt,” Mr. Altman said.

    Having a lot more debt to deal with is likely to make the coming bankruptcies a bruising experience for unsecured creditors, who may include retirees with pensions or health benefits, vendors waiting to be paid, tort plaintiffs whose lawsuits are cut short and sometimes even current workers. If a company goes into bankruptcy with more secured debts than the value of its assets, the secured creditors — including vulture investors who bought up the debt for a song — can walk away with virtually everything.

    The sums at play in some of these cases will be enormous. Mr. Altman expects at least 66 cases with more than $1 billion in debt this year, eclipsing 2009’s mark of 49. He also predicted 192 bankruptcies involving at least $100 million in debt, which would trail only 2009’s record of 242.

    Hertz had problems even before the pandemic, including an acquisition eight years ago and the rise of ride-hailing services.Cindy Ord/Getty Images
    Robert J. Keach, a director of the American College of Bankruptcy, said many companies had so far managed to put off bankruptcy by amassing cash and conserving it as best they can: drawing down existing credit lines, furloughing workers, delaying projects and taking advantage of federal and state pandemic-relief programs.

    But when those programs expire, the companies will start burning through their cash. That’s when bankruptcy filings are likely to soar and stay elevated, Mr. Keach said.

    Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 30, 2020

    What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

    Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    What’s the best material for a mask?

    Scientists around the country have tried to identify everyday materials that do a good job of filtering microscopic particles. In recent tests, HEPA furnace filters scored high, as did vacuum cleaner bags, fabric similar to flannel pajamas and those of 600-count pillowcases. Other materials tested included layered coffee filters and scarves and bandannas. These scored lower, but still captured a small percentage of particles.

    Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

    A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

    The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    What is pandemic paid leave?

    The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

    So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

    Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    How does blood type influence coronavirus?

    A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

    The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    How can I protect myself while flying?

    If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    What should I do if I feel sick?

    If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    Expect “a Covid-19 cliff” in the next 30 to 60 days, he said.

    Companies that received loans under the federal Paycheck Protection Program may be waiting to file, said Mr. Keach, who practices bankruptcy law with the firm of Bernstein Shur in Portland, Maine. The loans can be converted to grants if the companies meet certain requirements, and if the borrowers can put off bankruptcy until they’re sure they won’t have to pay the money back, they will have more cash when they file.

    That’s an important consideration, because Chapter 11 is expensive. A bankrupt company must pay the fees of the lawyers and other professionals that help it reorganize, as well as the fees of those who advise the official creditors’ committees.

    Borden Dairy didn’t need the pandemic to push it into bankruptcy, but its cases and others will only add to the courts’ to-do list.Tony Dejak/Associated Press
    The experts’ recommendations to Congress walk a fine line. They suggest allowing companies more time to come up with reorganization plans, even though Chapter 11 cases are supposed to move quickly so bankrupt companies don’t burn through their cash before they reorganize.

    Generally, the longer a company stays in bankruptcy, the greater the chances of a liquidation. And that increases the likelihood that the company’s troubles will spread: Suppliers of raw materials could fold if a manufacturer languishes in bankruptcy, and smaller stores in entirely differently lines of business can suffer if a shopping-mall anchor can’t stay open.

    These risks are real, said Robert E. Gerber, who retired in 2016 as a bankruptcy judge in the Southern District of New York. One of his cases was the 2009 bankruptcy of General Motors, which moved at lightning speed to keep the automaker from going under for good.

    “If G.M. had failed, God knows how many companies in the supply chain would have failed, and this would have snowballed terribly,” said Mr. Gerber, who is now of counsel with the Joseph Hage Aaronson firm. The cascade would have wiped out paychecks to workers throughout the supply chain, threatening other businesses and even the finances of the local governments that count on them for tax revenue.

    That, Mr. Gerber said, makes it imperative that the bankruptcy system have the resources to deal with the coming rush of cases.

    “Bankruptcy can’t print money for those companies,” he said, “but it can give a good number of them a chance of survival.”

    By Mary Williams Walsh

    For companies, we will see a lot more consolidation, Chapter 11s and even Chapter 7s; there's no doubt about that. As a small business owner (or several businesses), I can tell you that my businesses are going to struggle and I don't expect every one of them to survive.

    I only wish I had my law degree and bankruptcy specialization. Not so much about the money, but about helping all the people who will be turning to bankruptcy protection. We'll have to see what happens. There was a lag after the 2008 housing crash so I would expect something similar. People will likely have protection from State/local governments with moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures, but that will eventually trickle up and down the chain.

    It's sad as I think everyone, individually, was doing well as far as income (overall) and had visions of a good future. Now, there is too much in the air. The rents and mortgage forbearances are going to be a difficult time for people starting July 31st unless Congress intervenes again (with the extra $600 unemployment). Even then, the types of loss of income are unsustainable. (The unemployment rate in 2008 was as high as 13.2%, and 2009 was even worse, overall.)
    Chapter 7 (No Asset/Non-Consumer) Filed (Pro Se) 7/08 (converted from Chapter 13 - 2/10)
    Status: (Auto) Discharged and Closed! 5/10
    Visit My BKForum Blog: justbroke's Blog

    I am not an attorney. Any advice provided is not legal advice.


      Yes, I agree on all points

      re "wish I had my law degree and bankruptcy specialization", regardless of age and remaining energy, I say you should look into some avenues of obtaining the said law degree. Very unknown how long all this will last. The whole covid situation might become some sort of a cyclical pattern, perhaps two years from now we start talking about same issues and dealing with same shutdowns. You have a lot of knowledge that will make it easy for you to complete it.


        Originally posted by justbroke View Post
        I only wish I had my law degree and bankruptcy specialization. Not so much about the money, but about helping all the people who will be turning to bankruptcy protection.
        Why aren't you pursuing this? I second laz that you should do it.


          Originally posted by womanonfire View Post
          Why aren't you pursuing this? I second laz that you should do it.
          I can't confirm or deny it is something that I am currently pursuing.
          Chapter 7 (No Asset/Non-Consumer) Filed (Pro Se) 7/08 (converted from Chapter 13 - 2/10)
          Status: (Auto) Discharged and Closed! 5/10
          Visit My BKForum Blog: justbroke's Blog

          I am not an attorney. Any advice provided is not legal advice.




              Everyone keeps saying that. I have no doubt it will happen, especially as foreclosure moratoriums expire. However, it has been a slow drip since October 2020. There is a normal holiday slow down in cases, but it was even slower. We haven't really seen things pick-up in January like they usually would. I think people are holding on as long as they can and relying on credit cards to pay expenses. Bankruptcy filings will depend on how quickly or slowly the government pulls the levers to allow the foreclosure, eviction, and credit industry to collect.


              • laz
                laz commented
                Editing a comment
                Oh wow HHM 👋 it is nice to see you back in the forum ... a true BKForum OG, hope you will stick around

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