Disclosure of lender-imposed conditions

The 2019 Financial Reporting season has thrown up examples of very specific disclosure of the conditions imposed on listed borrowers by their lenders.

Case 1 – The amount and timing of an equity raise.

Case 2 – A requirement to conduct a ‘strategic review’ of ‘funding options.’

Case 3 – The timing and requirement for an equity raise to meet a balance sheet ratio.

Two-edged sword

Such disclosure is a two-edged sword.

Certainly, potential purchasers of the shares will be very well informed – but at the same time, the disclosure is likely to make it harder for management to achieve a turnaround. Perceived financial fragility may lead key staff to look elsewhere, and will probably make it harder for the businesses to win new business.  In some cases, it will also create liquidity problems if suppliers decide to reduce trade credit limits.*

Why is such disclosure required?

Listed companies have multiple disclosure requirements.  The Listing Rules impose a continuous disclosure regime, with limited exemptions – for example where negotiations are underway, or are confidential to another party.  The Accounting Standards also impose further disclosure requirements.

If disclosure was made to comply with the continuous disclosure regime then arguably it should have been made earlier – when the companies received notice of their lender’s requirements.

Disclosure in the Annual Report suggests that the disclosure was prompted by the auditor’s review of the financial statements – but for an outsider it is difficult to say whether it reflects a belated ‘catch up’ of continuous disclosure, or whether it is intended to ensure compliance with Accounting Standards.

Theoretical arguments about the reasons for the disclosure and whether it is strictly required may not be much help up for companies up against a deadline.  Two of the case studies had audit reports signed on the latest possible date – perhaps they simply ran out of time?

How should directors mitigate harmful disclosure?

Of course it is important that directors ensure that investors are adequately informed – but they should try to avoid do so in a way that makes it harder for the business to achieve a turnaround.

Harmful disclosure can be mitigated – but it becomes so much harder after balance date.

Businesses in turnaround mode should be projecting their compliance with covenants as part of their normal board reporting.  If non-compliance seems likely, then it is important to negotiate with lenders well ahead of any deadline.  Of course, those negotiations are far easier if supported by a well thought-out and comprehensive turnaround plan that will provide comfort that any underlying issues have been identified, and will be addressed.

* That’s also the reason why I won’t identify the companies here.

Continuous Disclosure, Class Action Regulation, and Restructuring

The continuous disclosure regime presents additional challenges for directors trying to turn around a listed company.  The turnaround itself will probably mean that that there is more to keep the market informed about, but there is more to it than that.  A perceived failure to properly disclose may well lead to a class action, adding to the workload of an already busy management team and board, as well as adding to the list of creditors.

Perhaps the most extreme example is that of Surfstitch, where on one analysis the commencement of a class action claim resulted in a majority of directors concluding – incorrectly in the view of the administrator that they appointed – that their company was insolvent. For these reasons, turnaround and restructuring professionals should have a keen interest in the outcome of a recently commenced Australian Law Reform Commission review.

Background

In December 2017, the Attorney-General asked the ALRC to inquire into the regulation of class actions and those who fund them, with a report due by 21 December 2018.

After a series of bilateral consultations with forty-three parties: regulators, funders, lawyers and other industry participants, the ALRC issued a discussion paper (available here) on 31 May 2018.

A ‘standard approach’

The discussion paper identified what it described as a ‘standard approach’ by litigation funders:

Litigation funders and/or plaintiff law firms (or their hired experts) identify a significant drop in the value of securities.  This is analysed to determine whether it is likely that the relevant drop had been occasioned by the late revelation of material information.

Typically, the analysis determines whether or not it is likely that there is a sufficient basis for assuming the existence of contravening conduct during a period prior to the eventual announcement of the material information.  The litigation funders and/or plaintiff law firms then determine the size of the potential loss that may have been occasioned by the suspected period of contravening conduct.  The duration of that period may extend back for a considerable period, as in the recently announced class actions against AMP where a period of five years has been identified.

Once the funders and/or lawyers are satisfied that there is a sufficient basis for assuming the existence of contravening conduct, funding terms are discussed and (at least prior to the advent of the common fund order) there is an effort to sign up institutional and other group members (complex questions relating to issues of privacy and data sets are likely to arise in this context).  During this developmental stage, an announcement might be made of a potential class action, attracting media attention which may augment the number of affected shareholders who wish to participate in the proposed class action

To address the problems it identifies, the discussion paper has recommended:

The Australian Government should commission a review of the legal and economic impact of the continuous disclosure obligations of entities listed on public stock exchanges and those relating to misleading and deceptive conduct contained in the Corporations Act 2001 (Cth) and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission Act 2001 (Cth) with regards to:

  • the propensity for corporate entities to be the target of funded shareholder class actions in Australia;
  • the value of the investments of shareholders of the corporate entity at the time when that entity is the target of the class action; and
  • the availability and cost of directors and officers liability cover within the Australian market.

The impact of the continuous disclosure regime is is arguably outside the terms of reference so perhaps it is difficult for the ALRC to do more than it has, but the recommendation of a further review will not quickly take us closer to a solution.

Those with practical suggestions should make a submission, due before 30 July.

 

 

Safe Harbour Restructuring Plans: Would the Carillion turnaround plan pass muster?

The investigation in the UK  into the collapse of Carillion Plc by a House of Commons select committee provides rare public access to the restructuring plan for a large company.  Would the plan meet the requirements of Australia’s Safe Harbour regime?

The Collapse of Carillion

Carillion was a UK-headquartered construction company with worldwide operations employing 43,000 staff.  It was placed into liquidation on 15 January 2018 following the UK government’s refusal to provide emergency funding,

With only £29 million in cash and creditors of more than £4.6 billion the position was so dire that – according to the select committee report – the company was forced into liquidation because it could not find a administrator prepared to take on the job in light of uncertainty about whether there was enough money to cover their costs.

Investigations into the conduct of the directors and auditors by the Insolvency Service, Financial Reporting Council, Financial Conduct Authority, and the Pensions Regulator are underway.  In addition, the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee launched an inquiry within a fortnight of the collapse.

As discussed here, the 16 May committee report (available here) is scathing in its criticism of directors, auditors, and regulators.  The Inquiry has also made public a large number of documents which would not ordinarily be available – most notably including the 100 page turnaround plan.

Australia’s Safe Harbour regime

Australia’s severe insolvent trading laws make company directors personally liable for debts incurred when a company is insolvent.

By comparison the UK’s ‘wrongful trading’ regime imposes liability if directors ‘knew, or ought to have concluded that there was no reasonable prospect of avoiding insolvent liquidation’ and did not take ‘every step with a view to minimising the potential loss to the company’s creditors.’

The Australian Safe Harbour regime provides company directors with protection against insolvent trading claims but only if their conduct and actions, and the conduct of the company, meet minimum standards.

Would the Carillion plan meet the Australian Safe Harbour requirements?

The plan does articulate an appropriate objective that is clearly a better outcome than liquidation, and it does identify the use of a big 4 accounting firm as an appropriately qualified adviser.

However the plan is silent about any steps the directors had taken to conclude that they are properly informed about the financial position of the company, or that they proposed to take to stay informed.  The document identifies a number of actions that have been taken, but it doesn’t really set out a future action plan, identify those responsible for each action, or set milestone dates.

Those omissions may not be fatal – perhaps there were other documents that provide appropriate detail.  The biggest difficulty that the directors would have in meeting the Australian criteria is that the forecasts in the plan exclude employee pension contributions from the company budgets, and paying employee entitlements ‘as they fall due’ is a key requirement of the Australian regime.

Too little, too late

Of course the Carillion turnaround plan was never designed to meet the Australian requirements, so it’s not a huge surprise that it doesn’t.  But nonetheless, that ‘failure’ highlights that it is essential for directors seeking to access safe harbour to ensure that they have a plan that is fit for that purpose.

In the case of Carillion, history shows that the plan was too little, too late: the company was in liquidation within a fortnight of the plan being finalised.

Surfstitch: Avoiding wipeout?

ASX listed Surfstitch Ltd was placed into voluntary administration by its directors on 24 August 2017, less than four weeks before the safe harbour reforms came into effect on 18 September.

The Australian Financial Review has reported the administrators’ conclusion that the company was in fact solvent when the appointment was made.  At first glance it seems surprising that administrators were appointed to a solvent company, but the threshold question is whether:

“in the opinion of the directors voting for the resolution, the company is insolvent, or is likely to become insolvent at some future time”

It is the directors’ opinion at the time that matters, not the conclusions drawn later with the benefit of hindsight – and solvency is not always clear even with the benefit of hindsight.

According to an ABC interview, however one of the directors was not satisfied that Surfstitch was insolvent, and abstained from the vote for administration.  This highlights the practical problems that directors face, and underscores one of the advantages that safe harbour now offers: the opportunity to more carefully assess and understand the financial position of the company.

On 4 April creditors will choose between two rival deed of company arrangement proposals.  One proposal will see the business sold in return for three-year convertible notes issued by the purchaser, the other will see a debt for equity restructure and later relisting.  Trade creditors and employees will be paid in cash under both proposals.Update: on 4 April the creditors accepted the three year convertible note proposal, putting their faith in a valuation uplift over that period.


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Restructuring: Singapore or Australia?

In March 2017 Singapore enacted a raft of changes to its insolvency and restructuring laws, apparently with the intention of positioning itself as the dominant international debt restructuring jurisdiction for Asia.

There are two key components to the changes, which are operative from 23 May:

  • First, a move away from a predominantly informal framework to a Chapter 11-style regime, via a mechanism that Herbert Smith Freehills describe as a ‘turbo-charged Scheme of Arrangement.’
  • Secondly, adoption of the UNCITRAL Model Law on Cross-Border Insolvency, some twenty years after its introduction in 1997.

Despite its name, the Model Law does not actually prescribe an insolvency law template to apply across all jurisdictions – instead it prescribes processes for the recognition of whatever law applies in the ‘principal jurisdiction’ of an insolvent company. The end result is that the restructuring and insolvency regime of the principal jurisdiction is effectively ‘exported’ to the countries in which the business operates.

In adopting the Model Law, Singapore joins over 40 countries – a list that significantly, does not include either Hong Kong or China.

If the initiatives are successful, Singapore may displace the current incumbent – Hong Kong – as the predominant debt restructuring jurisdiction in the region. This raises the question: how can there be a choice as to which jurisdiction applies?

The answer is that the Model Law relies on an identification of the ‘centre of main interest’ (COMI) of the insolvent company, and then applies the law of the COMI jurisdiction.  In a world where operations may span across several countries, with multiple administrative locations, and shareholders and directors located elsewhere, identification of ‘the’ COMI may be far less black and white than some would think, and there may be more than one COMI to choose from.

It is in this context that Singapore has moved to create a regime that facilitates restructuring.  If the new restructuring regime becomes widely utilised through Asia, then there will be work opportunities for its professionals throughout the region.

Australia has just tabled legislation to implement a safe harbour protection for company directors of struggling companies and protect those companies from the risk of ipso facto termination of their contracts, discussed in more detail here.  When that legislation takes effect in mid-2018, where will we fit in the Hong Kong v Singapore battle?

To US investors and lenders seeking the familiar features of the Chapter 11 approach: cram downs, debtor in possession financing, and so on; Singapore may be the most attractive option.

But there is a notable divergence between the US regime and the Singapore regime, in the protection against ipso facto clauses: clauses which provide a contractual counter-party with the option to terminate if the other party to the contract becomes insolvent.  Chapter 11 provides a debtor with ipso facto protection however the Singaporean ‘turbo-scheme’ only imposes a temporary moratorium on the exercise of those rights.

The ipso facto protections in the yet-to-commence Australian regime are not just closer to the US model, in fact they will be arguably amongst the most comprehensive in the world.

For businesses where so much enterprise value is captured inside legal agreements – and therefore at risk if there is formal insolvency – that the ipso facto protection outweighs any other considerations, Australia may well be a better jurisdiction to restructure than Singapore.  It won’t be a surprise to see Australian restructuring lawyers making travel plans to visit offshore investors and owners, to explain the advantages that our modified regime will offer.

* There is one shortcoming: unfortunately it seems the protection will not apply to clauses in existence before the provisions come into effect, even if they are later modified.

Thanks to Michael Murray for his assistance especially with regard to UNCITRAL, and to Rachel Burdett-Baker for her helpful input and suggestions.


First published here on