Insolvency Oracle

Developments in UK insolvency by Michelle Butler


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Pre-packs: an oxbow lake in the making?

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Yes, I know it’s an odd title, but all will become clear, I hope.

Water takes the line of least resistance, so when a river course forces water to make a laborious curve, the water eventually finds a short-cut, bypassing the tiresome curve and leaving it high and dry, as a lake cut off from the dynamic water-flow.

I understand the political imperatives behind the pre-pack puffing and blowing… I think.  I also know that Teresa Graham’s vision of a revised SIP16, along with the voluntary pre-pack pool, viability review, and generally sensible marketing essentials, will come to fruition.  However, I suspect that this may be only postponing another inevitable: legislation, which finally may choke the life out of pre-packs… but only because industry will find another way.

When Teresa Graham’s report was released in June 2014 (http://goo.gl/oVhnXt), I resisted the urge to blog my thoughts, mainly because there were plenty of other people more authoritative than me who were saying much the same things that I was thinking.  Bill Burch’s blog was a good one: http://goo.gl/Esm5yr.

Whatever our criticisms are, the Graham Report has reached the status of something indisputable in the same way that the OFT market study on corporate insolvency has.  I feel that we are past the point where the principles are up for debate, as demonstrated by the ICAEW’s announcement of the SIP16 consultation: the JIC is “solely seeking views on whether it will be practical for an insolvency practitioner to comply with the requirements contained in the revised version of the SIP” (http://goo.gl/yVepVw).  Still, it’s nice of them to ask.

To Market or Not to Market?

I think we have come a long way in a relatively short time: Dr Frisby’s 2007 research suggested that perhaps only 8% of pre-packed businesses had been marketed, whereas I would not be surprised if now less than 8% of pre-packed businesses were not marketed.

Is a sale preceded by zero marketing ever acceptable anymore?  Ms Graham accepted as “true in some circumstances” that marketing is not possible or that marketing itself will harm creditors’ proposals (paragraph 9.24).  However, I am not sure what message we should be taking away from the revised SIP16, which states that “marketing a business is an important element in ensuring that the best available price is obtained for it”: does this mean that, if a business is not marketed, the best available price is never ensured?  And where does best outcome fit in?  The best sale price is not the whole story.

“Comply or Explain”

For many years, we have regarded SIPs as required practice, not best practice.  Thus, when we are told to do something, we know we should do it or be prepared to face the wrath of our regulator.  Of course, there will always be circumstances in which one has to decide to break a rule – a bit like needing to drive across a road’s solid white line in the interests of safety – but I feel that a rule-book that states: “this is what you should do” and then immediately follows this with: “but if you don’t, then this is what you should do” lacks credibility, doesn’t it?

The SIP (paragraph 10) states that “any marketing should conform to the marketing essentials”.  However, it then states that “where there has been deviation from any of the marketing essentials, the administrator is to explain how a different strategy has delivered the best available price.”  Ah, so as long as we can justify that our focus has been to achieve “the best available price”, then we don’t need to follow the “marketing essentials”.  Not only does that not make them particularly essential, but it also makes me wonder: why have them at all?  Why not simply state: “do (and explain) what you think is right to achieve the best possible price”?  Possibly because that was the world before the first SIP16 was born – and evidently it was not enough to instil confidence in the process.

Hindsight is a Wonderful Thing

The marketing essentials include: “particularly with sales to connected parties… the administrator needs to explain how the marketing strategy has achieved the best outcome for creditors”.  This assumes that the correct marketing strategy will always achieve the best outcome for creditors.  With the best will in the world, this is unrealistic.

For example, a director offers £100,000 to purchase the business and assets.  Attempts are made to attract other interested parties, but no one else comes forward, so the deal is done with the director at £100,000.  Taking the marketing costs into consideration, has this achieved the best outcome for creditors?  And what if, seeing that no one else is interested and, perhaps in the pre-administration pause, nervous staff or customers jump ship, the director decides to drop his offer to £80,000, has the marketing strategy still achieved the best outcome for creditors?  With hindsight, maybe the best marketing strategy would have been not to have marketed at all.

Maybe we’re being asked not to measure creditors’ outcome in financial terms alone.  Ms Graham reported that some people she spoke to “stated that, if returns are to be low, they would not mind a slightly reduced return… if the sale and marketing process was more transparent” (paragraph 7.26).  So maybe “best outcome” includes a sense of contentment that at least there were attempts to search out the best offer.  I doubt that this is how we’re meant to interpret the SIP – after all, a few creditors might prefer to see a business destroyed rather than to see it back in the hands of the directors – and of course an administrator can only really measure success in terms of achieving the statutory purpose of administration.  It seems a big ask to expect marketing strategies always to achieve the best outcome.

I should point out that I am not anti-marketing.  I just struggle with this unrealistic SIP.  If I close my critical eye, I can see that, in general, the revised SIP’s approach to marketing is sensible.  Whether it will make a difference to prices paid for businesses, I don’t know.  It seems to me that all too often the present incumbents are so emotionally caught up in a business that they offer more than anyone independent in any event.  I also regularly see IPs playing hard-ball, declining a hand-shake in an effort to extract increased offers.  If the revised SIP ensures that all IPs do the sensible thing in marketing (or even in deciding not to market) a business and are seen to be doing it, then fair enough.

Improving Confidence

Will the revised SIP improve confidence in pre-packs?

I do believe that the pre-pack pool may persuade some that the deal was right (although there are bound to be those who simply widen their scope of conspirators to include the pool).  I suspect the pool will be used sometimes, but I do wonder whether we will see many viability reviews: why would a director put his neck on the line (given the risk of Newco’s failure), if he doesn’t have to?  What’s the worst that will happen if no viability review were created?  The administrator would report that he’d asked for one, but not received it.  If the existing statutory offence for failing to submit a Statement of Affairs does not persuade directors to submit one, I cannot see that a SIP requirement for a viability review will have any greater success.

And will the review be worth the paper it’s written on?  It’s not as if the director is going to forecast a meltdown.  Teresa Graham hopes that viability reviews “will reduce incidences of failure… by focussing the minds of those controlling new companies” (paragraph 8.27).  Well, I guess it could clean the rose-tinted specs of some directors reluctant to accept defeat; it might make a few think twice about going through with Newco at all, perhaps resulting in more fire-sales.

Cutting off the Flow

The SIP requirements for connected parties (or is that “purchasing entities”?  The revised SIP is inconsistent on this point) to approach the pool and to prepare a viability review are voluntary, but the government has waved its stick, proposing in the current Bill a reserve power to restrict pre-packs (and potentially all sales in administrations), which “would only be used if the voluntary reforms are not successfully implemented” (http://goo.gl/IbQsLd).

How will the government measure success?  Will it be in increased sales considerations (which would be difficult to compare and which might happen simply because of more buoyant market conditions)?  Or by creditors reporting “improved confidence” in pre-packs?

The issue I have is that, to paraphrase Gloria Hunniford (in her One Show report in June 2013: http://goo.gl/wqcQJd), the perception of a company going bust one day and re-opening the next with the same directors and the same products in the same spot will always be greeted by some with horror and disgust.  As long as something approaching this occurs – whether it is a pre-pack administration with all the bells and whistles or something else – I cannot see these critics feeling any more comfortable about them.

Teresa Graham wrote: “To hobble the whole process to eliminate some areas of sub-optimal behaviour seems to me to be akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater” (paragraph 8.11).  I think that the expectation of the use of the pre-pack pool and viability reviews, along with the ever-more complex disclosure requirements of the revised SIP16, does hobble the process, especially so if the government resorts to legislation in the future.

Ever since the first SIP16 was released, we’ve seen the flow of business sales start to diverge away from pre-pack administrations.  I remember being at a conference shortly after the first SIP16 was released and an IP telling me that it heralded the death-knell for pre-pack administrations; he’d envisaged that all sales would be done pre-liquidation or immediately on liquidation.  And of course, as currently worded, SIP16 does not apply to sales where there have been no negotiations with the purchaser prior to the appointment of administrators.  A coach and horses can also be driven easily through the SIP16’s use of an undefined “connected party” (personally, I’d prefer to see something on the lines of SIP9, e.g. “proposed sales that could reasonably be perceived as presenting a threat to the vendor’s objectivity by virtue of a professional or personal relationship with the proposed purchaser”).  With such burdens thrown on connected party pre-pack administrations, does anyone seriously think that this will be the option of choice over simpler, cheaper, methods?

Pre-pack administrations could end up being rarely used, left high and dry whilst a dynamic stream of businesses are bought and sold along a more efficient route.  Having all but legislated pre-pack administrations out of existence, what will the government do then?  Who knows – but by then, we will probably have a new government ministering to us.

The consultation closes on 2 February 2015 – the ICAEW has released it as a JIC consultation, but I’ve not seen any other body announce it.  I thought I’d add my penny’s worth.  My response is here: MB SIP16 response 25-01-15, although I have to confess that I’ve only tackled the semantics: if we’re to be measured against this SIP, then at least I’d like to see it less ambiguous.

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A Janus View of Developments in Insolvency Regulation

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I thought I would take a look at where we’ve got to on a few of the current developments in insolvency regulation:

• The Deregulation Bill: who says limited IP licences are a good idea?
• SIP3.2 (CVA): a preview of the final SIP3 (IVA) or an ethical minefield?
• The JIC Newsletter: grasping the nettle of the commissions issue
• Insolvency Service update to the BIS Committee: promises, promises!

It’s by no means a complete list, but it’s a start!

The Deregulation Bill: when is a consultation not a consultation?

The Joint Committee of the Houses of Lords and Commons published its report on the draft Deregulation Bill on 19 December 2013, available here: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/joint-select/draft-deregulation-bill/news/draft-deregulation-bill-report/.

Insolvency features relatively insignificantly in the wide-ranging draft Deregulation Bill, the so-called Henry VIII Power attracting far more attention, so in some respects it is quite surprising that insolvency got a mention in the Committee report at all. However, the background to this report included oral evidence sessions, one of which was attended by Andrew Tate representing R3’s Small Practices Group. A recording of the session can be accessed at: http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=14073&player=windowsmedia – insolvency pops up at c.50 minutes.

Andrew had a chance to express concerns about the draft Bill’s introduction of IP licences limited to personal or corporate insolvency processes. He raised the concern, which I understand is shared by many IPs, that IPs need knowledge of, and access to, all the tools in the insolvency kit, so that they can help anyone seeking a solution, be they a company director, a practice partner, or an individual, and some situations require a combination of personal, corporate and/or partnership insolvency solutions.

What seemed to attract the attention of the Committee most, however, was learning that there had been no public consultation on the question. It’s worth hearing the nuanced evidence session, rather than reading the dead-pan transcript. It fell to Nick Howard, who was not a formal witness but presumably was sitting in the wings, to explain that there had been an “informal consultation”, which had revealed general support, and I thought it was a little unfair that a Committee member seemed sceptical of this on the basis that they had not heard from anyone expressing support: after all, I don’t think that people tend to spend time shouting about draft Bills with which they agree.

Personally, I do not share the same objections to limited licences, or at least not to the same degree. I see the value of all IPs having knowledge of both personal and corporate insolvency, but even now not all fully-licensed IPs have had experience in all fields, so some already start their licensed life ill-equipped to deal with all insolvency situations. I believe that there are more than a few IPs who have chosen a specialist route that really does mean that practically they do not need the in-depth knowledge of all insolvency areas, and, given that they will not have kept up their knowledge of, and they will have little, if any, useful experience in, insolvency processes outside their specialist field, does it really do the profession or the public any favours for them to be indistinguishable from an IP who has worked hard to maintain strong all-round knowledge and experience? Surely it would be more just and transparent for such specialists to hold limited licences, wouldn’t it?

From my perspective as a former IPA regulation manager, I believe that there would also be less risk in limited licences. As things currently stand, an IP could have passed the JIEB Administration paper years’ ago (even when it was better known as the Receivership paper) and never have touched an Administration in his life, but (Ethics Code principle of professional competence aside) tomorrow he could be talking to a board of directors about an Administration, pre-pack, or CVA. Personally, I would prefer it if IPs who specialise were clearly identified as such. Then, if they encountered a situation that exceeded their abilities, which they would be less likely to encounter because everyone could see that they had a limited licence, at least they would be prohibited from giving it a go.

Clearly, with so many facets to this issue, it is a good thing that the Committee has recommended that the clause proposing limited licences be the subject of further consultation!

The other insolvency-related clauses in the draft Bill have sat silently, but presumably if limited licences stall for further consultation, the other provisions – such as fixing the Administration provisions that gave rise to the Minmar/Virtualpurple confusion and modifying the bankruptcy after-acquired property provision, which allegedly is behind the banks’ reluctance to allow bankrupts to operate a bank account – will gather dust for some time to come.

SIP3.2 (CVA): a preview of the final SIP3 (IVA)?

I found the November consultation on a draft SIP3.2 for CVAs interesting, as I suspect that this gives us a preview of what the final SIP3 for IVAs will look like: the JIC’s winter 2013 newsletter explained that the working group had reviewed the SIP3 (IVA) consultation responses to see whether there should be any changes made to the working draft of SIP3 (CVA). Consequently, it seems that there will be few changes to the consultation draft of SIP3 (IVA)… although that hasn’t stopped me from drawing from my own consultation response to the draft SIP3 (IVA) and repeating some of those points in my consultation response to the draft SIP3 (CVA). I was pleased to see, however, that few of my issues with the IVA draft had been repeated in the CVA draft – it does pay to respond to consultations!

I’ve lurked around the LinkedIn discussions on the draft SIP3.2 and been a bit dismayed at the apparent differences of opinion about the role of the advising IP/nominee. Personally, I believe that the principles set out in the Insolvency Code of Ethics and the draft SIP3.2 handle it correctly and fairly clearly. In particular, I believe that an IP’s aim – to seek to ensure that the proposed CVA is achievable and strikes a fair balance between the interests of the company and the creditors – as described in Paragraph 6 of the draft SIP3.2 – is appropriate (even though, as often it will not be the IP’s Proposal, this may not always be the outcome). In my mind, this does not mean that the IP is aiming for some kind of mid-point between those interests, as the insolvent company’s interests at that time necessarily will have particular regard for the creditors’ interests, and so I do not believe that the SIP supports any perception that the advising IP/nominee sides inappropriately with the directors/company. However, given that apparently some have the perception that this state exists, perhaps it would be worthwhile for the working group to see whether it can come up with some wording that makes the position absolutely clear, so that there is no risk that readers might misinterpret the careful responsibility expected of the advising IP/nominee.

I would urge you to respond to the consultation, which closes on 7 January 2014.

The JIC Newsletter: all bark and no bite?

Well, what do you think of the JIC’s winter 2013 newsletter? I have to say that, having been involved in reviewing the fairly inconsequential reads of previous years whilst I was at the IPA, I was pleasantly surprised that at least this newsletter seemed to have something meaningful to say. Personally, I wish it had gone further – as really all it seems to be doing is reminding us of what the Ethics Code already states – but I am well aware of the difficulties of getting something even mildly controversial approved by the JIC members, their respective RPBs, and the Insolvency Service: it is not a forum that lends itself well to the task of enacting ground-breaking initiatives. And anyway, if there were something more than the Ethics Code or SIPs that needed to be said, a newsletter is not the place for it.

Nevertheless, I would still recommend a read: http://www.ion.icaew.com/insolvencyblog/post/Joint-Insolvency-Committee-winter-2013-newsletter (I’d love to be able to direct people to my former employer’s website, but unfortunately theirs requires member login).

Bill Burch quickly off the mark posted his thoughts on the Commissions article: http://complianceoncall.blogspot.co.uk/2013/12/dark-portents-from-jic-for-commissions.html, which pretty-much says it all. Personally, I hope that this signifies a “right, let’s get on and tackle this issue!” attitude of revived enthusiasm by the regulators, but similarly I fear that some offenders may just seem too heavy-weight to wrestle, at least publicly, although that does not mean that behaviours cannot be changed by stealth. Many would shout that this is unfair, but it has to be better than nothing, hasn’t it?

My main concern, however, is how do the regulators go about spotting this stuff? Unless a payment is made from an insolvent estate, it is unlikely to reach the eyes of the monitor on a routine visit. It’s all well and good asking an IP where he gets his work from, if/how he pays introducers, and reviewing agreements, but if someone were intent on covering their tracks..? I know for a fact that at least one of the examples described in the JIC newsletter was revealed via a complaint, so that would be my personal message: if you observe anyone playing fast and loose with the Ethics Code, please take it to the regulators, and if you don’t want to do that personally, then get in touch with R3 and they might help do it for you. If you don’t, then how really can you cry that the regulators aren’t doing enough to police your competitors?

However, the theoretic ease with which inappropriate commissions could be disguised and the multitude of relatively unregulated hangers-on to the insolvency profession, preying on the desire of some to get ahead and the fear of others of losing out to the competition, do make me wonder if this issue can ever be tackled successfully. But the JIC newsletter at least appears to more clearly define the battle-lines.

Insolvency Service Update to the BIS Committee: all good things come to those who wait

Jo Swinson’s response to the House of Commons’ Select Committee is available at: http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-committees/business-innovation-and-skills/20131030%20Letter%20from%20Jo%20Swinson%20-%20Insolvency%20Service%20update.pdf. It was issued on 30 October so by now many items have already moved on, but I wanted to use it as an opportunity to highlight some ongoing and future developments to look out for.

Regarding “continuation of supply”, which was included in the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 but which requires secondary legislation to bring it into effect, Ms Swinson stated: “We intend to consult later this year on how the secondary legislation should be framed”. I had assumed simply that the Insolvency Service’s timeline had slipped a bit – understandably so, as there has been plenty going on – but I became concerned when I read the interview with Nick Howard in R3’s winter 2013 Recovery magazine. He stated: “We are in the process of consulting on exactly how that [the supply of IT] works because the power in the Act is fairly broad and we want to ensure we achieve the desired effect”. Have I missed something, or perhaps there’s another “informal consultation” going on?

I’m guessing the Service’s timeline has slipped a bit in relation to considering Professor Kempson’s report on fees, however, as Ms Swinson had planned “to announce the way forward before the end of the year” in relation to “a number of possible options for addressing this fundamental issue [that “the market does not work sufficiently where unsecured creditors are left to ‘control’ IP fees”], by both legislative and non-legislative means. Still, I imagine this isn’t far away, albeit that Ms Swinson is now on maternity leave.

This might be old news to those with their ears to the ERA ground, but it was news to me that the Insolvency Service will be implementing the Government’s Digital by Default strategy in the RPO “with a digital approach to redundancy claims anticipated to be launched in the autumn of 2014”. My experience as an ERA administrator may date back to the 1990s when people were comforted more by the feel of paper in their hands, but I do wonder how well the news will go down with just-laid-off staff that they need to go away and lodge their claims online. A sign of the times, I guess…

Finally, don’t mention the Draft Insolvency Rules!

No summary of regulatory goings-on would be complete without referring to the draft Insolvency Rules, on which the consultation closes on 24 January 2014. And no, I’ve still not started to look at them properly; it feels a bit futile even to think about starting now. But then, if we don’t pipe up on them now, we won’t be able to complain about the result, even if that may be yet years’ away…