Personal Bankruptcy and the Level of Entrepreneurial Activity
Working Paper No. 2000-02
38 Pages Posted: 14 Apr 2000
Date Written: March 2000
The U.S. personal bankruptcy system functions as a bankruptcy system for small businesses as well as for consumers. When firms are non-corporate, debts of the firm are personal liabilities of the entrepreneur/owner. If the firm fails, the entrepreneur has an incentive to file for bankruptcy under Chapter 7, since both business debts and the entrepreneur's personal debts will be discharged. The entrepreneur must give up assets above a fixed bankruptcy exemption level for repayment to creditors, but future earnings are entirely exempt. Exemption levels are set by the states and they vary widely.
We show that higher bankruptcy exemption levels benefit potential entrepreneurs by providing partial wealth insurance. This means that the predicted relationship between the probability of owning a business and the exemption level is positive at low exemption levels, but may be either positive or negative at high exemption levels, depending on whether higher bankruptcy costs outweigh the gain from additional insurance. We test this prediction and find evidence that the probability of owning a business is about 28% higher if potential entrepreneurs live in states with unlimited exemptions rather than low exemptions. We also find evidence that families are significantly more likely to start businesses if they live in states with high or unlimited, rather than low, bankruptcy exemptions. They are also more likely to organize their businesses as non-corporate rather than corporate if they live in states with high exemptions.
JEL Classification: E6, K2, M13, L5
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