The economic rationale for the new Insolvency Service of Ireland is well-founded in economic theory. It hinges on the concept of Pareto improving bargains. The idea is that a debtor, with the guidance of a personal insolvency practitioner, can construct a Pareto improving bargain to everyone’s benefit: the debtor, the lender, and society as a whole.
Consider a debtor with unsustainable debt who, to avoid the personal and social costs of bankruptcy, goes to a personal insolvency practitioner (PIP). The PIP objectively examines the debtor’s situation and suggests a payment scheme which offers only part-repayment of loan value. Let the offered proportion of loan value be denoted by OFFER where OFFER < 1. If OFFER = 1 then the debtor is not insolvent since he/she can afford full-value payment and the PIP has no role. The PIP describes the offered repayment plan to the lender (or lenders).
The lender knows that the alternative to a personal insolvency plan is bankruptcy for the borrower, and that bankruptcy entails large financial costs, most of which will be borne by the lender. The uncertain proportion of loan value received by the lender after accounting for bankruptcy costs will be denoted by RECOVER. The debtor will accept the PIP offer if it provides higher expected value of total payments:
OFFER > E[RECOVER], (A)
where E[ ] denotes the expected value.
The economic rationale for this process is that it can make all three interested parties (debtor, lender, and society) better off. The debtor avoids the personal/social costs of bankruptcy; the lender gets a loan recovery amount which is higher than the expected bankruptcy-cost-adjusted amount received otherwise. Society avoids administrative bankruptcy costs and gets the benefits of a debtor freed more quickly from debt distress. Of course the PIP has lots of other duties (counselling the debtor, dealing with multiple lenders, administrative duties) but dealing with equation (A) is very fundamental.
The banks understand equation (A); the politicians understood equation (A) when they set up the enabling legislation. Does anyone in the Insolvency Service of Ireland understand equation (A)? It is fundamental to the Service performing its important task competently.
The Primetime news show recently highlighted a young couple whose PIP offer was rejected. I do not want to focus particularly on the individual case, keeping in mind the adage “hard cases make bad law.” According to the discussion in the show, the couple owed a mortgage-related debt of €276,000 and their PIP constructed an alternative loan repayment of €2,000. That is, relying on the numbers as discussed in the show, they made an offer of:
OFFER = 2,000/276,000 = 0.0072.
It is important for clarity to note that this does not denote a concessionary interest rate of 72 basis points; rather, 72 basis points is the total proportion of repayment including all principal repayment. Unsurprisingly, the PIP offer was rejected by the lender.
One could argue that the bank could just forgive the couple the loan debt as a gift (skip the 0.0072 partial payment which is too miniscule to consitute a meaningful debt settlement arrangement). That is, the insolvency system can be brought in as a useful component of parish pump politics, in the good sense, of parish pump politics as using the political system to create unfunded sources of benefits for local causes. There is certainly a case for doing this, but it was not actually the intention of the legislation. Doing so would greatly increase the effective political power of the ISI as controller of this new source of unfunded social benefits.
A technical feature of equation (A) is a convexifying effect for OFFER proportions close to zero. OFFER is known with certainty whereas RECOVER is a random proportion. Since RECOVER has a lower bound at zero, Jensen’s inequality means that the expected value of RECOVER is much higher than its maximum likelihood value in the region near zero. Is seems extremely difficult to create a scenario where E[RECOVER] could fall as close to zero as 0.0072.
The head of the Insolvency Service of Ireland was on the Primetime show, but he did not seem to be familiar with equation (A), or did not consider it relevant. He did seem to understand that if the ISI had the power to force deals without worrying about (A), then parish pump political considerations would give the agency much greater power. Yet equation (A) was extremely relevant and the absence of any appropriate analysis associated with it detracted considerably from the clarity of the discussion. The staff at the Irish Insolvency Service could benefit from the 30-minute lesson in the economic rationale for their agency’s existence.
[I added a few edits to correct typos, respond to comments (thanks to Sarah Carey and to other commenters who induced me to think more carefully). There may be some time-inconsistencies between the earlier comments below and the later edits.]