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Corporate bankruptcies constitute an important mechanism through which the economy rids itself of obsolete firms and allocates their constituent parts to alternative and potentially more productive uses. However, the restructuring process involves various imperfections. In addition to the potential loss in value to the firm’s redeployable physical capital stock (e.g., due to asset fire sales), bankruptcy may involve some deterioration of organizational and human capital. While prior studies have focused primarily on the reallocation of physical capital and individual workers, we are the first to systematically study how the human capital embedded in teams is affected by corporate bankruptcies.

Teamwork has become a prevalent way of organizing production in science, in patenting, and, more broadly, in the corporate sector. It has been documented, in a variety of settings, that teamwork has substantial benefits compared to work in hierarchical environments, in particular when complex tasks are involved. Despite the importance of teamwork, there is little systematic evidence on the economic drivers affecting the creation, stability, and dissolution of productive team configurations. Understanding these forces is crucial for the design of corporate and public policies that maximize productivity.

In our working paper, we use employer-employee matched data on U.S. inventors to study how the human capital embedded in teams is reallocated in corporate bankruptcies between 1980 and 2010. Our results paint a nuanced picture of the reallocation of human capital through bankruptcy. Team dissolution increases around bankruptcy and team inventors subsequently become less productive than their less team-dependent colleagues. However, the labor market and the market for corporate control promote the preservation of team-specific human capital. Therefore, on balance, the productivity losses associated with bankruptcy are modest for team-dependent inventors. In addition, inventors who do not work in teams may even experience an increase in their post-bankruptcy productivity (although these effects have limited statistical significance). This suggests that bankruptcies have the capacity to release resources to more productive uses. Overall, we conclude that frictions that limit the efficiency of asset reallocation through bankruptcy may be limited in the case of highly skilled labor.

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