If the pace of the first quarter continues, 2015 will end with more than 100 public company bankruptcies. The last time they reached that level was the 106 recorded in 2010, though in 2009 they soared to 211. The median number over the past decade is 86.
Bankruptcy filings, though, are just one measure of corporate distress. Restructuring specialists said many more companies are trying to renegotiate looming debt maturities or loan covenants, particularly energy companies that are hoping oil prices will rebound.
"There is a ton of activity under the water," said Jon Garcia, the global leader of McKinsey RTS, a firm that provides turnaround management services. He said a sharp rise in the U.S. dollar was squeezing American exporters, creating another potential strain.
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Firms such as Garcia's and rivals AlixPartners, Alvarez & Marsal and FTI Consulting often provide managers who are brought into a company to help head off trouble that could lead to a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing.
For firms like these, recent years have been marked by layoffs and belt-tightening. Now some are ready to hire again.
Garcia said he now spends about a third of his time on recruitment. Nathan Cook, a managing director at AlixPartners, said his firm is looking to add people in energy and healthcare, where shifts in government and private insurers' reimbursement rates have piled pressure on hospital finances.
There is a marked increase in troubled situations "primarily as a consequence of the drop in oil prices," said Tim Coleman, who heads restructuring and reorganization at Blackstone, an investment and advisory firm.
Among those hurt by the lower energy prices was marine contractor Cal Dive International. It was doing manned underwater construction work on offshore oil platforms in Mexico last year when bad weather hit, pushing back the completion and an expected payment of $72.5 million for the project.
As the company sought cash to carry it over, it got hit again, this time by tumbling oil prices that spooked its lenders, eventually forcing it into bankruptcy in March.
"It wasn't necessarily that their project and business outlook were materially impacted in the near term but they were unable to refinance," said Suzzanne Uhland, a bankruptcy attorney with O'Melveny & Myers who is representing Cal Dive.
More bankruptcies obviously carry costs. The recent filings by retailers Alco Stores, Body Central,Cache, dElia*s, Deb Shops, RadioShack and The Wet Seal, many of which were sunk by aggressive Internet competition, eliminated about 33,000 full-time and part-time jobs.
But Kenneth Buckfire, the president of Miller Buckfire, an investment bank that specializes in corporate restructuring, said there is also a cost to propping up companies. While that protects shareholders, who generally lose their investment in Chapter 11, it prevents an ailing company from retooling.
"Companies are paying down debt or managing cash rather than investing in new products," said Buckfire.