Merit Management v. FTI: Law Firm Perspectives

On February 27, the Supreme Court decided Merit Management Group, LP v. FTI Consulting, Inc., holding unanimously that the § 546(e) safe harbor does not protect allegedly fraudulent transfers “in which financial institutions served as mere conduits.” The Court’s decision resolves a circuit split on the reach of § 546(e). In reaching its conclusion, the Court focused on the “end-to-end transfer” that the trustee seeks to avoid, rather than any “component parts of the overarching transfer.” In FTI, because the overarching transfer was made between two parties not otherwise shielded by the safe harbor, the transfer will now fall outside the safe harbor.

As many law firms recognize, this decision will have wide-ranging implications on the finality of securities transactions effected through financial institutions, especially leveraged buyouts. Mayer Brown notes that as the decision enhances a trustee’s ability to recover fraudulent transfers, it also increases the bankruptcy estate’s leverage against recipients of pre-petition transfers. Cleary observes that “debtors or trustees may strategically frame avoidance actions in order to limit the scope of the safe harbor.” Mayer Brown concludes that the decision may also expose investors, investment funds and similar entities to fraudulent transfer litigation risks.

The bottom line, as Davis Polk notes, is that the § 546(e) safe harbor is no longer a blanket safe harbor for the recipients of transactions that pass through financial institutions. But the safe harbor will still shield financial institutions operating as escrow agents or clearinghouses, as the Court expressly stated that a financial institution under § 546(e) is protected whether the institution acts as a principal or as an intermediary.

Firms have noted that the decision also left open some ambiguities. First, Schulte Roth & Zabel writes that the Court leaves open possible arguments that any “customer” of a “financial institution” is also itself a “financial institution” under § 546(e). Second, Mayer Brown points out that the Court did not address whether the transaction at issue actually qualified as a transfer that is a “settlement payment” or made in connection with a “securities contract” under § 546(e). These ambiguities will draw the attention of defendants in future fraudulent transfer litigation.

Finally, Weil notes that the decision raises the question of how the preemption of state-law creditor remedies under § 546(e) will be applied in light of the Supreme Court’s now-narrow construction of the safe harbor.

By Jianjian Ye, Harvard Law School, J.D. 2018.

The roundtable has posted on FTI before. Some of those posts are: an analysis of the FTI oral argument, the Amici Curiae Brief of Bankruptcy Law Professors, an article by Ralph Brubaker on the meaning of § 546(e), and a roundup of law firm perspectives on the Seventh Circuit’s decision in FTI Consulting, Inc. v. Merit Management Group, LP, 830 F.3d 690 (7th Cir. 2016).

Mandatory Contractual Stay Requirements for Qualified Financial Contracts

By Erika D. White and Donald S. Bernstein of Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP.

The U.S. banking agencies have issued rules that require U.S. G-SIBs and the U.S. operations of foreign G-SIBs to amend their swaps, repurchase agreements and other qualified financial contracts (QFCs) to include certain provisions designed to mitigate the risk of destabilizing close-outs of QFCs in the event the G-SIB enters resolution. The rules are part of a package of reforms implemented by the industry, Congress and the U.S. banking agencies since the financial crisis in an attempt to ensure that the largest financial institutions can be resolved in an orderly manner. Specifically, the rules seek to (1) mitigate the risk that the FDIC’s stay-and-transfer powers with respect to QFCs under Title II of the Dodd-Frank Act and the Federal Deposit Insurance Act may not be recognized and given effect outside of the United States and (2) improve the likelihood of success of a single-point-of entry resolution strategy under the Bankruptcy Code by limiting the ability of counterparties to terminate their QFCs with a solvent and performing operating entity based on cross-defaults triggered by the bankruptcy of the operating entity’s parent or other affiliate. The QFC Stay Rules do not, however, affect the rights of counterparties to terminate QFCs under the safe harbor provisions of the Bankruptcy Code in the event the operating subsidiary itself were to enter bankruptcy proceedings.

 

The full visual memo is available here.

Debt Priority Structure, Market Discipline and Bank Conduct

By Piotr Danisewicz (University of Bristol), Danny McGowan (University of Nottingham), Enrico Onali (Aston University; University of Wales System – Bangor University), and Klaus Schaeck (University of Bristol).

This article explores how changes in debt priority structure affect banks’ funding costs and soundness. We exploit the staggered introduction of depositor preference laws across 15 U.S. states between 1983 and 1993 which confer priority to deposit claims in case of bank liquidation. The laws are exogenous with respect to the outcomes of interest and apply to state-chartered banks but not to nationally-chartered banks, allowing us to isolate causality using difference-in-difference methods.

We document changes in monitoring intensity by various creditors depending on whether creditors move up or down the priority ladder. Enactment of depositor preference reduces deposit interest rates, consistent with the fact that deposit claims are protected in case of bankruptcy thereby reducing depositors’ monitoring incentives. However, non-deposit interest rates increase as these creditors are exposed to greater losses in bankruptcy which leads them to more intensively monitor banks’ conditions.

Subordinating non-depositor claims also reduces banks’ risk-taking and leverage, consistent with market discipline. For example, non-depositors who receive negative signals about project returns may refuse to roll over funds which motivates banks to improve soundness to maintain access to key funding sources such as Fed Funds.

These insights highlight a role for debt priority structure in the regulatory framework, and support recent innovations in banking regulation that reallocate monitoring incentives towards non-depositors.

The full paper can be found here.

FTI Argument Analysis: Justices Dubious About Limiting Bankruptcy Court’s Right to Recover Fraudulently Transferred Assets

By Ronald Mann. Published by SCOTUSblog and re-posted with permission.

Perhaps a week with only two cases on the argument calendar gave the justices more time to prepare than normal. They certainly seemed to come to the argument in Merit Management Group v FTI Consulting with a strong predisposition about how to decide the case.

As I explained in more detail in my preview, the case involves the “avoidance” powers of the bankruptcy court, which generally permit the court to recover (“avoid”) dubious payments that bankrupts make before their bankruptcy filings. The provisions are intricately drafted, with numerous detailed exceptions – excellent terrain for law-school exam questions! This case involves a “safe harbor” exception that protects transactions in the securities industry; that provision bars recovery of any “settlement payment” made under a “securities contract” if the payment is made “by or to” a financial institution. The transaction here involved a transfer of assets between parties that were not themselves financial institutions; to make the transfer, the assets had to pass through a financial institution. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit has held for many years that those “conduit” payments are protected from avoidance; the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in this case disagreed.

From the earliest moments of the argument, it seemed clear that the justices were skeptical of the 2nd Circuit’s position. (…)

The remainder of the post can be found here.


Oral argument took place on November 6, 2017. The transcript is available here. The roundtable previously posted the Amici Curiae Brief of Bankruptcy Law Professors, an article by Ralph Brubaker on the meaning of § 546(e), and a roundup of law firm perspectives on the Seventh Circuit’s decision in FTI Consulting, Inc. v. Merit Management Group, LP, 830 F.3d 690 (7th Cir. 2016). The Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the Seventh Circuit’s decision on May 1, 2017. Petitioner Merit Management Group, LP’s opening brief was subsequently filed, along with the Respondent’s brief, and Petitioner’s reply. Additional amicus curiae briefs were filed by Opportunity Partners, L.P.Various Former Tribune and Lyondell ShareholdersTribune Company Retirees and Noteholders, and the National Association of Bankruptcy Trustees.

Amicus Brief on the Scope of the Bankruptcy Safe Harbor for Securities Settlement Payments Filed in Merit Mgmt. v. FTI Consulting

By Ralph Brubaker (University of Illinois College of Law), Bruce A. Markell (Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law), Charles W. Mooney, Jr. (University of Pennsylvania Law School), and Mark Roe (Harvard Law School).

Bankruptcy Code § 546(e) contains a safe harbor that prevents avoidance of a securities settlement payment, e.g. as a preferential or constructively fraudulent transfer. This amicus brief was filed in Merit Management Group, LP v. FTI Consulting, Inc., No. 16-784 (U.S.). The brief explains how § 546(e) rationally constrains its scope via the statutory specification that the safe harbor only applies (because it need only apply) if the “transfer” sought to be avoided was allegedly “made by or to (or for the benefit of)” a protected securities market intermediary, such as a stockbroker or a financial institution.

Ascertaining the meaning and function of that determinative scope language requires an understanding of (1) the concept of a “transfer” as the fundamental analytical transaction unit throughout the Code’s avoidance provisions, and (2) the relationship between that avoidable “transfer” concept and the inextricably interrelated concepts of who that “transfer” is “made by or to (or for the benefit of).” By its express terms, § 546(e) only shields a challenged “transfer” from avoidance if (1) that transfer was “made by” a debtor-transferor who was a qualifying intermediary, “or” (2) a party with potential liability—because the challenged transfer allegedly was made “to or for the benefit of” that party—was a protected intermediary. Thus, the transfer of cash to a stock seller and of the stock back to the buyer is not safe-harbored. The delivery of the cash (and the stock) through financial intermediaries, however, is.

The full amicus brief may be found here.


Oral argument took place on November 6, 2017. The transcript is available here. The roundtable previously posted an article by Ralph Brubaker on the meaning of § 546(e) and a roundup of law firm perspectives on the Seventh Circuit’s decision in FTI Consulting, Inc. v. Merit Management Group, LP, 830 F.3d 690 (7th Cir. 2016). The Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the decision on May 1, 2017. Petitioner Merit Management Group, LP’s opening brief was subsequently filed, along with the Respondent’s brief, and Petitioner’s reply. Additional amicus curiae briefs were filed by Opportunity Partners, L.P.Various Former Tribune and Lyondell Shareholders, Tribune Company Retirees and Noteholders, and the National Association of Bankruptcy Trustees.

Don’t Bank on Bankruptcy for Banks

By Mark Roe (Harvard Law School)

In the next month, the US Treasury Department is expected to decide whether to seek to replace the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act’s regulator-led process for resolving failed mega-banks with a solely court-based mechanism. Such a change would be a mistake of potentially crisis-size proportions.

Yes, creating a more streamlined bankruptcy process can reduce the decibel level of a bank’s failure, and bankruptcy judges are experts at important restructuring tasks. But there are critical factors that cannot be ignored. Restructuring a mega-bank requires pre-planning, familiarity with the bank’s strengths and weaknesses, knowledge of how to time the bankruptcy properly in a volatile economy, and the capacity to coordinate with foreign regulators.

The courts cannot fulfill these tasks alone, especially in the time the proposal under consideration has allotted – a 48-hour weekend. Unable to plan ahead, the courts would enter into the restructuring process unfamiliar with the bank. Moreover, the courts cannot manage the kind of economy-wide crisis that would arise if multiple mega-banks sank simultaneously. And they cannot coordinate with foreign regulators.

The rest of the article is available here.

Recent Roundtable coverage of this subject includes a round-up of op-eds; a summary of a letter submitted to Congress by financial scholars; a summary of a White House memorandum calling for reconsideration of the OLA; and an analysis of recent legislative efforts to address bankruptcy for banks.

The Roundtable has also published commentary on the treatment of insolvent financial institutions; see Jackson & Massman, “The Resolution of Distressed Financial Conglomerates” and Lubben & Wilmarth, “Too Big and Unable to Fail.”

Could Problems at MF Global Have Been Anticipated?

By Hilary Till (J.P. Morgan Center for Commodities, University of Colorado Denver Business School)

In the fall of 2011, futures market participants were caught off-guard when MF Global filed for bankruptcy. Essentially, this episode educated industry participants that customer protections in the U.S. commodity futures markets had been more ambiguous than expected. That said, there are a number of reforms that have been undertaken to help prevent future MF Globals. This article takes the position that a number of red flags existed as far back as 2007, regarding the firm’s financial weakness, which could have served as a warning to those investors relying on MF Global as a fiduciary.

In discussing the MF Global debacle, this article will cover the following seven areas:

(1) a brief background on the firm will be outlined;

(2) warning signs will be identified;

(3) the firm’s final week will be recalled;

(4) the response of regulators and bankruptcy trustees will be noted;

(5) the shortfall in customer segregated funds will be described;

(6) the CFTC’s charges and settlement will be mentioned; and

(7) later reforms will be summarized.

The article concludes that while MF Global’s business model appears not to have been viable after 2007, this observation does not excuse unlawful practices. In particular, the firm effectively (and arguably unlawfully) used customer funds in large-scale proprietary trades that the firm ultimately could not fund, leading to its chaotic bankruptcy.

The article is available here, and is forthcoming in the Fall 2017 issue of the Global Commodities Applied Research Digest.

Understanding the Scope of the § 546(e) Securities Safe Harbor Through the Concept of the “Transfer” Sought to Be Avoided

By Ralph Brubaker (University of Illinois College of Law)

Bankruptcy Code § 546(e) contains a safe harbor that prevents avoidance of a securities settlement payment. To date, pleas for sane limits on the scope of the § 546(e) safe harbor have focused upon what kinds of transactions should be considered a “settlement payment.” That language, however, is not the primary means by which § 546(e) both reveals its manifest object and correspondingly limits its reach thereto. Section 546(e) rationally constrains its scope via the statutory specification (the meaning of which the Supreme Court will consider in the pending case of Merit Management Group v. FTI Consulting) that the safe harbor only applies (because it need only apply) if the “transfer” sought to be avoided was allegedly “made by or to (or for the benefit of)” a protected securities market intermediary, such as a stockbroker or a financial institution.

Ascertaining the meaning and function of that determinative scope language requires an understanding of (1) the concept of a “transfer” as the fundamental analytical transaction unit throughout the Code’s avoidance provisions, and (2) the relationship between that avoidable “transfer” concept and the inextricably interrelated concepts of who that “transfer” is “made by or to (or for the benefit of).” By its express terms, § 546(e) only shields a challenged “transfer” from avoidance if (1) that transfer was “made by” a debtor-transferor who was a qualifying intermediary, “or” (2) a party with potential liability—because the challenged transfer allegedly was made “to or for the benefit of” that party—was a protected intermediary.

The full article is available for download here.


The roundtable previously posted a roundup of law perspectives on the Seventh Circuit’s decision in FTI Consulting, Inc. v. Merit Management Group, LP, 830 F.3d 690 (7th Cir. 2016). The Supreme Court granted certiorari to review that decision on May 1, 2017. Petitioner Merit Management Group, LP has filed its opening brief, and amicus curiae briefs have been filed by Opportunity Partners, L.P. and Various Former Tribune and Lyondell Shareholders. Argument has been scheduled for November 6, 2017.

Repo Regret?

By Rohan Ganduri (Goizueta Business School, Emory University)

In April 2005 Congress expanded the range of bankruptcy safe-harbored repurchase agreements (repos) to include mortgage-related securities with the passage of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (BAPCPA). The rationale behind this provision was to prevent a chain of failures among financial institutions by granting derivative counterparties an exemption to the automatic stay, thereby allowing them to close out their positions.

In “Repo Regret?” I show that there were unanticipated adverse consequences of BAPCPA, which exacerbated the growth of risky mortgage credit in the U.S. economy. BAPCPA affected the funding of non-bank mortgage originators, which fund their mortgage origination business primarily through short-term revolving lines of credit, typically secured by the originated mortgages. However, after BAPCPA, short-term secured loans were cloaked in repurchase agreement (repo) terms consistent with the bankruptcy code. This was because a repo lender has greater protection in bankruptcy, although a secured loan and a repo are economically equivalent.

Furthermore, safe harboring eliminated any long-term risk associated with a drop in the collateral’s value at liquidation. Lower exposure to the collateral’s risk drove down funding costs for non-bank originators and also reduced the incentives of short-term funding intermediaries to screen the mortgages that the non-banks placed as collateral to obtain funding. This increase in funding and lax screening led to the growth of risky mortgage credit.

Conferring seniority on derivative counterparties does not eliminate risk, however; it transfers the risk to other investors. In the case of BAPCPA and the mortgage market, the seniority accorded to repo lenders transferred the long-term credit risk associated with the holding of mortgage-related collateral entirely to the end mortgage-backed security (MBS) investors.

To the extent that greater defaults, due to increased origination of riskier mortgages, have externalities and spillover effects that cannot be internalized by the MBS investors by demanding higher yields, the cost of awarding seniority to derivative counterparties may outweigh its expected benefits.

The full article is available here.


For previous Roundtable posts on the safe harbors, see Morrison, Roe & Sontchi, “Rolling Back the Repo Safe Harbors“; Janger & Pottow, “Implementing Symmetric Treatment of Financial Contracts in Bankruptcy and Bank Resolution“; and Lubben, “Lehman’s Derivatives Portfolio.”

We at the Bankruptcy Roundtable will take a break from posting this August and hope that you too will be able to get away from your desk at work. We’ll be back on September 5th.

Roundup: Recent Op-Eds on Bankruptcy for Banks

The House of Representatives’ passage first of the Financial Institution Bankruptcy Act (FIBA) and then of the Financial CHOICE Act last Thursday has made bankruptcy for banks and the fate of Dodd-Frank’s Orderly Liquidation Authority (OLA) a live issue again. Both FIBA and the CHOICE Act would add a “subchapter V” to chapter 11 to resolve financial conglomerates in bankruptcy. Unlike FIBA, however, the CHOICE Act would also repeal the OLA, leaving bankruptcy as the only option for handling the failure of a financial conglomerate.

Several academics, former regulators, and practitioners, including several contributors to the Bankruptcy Roundtable, have recently published op-eds weighing arguments for and against replacing the OLA with bankruptcy. Support for adding tools to the Bankruptcy Code is widespread. Commentators differ, however, on whether bankruptcy, by itself, can address the systemic risk concerns that prompted the creation of the OLA and on whether it would be useful to have a bankruptcy procedure more robust than subchapter V.

Stephen Lubben contends that without a mechanism for providing liquidity to financial institutions—the usual providers of funding for companies in chapter 11—the Bankruptcy Code cannot effectively handle a widespread financial crisis. Mark Roe emphasizes that economic stability requires having the OLA and related structures to allow subchapter V to succeed (through regulatory coordination with international authorities and supervision over financial institutions to ensure that they have the capital structures to facilitate a subchapter V resolution). The OLA is also needed in case a subchapter V reorganization fails, as subchapter V is not a general bankruptcy authorization but, instead, a mechanism to use the 48-hour “single-point-of-entry” restructuring strategy in bankruptcy. This point renews some of the arguments Roe and David Skeel expressed earlier on ways subchapter V should be strengthened, such as by the addition of a regulatory trigger and a means to deal with an inability to complete the resolution within 48 hours.

Finally, Sheila Bair and Paul Volcker argue that having the OLA as a backstop for a failed bankruptcy makes government bailouts less likely, as the OLA provides regulators with the tools to wind down a failed financial institution in an orderly fashion. In contrast, Stephen Hessler argues that the Bankruptcy Code, amended along the lines of subchapter V, would promote both market discipline and financial stability. A bankruptcy judge applying well established precedents and rules in a subchapter V case would combat moral hazard more effectively than the OLA, which grants regulators significant discretion to treat similarly situated creditors differently.

(By Rebecca Green, Harvard Law School, J.D. 2017.)


Recent Roundtable coverage of this subject includes posts on a letter submitted to Congress by academics and the Trump administration’s direction to the Treasury to issue a report on the OLA.

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