|...But it wasn't long before these hopes were dashed by the government's management of the process. Instead of a regular bankruptcy proceeding, the Obama administration, working with the automakers, patched together a process without precedent — a bankruptcy combined with a bailout, incorporating the worst elements of both.|
Of the two proceedings, Chrysler's was clearly the more egregious. In the years leading up to the economic crisis, Chrysler had been unable to acquire routine financing and so had been forced to turn to so-called secured debt in order to fund its operations. Secured debt takes first priority in payment; it is also typically preserved during bankruptcy under what is referred to as the "absolute priority" rule — since the lender of secured debt offers a loan to a troubled borrower only because he is guaranteed first repayment when the loan is up. In the Chrysler case, however, creditors who held the company's secured bonds were steamrolled into accepting 29 cents on the dollar for their loans. Meanwhile, the underfunded pension plans of the United Auto Workers — unsecured creditors, but possessed of better political connections — received more than 40 cents on the dollar.
Moreover, in a typical bankruptcy case in which a secured creditor is not paid in full, he is entitled to a "deficiency claim" — the terms of which keep the bankrupt company liable for a portion of the unpaid debt. In both the Chrysler and GM bankruptcies, however, no deficiency claims were awarded to the wronged creditors. Were bankruptcy experts to comb through American history, they would be hard-pressed to identify any bankruptcy case with similar terms.
To make matters worse, both bankruptcies were orchestrated as so-called "section 363" sales. This meant that essentially all the assets of "old Chrysler" were sold to "new Chrysler" (and "old GM" to "new GM"), and were pushed through in a rush. These sales violated the longstanding bankruptcy principle that an asset sale should not be functionally equivalent to a plan of re-organization for an entire company — what bankruptcy lawyers call a "sub rosa plan." The reason is that the re-organization process offers all creditors the right to vote on the proposed plan as well as a chance to offer competing re-organization plans, while an asset sale can be carried out without such a vote.
In the cases of GM and Chrysler, however, the government essentially pushed through a re-organization disguised as a sale, and so denied the creditors their rights. As the University of Pennsylvania's David Skeel observed last year, "selling" an entire company of GM or Chrysler's size and complexity in this manner was unprecedented. Even on a smaller scale, it would have been highly irregular: While rush bankruptcy sales of much smaller companies were once common, the bankruptcy laws were overhauled in 1978 precisely to eliminate this practice.
At first, the fact that the companies' creditors (and especially Chrysler's creditors, who were so badly mistreated) put up with such terms and waived their property rights seems astonishing. But it becomes less so — and sheds more light on how this entire process imperils the rule of law — when one considers the enormous leverage the federal government had over most of these creditors. Many of Chrysler's secured-bond holders were large financial institutions — several of which had previously been saved from failure by TARP. Though there is no explicit evidence that support from TARP funds bought these bond holders' acquiescence in the Chrysler case, their silence in the face of a massive financial haircut is otherwise very difficult to explain.
Indeed, those secured-bond holders who were not supported by TARP did not go nearly as quietly. A group of hedge funds that were among Chrysler's creditors initially objected to the bailout plan that preferred the UAW at their expense. In a now-infamous speech in April 2009, President Obama publicly attacked these investors — who were merely standing up for their contract and property rights — as profiteers, criticizing them for their unwillingness to make the same sacrifices as other investors (but not, of course, UAW members, who received a windfall). In response to this public browbeating from the president of the United States, the hedge funds caved and agreed to the terms. In the end, only one group of Chrysler bond holders — the Indiana state teacher and police pension funds — continued to object. Indeed, they objected at every stage of the process, but the Supreme Court declined to hear their case...