Former telecommunications equipment company Nortel Networks Ltd reached an agreement with their various business units on Wednesday to divvy up the US$7.3 billion raised from liquidating the failed company, paving the way for pensioners and creditors to get paid after a seven-year wait.
Ottawa-based Nortel stumbled from ranking among the world’s most valuable companies during the 1990s Internet bubble to bankruptcy in 2009 and liquidation.
The cash at the center of the dispute was raised from the sale of Nortel’s global businesses, including patents sold in 2011 for US$4.5 billion to a group of technology firms led by Apple Inc (AAPL.O), Microsoft Corp and Sony Corp (6758.T).
Under the agreement, Nortel’s former U.S. business unit would receive 24 percent or US$1.8 billion of the cash, with Nortel estates in Canada and Europe receiving 57 percent and 18 percent respectively, the former company said in a court filing.
The U.S. estate’s portion is higher versus the 11 percent the group was set to receive under a previous court ruling that would have allocated 66 percent of the proceeds to the Canadian estate and 23 percent to the European estate.
The settlement still needs approval from U.S., Canadian, U.K. and French courts. If approved, this would clear the way for each business division to pay suppliers, pensioners, government agencies and other creditors.
The deal could end one of the costliest corporate failures. Fees alone for lawyers and advisers paid out of the Nortel estate have topped US$1.9 billion, according to Diane Urquhart, a financial analyst who compiles the data from court records.
Former Nortel business units in Canada, the United States and Europe had been pushing vastly differing proposals for splitting the money from the liquidation. That led to a six-week trial in 2014 that was jointly overseen by a judge in Ontario and a U.S. bankruptcy judge in Delaware, who linked their courtrooms by cross-border video.
In May 2015, those two judges issued coordinated opinions rejecting all of the proposals and ruled that every creditor would receive roughly 71 cents on the dollar, which they said would achieve a fair and equitable division of the Nortel cash.
That sent Nortel bonds plummeting by as much as 20 percent at the time, although prices have recovered somewhat since then.
The Nortel units disagreed with the rulings and appealed in Canada and the United States.
Creditors include investors that own the majority of Nortel’s US$4.2 billion of bond debt. The group is comprised of investment funds such as Quantum Partners, managed by George Soros‘ investment firm, GS Investment Strategies LLC, an affiliate of Goldman Sachs Group Inc, and King Street Capital Management.
A Canadian judge, Warren Winkler, who tried to mediate a settlement in 2013, called it “one of the most complex transnational legal proceedings in history.”
The settlement ends appeals of the 2015 rulings that could have led to conflicting higher court decisions in Canada and the United States. It also comes as the U.S. dollar has rallied against the Canadian dollar, euro and British pound, inflating the value of the cash held in escrow for non-U.S. creditors.
“I was curious about whether it was ever going to happen,” said Nancy Rapoport, a professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Law who has been following the case. “At some point the best advice lawyers can give is to take what’s reasonable and go with it.”
Update: At the time of its bankruptcy, Nortel sold its enterprise solutions business unit to Avaya Inc for US$900 million. Avaya is a portfolio company of Silver Lake and TPG Capital.
(Reporting by Tracy Rucinski in Chicago and Jim Christie in San Francisco; Writing by Tom Hals; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Diane Craft and Bernard Orr)
(This story has been edited by Kirk Falconer, editor of PE Hub Canada)
Photo courtesy of Reuters/Blair Gable