Rethinking “Too Big To Fail”

 By Saule T. Omarova (Cornell University)

“Too big to fail” – or “TBTF” – is a popular metaphor for a core dysfunction of today’s financial system: the recurrent pattern of government bailouts of large, systemically important financial institutions. The financial crisis of 2008 made TBTF a household term, a powerful symbol of the pernicious society-wide pattern of “privatizing gains and socializing losses.” It continues to frame much of the public policy debate on financial regulation even today, ten years after the crisis. Yet, the analytical content of this term remains remarkably unclear.

In a forthcoming article, I take a fresh look at the nature of the TBTF problem in finance and offer a coherent framework for understanding the cluster of closely related, but conceptually distinct, regulatory and policy challenges this label actually denotes. I begin by identifying the fundamental paradox at the heart of the TBTF concept: TBTF is an entity-centric, micro-level metaphor for a complex of interrelated systemic, macro-level problems. I argue that, while largely unacknowledged, this inherent tension between the micro and the macro, the entity and the system, critically shapes the design and implementation of the key post-2008 regulatory reforms in the financial sector.

To trace these dynamics, I deconstruct the TBTF metaphor into its two basic components: (1) the “F” factor focused on the “failure” of individual financial firms; and (2) the “B” factor focused on their “bigness” (i.e., relative size and structural significance). Isolating and examining these conceptually distinct components helps to explain why the potential for failure (and bailout) of individual firms – or the “F” factor – continues to be the principal focus of the ongoing TBTF policy debate, while the more explicitly structural, relational issues associated with financial firms’ “bigness” – or the “B” factor – remain largely in the background of that debate.

Analyzing post-crisis legislative and regulatory efforts to solve the TBTF problem through this simplifying lens reveals critical gaps in that process, which consistently favors the inherently micro-level “F” factor solutions over the more explicitly macro-level “B” factor ones. It also suggests potential ways of rebalancing and expanding the TBTF policy toolkit to encompass a wider range of measures targeting the relevant systemic dynamics in a more direct and assertive manner. Admittedly, implementing such deliberately structural measures would require a qualitative shift in the way we think and talk about the financial system and its dysfunctions – not an easy precondition to meet in practice. Yet, as I argue in the article, this deep attitudinal shift is the necessary first step toward finally achieving the lofty – and persistently elusive – goal of eliminating the TBTF phenomenon in finance.

The complete article is available for download here.

 

Bankruptcy Hardball

By Jared A. Ellias (University of California, Hastings) & Robert Stark (Brown Rudnick LLP)

On the eve of the financial crisis, a series of Delaware court decisions added up to a radical change in law: Creditors would no longer have the kind of common law protections from opportunism that helped protect their bargain for the better part of two centuries. In this Article, we argue that Delaware’s shift materially altered the way large firms approach financial distress, which is now characterized by a level of chaos and rent-seeking unchecked by norms that formerly restrained managerial opportunism. We refer to the new status quo as “bankruptcy hardball.” It is now routine for distressed firms to engage in tactics that harm some creditors for the benefit of other stakeholders, often in violation of contractual promises and basic principles of corporate finance. The fundamental problem is that Delaware’s change in law was predicated on the faulty assumption that creditors are fully capable of protecting their bargain during periods of distress with contracts and bankruptcy law. We show through a series of case studies how the creditor’s bargain is, contrary to that undergirding assumption, often an easy target for opportunistic repudiation and, in turn, dashed expectations once distress sets in. We further argue that the Delaware courts paved the way for scorched earth distressed governance, but also that judges can help fix the problem.

The full article is available here.

Taking Control Rights Seriously

By Robert K. Rasmussen (University of Southern California Gould School of Law)

It is common to observe that investors receive both cash flow rights and control rights against a borrower. The crucial differences between these two “rights” are rarely focused on. Cash flow rights are legal entitlements. Outside of bankruptcy, failure to pay entitles a lender to resort to a legal remedy against the borrower. Inside of bankruptcy, the Bankruptcy Code structures the way in which these legal entitlements will be adjusted. Control rights are different. They do not confer direct power over the business, nor do they provide lenders with a judicial remedy that allows them to assert control. Rather, they work indirectly. The Bankruptcy Code, in turn, pays scant attention to a lender’s control rights.

This disparate treatment stems from the lending contract. That agreement provides enforceable rights to cash and as we have seen in recent years – there is little limit to the creativity in dividing up cash flow rights. The same contract, however, does not place control in the hands of a lender, even on a contingent basis because legal doctrines threaten creditors who put their hands on the levers of power. Outside of bankruptcy, the lingering shadow of lender liability doctrine leads lawyers to counsel clients to avoid contracting for control upon a borrower’s default. Inside of bankruptcy, lenders that exercise what a court finds to be excessive control face the threat of having their claims equitably subordinated. In addition to these threats, it is far from clear that a bankruptcy court would enforce a contract that gave direct control to the debtor’s lenders should the debtor default. These restrictions on contracting, however, are questionable. Opening up the contract space for direct contracting on control could increase contracting surplus.

The full article is available here.

Transplanting Chapter 11 of the US Bankruptcy Code into Singapore’s Restructuring and Insolvency Laws: Opportunities and Challenges

By Gerard McCormack (University of Leeds) and Wai Yee Wan (Singapore Management University – School of Law)

In 2017, Singapore introduced wide-ranging reforms to its insolvency and restructuring laws with a view to enhancing its attractiveness as an international centre for debt restructuring. A key theme of the reforms is the transplantation (with modification) of certain provisions from Chapter 11 of the US Bankruptcy Code including the automatic moratorium, cross-creditor cram-down, rescue financing and pre-packs. These provisions are engrafted into the existing scheme of arrangement framework, which in turn has its roots in the United Kingdom (UK).

In our paper, relying on the US experience and the reactions to similar reform proposals in the European Union (including the UK), we critically evaluate the effectiveness of the legal transplantation and discuss the possible unintended consequences of such transplantation.

We raise three issues. First, the new cross-class cram-down provisions could lead to valuation disputes and satellite litigation, such as whether the directors and scheme managers have properly discharged their duties. Second, the 2017 reforms shift power from the creditors to the management of the debtor company. This may prove to be disadvantageous to creditors in Singapore (and many other Asian countries) where the majority of the companies, including publicly listed companies, have concentrated shareholdings, and managers owe their existence to those who are in control. Finally, there remains the question whether the Singapore schemes will be recognised overseas, which will be important if the scheme proposes to modify debt obligations that are governed by non-Singapore law.

The full article is available here. The article is recently published in Journal of Corporate Law Studies.

 

How Specialized Courts Changed the Chinese Bankruptcy System

By Bo Li (Tsinghua University – PBC School of Finance) and Jacopo Ponticelli (Kellogg School of Management – Department of Finance)

In the last decade, China experienced a massive increase in corporate debt and, more recently, in corporate bankruptcies. Despite the mounting pressure on its insolvency resolution system, little is known about how bankruptcy works in China and the role played by the government.

China’s bankruptcy system experienced two recent changes: the reform of the bankruptcy code in 2007, and the introduction of specialized courts between 2007 and 2017. Before the introduction of specialized courts, bankruptcy cases were filed in local civil courts. Characterized by limited expertise and long delays, local courts tend to operate under the influence of local politicians, who have strong incentives to keep financially distressed state-owned companies alive to reduce unemployment and boost their political career. Thus, even though  the 2007 reform aligned Chinese bankruptcy law with those in the US and Europe, timely resolution of state-owned firms in financial distress remains a problem due to the influence of local governments.

Recently, China’s central government promoted the introduction of courts specialized in bankruptcy, which are modeled on US courts and run by insolvency professionals. In this paper, we study the impact of the introduction of specialized courts across Chinese provinces a on bankruptcy resolution and credit markets. The introduction of specialized courts led to an increase in the share of liquidations of state-owned firms and a faster speed of processing in court. In addition, state-owned firms operating in jurisdictions with specialized courts experienced a decrease in the size of new bank loans, lower access to new loans, and lower investment in physical capital relative to privately-owned firms.

The full article is available here.

 

Director Bankruptcy Experience and Corporate Risk Taking

By Radhakrishnan Gopalan (Washington University in St. Louis – John M. Olin Business School), Todd A. Gormley (Washington University in St. Louis), and Ankit Kalda (Indiana University – Kelley School of Business – Department of Finance)

In our paper, we evaluate the extent to which a director’s past life experience affects the policies their firms follow. The specific experience we focus on is corporate bankruptcy. We identify a set of directors that experience a corporate bankruptcy. We then evaluate the extent to which this bankruptcy experience of the director is associated with the subsequent policies of other firms that these individuals serve as directors.

A corporate bankruptcy can be either a liberating or a traumatic experience. If the bankruptcy allows the firm to shed excess debt and obtain a fresh start, it can be a liberating experience. On the other hand, if the bankruptcy is prolonged and destroys significant value, then it can be traumatic. An inefficient bankruptcy can also affect the future career prospects of the director as the market may partially blame them for the bankruptcy. Either way, a bankruptcy is likely to be a significant life experience and affect the director’s outlook towards risk taking.

We find that, on average, firms take on more risk if they have a director who has experienced bankruptcy in the past. Specifically, such firms finance themselves with more debt, are less likely to issue equity, more likely to take up riskier projects, as reflected in the variability of cash flows, and less likely to diversify their business through acquisitions. These shifts, however, are only present when the original bankruptcy was a less expensive affair. That is, when the previous bankruptcy was quick, resulted in a restructuring of the firm, and was accompanied by a smaller stock price decline. We also find that directors who are associated with such bankruptcies do not experience any adverse career outcomes.

Overall, our results highlight that, on average, a past corporate bankruptcy experience might actually increase a director’s willingness to take on risk in the future.

The full article is available here.

Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Bankruptcy for Banks and Proposed Chapter 14

On November 13, 2018, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on “Big Bank Bankruptcy: 10 Years After Lehman Brothers,” in connection with the proposed “Taxpayer Protection and Responsible Resolution Act” (“TPRRA”). The TPRRA would add a new chapter 14 to the Bankruptcy Code, providing a recapitalization mechanism for bank holding companies or some other financial companies.

This version of chapter 14 would implement the “Single Point of Entry” financial company resolution model in bankruptcy. (The SPOE model contemplates that only a financial company’s top-level holding company would go into bankruptcy proceedings, with losses borne by its creditors, while material subsidiaries continue to operate as going concerns. For more, see here.) The bill contemplates a proceeding where the bank’s holding company would have a large amount of its long-term debt turned into equity over a 48 hour (likely weekend) period. The firm’s subsidiaries would continue to operate, but would be transferred over to a new, debt-free bridge company. The old holding company’s shareholders and creditors would have their claims handled through a bankruptcy process. The bill also included a 48 hour automatic stay on Qualified Financial Contracts (QFCs), but effectively requires their assumption by the new bridge company.

In his opening remarks, Senator Grassley noted that several similar bank bankruptcy proposals have been incorporated into bills introduced into both the Senate and House over the past several Congresses. (For Roundtable coverage of the 2016 and 2017 FIBA bills, click here, here, here, and here.) A principal difference, stressed by Senator Coons in his opening statement, was that the current bill would not affect Title II of the Dodd-Frank Act, as some prior provisions would have. The view that a special chapter 14 should complement, rather than replace the FDIC’s Orderly Liquidation Authority (OLA) is consistent with the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s report on OLA, recommending against its repeal, released earlier this year. (For Roundtable coverage of the OLA, click here and here.)

The Hearing featured testimony by Donald Bernstein (Davis Polk), Professor Mark Roe (Harvard Law School), and Stephen Hessler (Kirkland & Ellis).

Video and testimonies available here.


For previous Roundtable posts on the resolution of financial institutions, see Howell Jackson & Stephanie Massman, “The Resolution of Distressed Financial Conglomerates“; Stephen Lubben & Arthur Wilmarth, “Too Big and Unable to Fail“; Mark Roe’s “Don’t Bank on Bankruptcy”; Mark Roe & Stephen Adams, “Restructuring Failed Financial Firms in Bankruptcy: Selling Lehman’s Derivatives Portfolio”; David Skeel’s “Bankruptcy for Banks: A Tribute (and a Little Plea) for Jay Westbrook”; and, “Financial Scholars Submit Letter to Congress Opposing Repeal of Title II.”

(This post was authored by Ryan Rossner, J.D. ’19.)

Regulating Bankruptcy Bonuses

By Jared Ellias (University of California, Hastings)

In 2005, the perception that wealthy executives were being rewarded for failure led Congress to ban Chapter 11 firms from paying retention bonuses to senior managers. After the amendment became effective, Chapter 11 debtors could only pay executive bonuses through court-approved “Key Employee Incentive Plans,” which required managers to earn their pay by accomplishing specific performance goals, such as increasing revenue or moving the firm through the bankruptcy process.

In my article, I use newly collected data on the compensation practices of Chapter 11 debtors between 2002 and 2012 to examine how the reform changed bankruptcy practice. I find that relatively fewer firms used court-approved bonus plans after the reform, but the overall level of executive compensation appears to be similar. I hypothesize that three problems undermined the efficacy of the reform. First, the 2005 law asks bankruptcy judges to police the line between “incentive” bonuses and “retention” bonuses, which is extremely hard to do – judges are poorly equipped to assess the “challenging-ness” of a proposed performance goal. Second, creditors have limited incentives to police executive compensation themselves and help bankruptcy judges perform their inquiry, and the Department of Justice’s US Trustee program, while vigilant, lacks expertise in executive compensation. Third, gaps in the new regime make it easy for firms to bypass the 2005 law and pay managers without the judges’ permission. I support each of these hypotheses with empirical evidence. Further, there is also evidence that the reform significantly increased the litigation surrounding bonuses plans and, unsurprisingly, the attorneys’ fees associated with them. In many ways this paper examines what happens when Congress tries to change the balance of bargaining power between managers and creditors, and the result appears to be that firms found ways to get around a poorly written rule.

The full article is available here.

 

Bankruptcy for Banks: A Tribute (and Little Plea) to Jay Westbrook

By David A. Skeel, Jr. (University of Pennsylvania Law School)

Over the past several years, Congress has considered various versions of a legislative reform that would amend the Bankruptcy Code to facilitate the prompt reorganization of systemically important financial institutions (“SIFIs”). The reform would adapt the “Single Point of Entry” strategy devised for use under Title II of the Dodd Frank Act to bankruptcy. In each context, the assets, short term liabilities, and secured debt of the troubled SIFI would be transferred to a newly created bridge institution, leaving behind its stock and long-term debt. The newly recapitalized bridge institution would be fully solvent, and could contribute liquidity to the troubled subsidiaries as necessary. Although the bankruptcy for banks legislation appears to have strong support in Congress, its reception among bankruptcy scholars has been mixed.

In this short essay, I take the opportunity of a celebration of the work and influence of Jay Westbrook to explore his and his fellow critics’ opposition to bankruptcy for banks. I begin the essay by surveying Jay’s wide-ranging contributions to bankruptcy scholarship. Jay’s functional analysis has had a profound effect on scholars’ understanding of key issues in domestic bankruptcy law, and Jay has been the leading scholarly figure on cross-border insolvency. After surveying Jay’s influence, I turn to the topic at hand: bankruptcy for banks. Jay has been a strong critic of the proposed reforms, arguing among other things that financial institutions need to be resolved by regulators and an administrative process, not bankruptcy. After addressing these and other objections, I ask Jay if he might reconsider his opposition if the legislation were amended to respond to several of his primary concerns.

The essay is available here.

Secured Credit and Effective Entity Priority

By Christopher W. Frost (University of Kentucky – College of Law)

The historical and doctrinal development of secured transactions and bankruptcy law has created a priority system that is asset based. Secured creditor priority is tied to the value of specific assets that constitute the secured creditor’s collateral and not to the value of the debtor itself. And yet, in corporate bankruptcy cases, lenders and their attorneys often assert broad claims to the entire enterprise value of the entity – that is to the present value of the cash flows that the entity will generate as a going concern. The doctrinal basis for such claims is often unstated, however, and several commentators have criticized the breadth of those claims under existing laws.

This article responds to those views  and argues that secured creditors can establish a broad enough security interest to create an “effective entity priority.”  The argument is premised on the notion that the broad secured claim creates a closed system in which all of the assets acquired relate, and can be traced, to pre-bankruptcy collateral. The secured creditor’s priority therefore may extend to the value of the entity, rather than the value of specific assets within the entity. Although the doctrinal claim is plausible, the article notes that it can be difficult to maintain under the facts of particular cases. Thus the article suggests that changes to the Bankruptcy Code and the Uniform Commercial Code that recognize true entity priority may provide clarity and efficiency to the bankruptcy process.

The full article is available here. The article is forthcoming in the Connecticut Law Review.

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