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Bitter court wars bog down Arcelor, Tata as India law tested
[MUMBAI] India’s new bankruptcy law is being bogged down by bitter court room disputes that include the likes of ArcelorMittal and the Tata Group - jeopardising the law’s promise of time-bound resolution in a country famous for its sluggish legal system.
None of the 12 large debtor companies that the central bank forced into bankruptcy court in June have been sold yet. The National Company Law Tribunal or NCLT, in charge of the process, has extended a 270-day deadline enshrined in the law for Bhushan Power & Steel Ltd and Essar Steel India Ltd by excluding the days under litigation. Others may follow as the courts are inundated with appeals from founders, administrators, lenders and bidders.
The successful resolution of about US$210 billion in stressed loans is crucial to Prime Minister Narendra Modi efforts to clean-up the balance sheets of state-run banks, which hold nearly 90 per cent of impaired assets. The first 12 large cases are being closely watched to gauge whether India can hasten the pace of bad-loan recovery, which the World Bank puts at 4.3 years, ranking the nation at 103 for resolving insolvency.
“Discretionary extensions run the risk of setting a dangerous precedent, driving a hole through the very integrity of the code,” said Ran Chakrabarti, a New Delhi-based finance lawyer and partner at IndusLaw. Should the courts water down the 270-day period, “we’re back to square one, and any hope of a swift liquidation process and an efficient recycling of capital - the very point of any insolvency law - will go out of the window.”
In what was seen as an initial success for the law, Electrosteel Steels Ltd was awarded to billionaire Anil Agarwal’s Vedanta Ltd. The hurrah was short-lived as the process has now been stalled by a court order following an appeal by a rival bidder.
The company tribunal has repeatedly postponed a verdict on a bid for Monnet Ispat & Power Ltd by JSW Steel Ltd. and Apollo Global Management LLC-backed Aion Capital Partners. Tata Steel Ltd is waiting on final approval for its purchase of Bhushan Steel Ltd., even as it appeals an order allowing a late bid by Liberty House Group for Bhushan Power. ArcelorMittal and a VTB Capital-backed consortium are in court over Essar Steel.
Beyond the 12, the fight for Binani Cement Ltd. is also emerging as a test case, with a consortium backed by Bain Capital Credit slugging it out with billionaire Kumar Mangalam Birla’s UltraTech Cement Ltd. While the former had the winning bid under the bankruptcy process, Birla’s company made a late counteroffer and then signed an agreement with Binani’s founders to buy the asset. The matter has been taken to an appellate tribunal and the nation’s supreme court before being referred back to the lenders’ committee.
“If in nine months you can’t get a resolution done then you’ve failed the law,” said Shardul Shroff, executive chairman of law firm Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co, which represents one of the Binani suitors.
“The battle for victory is not the end game for resolution plan, reviving the company is. Therefore, tribunal should avoid getting caught up by challenges and attempts by losing bidders to somehow or the other get back into the game.”