I. Introduction and General Characteristics
The current federal bankruptcy law for the Republic of Argentina (“Argentina”) may be found in law number 24,522 of the Commercial Code (the “Code”) which was enacted on July 20, 1995 and made effective December 9, 1995 following approval by the Executive branch of government.
The preceding Bankruptcy law, law number 19,551 of the Code, was enacted in 1972 and was later modified by law number 22,917 of the Code enacted in 1983. The current bankruptcy law is identical to approximately eighty (80) percent of the prior law. Therefore, doctrine and jurisprudence applying law number 19,551, as modified, may serve to interpret a large portion of the new law. Nevertheless, numerous commentaries have already been published regarding the new law, particularly with respect to its new aspects.
B. General Characteristics
By way of comparison with the prior legislation, the new law contains the following general characteristics:
1. Preservation of Structure
The new law maintains the structure of the prior legislation in the order by which various topics are presented, both generally and specifically. The new law also maintains substantially the same text as the old law in the majority of its chapters. Despite the introduction of new and important changes – including modifications in the “spirit” of certain statutory solutions to problems posed by insolvent entities – the preservation of structure and text permits better application of the new law by building on the important doctrine and jurisprudence created under the old law. This also permits better understanding by the non-specialist, who will find that an update in reviewing the new legislation can be completed in relatively short order.
2. Abandonment of the Project ProPosing to Adopt Foreign Legislation
Prior to the enactment of the new legislation, a proposal was circulated to adopt, in general terms, the bankruptcy law of the United States. The proposal ultimately failed, which, according to the author, was correct since insolvency legislation in any country should reflect the variety of cultural and environmental conditions present in the host country. Additionally, the author believes that bankruptcy laws of a given nation should fit, in “glove-like” fashion, the legal norms of the host country which nominally dictate the principles by which solvent institutions regulate themselves and which are applied to insolvent debtors. Each country therefore requires specific legislation for its own judicial institutions which are not copies of those present in other countries, while preserving the significant advantages of applying comparative law principles to analyze and create solutions.
3. Parallel Projects of the Ministry of Justice and Domestic Doctrine and
Prior to the foregoing proposal, a commission created by the Ministry of Justice developed a study which was ultimately published.’ While many of the solutions incorporated in the new law originated from this study, the new law also preserves certain traditional doctrines and jurisprudence.
4. Argentine National Reality and Economic Momentum
Domestic political and economic conditions in existence in Argentina affected the formulation of the new law. An illustration of this phenomenon may be found in certain articles See, e.g., Alegria, “Lights and Shadows in the New Bankruptcy Law”, Enoikos, Faculty of
Economic Sciences (year 4, number 11).
II. Basic Structure of the New Law
Similar to its predecessor, the new statute is divided into four articles with the titles “General Principles”, “Reorganization (“Concurso Preventivo” and “Liquidation” (“Quiebra”).
The fourth section, due to a transcription error in the text of the statute, does not have a title and contains administrative provisions common to all of the other sections, including rules regarding professionals, procedure, small cases and transitions.
The provisions under the reorganization article of the new law are comparable to the reorganization provisions in chapter 11 of the United States Bankruptcy Code (11 U.S.C. et seq.). Nevertheless, the reorganization article also follows certain traditions in Argentine law.
The publisher of the study was Abelado-Perrot, which published the text in 1993.
All terms of art used in this manuscript will be followed in parentheses by the translated original term in Spanish which will be in italics. The translator used certain discretion in translating terms used in the Argentine legal system which do not have a precise counterpart or equivalent in the U.S. legal system.
III. General PrinciPles
A. Cessation of Pavments
The fundamental concept in the commencement of a reorganization continues to be the state of cessation of payments, which originates from European law and is interpreted extensively in Argentine doctrine and jurisprudence.
B. Entities Qualifying to Reorganize
Reorganizations and liquidations may encompass the assets and liabilities of any entity in the general civil arena (including associations and foundations) and in the commercial arena. The new law expressly excludes insurance companies, administrators of retirement plans and pension funds, all of which are subject to unique treatment.
The new law includes the novelty of permitting the reorganization and the liquidation of entities in which the national, provincial or municipal state may be a party regardless of the degree of the state’s participation. A case is currently pending in which this new provision is being applied.
C. Cross Border Insolvency
The fourth article of the new law contains many of the same provisions which were present in article four of the old law. The foreign creditor may exercise its rights in reorganizations and liquidations initiated in Argentina in accordance with certain internationally recognized insolvency principles. In the event of a cross border insolvency involving a domestic liquidation in Argentina and a reorganization overseas, foreign creditors receive their distributions after Argentine domestic creditors receive their distributions.
IV. Reorganizations (“Concursos Preventivos”)
Reorganizations, as well as nonjudicial workouts (“concursos preventivos extrajudiciales”), are the only measures available to prevent a “straight” liquidation under Argentine law. In practice, massive or global credit refinancings have been permitted in Argentine reorganizations (“clubes de bancos”).
B. Filing. Effects of Filing and the “Apertura”
The new law imposes requirements on the debtor in both the initiation and in the period immediately following the commencement of a reorganization which is designated in Argentine jurisprudence as the “Apertura”.
The effects of the Apertura include the administration of the debtor’ s affairs by management with certain restrictions and the supervision of a trustee. If certain acts are imposed contrary to certain legal requirements, management can lose administrative control over the debtor during the course of the reorganization. The Apertura serves to stay or suspend activity against the debtor by interested parties, it permits the debtor to resolve certain pending contracts and it retains certain important effects over pending litigation. The new law also acts to suspend collective bargaining agreements with labor unions over a three (3) year period, applying only general labor law. The new law also contemplates the creation of an interim collective bargaining agreement (“convenio colectivo de crisis”) which is followed until the reorganization plan (“propuesta de acuerdo”) is implemented.
C. Duration the Course of the Reorganization
Once the judge initiates the reorganization, certain rulings and letters to creditors are issued. The new law includes new provisions which permit the debtor to remove itself from the reorganization, provided that a certain majority of creditors agree with the debtor’s removal. This alternative does not require the proposal of a plan of reorganization.
Creditors have a certain period time within which to prove or verify their claims to the trustee or the judge. The verification process is complete upon the entry of a judicial ruling which verifies the claim, or which alternatively finds that the claim is admissible or inadmissible. Creditors with verified claims which have not been reviewed by the debtor or the trustee will have the advantage of resolution by adjudication. However, creditors with admissible claims by judicial ruling but which have also been reviewed by the debtor or the trustee are the onlv creditors whose claims will be counted for voting purposes in connection with a plan of reorganization.
D. General Information. Process and Voting
The trustee presents a general report (“inforrne general”) regarding the background of the debtor and any activity during the course of the reorganization.
The new law contains certain important modifications to the plan of reorganization and the voting process:
(i) Differentiation of voting creditors by classifying creditors and creditor groups in the plan. The classification is proposed by the debtor but is resolved by the judge prior to voting;
(ii) Designation by the judge of an interim creditors’ committee, the composition of which is determined by plan classes;
(iii) An exclusive period which varies from thirty (30) to sixty (60) days commencing from the date on which the judge creates the voting classes, during which a debtor has the exclusive right to propose a plan and obtain creditor approval;
(iv) Broad latitude in making plan proposals involving any solution which may be legally implemented (such as amortization payments, refinancings, asset transfers, etc.);
(v) A requirement that the debtor propose, at a minimum, treatment for unsecured creditor classes; however, the debtor may also incorporate agreements involving secured creditor classes;
(vi) Plan voting by written and certified (by judicial or administrative notary) ballot submitted by the voting creditors. This modification is particularly significant since, under the old law, plan voting was accomplished by a special creditors’ committee (“junta de acreedores”) which is no longer in existence;
(vii) Following the expiration of the exclusive period, alternative plans may be proposed by creditors or third parties for certain types of debtor entities, namely limited liability companies (“sociedades de responsablidades limitadas”), cooperatives (“cooperativas”) or entities in which the government retains an interest. In contrast to the U.S. system, the debtor cannot make a competing proposal since the expiration of the debtor’s exclusive period in effect creates another exclusive period in favor of third party creditors. Under Argentine law and in stark contrast to U.S. Iaw, the judge does not have the authority to impose a plan on any class of creditors by means of a “cramdown”, nor do shareholders or partners comprise a separate creditor class. Another unique and controversial feature of Argentine insolvency law is a doctrine establishing that the first plan proposal to be approved by sufficient votes will be confirmed by the court regardless of the merits of a competing plan proposal which may be submitted for approval after the first plan. The plan obtaining the majority vote may request valuation of the debtor’s assets by the judge in a complex and lengthy proceeding. In practice, most confirmed plans are proposed by the debtor itself; and
(viii) The judge then confirms the plan which has either been proposed first by the debtor during its exclusive period or later by a creditor or a third party in the subsequent exclusive period. In order for the judge to confirm the plan, the requisite majority votes must exist. The old law contained a provision which has been repealed permitting a judge to reject plan confirmation, even with the requisite vote, when the plan was against the “general interest”. A new provision under the new law permits the judge to declare the completion of the reorganization following confirmation and the completion of immediate plan requirements. The trustee may therefore exit the case at an earlier stage than under the old law, which required the trustee ‘ s involvement until all plan provisions had been implemented. However, the new law also perrnits the judge to rule that the plan provisions have been satisfied and completed (“el cumplimiento del acuerdo”) through a special ruling entered when all plan provisions have been met.
E. Group Reorganization Cases
A significant development under the new law which was promoted by the project study sponsored by the Ministry of Justice involves one reorganization proceeding of various entities collectively joined in an economic group. In order for such a proceeding to be initiated, a single judge and one trustee must retain jurisdiction over all of the proposed entities in a given economic group. Despite this requirement, the new law permits that a plan be submitted individually for each entity in the group or collectively by the entire group. If an individual plan is not consummated, only the one entity which submitted the defaulted plan will be liquidated, whereas a default under the collective plan will result in the liquidation of all of the members of the group.
F. Noniudicial Workouts
Another feature under the new law is the separate treatment of nonjudicial workouts. Generally, Argentine law has provided for nonjudicial workouts (“acuerdos preconcursales”) consisting of private agreements between a debtor and all or certain of its creditors. These provisions responded to the practice of implementing nonjudicial workouts through “clubes de bancos”, and permitted certain reasonable assurances for creditors, particularly in the event of subsequent liquidation.
The current nonjudicial workout provisions under the new law implement a new procedure which is ironically judicial in nature. This procedure serves to legitimize a workout agreement by insuring that it contains certain basic provisions and by subjecting the parties to a brief proceeding. Under the new law, the workout agreement only binds the creditors which executed the agreement. Furthermore, once the agreement has been approved by the judge, it may not be collaterally attacked by preexisting or future creditors in the event that the debtor subsequently liquidates.
Significantly, the new law does not specify whether nonjudicial workouts which are not subjected to this procedure are valid and enforceable. For example, the validity of a partial or complete debt refinancing is unclear under these new provisions.
V. Liquidations (“Ouiebras”)
Unlike the numerous changes in the reorganization article, the new law provides fewer novel provisions with regard to liquidations. The liquidation article will therefore be summarized with brevity.
B. Declaration of a Liquidation
A judge will enter an order and thereby initiate a liquidation upon the request of a debtor or a creditor or following a default or nullification of a plan in a reorganization proceeding or nonjudicial workout. The petition filed by the creditor is processed very quickly and in many cases is used to collect accounts receivable or other debts.
C. Conversion to a Reorganization (“Conversion”)
This new procedure replaces the prior procedure under the old law, denominated the “acuerdo resolutorio”, by which an agreement was obtained following the judicial initiation of a liquidation as a means to resolve the state of liquidation. This procedure permits the debtor to require the judge to convert a liquidation proceeding to a reorganization proceeding. This may occur quickly but will not be permitted in the event that a default occurred in an agreement arising from a nonjudicial workout.
D. Effect of a Liquidation
The new law contemplates a large number of effects resulting from the initiation of a liquidation proceeding, some of which will be listed below:
(i) The debtor, its owners and management are prohibited from conducting their business from the date of the judicial declaration for a period of at least one (1) year. This restriction also applies to prior management who were active during the statutory lookback period (“periodo de sospecha”) which is described below. The prohibition period may be reduced by the judge in the event that no evidence of criminal activity exists. On the other hand, this period may be extended or even reestablished if the debtor or its management are subject to a criminal action;
(ii) The debtor is divested (“desapoderado”) of its assets which are administered and eventually disposed by the trustee in accordance with procedures set forth in the new law;
(iii) The new law establishes a lookback period (“periodo de sospecha”) extending prior to the initiation of the liquidation proceeding and which commences on the date on which the debtor ceased paying its obligations. This period may not extend beyond two (2) years prior to either (a) the date of initiation of the liquidation or (b) the date in which the nonjudicial workout agreement is presented, whichever is applicable. In exceptional cases, such as conveyances for no consideration or payments in anticipation of indebtedness, the actions by the debtor during the lookback period may be void ab initio (“ineficaces de pleno derecho”). Remaining actions by the debtor during this period are voidable (“revocables”) if the party with which the debtor performed the act had knowledge that the debtor had ceased paying its obligations. These voidable transactions require a judicial determination which is usually initiated by the trustee but which in certain instances may be initiated by the creditors;
(iv) The new law contains general provisions (“efectos generales”) generally consisting of claims verification by all of the creditors, the suspension of the transfer of assets (with the exception of collateral pledged to secured creditors), the consolidation of all pending litigation into the liquidation proceeding and other matters; and
(v) A special chapter in the new law addresses contractual issues which are pending at the time of bankruptcy which are primarily resolved by application of traditional norms under Argentine law.
E. Extension of the Liquidation Proceedings to Nondebtors
Since 1972, under certain circumstances outside nondebtor entities may be subject to a liquidation proceeding in Argentina. The extension of a liquidation proceeding automatically occurs, without any limitations, to the partners of a liquidating commercial entity. Individuals or corporate entities may also be subject to a liquidation proceeding by “piercing the corporate veil” (“sociedad pantalla”) under which parties abused their control of the corporate entity or transferred title of the debtor’s assets.
F. Other Responsible Parties
The new law provides that fraudulent activity non-debtor parties, including partners, owners or management of the debtor, will result in liability for these parties and their being subject to the bankruptcy proceeding.
G. Elimination of Conduct Evaluation (“Calificacion de Condllcta”)
The new law eliminates the conduct evaluation provisions of the old law which had been criticized for their lack of efficiency. The drafters of the new law recognized the redundancy of keeping the conduct evaluation provisions given the liability provisions for fraudulent and negligent activity under the new law which are described above.
H. Other Matters
The liquidation article in the new law also includes provisions regarding the following:
(i) The administration and sale of assets (which must be initiated four (4) months from the initiation of the liquidation). Under exceptional circumstances, a business may continue to operate after the filing;
(ii) The distribution of proceeds to creditors;
(iii) The conclusion of the liquidation proceeding by agreement among the creditors or by satisfaction of claims in full; and
(iv) Closure of the proceeding due to final distributions having been made or the liquidation of all of the debtor’s assets.
VI. Common Provisions (“Disposiciones Comunes”)
The unnamed Article IV in the new law corresponds to the same article under the old law with the title “Dispociones Comunes”.
Priorities under the new law are genera]ly the same as under the former bankruptcy law in Argentina. Subordinated loans are recognized under the new law.
B. Trustees and Professionals in Bankruptcv Cases
The trustee provisions in the old law have been preserved, with certain minor modifications, under the new law. Trustees in Argentina consist primarily of certified public accountants. The new law contains new provisions regarding the creation of two lists which include (i) List A, comprised of firms which serve in large, complex reorganizations and liquidations and (ii) List B, comprised of independent professionals who serve in the remaining cases. The trustees serve on each list for a period of four (4) years and the trustees are designated by each judge by drawing lots.
2. Other Professionals
Other professionals who participate in the Argentine bankruptcy process include:
(i) Administrators (“coadminstradores”‘) who serve by judicial appointment and generally have a business degree or experience relating to the debtor’s business;
(ii) Creditors’ Committees are appointed. although the role of these committees is controversial partially due to their mandatory appointment in the process;
(iii) Liquidators serve to liquidate the debtor’s assets and may include auctioneers, banks, investment banks or other specialized professionals; and
(iv) Appraisers calculate the value of the debtor’s assets which comprise the bankruptcy estate.
The new law has substantially reduced professional compensation in bankruptcy cases. Generally, compensation has been reduced by fifty (50) percent.
C. Procedural Rules
Since this is a federal law which is applied nationally in Argentina, the procedural rules have similar universal application through the country.
D. Small Business Reoroanizations and Liquidations
The new law contains two articles addressing small business reorganizations and
liquidations. In order to qualify for special treatment, the debtor must have one of the following characteristics: (i) liabilities totaling less than $100,000; (ii) no more than twenty (20) unsecured creditors; or (iii) no more than twenty (20) employees. In any event, the “simplification” of the proceedings described in the article for these small cases do not appear to be sufficient.
E Special Aspects of the New Law
Since no parallel laws were distinctly used as a guideline for the new law, certain practical problems exist in its application. One dilemma involves the valuation issues addressed by a judge when confronted with a “cramdown” scenario in a plan of reorganization to be imposed upon opposing creditors. These classic valuation problems may be manifested by overly optimistic values attributed to a debtor’s assets or by depressed values which do not reflect such assets as intangibles.
2. Creditors’ Committees
As discussed, the new contains numerous imprecise provisions, among them a requirement of the creation of three (3) separate creditors’ committees during the course of a reorganization. In practice, these committees are not effective or have very limited effects.
3. Small Business Reorganizations
In practice, the vast majority of reorganization cases in Argentina involve small debtors. The old law, and in part the new law, require long and convoluted reorganization proceedings which are inefficient economically and occupy substantial amounts of judicial and professional resources. A consensus exists in the professional community to greatly simplify these proceedings in order to avoid protracted resolution and great expense. The study sponsored by the Ministry of Justice contained a more comprehensive and efficient proposal than that which was ultimately enacted under the new law.
4. Time Issues
The application of the new law in reorganizations and liquidations, particularly immediately following enactment, is resulting in numerous conflicts which protract the proceedings and foster insecurity and slowness which are contrary to the goals of this legislation.
5. VotinsJ System and “Cartas Poder
The old law in Argentina provided for a simple document, the “carta poder”, which was used in voting for or against plans of reorganization. The new law omits this provision, thereby creating numerous difficulties and increasing costs, particularly in nonjudicial workouts.
6. Restrictions on Business Activitv
While the elimination of the “calificacion” system for evaluating fraudulent activity can be viewed as a positive development, its substitution by a doctrine of automatic restrictions on any business activity for the debtor and its management may be considered unjust and draconian since the duration of these restrictions may be indefinite if criminal litigation is pending.
7. Liquidation of Assets
The new law provides for a brief period during which assets are to be liquidated.
The author agrees with this concept but also believes that a more streamlined procedure with greater judicial powers should be implemented in order to further expedite asset liquidation.
8. Refinancings and Private Agreements
The lack of any provisions in the new law regarding refinancings and nonjudicial workouts which are not judicially ratified – and the excessive costs and formalities associated with the nonjudicial workout provisions under the new law – both generate uncertainty when business refinancings or restructurings occur in practice.
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