Bankruptcy's Uneasy Shift to a Contract Paradigm

42 Pages Posted: 25 Jul 2018 Last revised: 18 Dec 2019

See all articles by David A. Skeel

David A. Skeel

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School; European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI)

George G. Triantis

Stanford Law School

Date Written: 2018


The most dramatic development in twenty-first century bankruptcy practice has been the increasing use of contracts to shape the bankruptcy process. To explain the new contract paradigm—our principal objective in this Article—we begin by examining the structure of current bankruptcy law. Although the Bankruptcy Code of 1978 has long been viewed as mandatory, its voting and cramdown rules, among others, invite considerable contracting. The emerging paradigm is asymmetric, however. While the Code and bankruptcy practice allow for ex post contracting, ex ante contracts are viewed with suspicion.

We next use contract theory to assess the two modes of contracting. The principal benefit of ex post contracting stems from the parties’ inability to anticipate each possible future contingency. Whereas an ex ante contract faces the challenge of providing for many possible future states of the world, an ex post contract can provide for the one that materialized. Ex ante contracting also provides distinct benefits, however, even if it is incomplete. It can encourage reliance on investments by the parties, efficiently allocates risk, and establishes incentives. Given time-inconsistent preferences of the parties, the prospect of ex post contracting can prevent the parties from exploiting these benefits. Contract theory has shown that it is difficult in practice for parties to prevent renegotiation or otherwise avoid this outcome.

We apply these insights to a number of key areas of current bankruptcy contracting including: the ex post contracts facilitated by the voting and confirmation rules of the Code itself; the use (and contrasting judicial treatment) of intercreditor and restructuring support agreements to contract around ostensibly mandatory Chapter 11 provisions; and substantive consolidation of the cases of a debtor and its affiliates. Even if all of the relevant parties consent, an ex post renegotiation may be inefficient if it undermines the parties’ ex ante arrangements. Yet, bankruptcy encourages such ex post contracting while discouraging ex ante attempts to avoid this outcome. We conclude that courts are too hostile to ex ante contracting, and they should subject ex post contracts to more careful review.

Keywords: Bankruptcy, contracts, covenants, debt structure, ex post, ex ante, asymmetry, contingencies, renegotiation, multiple creditors, security design, pre-commitment, reorganization, judicial review, public policy, creditor rights

JEL Classification: G33, K12, K22

Suggested Citation

Skeel, David A. and Triantis, George G., Bankruptcy's Uneasy Shift to a Contract Paradigm (2018). University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 166, p. 1777, 2018, U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 18-21, Stanford Law and Economics Olin Working Paper No. 526, Available at SSRN:

David A. Skeel (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States
215-573-9859 (Phone)
215-573-2025 (Fax)

European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI)

c/o the Royal Academies of Belgium
Rue Ducale 1 Hertogsstraat
1000 Brussels

George G. Triantis

Stanford Law School ( email )

559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305-8610
United States

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