Bankruptcy and stocks

Do you have options if the stock of a company you own declares bankruptcy?

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Key takeaways

  • When a publicly traded company declares bankruptcy, that doesn't mean the stock immediately becomes worthless. However, existing shareholders may not be able to recover some or all of their investment. 
  • Corporate bankruptcy laws govern how a company goes out of business or attempts to recover.
  • During bankruptcy, a stockholder might choose to sell the stock or hold onto it anticipating a recovery.

One of the most devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic—in addition to the human toll—has been the torrent of businesses, both big and small, forced into bankruptcy. Commercial US bankruptcies have already surpassed that of last year, and while they are not likely to reach the totals witnessed in the years after the financial crisis, they are on pace for multi-year highs (see Commercial bankruptcies climb due to COVID-19 table below).

In recent years, retailers have dominated this list, as shifting shopping behaviors have altered the consumer landscape. Thus far this year, retailers continue to be in the crosshairs, but have been joined by restaurants, workout chains, and other businesses that have been hurt by COVID-19. Among the largest US companies that have already declared bankruptcy this year are 24 Hour Fitness, Advantage Rent A Car, Brooks Brothers, Chuck E. Cheese operator CEC Entertainment, GNC, Gold’s Gym, Hertz, JC Penney, J. Crew, Lucky Brand, Modell’s Sporting Goods, Neiman Marcus, Noble Corporation, The Paper Store, Pier 1 Imports, Stein Mart, and Tuesday Morning. Most analysts expect that, if the pandemic does not abate, retailers and restaurants will continue to be among the hardest hit industries.

If you have a stock investment in a company that you believe is at risk of declaring bankruptcy, or is currently in bankruptcy proceedings, here is what you need to know.

Bankruptcy and stocks

Investors who own shares of a company that has declared bankruptcy face a difficult choice: Do you hang onto the shares or do you cut your losses and attempt to sell your shares?

It's entirely possible that a stock investment will lose money and, in the worst-case scenario, it could go to zero. Unfortunately, the shares of a company that files for bankruptcy are at heightened risk of the latter occurring.

Warning signs

Obviously, you would rather own strong investments that align with your investment objectives and risk constraints. However, some investors can and do own stocks with poor prospects for the future. The reasons can be many. Maybe the company is relatively new and not established in the market yet. Maybe it's a long-term investment that has had its ups and downs in the past but has a track record of surviving tough times. Or maybe it's a smaller, speculative position. And the COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder that exogenous factors beyond a company’s control can quickly change the dynamics of an investment.

If for some reason you end up owning stock of a company that is not on firm footing, it is critically important to understand all of its risks, and to determine if the investment remains appropriate for your strategy.

Typically, a publicly traded company will exhibit several signs of distress well in advance of declaring bankruptcy. Significant and persistent declines in reported earnings and revenues, failure to raise needed investment capital, credit rating downgrades, and other company-specific events can indicate the company is experiencing severe problems.

Of course, any of these occurrences would warrant a reevaluation of the company to determine if you still want to bear the risk and if it aligns with your investment strategy.

If you own and have decided to hang onto the shares of a company that is exhibiting these signs, but you remain concerned about the possibility of bankruptcy, one tool that provides an easy-to-assess output is the Altman Z-score. This score estimates the probability of bankruptcy using multiple financial ratios to assess a company's liquidity, profitability, leverage, and activity.* The higher a company's Z-score, the less likely it is to declare bankruptcy in the near future, and the lower a company's Z-score, the more likely it is to declare bankruptcy. You may be able to find this information in financial reporting databases.

Investing involves risk, and idiosyncratic risk of any individual stock is significant. That risk may be heightened for the shares of companies experiencing acute financial distress. These situations highlight the dangers of having too great an investment in individual positions relative to your entire investment portfolio, as well as the importance of appropriate diversification and the challenges (and necessity) of robust fundamental research.

Declaring bankruptcy

Many companies will explore all other available options in order to avoid having to declare bankruptcy. This can entail seeking an investment (perhaps via a cash infusion, an acquisition, or some other type) to help stabilize the company, exploring a sale of the entire company or some of its major assets, restructuring, or downsizing.

Federal bankruptcy laws govern how US companies go out of business or attempt to recover from severe financial distress when they are struggling to pay their debts. There are 2 main forms of commercial bankruptcy that are relevant to investors under the Bankruptcy Code: Chapter 7 and 11.

Banks and bondholders first

Secured creditors (typically a bank) get paid before all other lenders or investors when a company goes out of business. Unsecured creditors (including suppliers or bondholders) are next on the totem pole, followed by preferred stockholders, and common stockholders are last. Due to stockholders having the weakest claim on company assets, they are least likely to recover funds during bankruptcy.

If a company files for Chapter 7, this means the company stops operations and a trustee is tasked with selling any assets the company owns in order to repay what it can to creditors and investors. In the event you own stock of a company that files Chapter 7 bankruptcy, it will likely become worthless and it is unlikely you will recover any of your investment (see sidebar).

Under Chapter 11 bankruptcy, there is slightly more hope that the company can survive and your stock will not become worthless. Chapter 11 allows a company to "reorganize" so that it might become profitable once again. Under Chapter 11, management runs the day-to-day business operations, but significant decisions are made by a bankruptcy court. Many of the companies that have declared bankruptcy during the pandemic have filed Chapter 11, in the hopes that economic activity might rebound if COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and mortalities abate.

Your options under Chapter 11

Assuming a company of the stock you own declares Chapter 11 bankruptcy, what can you do?

First, it's important to know that once bankruptcy is filed, stockholders will not receive previously scheduled dividend payments and bondholders will not receive principal and interest payments.

One option is to stand pat and maintain your ownership in the stock. In an optimal scenario, the company could negotiate a deal with its creditors under bankruptcy protection laws, reorganize and recover, and/or receive emergency funding from investors (or from the government, in rare instances, as was the case during the financial crisis for the banking and automobile industry).

For example, in June 2009, General Motors (GM) declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and was rescued by the US government. To date, General Motors is the largest company to ever declare bankruptcy that is still in operation, having $82 billion in assets at the time.

Stockholders may be asked by the court-appointed trustee to exchange current stock holdings for new shares in the reorganized company. The trustee may send back new shares that have less proportional ownership in the reorganized company. The trustee will also inform existing shareholders of their new rights, and if anything is expected to be received from the company.

Typically, a company operating under bankruptcy laws will no longer qualify for listing on major exchanges like the Nasdaq or New York Stock Exchange. It is likely to be delisted from those major exchanges, and it may continue to trade on the OTC Bulletin Board (OTCBB) or Pink Sheets. OTCBB/Pink Sheets is a service that allows companies (typically those that are penny stocks or foreign companies who are not listed on a major exchange) to trade, and there are no reporting requirements for these companies. In this event, the stock symbol will be a 5-letter ticker symbol that ends in "Q."

For example, if a company's ticker symbol on a major exchange used to be "WXYZ," it may be listed on the OTCBB or Pink Sheets under "WXYZQ." If new shares have been issued, then the company could have multiple types of shares trading at the same time under different names and ticker symbols.

In the case of General Motors, after it declared bankruptcy on June 1, 2009, the old shares were delisted from the NYSE on June 2. The original shares that were listed under the symbol GM began trading on the OTCBB/Pink Sheets as Motors Liquidation Company GMGMQ (the current ticker symbol for the old shares is MTLQQ). A new entity was created on July 10, 2009—with the aid of the US government—to acquire the operational assets of the company. General Motors completed their IPO in 2010, and the new shares now trade under the original GM ticker symbol.

Options for investors

In addition to maintaining ownership, another option for an investor who owns shares of a company that has declared bankruptcy is to attempt to sell the shares—likely at a significant loss relative to the initial investment. If the investor determines that the existing company is unlikely to emerge from bankruptcy (or even if it might, that the existing shares will be deemed worthless), this may be the best option.

It is worth noting that one problem an investor may encounter is difficulty finding a buyer at a desirable price or at all, given the significant risks associated with these investments.

More importantly, it can be hard to get research and information on the prospects for companies that enter bankruptcy. Recall that stocks listed on OTCBB/Pink Sheets have no public financial reporting requirements. Consequently, investors who choose to own bankrupt companies are essentially on their own. Investing in bankrupt companies is truly speculative and should only be done rarely (if ever), unless the investor is a specialist in researching and investing in financially distressed companies. And even for those who do venture down this path, it should be done with a small portion of the total portfolio, with an acknowledgement of the possibility for a total loss.

Some risk-taking investors consider buying stocks of companies that have declared bankruptcy. The thinking here may be to take a flier on ultra-cheap companies, potentially for pennies on the dollar compared with what it may have previously been worth—essentially, that the future post-reorganization value will exceed the currently depressed share price.

Investing in companies that are operating under any bankruptcy procedures is not a strategy that is advisable for individual investors, regardless of their ability to accept losses, given the significant probability of failure. In fact, even if a company can reorganize under bankruptcy laws and continue to operate, in many instances the creditors and lenders will become the new owners and the plan for reorganization will effectively cancel the existing shares—making them worthless.

Investing implications

If you've been investing long enough, you probably already know that it's possible to have individual positions that can go to zero. Managing an investment of a company operating under bankruptcy laws is a difficult task. In all likelihood, most or all of the investment will be lost. If there are any positive aspects of incurring a loss, it is that those losses may be used to offset realized gains from the sale of other investments for tax purposes. The best course of action is to continually monitor your portfolio, and own companies that align with your investment strategy.

Next steps to consider

Find new investing ideas and get up-to-the-minute market data.

Learn what you need to know before trading the market.

Visit the SEC's website to learn more about what happens to your stock.

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