Indian Bankruptcy Code: Morality play reaches a dead end
The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC) introduced in India a couple of years ago was from the very beginning a morality play with a thin veneer of economic theory. With the passage of time, the veneer of economic theory has eroded, the morality play has become stronger and the functioning of the code has become progressively more divorced from economic reality.
Until the IBC came along, Indian businesses were well protected from their lenders by mechanisms like the BIFR which were the morality play of an earlier era that had become perverted over time. Originally designed to protect the interests of workers of distressed companies, these mechanisms ended up entrenching incumbent management, and leaving lenders helpless. Since a lot of the lenders were public sector banks, there was a strong political pressure to redress the balance. After a couple of attempts to empower the financial sector (Debt Recovery Tribunals and SARFAESI) proved inadequate, the IBC was introduced to redress the balance decisively.
In this morality play, the corporate sector were the villains, and the banks were the saints. The obvious solution was to hand over insolvent companies to the financial creditors. Of course, companies have operational creditors, but since these tend to be businesses which were classified as villains, a decision was taken to exclude operational creditors from the decision making. Morality was also the path of expediency as the new system also served as a backdoor bailout of the beleaguered financial sector.
Decades of studying finance have taught me that the world of finance is full of villains, but there are hardly any saints. In my first blog post on the Indian bankruptcy reform, I wrote that in the real world bankruptcy was “very much like the familiar scene in the Savannah where cheetahs, lions, hyenas and vultures can be seen fighting over the carcass”. There is no fairness in the jungle, and victory belongs neither to the one that hunted down the prey nor to the one in greatest need of food; victory typically goes to the most wicked of the lot. The story is the same when it comes to distressed debt around the world. Last month, Jared Ellias and Robert Stark wrote a fascinating paper entitled “Bankruptcy Hardball” which documented several episodes of such wickedness in the United States.
The sidelining of operational creditors was initially the most egregious morality play in the IBC and I wrote more than one blog post on this issue (here and here). Moreover, even the morality of this exclusion became suspect when it was realized that home buyers who had paid an advance to an insolvent builder would be operational creditors. Politically, it was impossible to club home buyers with other villainous operational creditors, and exceptions were made for them.
But there was more to come. Very soon, instances arose where the incumbent managements of the insolvent companies were potentially the highest bidders in the bankruptcy auction of their companies. Under the original IBC, they would have prevailed, and this might have been the best outcome from the point of view of maximizing the economic value of the lenders. But since the IBC was from inception a morality play, this could not be permitted. So the law was hurriedly amended to prevent them from bidding.
But this creates another problem. Originally, creditors were put in charge of the decision making because it was supposed to be a purely business decision. As the Bankruptcy Law Reforms Committee wrote in its report:
The evaluation of these proposals come under matters of business. The selection of the best proposal is therefore left to the creditors committee …
However, with the exclusion of tainted bidders, the choice of the best proposal is no longer one of economics, but one of theology. Some of the feverish debates in the courts on which bidders are tainted enough to be excluded reminds me of medieval scholastic debates about “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”. From an economic point of view, these debates are ridiculous. As the Roman emperor Vespasian said while imposing a tax on urine, Pecunia non olet (money does not stink). Morality plays tend to forget this principle.
By elevating morality above economics, the IBC is failing to live up to its promise. Instead, we see confusion reign paramount. We see distressed companies boasting of a respectable market capitalization while their debt trades at less than half of book value. We see bankruptcy remote vehicles delaying payment on their obligations after the parent group filed for insolvency. The time has come for us to deemphasize the morality play. It is time to hold our noses like emperor Vespasian, and get on with the ugly business of economics.
Posted at 10:16 pm IST on Wed, 13 Feb 2019 permanent link