Report of the Insolvency Law Committee: The New Way Forward
On November 16, 2017, the Government of India constituted a committee to undertake a comprehensive review of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 (‘IBC’) in light of the experiences of various stakeholders during the past year. The Ministry of Corporate Affairs (‘MCA’) constituted the Insolvency Law Committee (‘ILC’) which comprises representatives from across the industry. Bahram N Vakil, a founding partner of AZB & Partners (‘Firm’) and a member of the Bankruptcy Law Reform Committee (the committee entrusted with drafting of the IBC in 2015) is one of the members of the ILC.
The MCA released ILC’s report on April 3, 2018 (‘Report’). The Report proposes various amendments to the IBC and the rules and regulations thereunder. The Parliament is likely to consider the Report in the near future to make the relevant legislative changes. Some of the major changes proposed by the Report are as below:
- Homebuyers upgraded
The IBC does not explicitly categorise homebuyers who have paid advances towards completion of real estate projects as financial or operational creditors in the corporate insolvency resolution process (‘CIRP’) of the real estate developer.The ILC took the view that advances paid by homebuyers are effectively used by real estate developers as working capital to finance the completion of projects thereby giving it the commercial effect of a borrowing and has proposed that homebuyers be treated as financial creditors. Note that their secured status depends on the nature of their contract with the developer and the bank providing the home loan. The ILC has also proposed that a large block of creditors be allowed to participate in meetings of the committee of creditors (‘CoC’) through an authorised representative.
- Interest clock on interim finance extended
Under the IBC, interim finance and any interest on it is classified as insolvency resolution process cost which receives the highest priority on any payout under a resolution plan. However, in the event of liquidation, though the principal amount of interim finance still retains its highest priority, the interest stops accruing from the date of the liquidation order.The ILC felt that the clog on accrual of interest in liquidation was affecting liquidity and raising the coupon on interim finance. The ILC has proposed that interest on interim finance shall continue to accrue for up to one year from the liquidation commencement date. Note that the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Board of India (‘IBBI’) has already made necessary changes to this effect in the IBBI (Liquidation Process) Regulations, 2016.
- Disqualification for bidders – revisited again
Section 29A of the IBC was introduced to address concerns that persons who by their conduct had contributed to the financial distress of the corporate debtor or are otherwise deemed not to be fit and proper to gain control over distressed assets, should be disqualified from being resolution applicants. However, the market felt that the range of disqualifications and the affected persons was too large. To address this issue, the ILC has made several proposals, some of which are set out below:
i. Section 29A of the IBC lays down eligibility criteria vis-à-vis the resolution applicant as well as any person acting jointly or in concert with the applicant. The term ‘acting jointly or in concert’ is not defined in the IBC and causes market participants to rely on the definition contained in the Securities and Exchange Board of India (‘SEBI’) (Substantial Acquisition of Shares and Takeovers) Regulations, 2011. This results in inclusion of an extremely broad range of persons, including even those who are involved in the resolution plan in an ancillary way. The ILC proposes to restrict the eligibility test only to the applicant and its connected persons. Additionally, any person acting with a common objective of acquiring voting rights or control over the company would also have to pass the eligibility test.
ii. Section 29A(c) of the IBC bars persons who have been in control of a non-performing asset (‘NPA’) for more than one year. However, this provision effectively disqualified several ‘pure play’ financial investors who are in the business of investing in companies across the credit spectrum. For instance, asset reconstruction companies, private equity and distressed debt funds are quite likely to have some distressed assets in their portfolios. The ILC has proposed that the test under Section 29A(c) of the IBC should not apply to such pure play financial entities.
iii. Section 29(A)(d) of the IBC bars persons who have been convicted of a criminal offence punishable with imprisonment for more than two years. This disqualification was thought to be very expansive and would disqualify applicants for offences, the commission of which have no nexus to the ability of the person to run the corporate debtor successfully. The ILC has proposed that the nature of offences, the commission of which will incur the disqualification should be economic in nature and a schedule listing such specific crimes be provided. Additionally, the disqualification should also not apply in case a stay against the conviction has been obtained from a higher court.
iv. Section 29A(h) of the IBC disqualifies persons who have executed an enforceable guarantee in favour of a corporate debtor currently undergoing CIRP. The ILC felt that the scope of the disqualification is overreaching since it bars guarantors solely on account of issuing an enforceable guarantee. The ILC has proposed that the disqualification should only apply against guarantors against whom the underlying guarantee has been invoked by the creditor and remains unpaid.
- Curious case of guarantors’ liability – now resolved
Section 14 of the IBC imposes a stay on any recovery action against the corporate debtor and the enforcement of any security interest created by a corporate debtor over its assets during the CIRP period. However, a few recent judicial pronouncements have suggested that the moratorium in an ongoing CIRP will also stay enforcement of guarantees or security interest from promoters and group companies of the corporate debtor since it is not feasible to determine the liability of the relevant third party until the CIRP is concluded.The committee felt that the scope of the moratorium is very clear and should not be interpreted broadly. The intent of law could not have been to deprive creditors of contractually negotiated remedies against third parties as long as the corporate debtor’s assets remain unaffected. The ILC proposes that an explanation be added to Section 14 of the IBC to clarify that the moratorium does not apply to any recovery action that does not impact the assets of the corporate debtor.
- CoC voting thresholds reduced
The IBC provides that all decisions by the CoC be taken by vote of 75% of the CoC, by value. The ILC felt that effectively granting minority lenders constituting 25% of the CoC a veto right to any proposed resolution plan could cause many companies to be liquidated. To ensure that there is a higher likelihood of resolving a distressed company as a going concern under the IBC, the ILC has proposed that the voting threshold for important matters during the CIRP including voting on resolution plans be reduced to 66% of the CoC. Additionally, for other routine decisions that the CoC is required to take during the CIRP, the voting threshold should be reduced to 51% to assist the resolution professional in ease of conducting day to day operations.
- IBC trigger threshold now ten times
To keep debt recovery actions from small operational creditors at bay, the ILC recommended that the minimum amount to trigger the IBC be raised to Rs. 10 lakh (approx. US$ 15,000). This may reduce pressure on the NCLT – as statistics suggest that many small creditors used the IBC to coerce recovery. But what of the small creditor? Back to the long queues in the debt recovery tribunals? Perhaps small creditors can accumulate their debt and then trigger IBC.
- In and out with ninety percent
Currently, once an IBC case is admitted, the law does not permit withdrawal of the same without the consent of all creditors. This is consistent with the philosophy that this is a collective and representative process for all creditors and settlement with the ‘filing creditor’ should not permit withdrawal. The Supreme Court has thought otherwise and has permitted withdrawal post admission. The ILC reiterated the aforesaid philosophy but saw merit in permitting withdrawal post admission if 90% of the committee of creditors deem fit. Would this have been of use in the Binani Cement saga?
- Regulatory approvals window
An immediate issue for acquirers in the IBC process is obtaining governmental and regulatory consents, dispensations and permits. Should the bidders bear this risk or the CoC live with the uncertainty? Today, negotiations resolve this tug-of-war to some extent while bidders draft their resolution plans treating the NCLT as a single window clearance. The ILC observed that single window clearance was not the intent of the IBC. This is a critical observation for bidders. Some solutions were debated but a comprehensive solution remained elusive. Instead, the ILC has recommended that a requirement be placed to obtain consents, dispensations and permits within a maximum of one year. It’s unclear how this will impact the fine balance currently trying to be achieved in practice by bidders.
- Competition approval fast tracked
In a welcome development, the ILC has been informed that the Competition Commission of India will clear notifications for combinations arising out of the IBC within 30 days, with an extension of 30 days for exceptional cases. This is already being borne out in practice and echoes the collaborative effort being taken by Indian regulators to make the IBC work.
- Liquidation waterfall and priority of security
Concerns had been raised that the language in the IBC liquidation waterfall may override inter se ranking of security amongst creditors; i.e., in liquidation, a secured creditor with a first charge over an asset may receive the same amount as another with a second charge over such asset. After reviewing the language, related laws and relevant case law, the ILC felt confident that any such interpretation would be incorrect and valid subordination agreements should not be disregarded by the IBC and so no change has been proposed.
- MSME promoters get a breather
Micro, small and medium enterprises are thought to be the bed rock of the Indian economy. When such companies go through the IBC process, keeping their incumbent promoters out of the bidding process has raised concerns of mass liquidation of such companies leading to potentially significant job losses. The ILC has recommended that promoters of such companies be permitted to bid for their companies in the IBC process (despite Section 29A disqualifications) unless they are willful defaulters. In balancing the opposing forces involved, this seems to be the socially appropriate decision.
- Limitation now uncomplicated
Lenders benefited from judicial decisions which indicated that the Indian limitation legislation did not apply to an application under the IBC (although doctrine of laches might still apply). But this was yet to be confirmed by the Supreme Court, which had declined to comment on this issue in one matter. The ILC has recommended that limitation should apply to IBC applications other than those made by a corporate debtor itself.
- No man’s land now occupied
A resolution plan is approved by the CoC and submitted to the NCLT for confirmation. At this stage, the role of the resolution professional ends and the CoC ceases to exist. But the NCLT order may take weeks or months. Who runs the company during this time and what duties, powers and protections apply to such person? The ILC has recommended that the resolution professional be statutorily required to continue during this period, presumably with the same duties, powers and protections as during the CIRP.
For queries, please email firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Bahram N Vakil, one of the founding partners of the Firm, leads the Restructuring and IBC Practice Group at the Firm. Ashwin Ramanathan, Piyush Mishra and Nilang Desai are partners and Suharsh Sinha is a senior associate in the Restructuring and IBC Practice Group at the Firm.