When a company files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, it doesn't mean that it is going out of business (that's Chapter 7). Rather, Chapter 11 is used by companies that feel their operations can continue profitably but after a restructuring to get its debts under control.
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In general, when a company files for Chapter 11 protection, its stock price plummets and a "Q" is added to its stock symbol to clearly indicate that the company is in bankruptcy proceedings. So, what happens to the company's stock when it exits bankruptcy protection?
Last in line
Unfortunately, in the event of a bankruptcy restructuring, common shareholders are last in line when it comes to claiming a company's assets.
One of the main objectives of a Chapter 11 reorganization is to take care of the company's creditors and restructure the debts in a way that the company can continue to operate. And these creditors get paid back in the order of the priority of their claims.
Secured creditors (usually banks) get paid back first, followed by unsecured creditors such as bondholders. If a company has preferred stockholders, they are next in the priority line after bondholders. Stockholders are the last in line, and generally only get anything if the rest of the creditors are repaid in full. And since the reason most companies use Chapter 11 protection in the first place is an inability to pay their debts, you can probably imagine that this doesn't happen too often.
What happens to the stock?
The short answer is that most of the time, the stock of a company in Chapter 11 becomes worthless and shareholders get completely wiped out. Purchasing stock of a bankrupt company for pennies per share and hoping to make a quick buck when the company restructures almost always turns out to be a bad idea.
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The company may issue new shares upon emerging from bankruptcy, at which point the old shares are cancelled and become worthless. The new shares are often issued to its creditors in exchange for a reduction or forgiveness of the outstanding debt.
Now, the story doesn't always have a completely sad ending. There have been cases where existing shareholders receive something after the company emerges from bankruptcy -- usually a small portion of the newly created stock or a relatively small cash payment. However, it's not a good idea to count on it. It's rare and usually isn't much even when it happens. A study found that of the 41 publicly traded companies that went bankrupt in 2009 and 2010, shareholders of just four of them got any kind of return at all. The rest got wiped out completely.
In a nutshell, while bankruptcy doesn't have to be a complete death sentence for the investments of the company's common shareholders, that's usually the case.
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