B. The Different Stages of Insolvency Proceedings Under German Law
After a debtor applies for the commencement of insolvency proceedings in the proper German court, it becomes the court’s duty to prevent detrimental changes to the debtor’s estate until the petition has been decided [Sec. 21 InsO]. The court may, for instance, enjoin the debtor from disposing of property or direct that any transfer of property by the debtor to require the consent of the preliminary insolvency administrator (Sec. 21 Para 2 no. 2 InsO). German courts regularly order the latter and appoint a preliminary insolvency administrator whose task is to assess the company’s financial position and to determine if there are sufficient assets to pay the costs of the insolvency proceedings. In most cases, German insolvency courts will take further measures to protect the insolvent estate, e.g., prohibiting compulsory execution against the debtor and its property.
If, after examination by the preliminary administrator, the court orders the opening insolvency proceedings over the debtor’s estate, a final insolvency administrator will be appointed by the court. This administrator is usually the same person that was appointed as the preliminary insolvency administrator in the case. Normally, two to three months will elapse from the day the insolvency petition is filed until the final proceedings are opened.
With the opening of final insolvency proceedings, the right to administer and transfer assets passes from the debtor to the insolvency administrator [Sec. 80 InsO] who will also be responsible for the operation of the company’s daily business. Once the insolvency proceedings have been opened by the court, there are a number of advantages that the administrator may make avail himself of.
C. Right of the Administrator to Challenge Prefiling Transactions
German insolvency law wants to ensure all creditors are treated alike (“par conditio creditorum”). It would be incompatible with this aim if acts of the debtor taken within certain periods prior to filing for insolvency and favoring certain creditors over the others were to be tolerated. Therefore, under certain circumstances the insolvency administrator has the authority to challenge transactions made or entered into by the debtor prior to the filing for insolvency that adversely affect the position of the other creditors [Sec. 129 et seq. InsO]. The administrator may recover transactions challenged for the benefit of the insolvency estate.
For instance, according to Sec. 130 InsO the administrator may challenge a transaction in which the debtor satisfied a creditor’s claim or granted security for such claim – even if the third party was rightfully entitled to receive payment or security – if the transaction occurred in the three months immediately preceding the filing of the insolvency petition, provided that the debtor was illiquid at the time of the transfer and the other party knew about such illiquidity or was aware of facts demonstrating illiquidity. Thus, money or assets that the debtor transferred may be reclaimed and the other party may file its claims with the insolvent estate only. In addition, the administrator may challenge transactions that took place after the filing for insolvency.
Under to Sec. 131 InsO, the administrator may challenge transfers of property and, if the third party had no right to receive payment or the grant of security, recovery may be a relatively easy task. If such transfer occurred during the last month preceding the filing for insolvency (or even after this point in time), the transfer may be challenged without any further requirements. If the transfer occurred in the second or third month prior to the filling for insolvency, the only further condition that the administrator must satisfy to challenge the transaction is that the debtor must have been illiquid at the time of the transfer or that the creditor who benefited from the transaction knew that the transfer discriminated against other creditors.
Moreover, the administrator may contest actions of the debtor that had a direct adverse effect on the remaining creditors if (i) these actions took place within the last three months prior to the filing for insolvency; (ii) if the debtor was illiquid at the time or if the transaction occurred after filing for insolvency; and (iii) the third party was aware of the debtor’s illiquidity or the existence of the insolvency filing at the time of the transfer [Sec. 132 InsO]. There is an additional statutory provision permitting the administrator to challenge agreements for remuneration with companies affiliated with the debtor that are detrimental to the creditors, unless (i) the agreement was executed more than two years prior to filing for insolvency, or (ii) the third party establishes that it was not aware of the debtor’s intention to discriminate against other creditors in connection with the challenged agreement [Sec. 133 Para 2 InsO]. Furthermore, the administrator may challenge transactions in which the debtor voluntarily caused a disadvantage for his creditors if the other party to the transaction knew the debtor acted intentionally in causing the disadvantage, in which case these actions may be avoided if they occurred within ten years of the filing for insolvency relief [Sec. 133 Para 1 InsO]. Finally, the administrator may challenge any repayments of shareholders’ loans made during the year prior to filing for insolvency and any security for shareholders’ loans granted during the 10 years prior to filing for insolvency [Sec. 135 InsO].
D. Privileged Position of New Creditors
Another advantage of insolvency proceedings is that new claims of creditors will be treated as privileged debts. German insolvency law recognizes three different categories of debts. Claims of privileged creditors shall be settled in advance (cf. Sec. 53 InsO); these claims are labeled “Masseverbindlichkeiten” (claims against the insolvency estate). The assets of the insolvency estate will be used first and foremost to settle privileged claims before remaining “regular claims” will receive a pro rata payment from the remaining estate. Finally, there are subordinated claims ranking below the regular claims. Such creditors will only receive a distribution after privileged and regular claims have been fully satisfied but in practice, these claims will receive no distribution. Claims of Opel’s parent company, GM, for repayment of loans or equivalent transactions would be treated as subordinated claims in an Opel insolvency [Sec. 39 Para 1 no. 5 InsO].
E. Employment Law
Further advantages of insolvency proceedings concern German employment law. According to Sec. 113 InsO, the insolvency administrator may terminate employment contracts regardless of any agreed term of such contract or any exclusion of the statutory right of termination. Unless a shorter notice period applies, the insolvency administrator may terminate employment contracts by giving three months’ notice to the end of the month. It must be noted, however, that the statutory rules on protection against unfair dismissals (Kündigungsschutzgesetz) also apply during insolvency proceedings. In addition, under Sec. 183 et seq. of the Act on Social Security (SGB III), employees are entitled to receive Insolvenzgeld (“insolvency money”) from the Federal Employment Agency (Bundesagentur für Arbeit or “BfA”). Employees will receive unpaid wages for the three months before the opening of the insolvency proceedings. This results in a substantial relief for the insolvent business if liquidity is tight – as it has been for Opel.
F. Legal Relationships Between the Debtor and Third Parties
The provisions of German insolvency law enable the administrator to discontinue contracts that have proven to be a burden for the company. These protections arise from German insolvency law’s policy of fostering the reorganization and continuation of troubled businesses. For example the possibility of a successful reorganization will recede if lessors/landlords terminate lease contracts and repossess leased items or – even worse – bar the company from continued use of a factory or other critical facilities. Sec. 112 InsO prohibits a lessor from terminating a lease or tenancy agreement for nonpayment of rent if the default occurred before the insolvency filing, thereby enabling the insolvency administrator to continue to use the premises provided that he continues to pay post-filing rents.
On the other hand, under Sec. 103 InsO, the insolvency administrator may elect to either affirm or discontinue contracts that have been entered into by the insolvent company prior to the opening of the insolvency proceedings and that have not been fully performed as of that date. The other party to the executory contract will have a claim for damages for non-fulfillment of the contract only against the insolvent estate. In many cases, this will prove to be a powerful tool for the administrator to reject unprofitable contracts in order to achieve reorganization.
Finally, a number of provisions in the Insolvency Act offer the advantage of higher liquidity for the insolvent enterprise. Sec. 88 InsO provides that if a creditor has established security rights over the debtor’s assets by way of execution within the month preceding the filing for insolvency, such security right will be void once the insolvency proceedings have been opened. During the insolvency proceedings, any foreclosure of an enforceable judgment against the insolvency estate is prohibited [Sec. 89 InsO].
G. Restructuring Using an “Insolvency Plan”
As already mentioned, a primary goal of German insolvency law is to allow for restructuring and continuation of the insolvent business. The Insolvency Act therefore allows for insolvency proceedings to be governed by a so-called insolvency plan (“Insolvenzplan”, cf. Sec. 217 et seq. InsO). All issues concerning the satisfaction of creditors’ claims, the sale of the debtor’s assets and the distribution of sale proceeds as well as the debtor’s liability after termination of the insolvency proceedings may be dealt with in an insolvency plan in which it is possible to deviate from the provisions of otherwise applicable law [Sec. 217 InsO]. Through an insolvency plan, it is possible to shift the focus of the proceedings from a liquidation of the enterprise to its reorganization, thereby keeping the business alive and maintaining jobs. Insolvency plans will normally grant a maximum of flexibility and will protect the concerns of employees more than would otherwise be the case. The parties benefitting from an insolvency plan may enjoy an unusually broad freedom of contract that allows, for instance, for a moratorium on paying creditors’ claims or a waiver of a portion of creditors’ claims. Furthermore, the insolvency plan may include provisions impairing the security rights of creditors and may contain additional undertakings of single creditors. All insolvency plans must be submitted to the court for review and approval, which will be forthcoming if the plan complies with the Insolvency Act. If approved by the court, the plan will be submitted to a creditors’ meeting for approval. The insolvency plan will be approved if the majority of creditors and the majority of claims of each group of creditors set out in the plan vote to accept the plan [Sec. 244 InsO]. The votes of creditors considered to be “obstructive” may be disregarded when certain requirements are met [Sec. 245 InsO]. If approved, all creditors are bound by the plan. To some extent, German insolvency plan proceedings are akin to proceedings under Chapter 11 of the US Bankruptcy Code. However, an insolvency plan under German law does not allow for restructurings on the level of the shareholders of an insolvent company without shareholders’ consent.159 Although in practice insolvency plan proceedings have been rarely invoked in Germany so far, there are examples where such plans have been used successfully, in particular in large insolvencies to restructure the entire or substantial parts of the affected business.160
Reorganization of a financially distressed debtor can also be achieved by other means. The insolvency administrator may sell portions of the insolvent business to third parties by way of an asset sale transaction (übertragende Sanierung) with the approval of creditors or a creditors’ committee.
Self-administered Insolvency Proceedings
Insolvency proceedings must not necessarily result in the appointment of an insolvency administrator then responsible for the daily business of the company. German insolvency law allows for “self-administered” (Eigenverwaltung) insolvency proceedings [Sec. 270 et seq. InsO]. The insolvent company may apply for self-administration when filing for insolvency. If self-administration does not trigger delayed proceedings or does not otherwise negatively impact creditors, the court may order that the insolvency proceedings be conducted in self-administration. Instead of the insolvency administrator, the court will appoint a custodian (Sachwalter) whose task is to supervise the debtor’s management. The former management of the company will continue to conduct the daily business of the company in the insolvency proceedings. Self-administration has been used successfully in some large insolvencies in Germany and this could be an option for Opel.
I. An Opel Insolvency – a Desirable Alternative?
The pros and cons of an Opel insolvency were extensively debated in 2009. An insolvency would not necessarily have led to a full liquidation of the company but could have offered it some distinct advantages. An insolvency would have provided the chance of a fresh start resulting in a “New Opel” irrespective of whether this goal was achieved as a result of an insolvency plan or by way a sale of those parts of the business with promising prospects. The insolvency could have been structured as self-administered so that even Opel’s management could have remained in place. The administrator’s power to challenge transactions that were detrimental to the creditors Opel’s asset base could have benefitted the insolvency estate. The regulations of German insolvency law would have enabled the administrator (or the debtor in agreement with the custodian, Sec. 279 InsO) to terminate contracts that had not been fully performed, thereby offering the debtor an opportunity to jettison costly contracts. German insolvency law would have protected Opel from creditors trying to repossess leased machines, vehicles or other integral parts of the business. Furthermore, new creditors with claims created only after insolvency proceedings have commenced would have had the rank of privileged creditors making it easier for Opel or its administrator to obtain fresh working capital. Needless to say, that Opel’s insolvency would have mainly worked to the disadvantage of GM as Opel’s shareholder. GM would have lost control over the business of its subsidiary regarded as critical for the development of new automobiles.
However, a number of questions still remain unanswered. Persons opposing insolvency have always argued that insolvency would dramatically jeopardize Opel’s car sales because people would have been reluctant to buy new automobiles from an insolvent manufacturer.161 The experience of New GM demonstrates that this will not necessarily happen. In 2009 car sales in Germany and other major EU countries were mainly driven by car scrapping schemes (Umweltprämien) or “cash for clunkers” initiatives and Opel (like Volkswagen and unlike Daimler and BMW) benefited substantially from such programs. Whether this result could not have been attained if Opel filed for insolvency in 2009 is questionable.
The main risk associated with an Opel insolvency was that major assets, namely a large number of patents and other intellectual property rights, that Opel desperately needed to continue its business, were not owned by Opel. According to press articles, most of the patents and intellectual property rights had been transferred to GM affiliates in America some time ago and it further appeared that GM had transferred these to its lending banks as collateral. Whether or not an insolvency administrator could have successfully challenged these transfers was uncertain. Even if such a challenge would have been successful, enforcing a judgment forcing GM to return these assets or their value to Opel or its administrator of a German court outside Germany would be a questionable matter. In any case, it would have likely taken years to enforce such claims. This was not a viable option if the business were to be restructured and then continued. Some articles therefore more generally take the view that Opel was just too integrated within GM to separate the business in a reasonable time, even in insolvency proceedings.162
Thus ends Chapter 1 of the Opel saga. As of the date of this writing, Opel has not received state aid from Germany or any other EU member state that supports an Opel/Vauxhall facility except for the €1.5 billion Bridge Loan granted by Germany in May, 2009 and repaid in November, 2009. GM, however, has upped the ante by announcing in early March, 2010, that it would increase its planned capital contribution to Opel up to €1.9 billion from its earlier, announced contribution of €600 billion. European state aid would then supply the bulk of the remaining funds, estimated by GM to be €1.8 billion.
The role that state aid played in this drama was a leading one and illustrates two important lessons for the political and economic players involved. First, the events of 2008-2010 concerning Opel are a good example of how legal issues concerning state aid conflict with political interests of states and politicians, especially in an election year. Although the restrictions imposed by EU state aid law are economically sound and, in the long run, are in the best interests of all member states, these regulations interfere with the interests of national politicians affected by the granting or withholding of state aid. Politicians are eager to broadcast to their electorates the simple message that they did all that they could have done to salvage domestic jobs and to prohibit the transfer of tax funds by the recipient of state aid to benefit other countries. The simple, overriding lesson is that EU state aid law provides national governments with numerous instruments to support businesses in the present economic downturn but that, during crises that render state aid critical to economic recovery, there is the greatest need to enforce state aid restrictions in order to maintain the integrity of the single European market.
With respect to an Opel insolvency, that part of the puzzle has not yet been completed. At the outset of the recession’s impact on the European and North American automotive industry, an Opel insolvency could have benefited Opel by granting it a fresh start through the restructuring of its balance sheet and shedding unproductive assets. An insolvency could also have benefited the various suitors for Opel by providing a forum and a mechanism to sell its assets on a “going concern” basis, rather than forcing them to depend upon the uncertain whims of General Motors with respect to the disposition of its controlling equity interest in Opel. On the other hand, given the intertwining of GM and Opel’s respective businesses, especially with respect to intellectual property rights and small car/alternative energy technologies, an attempt to reorganize Opel separately from GM might have resulted in a less-than-surgically-precise separation of the two entities, which could have damaged both automakers.
1 Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., My Years With General Motors, pp. 374-382, Doubleday & Company, Inc., New York (1963).
2 Id., pp. 383-394.
3 Paul Ingrassia, Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry’s Road from Glory to Disaster, p. 213, Random House, Inc., New York (2010) (hereinafter cited as “Ingrassia”).
7 Ingrassia, pp. 217-223; “Auto Execs in the Hot Seat,” Spiegel Online, http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/0,1518,591348,00.html.
8 “As GM Falters, Opel Seeks Government Help,” Spiegel Online, http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,518,druck-590906,00.html.
10 “Merkel’s Offer Slammed,” Spiegel Online,
11 “German Government ‘Has to Step Into the Breach,’” Spiegel Online, http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,592422,00.html.
14 “German Auto Industry Facing the Abyss,” Spiegel Online, http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/0,1518,druck-592658,00.html.
15 Ingrassia, p. 227.
16 Id., p. 232.
18 “German Government Considers Stake in Carmaker Opel,” Spiegel Online, http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,608077,00.html.
19 “Opel Plans Own Restructuring to Avert Layoffs,” Spiegel Online, http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,druck-608527,00.html.
20 “Thousands of Opel Workers Demonstrate Against GM,” Spiegel Online, http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/0,1518,druck-610159,00.html.
21 “Saab Bankruptcy Filing
,” Huffington Post Online,
22 “Berlin Has Doubts About Opel’s Rescue Plan,” Spiegel Online, http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/0,1518,druck-611011,00.html.
23 “Merkel Critical of GM Bailout,” Spiegel Online,
24 “German Minister’s Mission to Save Opel,” Spiegel Online, http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/0,1518,druck-613535,00.html.
26 “Germany Wins Concessions in US Talks on Opel
,” Spiegel Online, http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/0,1518,druck-613819,00.html
27 “‘Germany United Behind Opel,’” Spiegel Online,
28 Ingrassia, pp. 239-243. On April 1, 2009, Chrysler followed Lehman Brothers and filed its own Chapter 11 petition in bankruptcy court.
29 “Europe Celebrates GM CEO Ouster,” Spiegel Online, http://www.spiegel.de/international/business/0,1518,druck-616468,00.html.