The impact of draft anti-phoenix measures on restructuring and corporate turnaround

‘Phoenixing’ – the process by which the assets of an insolvent company are transferred to another company so that creditors miss out – is a significant problem in Australia.  On budget night the government announced several headline anti-phoenix measures, with greater detail provided last week through the release of draft legislation for consultation.  Although the measures are aimed at those who act unscrupulously, they have a wider ambit, and there is the potential for them to have a broader impact if they do become law.

Overview of the measures

There is more detail here but in summary, the key concept is a ‘Creditor Defeating Disposition’ (‘CDD’).  A CDD is a transaction entered into either:

  • when the company was insolvent; or
  • in the twelve months prior to the company entering formal insolvency administration;

which prevents, hinders or significantly delays the property of a company from becoming available for the benefit of creditors.

If there is a CDD:

  • Officers whose conduct resulted in a CDD will commit an offence.
  • Those involved in ‘procuring, inciting, inducing or encouraging’ a company to engage in a CDD will commit an offence
  • Both ASIC and the Courts will have power to make orders to reverse the transaction to recover the property.

A CDD will not be voidable if the sale was for market value consideration, or was entered into by a liquidator, under a deed of company arrangement or scheme of arrangement, or as part of a Safe Harbour restructuring plan.

Market value

‘Market value’ sounds like an objective measure but in the absence of a public sale process it will be assessed retrospectively.  By comparison, the duty of care imposed upon receivers requires them to conduct an effective sale process but it does not mandate an outcome.

Safe Harbour is a defence

Specific protection for transactions entered into by liquidators and deed administrators is obvious and as expected.  A similar exemption for companies in Safe Harbour (more detail here) is a sensible and consistent policy alignment.

Application to transactions with third parties

Many would think of a phoenix transaction as a sale to a related party, but significantly it seems that the draft legislation has the potential to apply to sales to third parties, if the proceeds of sale are ‘diverted.’

The type of transaction described in an extract from hypothetical email from a CFO to a CEO highlights some of the real world issues:

We have a received an unsolicited offer for our New Zealand operations.  The offer is less than I think we would get if we took the business to market but that would take another six months, and a sale now would leave us one less headache to manage, so I recommend that we accept….

If those sales proceeds are used to pay the trade creditors of the New Zealand business, and the Australian business collapses a month later with employees unpaid, should that transaction amount to a CDD which can be reversed?  Is that email the ‘smoking gun’ which might expose directors and advisers to the transaction to the risk of prosecution?

Potential purchasers who believe a vendor to be under financial pressure may be concerned about whether they can take clear and irreversible title to business assets, or whether there may be a risk of later claw back.  Such a purchaser has a theoretical access to the general good faith defence that is available to purchasers without ‘knowledge of insolvency’, but they may need to think carefully about when exactly a suspicion about financial stress might amount to ‘knowledge of insolvency.’   Some potential acquirers may decide they need more information, or details of how the funds will be dispersed, and some may decide that it is safer to walk away and wait for a formal insolvency to deliver clear title.

Conclusion

Measures to address the serious problem of phoenixing are appropriate, and alignment with Safe Harbour measures is commendable. However, phoenixing by its very definition involves transaction with related parties. Extending the ambit of anti-phoenix measures so that they also apply to transactions with third parties risks the ability of stressed companies to promptly execute genuine sales, and should be implemented with great care.  If anti-phoenix measures need to be applied beyond those currently defined as ‘related parties,’ perhaps a better approach might be to broaden that definition.

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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Secret Harbour?

Must a listed company disclose that it has taken steps to ‘enter’ the Safe Harbour regime?

Doing so would almost certainly result in the withdrawal of trade credit facilities and thereby cause a liquidity crisis.  But the ASX listing rules impose a quite rigorous continuous disclosure regime, requiring disclosure regardless of the damage it may cause to a business.

The update to Guidance Note 8 Continuous Disclosure: Listing Rules 3.1 – 3.1B released this month and available here directly addresses the question, providing very helpful guidance.

Background

Rule 3.1 requires immediate notification to the ASX of:

“any information concerning it that a reasonable person would expect to have a material effect on the price or value of the entity’s security”

Paragraph 5.10 of GN 8 specifically confirms that rules applies to companies experiencing financial difficulties:

“The fact that information may have a materially negative impact on the price or value of an entity’s securities, or even inhibit its ability to continue as a going concern, does not mean that a reasonable person would not expect the information to be disclosed.  Quite the contrary, in ASX’s view, this is information that a reasonable person would generally expect to be disclosed.”

Taking steps to enter Safe Harbour is evidence that directors are concerned about solvency.  Surely the forming of a view that safe harbour is appropriate falls in the category of information that would have a materially negative impact on share price?

Updated Guidance

The updated Guidance Note directly addresses the issue, explaining that:

ASX has been asked whether the fact that the entity’s directors are relying on the insolvent trading safe harbour in section 588GA of the Corporations Act requires disclosure to the market”

Updated paragraph 5.10 recognises that Safe Harbour is a conditional carve-out from a director’s potential liability for insolvent trading.  GN 8 highlights that the legislation does not include an exemption from disclosure obligations, and so Rule 3.1 continues to apply – but goes on to explain:

“The fact that an entity’s directors are relying on the insolvent trading safe harbour to develop a course of action that may lead to a better outcome for the entity than an insolvent administration, in and of itself, is not something ASX would generally require an entity to disclose”

The guidance recognises that investors would always expect directors of an financially stressed business to consider whether there was a better alternative than an insolvency administration:

“The fact that they are doing so is not likely to require disclosure unless it ceases to be confidential, or a definitive course of action has been determined.”

A practical outcome

This is a very practical position for the ASX to take.  Companies can maintain essential confidentiality rather than disclose issues that would almost certainly trigger a crisis of confidence, the freezing of credit facilities, and a severe liquidity crunch.


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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.


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