NCS Insights for Credit Management in 2021

Bankruptcy Climate of 2020, Predictions for 2021, and What You Need to Do to Ensure Your Company is a Secured Creditor

The events of 2020 will not soon be forgotten. A year that began with hope and optimism was quickly darkened by a pandemic that locked down economies for weeks and months. Businesses that had been sluggish prior to the pandemic crumbled as consumers hunkered down at home, many losing their jobs and millions facing a healthcare crisis. Commercial bankruptcy filings increased 29% in 2020, leaving unsecured creditors scrambling to recover pennies on the dollar. In this article we will review the bankruptcy climate of 2020, predictions for 2021, and what you need to do to ensure your company is a protected creditor.

Bankruptcy Current Affairs

Epiq recently reported bankruptcy filings across all chapters are at their lowest point since 1986. However, commercial Chapter 11 bankruptcies continued to rise year over year, with a 29% increase in 2020, for a total of 7,128 filings.

“The peak in Chapter 11 filings for Q2 and Q3 is due to preexisting distressed companies coupled with the onset of a zero-revenue environment. The federal backstop proved a vital lifeline for the stabilization of corporations to protect the US economy,” said Deirdre O’Connor, managing director of corporate restructuring at Epiq. Unsurprisingly, the foodservice industry was on track to lose $240 billion in sales by the end of 2020. Between March & July, the foodservice industry had lost $165 billion, and consumer spending in restaurants was down more than 30%. Restaurant chains that filed bankruptcy in 2020 included Sizzler, Ruby Tuesday, Friendly’s, Souplantation, Chuck E. Cheese, NPC International (parent company for 100s of Pizza Hut and Wendy’s locations), and California Pizza Kitchen. The energy, retail, and consumer services sectors with liabilities exceeding $50M had the most filings since 2009 according to Bloomberg. Amid the pandemic, well known retailers like J.C. Penney Co. Inc., Neiman Marcus Group Inc., Lord & Taylor LLC, Stein Mart Inc., True Religion, Modell’s Sporting Goods, J. Crew Group, Sur La Table, GNC, Ascena Retail Group, RTW Retailwinds, Guitar Center, and Pier 1 Imports filed bankruptcy in 2020. These bankruptcies not only impacted the retail employees, they also trickled up to landlords. As retailers missed rent payments, landlords found themselves suffering losses which sent them into bankruptcy as well. And as oil prices plummeted, energy companies collapsed at an alarming rate. From Latham & Watkins LLP: “In the first 10 months of the year, 101 oil companies with a total of $94 billion in debt filed for bankruptcy. More than 95% of these bankruptcies fell under the upstream exploration and production and oil field services segment with the largest filings being Diamond Offshore Drilling Inc., $11.8 billion, Chesapeake Energy Corp., $11.8 billion, and McDermott International Inc., $9.9 billion.” Then there is the healthcare industry. As if healthcare systems aren’t buried under an immense strain, poor financial health pushed dozens of large health systems to bankruptcy. According to the American Hospital Association “Hospitals face catastrophic financial challenges in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The AHA estimates a total four-month financial impact of $202.6 billion in losses for America’s hospitals and health systems, or an average of $50.7 billion per month.” Unfortunately, the financial distress pummeling these industries is likely to get worse long before it gets better. Despite the optimism surrounding vaccine rollouts, experts and analysts estimate a large wave of consumer and commercial bankruptcies in the first two quarters of 2021. Commercial bankruptcies are likely to include retail, healthcare, energy and additional industries like gyms, movie theaters, leisure services, and real estate firms.

11 Steps to Take Right Now

Fortunately, there is a silver lining in these grey financial times. Economic uncertainty offers many opportunities to improve your competitive position. Here are steps you can take right now:

  1. Re-examine your existing credit policies.
  2. Make your credit granting process more rigorous.
  3. Ensure your operational systems and customer agreements are in place with accurate and complete credit information.
  4. Research and verify your customers’ legal business names.
  5. Review The National Lien Digest for time and information requirements to protect your lien and bond claim rights.
  6. Monitor and review mechanic’s lien activity in LienFinder.
  7. If your department has been downsized and resources are limited, contact your credit vendors to obtain and verify credit history, credit scoring, UCC or lien searches.
  8. Implement Bankruptcy Monitoring to ensure you are timely notified of any debtor bankruptcy.
  9. Prepare Security Agreements as well as Personal and Corporate Guaranties, which are powerful tools to determine and/or minimize your risk.
  10. Talk to your trade groups and exchange financial information on mutual customers.
  11. Most importantly, secure your collateral.

Laws in Place to Protect Your Company

The U.S. government provides two bodies of law to help you with securing collateral: Article 9 – Secured Transactions of the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) and The Mechanic’s Lien Laws. Who you are selling to determines which solution will put you in the best position to get paid. Here are several options to consider:

  • Article 9 provides the venue to secure personal property such as accounts receivable, inventory, equipment, general intangibles, goods, and software.
  • The UCC benefits your company when a customer defaults or files bankruptcy. If a customer defaults on payment terms and you have a signed Security Agreement that clearly defines default, you now have a breach of contract and can use this tool to repossess your goods or sue for payment.
  • In a bankruptcy, all creditors are split into two classes: secured and unsecured. In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, secured creditors are paid first in the date order of the recorded financing statement. Unsecured creditors split what remains on a pro-rated basis, often receiving pennies on the dollar. The UCC filing elevates the status of your receivable to that of a secured creditor.
  • In a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, all secured creditors have the same status, which provides them with substantial leverage over the unsecured creditors as it relates to liquidation. Now is the time to incorporate the UCC process into your credit policies.
  • If you restructure past due receivables through installment notes, be sure to secure those notes.

UCC Article 9

Meeting the requirements of Article 9 requires you to collect information to better know and understand your new and existing customers. It is important that you:

  1. Have an updated signed Credit Application.
  2. Know the organization’s legal name and if it is registered with the Secretary of State, as well as its corporate address and shipping locations.
  3. Confirm the names of owners and officers.
  4. Understand your customer’s business and how it is using the products and services you provide.
  5. Verify whether your customer is in a community property state. If so, it is necessary that all liable parties sign all documents.

If you don’t have the time to gather this information, get your sales team involved. Offer a bonus to your team for accurately completed Credit Applications. And encourage them to be creative! For instance, rather than referring to the required but potentially threatening term “Security Agreement,” consider calling it a “Partnership Advantage Program.” Remember when customers turn to you for help, whether they are requesting extended payment terms, are currently past due or are seeking a credit limit increase, you’re in the perfect position to leverage this opportunity to become a secured creditor and reduce your credit risk.

Preliminary Notices, Mechanic’s Liens & Bond Claims

If you work in the construction industry you know that construction credit has its own unique process. To ensure that you’re making good credit decisions, take the time to update customer data and review your procedures. Start with researching your clients’ corporate information. Insist that job sheets be completed for every project, better yet, gather the information electronically with systems like the NCS Job App. Know the project address of where your materials or services are being furnished. Confirm who owns the property and who the general contractor is. You also have the opportunity to tie yourself into the trust fund of monies set aside for the project. To do so you must consistently serve preliminary notices and file Mechanic’s Liens or Bond Claims to secure your accounts receivables. These laws were created to protect owners of construction projects and ensure all contractors, subcontractors, and material suppliers receive the money owed them. Carefully follow the statutory guidelines within each state because small missteps could jeopardize your security. Protect your rights and benefit from your secured interest in case your customer or someone else in the contractual chain defaults or files for bankruptcy. If you are concerned a customer may file for bankruptcy, consider exchanging a carefully worded lien waiver for payment. Currently, that payment may not be considered preferential because the debtor received something in consideration for the payment. Attorneys have successfully used this argument in defense to preference claims. Setting up a defense by using a lien waiver is a smart move, although it doesn’t provide a guarantee.

Credit & Compassion

Every credit professional needs a well-planned credit process with a side of reasonable compassion. Keep in mind that how you treat your customers today will reap great benefits tomorrow. Take a balanced approach and try not to be too aggressive towards a good customer who has recently fallen on hard times. The economy will rebound, and your customer will remember your tempered approach to their situation. After all, it is both what you do and how you do it that earns a client’s loyalty. And a loyal customer is the best hedge to ensure your company’s long-term health.

NCS Is Here for You

In today’s tough economy, working with a responsive, flexible strategic partner is critical. As you spend more time each week extinguishing proverbial credit fires, having an expert to react quickly when special problems arise can make an immense difference. Our expertise in UCCs, mechanic’s liens, and commercial collections, will help you minimize your risk and improve your profitability, and our investments in cutting edge technology found in LienFinder, The National Lien Digest, and LienTracker Online will save you time.

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