Examinership and the Summary Rescue Process

Mar 26, 2021
Neil Hughes outlines the survival options for small- and medium-sized businesses as the ‘next normal’ approaches.

In general, 2018 and 2019 were good years for Irish business. Many companies entered 2020 with stronger balance sheets, relatively low debt levels, aggressive growth targets, and optimism – particularly in the small- and medium-sized enterprise (SME) sector. By Q2 2020, however, firefighting due to COVID-19 restrictions quickly soaked up all available management time and resources. Growth strategies were shelved, and survival was prioritised.

Government supports were immediately made available to companies severely affected by the pandemic. Figures released by Revenue in February 2021 show that the State paid out a total of €9.3 billion in 2020 between the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (€5.1 billion), Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme (€2.8 billion) and the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (€1.4 billion). Seventy thousand companies have availed of the Revenue Commissioners’ Debt Warehousing Scheme, at a total cost of around €1.9 billion.

These supports, along with the forbearance provided by financial institutions in Ireland, have helped prevent a tsunami of corporate insolvencies. The concern, however, is if post-pandemic those companies that ultimately need help the most will not reach out and avail of the supports and processes available.

Overcoming the stigma

It is regrettable that, historically at least, the use of formal corporate insolvency mechanisms to restructure struggling businesses has been viewed quite negatively by the Irish business community. The inference is that such businesses were somehow mismanaged when, in reality, this was often not the case.

Companies can fall into financial difficulty for various reasons. Factors outside the control of company directors can necessitate a formal restructure rather than the terminal alternative of liquidation. Now, in the middle of a pandemic, a previously successful business operator, through no fault of their own, can find themselves saddled with an unsustainable level of debt and risk becoming insolvent.

While government support measures were necessary to prevent widespread corporate failures and potential social unrest, for many companies, these actions may have simply delayed the inevitable and kicked the can further down the road. In most corporate insolvencies, there is an expected level of pressure for money that the company does not have, which precipitates a formal restructure. This pressure has been temporarily released, but the creditor strain will inevitably build again when trading resumes.

‘Zombie’ companies

Low insolvency numbers for 2020 are therefore misleading. There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that several companies have ceased trading, have no intention of reopening and, in some instances, have handed the keys of their premises back to landlords. However, these ‘zombie’ companies are not included in the insolvency statistics, as they continue to avail of government supports and will be wound up whenever the supports end. While helpful, the subsidies and supports do not cover the entire running costs of a business, and many companies continue to rack up debt as their doors remain closed. These debts may seem insurmountable, but there is hope.

The Great Recession vs the COVID-19 crisis

This current recession is in stark contrast to the ‘Great Recession’ that resulted from the banking crisis of 2008. Back then, there was a systemic lack of liquidity in the market due to the collapse of Ireland’s banking sector, which left SMEs with little or no access to funding. This time, there are several re-capitalisation options with banks (including the new challenger banks) in a position to provide funding, especially through the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland (SBCI) Loan Scheme. Many private equity funds are also willing and ready to invest in Irish businesses.

After the pandemic

All the while, the Government can borrow at negative interest rates to stimulate growth and recovery. With the vaccine roll-out, we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. This begs the question: what will happen when the pandemic is over? There are several key points to note:

  • Consumer behaviour: it is reasonable to assume that a large portion of the population will revert to normal. This could generate a domestic economy similar to the rejuvenation that followed the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and the end of the First World War. There is certainly pent-up demand and savings (deposits held in Irish financial institutions were at an all-time high of €124 billion in late 2020). Unfortunately, a portion of society will change their consumer habits forever due to COVID-19, which will have a detrimental effect on businesses that find themselves on the wrong side of history and unable to survive the recovery.
  • Government action: how the Government reacts will have lasting repercussions. Difficult and unpopular decisions are likely required to pay for the ever-rising cost of the pandemic and its restrictions. Such choices may result in an increase in direct and/or indirect taxes, with less disposable income circulating in the economy. The UK Government has already made moves in this direction with its 2021 budget.
  • The Revenue Commissioners: Revenue’s intended course of action is currently unclear in relation to clawing back the €1.9 billion of tax that has been warehoused or how aggressively it will pursue Irish companies for current tax debt after the pandemic is over. Early indicators are that Revenue will revert to a business-as-usual strategy sooner rather than later.
  • Banks and other financial lenders: the attitude of Irish banks and financial institutions to non-performing loans remains to be seen. Banks have been accommodating to date and worked with, rather than against, borrowers – a criticism levelled against them in the wake of the 2008 banking collapse. Personal guarantees provided by directors to financial institutions to acquire corporate debt, particularly in the SME sector, will have a significant bearing on successful corporate restructuring options.
  • The attitude of landlords: landlords in Ireland are a broad church, ranging from those with small, family-operated single units to large, multi-unit institutional landlords or pension funds. Landlord-tenant collaboration is essential for stable retail and hospitality sectors, and in the main, rent deferrals were a foregone conclusion during the various lockdown stages of the pandemic. However, these rent deferrals still have to be dealt with.
  • The attitude of general trade creditors: in certain instances, smaller trade creditors in terms of value have been the most aggressive in debt collection and putting pressure on businesses to repay debts as soon as their doors reopen.
Companies with healthy balance sheets and those that managed their cash flow prudently will be the ones to come out the other side of this pandemic when the government supports subside. Businesses will need time to:

  • Assess the post-pandemic consumer demand for their products and services; 
  • Assess their reasonable future cash flow projections;
  • Agree on payment arrangements for old and new debt; and
  • Make an honest assessment of whether they will be able to trade their way through the recovery phase.
For those who have been worst hit, however, all is not lost. Ireland has some of the most robust restructuring mechanisms in the world, with low barriers to entry and very high success rates. The fallout can be mitigated if company directors take appropriate steps.

Restructuring options

When it comes to successful restructuring, being proactive remains the key advice from insolvency professionals. Too often, businesses sleepwalk into a crisis. Options narrow if there has been a consistent and pronounced erosion of the balance sheet. Those who act fast and engage with experts have the best chance of survival.

1. Examinership

There are various restructuring options available, but examinership is currently most suitable for rescuing insolvent SMEs.

The overarching purpose of examinership is to save otherwise viable enterprises from closure, thereby saving employees’ jobs. In 2019, liquidations accounted for 70% of the total number of corporate insolvencies in Ireland, and examinership only accounted for 2% of the total. It is plain that a higher portion of those liquidations could have been prevented, jobs saved, and value preserved if an alternative restructuring option like examinership had been taken.

There are only two statutory criteria for a company to be suitable for examinership:

  1. 1. It must be either balance sheet insolvent or cash flow insolvent. It cannot pay debts as and when they fall due; and
  2. It must have a reasonable prospect of survival. 
The rationale for examinership in a post-pandemic environment is therefore clear. Companies saddled with debt will likely meet the insolvency requirement, and historically profitable companies that have become insolvent due to the closures associated with the pandemic will pass the ‘reasonable prospect of survival’ test.

Once appointed, the examiner must formulate a scheme of arrangement, which is typically facilitated by new investment or fresh borrowings. The scheme will usually lead to creditors being compromised and the company emerging from the process solvent and trading as normal.

2. The Summary Rescue Process

One of the main criticisms levelled at examinership is the perceived high level of legal costs required to bring a company successfully through the process. To address this perceived issue, in July 2020, An Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar TD, wrote to the Company Law Review Group (CLRG) requesting that it examine the issue of rescue for small companies and make recommendations as to how such a process might be designed.
The CLRG’s reports in October 2020 recommended the ‘Summary Rescue Process’. It would utilise the key aspects of the examinership process and be tailor-made for restructuring small and micro companies (fulfilling two of the following three criteria: annual turnover of up to €12 million, a balance sheet of up to €6 million, and less than 50 employees). Such companies constitute 98% of Ireland’s corporates and employ in the region of 788,000 people. A public consultation process is now underway to finetune the legislation.

Here is what we know so far about the Summary Rescue Process:
  • It will be commenced by director resolution rather than court application.
  • It will be shorter than examinership (50-70 days has been suggested).
  • A registered insolvency practitioner will oversee the process.
  • Cross-class cramdown of debts will be possible, which binds creditors to a restructuring plan once it is considered fair and equitable.
  • It will not be necessary to approach the court for approval unless there are specific creditor objections.
  • Safeguards will be put in place to guard against irresponsible and dishonest director behaviour.
  • A proposed rescue plan and scheme will be presented to the company’s creditors, who will vote on the resolutions. A simple majority will be required to approve the scheme.
The Summary Rescue Process will be a huge step forward. The process of court liquidation has been systematically removed from the court system in recent years in favour of voluntary liquidations. This new rescue process will bring a similar approach to formal restructuring, allowing SMEs greater access to a low-cost restructuring option akin to a voluntary examinership. It will give more hope to companies adversely affected financially by the pandemic that options exist for their survival.

Neil Hughes FCA is Managing Partner at Baker Tilly in Ireland and author of A Practical Guide to Examinership, published by Chartered Accountants Ireland.