Asset Sales and Financial Distress
| Peter Klein |
“What is prudence in the conduct of every private family can scarce be folly in that of a great kingdom,” Adam Smith famously observed. I noted in an earlier post on raising the debt ceiling that restructuring US government securities is hardly the “nuclear” option it’s portrayed in the pundit world; bankrupt firms, like bankrupt families and firms, restructure their debt obligations all the time. The notion of T-Bills as a sort of sacred relic, to be once and forever “risk-free,” seems more like religion than economics to me.
But, more important, there is another option for entities struggling to make their interest payments: asset sales. Just in the last couple days Bob Murphy, David Friedman, and Steve Horwitz have made this point. Public discussion on the US debt crisis assumes that the only options for meeting US debt obligations are increasing taxes, cutting spending, or both. But asset sales are another viable option. There’s a huge literature on this in corporate finance (e.g., Shleifer and Vishny, 1992; Brown, James, and Mooradian, 1994; John and Ofek, 1995), exploring the benefits and costs of asset sales as a source of liquidity for financially distressed firms. Of course, selling assets under dire circumstances, at fire-sale prices, is far from a first-best option but, as this literature points out, often better than bankruptcy or liquidation. (One of the best-known results, from John and Ofek, is that asset sales tend to increase firm value when they result in an increase in focus. Would it really be so bad if the US government sold off some foreign treasuries and currency, the strategic petroleum reserve, its vast holdings of commercial land, and other elements of a highly diversified, and unaccountably bloated, portfolio?)