Bankruptcy filings in the Washington region fell through the first four months of 2012, reflecting a nationwide trend of families and businesses appearing to get on more stable financial footing, according to the American Bankruptcy Institute.
There were a total 21,253 business and personal filings in Maryland, Virginia and the District as of the end of April, down 8 percent from a year earlier. Virginia, where the majority of filings derived, registered the largest drop with a 10.4 percent decline to 11,796 filings. The District, meanwhile, recorded the fewest filings with 329 on the books.
Nationwide, the total number of bankruptcy filings in April fell 16 percent compared with the previous year, to 108,865. Commercial filings fell 25 percent to 5,132 for the month, while personal filings dropped 16 percent to 103,733.
The institute did not have a breakout of personal and commercial filings for the region, but local lawyers confirm a drop in the volume of business on both ends compared with the height of the recession in 2009.
“There is a steady decline, but Washington, in general, tends to be more insulated from economic shock because of the heavy government business,” said Mark Ellenberg, an attorney specializing in financial restructuring at Cadwalader in the District.
Personal bankruptcy filings typically comprise the largest share of cases, as evidenced by 2011 regional data from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Of the 60,236 bankruptcy filings in D.C., Maryland and Virginia last year, roughly 97 percent were personal.
There are, nonetheless, a number of struggling firms in the area, especially service-related businesses that cash-strapped consumers might think they can do without.
Some companies providing repair, maintenance and personal services were hit hard during the downturn, said Karen H. Moore, an attorney in the bankruptcy and creditor’s rights practice group at Davis, Agnor, Rapaport & Skalny in Columbia.
“A lot of service companies took it on the chin because of the housing crisis and never fully recovered,” she said. “There’ll continue to be fallout from the mortgage industry. Some small-business owners, the ones that do granite work or flooring, have been holding on and trying to find other sources of income.”
Bankruptcy experts say there are more businesses looking to restructure their debt, rather than liquidate assets through Chapter 7 which became common during the recession. Back then, a number of companies were saddled with debt amassed leading up to the financial crisis. Declines in revenue made servicing the debt difficult and lenders were unwilling, or unable, to work with borrowers.
These days, Ellenberg has noticed a lot of companies reorganizing their debt outside of bankruptcy through exchange offers or other consensual arrangements with their creditors. He attributes this trend to the lack of available debtor-in-possession financing as well as the prevalence of hedge funds buying distressed debt.
“Hedge funds tend to look for very quick returns and they don’t like to delays of bankruptcy, which makes them more interested in cutting a deal outside of bankruptcy,” Ellenberg said. “In that way, the overall cost of bankruptcy can be avoided.”