Small Business Restructuring: off to a good start

On 1 January 2021 a new restructuring process becomes available for some types of small business. It is a useful low cost option for those businesses that it does suit – but the Treasurer’s claim that it is part of “the most significant reforms to Australia’s insolvency framework in 30 years” is hard to support.  However, it is not the nature of the changes, but rather the way that the changes were made that should concern turnaround and restructuring professionals. 

First, it appears that there was no meaningful consultation with those professionals, or the organisations that represent them – which suggests that the legislators see us as part of the problem, not the solution. 

Secondly – if the government really does believe what appears in its press releases – there is the prospect that after tinkering in the middle of the fringe of reform the government may move on, rather than deliver meaningful reform.

The new Small Business Restructuring Process (SBR)

The Treasurer describes the SBR as drawing on “key features from Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code in the United States.” As White & Case explain, it  draws on the Subchapter V process that is available to small business, rather than the Chapter 11 that we read about in the business press – but the key point is that it leaves the existing management team in situ and does not replace them with an outsider.  

In summary:

  • The SBR is available to companies with liabilities of less than $1 million.
  • Just as for Voluntary Administration (VA), the process is initiated administratively by the directors, who select a registered company liquidator to act as the SBR Practitioner (SBRP).
  • The directors continue to manage the company, although transactions which are outside “the ordinary course of business” must be approved by the SBRP, or the court.
  • Unlike VA, only the company directors may propose a Restructuring Plan, and it must be proposed within twenty business days of starting the restructuring process.
  • The SBRP is to help the directors prepare the Restructuring Plan, and he or she then “provides a declaration to certify the restructuring plan” – arguably reporting on their own work.
  • Similarly to the Part IX process for personal bankruptcy, the creditors “vote” on the proposal without a physical meeting, and it is approved by a majority in value of “replies” received within 15 business days of the Restructuring Plan “being given” to creditors. 
  • The Restructuring Plan must be executed within twenty business days of starting the restructuring process, or up to thirty business days if the SBRP grants an extension.

The “you snooze you lose” mechanism is worth noting – only votes received within the fifteen business day period are taken into account.  That mechanism means that active and alert creditors will have the biggest say, and it will be common to see plans being accepted even though only a minority of creditors actually voted.

Limited accessibility to the new regime

The obvious restrictions are that the mechanism is only available to companies – not individuals, and that it only applies where liabilities are less than $1m

There are other restrictions which will arise due to the way the SBR process operates:

  • Availability of credit – Creditors will know by the fact of an appointment that the company must be insolvent, and they will also know that the SBRP will not be liable to pay for any goods and services provided after his or her appointment.  Directors will need to be quite sure that they will have practical access to credit, or capacity to operate on a cash on delivery basis, before they invoke the SBR.
  • Fixed fees for the SBRP – The Insolvency Practice Rules specify that that the fees for the SBRP must be fixed in dollar amount up to the execution of the plan, and then calculated as a percentage of the actual distributions to be made under the plan.  In practice this will limit the types of Restructuring Plans that are put to creditors: prospective SBRPs will have a strong preference for simple, quick Restructuring Plans which will implicitly limit the time and work required.
  • Employee entitlements and tax reporting – A restructuring plan will not be valid unless the company has paid all payable employee entitlements and lodged all taxation reports and lodgements before it was circulated.

The most significant reforms to Australia’s insolvency framework in 30 years?

The SBR is clearly not the most significant reform to Australia’s insolvency framework in 30 years.  That claim can be made by Australia’s VA regime: a world leading insolvency process when introduced on 23 June 1993. 

Although used by companies as large as Arrium Limited, VA is less suited to businesses with multiple classes of creditors, but there no restrictions on its availability or use.  It is true that VA places an insolvency practitioner as the central decision maker during the period of administration, but that is a temporary position, and the mechanism can certainly accommodate a debtor-in-possession model through an appropriately drafted Deed of Company Arrangement.  Critics may say that it is relatively expensive for smaller businesses, but that is true to some extent for any insolvency process, and no doubt the new SBR will also prove to be “too expensive” for the smallest businesses.

Unfortunately, there has been no development or refinement of voluntary administration in the almost twenty-seven years since it was introduced.

It’s true that in 2016 the Government passed the laughably misnamed Insolvency Law Reform Act, which added red-tape and expense to existing insolvency processes.  The Treasurer could very fairly describe the SBR as the most significant reforms to Australia’s insolvency framework in the last twenty-six years – but sadly, to say so only highlights the complete absence of any insolvency reform during that period.

Who’s asking? Who’s listening?

It seems that there was no pre-release consultation with the various organisations which (sometimes in overlap) represent turnaround and insolvency professionals: ARITA, the TMA, the AIIP, or the Insolvency & Reconstruction Committee of the Law Council or Australia; and if any individuals were consulted they have kept remarkably quiet about it.

As described in Missing Pieces, the draft Bill was released with perhaps the shortest consultation period on record: 4 business days.  Those various organisations and many of their members worked very hard to meet the deadline – with almost all of the 53 submissions completely ignored.

It’s hard to believe that the absence of meaningful consultation was inadvertent, leading to the very disappointing alternative: that the legislators made a deliberate decision not to consult.  If that is true then that is a very great concern, because it means that legislators may see restructuring and turnaround professionals as part of the problem, not part of any solution.

What should be on the Insolvency Reform agenda?

By a long margin, the very first thing that our legislators should do is to clearly establish an overall objective which applies to all insolvency processes. 

SBR appears to be predicated on the basis that the most important objective is that owners stay in control of their business.  VA has an explicitly stated goal: to maximise “the chances of the company, or as much as possible of its business, continuing in existence.”  By contrast, liquidations seem geared to taking control of a business away from those previously responsible for managing it.  Three different processes, three different objectives!

If a single overriding objective can be established then it should be far simpler to decide whether a stringent insolvent trading regime helps, or hinders, the achievement of that objective, in which case it might be possible to avoid continuing the hitherto regular policy flip-flops.

Other things that should be on the agenda:

  • SME insolvency – For most small business operators, personal guarantees to trade suppliers and banks mean that their personal financial position is inextricably linked to the financial position of their company.    If their business fails, they will most likely become bankrupt.  If that does happen, two separate insolvency appointees will run two separate insolvency processes under two separate pieces of legislation (and supervised by two separate regulators). Rationalisation so that there is a single process seems well overdue. 
  • Employee Entitlements – Employees have a theoretical priority for repayment of their entitlements but the use of “payroll companies” by corporate groups means that in practice the cupboard can be bare.  There should be a regime to ensure employees are consistently protected, regardless of variations in corporate structure and reducing reliance on the GEERS safety net.
  • Multi-class restructuring for VA – VA is a useful and powerful restructuring tool but there is a significant gap – the absence of a capacity to bind secured creditors or owners of property (such as intellectual property licensors, or landlords) unless they agree to be bound.  The requirement for unanimous agreement means that any single lender or property owner has the ability to veto a restructure.  It would be relatively simple to create a low cost statutory multi-class restructuring option by amending VA so that creditors in a class are bound by a 75% by value majority of class creditors, with a cram down of any out-of-the-money classes.
  • Fix scheme classes – Schemes of Arrangement are currently the only option to deal with multi-class restructuring, but the composition of those classes is problematic. In Australia, classes are constituted by grouping creditors based on how the scheme deals with their claim, rather than by grouping creditors with common rights.  Changes so that classes are constituted by creditor rights would stop scheme promoters contriving outcomes by bundling together creditors with different rights.
  • Debt for Equity – Debt for equity can be a very effective restructuring tool, but there are constraints which make it difficult for banks to enter into such arrangements. The restrictions that quite properly limit the ability of Authorised Deposit-taking Institutions to invest in non-banking ventures apply equally to debt for equity restructures. This means that ADIs must consult with APRA before committing to any proposal to hold more than 20 per cent of equity interest in an entity.  If ADIs had the capacity to more easily take equity, and hold it off balance sheet, then a rarely used restructuring tool might be more widely deployed.
  • Rescue Finance – In Australia rescue finance is typically provided by existing lenders either through informal workouts, or by providing finance to the receivers they appoint. Administrators are free to incur credit but they cannot grant a priority security over circulating assets (such as book debts and inventory) without the consent of existing security holders.  If there is a change to allow multi-class restructuring on a majority, then there should be a similar change to the rules allowing an administrator to pledge security to obtain rescue finance with the consent of a majority of existing security holders.

Conclusion

It is hard to argue against a low-cost restructuring tool: what has been delivered is welcome but it won’t suit all small businesses, and it leaves small unincorporated businesses behind altogether.  There is a great deal more that could and should be done, but it is difficult to be confident that the Government even understands the opportunities before it, and quite worrying that they may regard restructuring and turnaround practitioners as part of the problem, rather than as professionals who can help them achieve meaningful reform.

 

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