When a publicly listed company ceases operations and goes into liquidation, the company's shareholders may be entitled to a portion of the assets, depending on the type of shares they hold. However, the stock itself is usually worthless.

The owners of common stock shares are last in line for a share of the firm's liquidated assets, so the hope is a faint one.

Key Takeaways

  • If a company declares Chapter 11 bankruptcy, it is asking for a chance to reorganize and recover. If the company survives, your shares may, too. Or, the company may cancel existing shares, making yours worthless.
  • If the company declares Chapter 7, the company is dead, and so are your shares.
  • Owners of common stock often get nothing when a company enters liquidation, since they are last in line for payment.

What Bankruptcy Means

When it comes to businesses, there are two main types of bankruptcy recognized by U.S. law. The differences are crucial to shareholders. In either case, the company files for bankruptcy because it is in such deep financial trouble that it is unable to pay its immediate obligations.

  • Chapter 11 bankruptcy signals that the company is asking the court to protect it from its creditors until it files a detailed plan for how it intends to recover financially. If the court accepts the plan, the company may renegotiate its debts, drastically cut its costs, and resume doing business. Over time, it may thrive and emerge from bankruptcy (or not).
  • Chapter 7 bankruptcy means that the company has shut its doors for good. Its assets will be sold and the entire proceeds will be distributed to its creditors in a strict order of precedence.

What Bankruptcy Means to Shareholders

If it's a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, common stock shares will become practically worthless and will stop paying dividends. The stock may be delisted on the major stock exchanges, and a Q may be added to the stock symbol to indicate that the company has filed for bankruptcy. It's possible that the shares may regain value as the company emerges from bankruptcy. Or, as part of the reorganization of debt, the company may cancel old shares and issue new ones, leaving little or nothing to the original shareholders.

If it's a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, the stock is defunct. The common shareholders may, at best, get a portion of their value back when the assets are distributed. They rarely get anything at all.

Once a company is in liquidation, bankruptcy law determines the order of the distribution of assets.

Note that all of the above is true for preferred shares as well as common shares. But preferred shares are farther up in the line for repayment in case of liquidation. (The vast majority of shares are common stock. A preferred share is a hybrid of a stock and a bond that pays regular dividends.)

Who Gets Paid and When

Once a company is in liquidation, the law determines how the assets are distributed.

The usual order of debt repayment begins with any government taxes that are owed. Next in line are financial institutions that extended loans, other creditors such as suppliers and utility companies, bondholders, preferred shareholders, and, last of all, common shareholders.

Bondholders are paid before shareholders because they've lent the company money. Common shareholders are deemed to have only a residual claim on the assets of the company.

Example of a Bankruptcy Payout

The amount of the payment a common shareholder will receive is based on the proportion of ownership they have in the bankrupt firm.

For example, suppose that a common stockholder owns 0.5% of the firm in question. If the firm has $100,000 to pay to its common shareholders after liquidation and other obligations, that owner would receive a cash payment of $500.

Moody's and Standard & Poor's provide company ratings that take into account the risk of bankruptcy. When buying stock, look at information such as a company's debt-to-equity ratio and book value, which can give investors a sense of what they might receive in the event of bankruptcy. Watch for cash flow issues, and rising operating expenses at a time when revenue remains stagnant.