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.

Do the Financial Institution Bankruptcy Act and the CHOICE Act Undermine an Effective Restructuring of a Failing Financial Institution?

By Bruce Grohsgal (Delaware Law School, Widener University)

The House recently passed the Financial Institution Bankruptcy Act of 2017 (FIBA). FIBA’s provisions are incorporated into the Financial CHOICE Act of 2017, passed by the House last week, which would repeal Dodd-Frank’s receiverships for failing financial institutions that pose risk to the financial system. The Senate may soon consider both bills.

FIBA creates a subchapter V of chapter 11 for financial institutions. Only the holding company will file. In the first 48 hours of the case, it will transfer certain assets—consisting primarily of its equity in its subsidiaries and its derivatives—to a newly-formed bridge company. It will leave behind pre-designated “bail-in debt,” mostly unsecured term obligations owed to 401ks and pensions and shorter term unsecured trade debt.

In my view, however, FIBA is unlikely to result in an effective restructuring. First, because of FIBA’s 48-hour deadline, individual determinations likely will not be made with respect to the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of repo, derivatives, and other qualified financial contracts. Instead, the entire book of financial contracts—the “bad” along with the “good”—likely will be transferred to the bridge company. The bankruptcy court’s jurisdiction over the bridge company and its property—and the restructuring—ends on the transfers.

Second, the bridge company must assume 100% of the debt secured by any property transferred—without any write down, even if the property is worth less than the claim—and all liabilities owed on the derivatives and repo transferred. These statutory provisions may weaken the bridge company’s balance sheet and imperil its ability to obtain financing.

Though the Federal Reserve’s total loss-absorbing capacity (TLAC) rule includes “clean holding company” requirements to facilitate restructuring, the rule does not adequately address these balance sheet ills that FIBA creates. The clean holding company requirements apply only to eight U.S. global systemically important banks, and do not reach dozens of $50+ billion banks or nearly 5,000 other FIBA-eligible financial institutions. Moreover, TLAC does not prohibit secured borrowing even by those eight bank holding companies, though undersecured borrowings by those eight banks may be limited by TLAC’s regulatory capital requirements. But at a time of declining asset values and a ramp-up to a subchapter V filing, it is likely that many previously fully secured loans will have become undersecured. FIBA will require the bridge bank to either assume the unsecured portion of the debt or lose the collateral to the lender.

FIBA’s bankruptcy proceeding makes a run by the bridge company’s derivatives and repo counterparties more likely. If the bridge company’s balance sheet is weakened by the wholesale assumption of qualified financial contracts and by the assumption of debt above asset value, then the bridge company’s ability to obtain new financing may be diminished. Actions against the bridge company and its assets are not stayed under FIBA. As a result, when repo lenders and other counterparties require post-transfer haircuts and margin payments, and the bridge company is unable to obtain new funding, the run on repo and derivatives will continue.


The text of FIBA is available here. My testimony on FIBA before the House Judiciary’s subcommittee is available here. The text of The Financial CHOICE Act of 2017 is available here. The “clean holding company” requirements of TLAC are at 12 CFR § 252.64, and the TLAC final rule release is available here.

Financial Scholars Submit Letter to Congress Opposing Repeal of Title II

On May 23, bankruptcy and financial scholars submitted a letter to members of Congress opposing the Financial CHOICE Act’s proposed replacement of the Dodd-Frank Act’s Orderly Liquidation Authority (“OLA”) with a new subchapter of the Bankruptcy Code as the exclusive method for resolving failed financial institutions. Like the Financial Institution Bankruptcy Act (“FIBA”), which passed the House earlier this year, the CHOICE Act would add a subchapter V to chapter 11, amending the Bankruptcy Code to facilitate a single point of entry (“SPOE”) resolution strategy for financial institutions. Unlike FIBA, however, the CHOICE Act would also repeal the OLA, making subchapter V the only method for resolving a large, failed financial institution.

The letter noted that a bankruptcy proceeding could provide a useful addition to the financial crisis toolbox but expressed several concerns about FIBA’s capacity to deal effectively with an economy-wide financial crisis. For example, the bankruptcy court’s lack of familiarity with failed institutions could undermine the chances of success for the lightning-fast, 48-hour bankruptcy proceedings envisioned in proposed subchapter V. In contrast, in a proceeding under the OLA, the FDIC would have in-depth knowledge of the financial institution’s operations based on the “living wills” resolution planning process. Moreover, the SPOE resolution strategy at the heart of proposed subchapter V requires a specific kind of capital structure; regulators can verify that this structure is in place in advance, but the bankruptcy courts cannot. In addition, the letter voiced concerns about the lack of international coordination for a subchapter V proceeding, the absence of assured liquidity facilities in bankruptcy, and the general inability of bankruptcy courts to provide a coordinated response to the simultaneous failure of several financial institutions. Based on these weaknesses, the letter emphasized the need to retain the OLA as a backstop for resolving financial institutions in the event of a large-scale economic crisis, as well as the need to plan in advance for a subchapter V SPOE-style bankruptcy.

The letter also enumerated concerns specific to subchapter V itself as included in both FIBA and the Financial CHOICE Act. First, the letter pointed to FIBA’s weakness in giving financial institutions and their executives exclusive control over the initiation of the bankruptcy proceeding. Second, it noted that subchapter V does not provide a backup plan for a resolution that fails to be completed within 48 hours. Finally, it emphasized that existing limits on bankruptcy courts’ legal authority could result in challenges to any proceeding under subchapter V, potentially undermining its efficacy by creating uncertainty.

The full letter is available here.

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


For previous posts on this topic, see “White House Releases Memorandum on Orderly Liquidation Authority“; Jackson & Massman, “The Resolution of Distressed Financial Conglomerates“; and “Bankruptcy Code Amendments Pass the House in Appropriations Bill.”

White House Releases Memorandum on Orderly Liquidation Authority

On April 21, the White House released a memorandum placing a reconsideration of the Dodd-Frank Act’s Orderly Liquidation Authority (OLA) on the administration’s agenda. The memorandum directs the Secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin, to review and report on the OLA within 180 days, focusing on whether the OLA might lead to excessive risk-taking by financial institutions, counterparties, and creditors; whether invoking the OLA could lead to losses for the U.S. Treasury; and whether the OLA comports with a February 3 executive order outlining the president’s principles for financial regulation. Additionally, the memorandum calls for an assessment of whether bankruptcy, under a Bankruptcy Code amended to accommodate financial institutions, would be a more effective method of resolving failed financial companies than the OLA.

President Trump’s memorandum parallels congressional efforts to amend the Bankruptcy Code, but it is not structurally identical. Earlier in April, the House passed H.R. 1667, the Financial Institution Bankruptcy Act (FIBA), which would amend the Code to facilitate a single-point-of-entry (SPOE) resolution in which only the top-tier holding company of a financial institution enters bankruptcy, while the operating subsidiaries continue running as normal and receive support from the top-tier holding company. Nearly identical versions of FIBA passed the House in 2016 and 2015. FIBA, as passed by the House, would not repeal title II of the Dodd-Frank Act. It would thus make two resolution systems available for financial institutions.

Representative Jeb Hensarling’s CHOICE Act, a sweeping package of proposed financial reforms, also incorporates the text of FIBA as it currently stands. The CHOICE Act, however, would also repeal title II, leaving FIBA as the single formal structure for resolving financial institutions.

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


For previous Roundtable posts on the resolution of financial institutions, see Jackson & Massman, “The Resolution of Distressed Financial Conglomerates“; Lubben & Wilmarth, “Too Big and Unable to Fail“; and “Senator Reed Introduces Bill to Assess Systemic Risk Impact of ‘Bankruptcy-for-Banks’ Reforms.”

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