The Value of Insolvency Safe Harbors

By Philipp Paech (London School of Economics)

“Safe harbor” privileges in insolvency are typically afforded to financial institutions. They are remotely comparable to security interests as they provide a financial institution with a considerably better position as compared to other creditors should one of its counterparties fail or become insolvent. Safe harbors have been and continue to be introduced widely in financial markets. The common rationale for such safe harbors is that the protection they offer against the fallout from the counterparty’s insolvency contributes to systemic stability, as the dreaded “domino effect” of insolvencies is not triggered from the outset. However, safe harbors also come in for criticism, being accused of accelerating contagion in the financial market in times of crisis and making the market riskier. In this article, I submit that the more important argument for the existence of safe harbors is liquidity in the financial market. Safe harbor rules do away with a number of legal concepts, notably those attached to traditional security, and thereby allow for exponentially increased market liquidity. Normative decisions by legislators sanction safe harbors, as modern markets could not exist without these high levels of liquidity. To the extent that safe harbors accelerate contagion in terms of crisis, which in principle is a valid argument, specific regulation is well suited to correct this situation, whereas to repeal or significantly restrict the safe harbors would be counterproductive.

The full article may be found 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.”

Senator Reed Introduces Study Bill to Assess Systemic Risk Impact of “Bankruptcy-for-Banks” Reforms

On December 6, Senator Jack Reed introduced a bill aimed at establishing a more informed basis for regulatory and policymaking action on financial institution bankruptcies. The bill would mandate bi-annual reports by financial regulators on key issues in the resolution of financial companies under the Bankruptcy Code, such as potential reforms to the safe harbors for repos and derivatives, strategies for mitigating the systemic impact of financial company bankruptcies, risks embedded in the “single point of entry” strategy (particularly if it is tried and fails), and sources of liquidity for a financial company in bankruptcy. Overall, the bill calls for regulators to make a big picture assessment of how various bankruptcy reforms would affect systemic risk, drawing attention to weaknesses in some of the policy proposals in this area.

The bill also would also amend bankruptcy court procedure for financial firm bankruptcies. Most notably, it would revise the Bankruptcy Code to give the Federal Reserve and other regulators standing to be heard in financial company bankruptcies. Additionally, the bill would provide for the Federal Reserve and the FDIC, jointly, to propose five potential trustees for the financial company, with the United States trustee selecting the final appointee from this list. Finally, the bill would require the Supreme Court to issue a rule establishing a procedure for appointing a bankruptcy or district court judge with appropriate expertise to preside over the bankruptcy resolution of a financial company.

The Roundtable’s full update on the bill is available here.

(This post was authored by Rebecca Green, J.D. ’17.)


Related posts on legislative reform proposals are available here and here. The Roundtable has also posted previously on policy issues surrounding “bankruptcy for banks” reforms. For example, see Morrison, Roe & Sontchi, “Rolling Back the Repo Safe Harbors“; Roe & Adams, “Restructuring Failed Financial Firms in Bankruptcy“; and Lubben & Wilmarth, “Too Big and Unable to Fail.”

Too Big and Unable to Fail

By Stephen J. Lubben (Seton Hall University School of Law) and Arthur E. Wilmarth, Jr. (George Washington University Law School)

Financial regulation after the Dodd-Frank Act has produced a host of new regulatory tools for resolving failures of systemically important financial institutions (SIFIs). The explicit goal of this new “resolution” regime is to enable SIFIs to go bankrupt without a government bailout, just like other businesses. In our paper, forthcoming in the Florida Law Review, however, we express significant doubts about the new regime’s ability to work as advertised.

The “single point of entry” (SPOE) strategy, which focuses all resolution efforts on a SIFI’s parent holding company, addresses a very stylized, even hypothetical sort of failure. We believe that it is unlikely to work during a global crisis that involves multiple failing SIFIs operating thousands of subsidiaries across dozens of national boundaries.

The Federal Reserve’s “total loss absorbing capacity” (TLAC) proposal is closely tied to SPOE. It would require SIFI holding companies to issue large amounts of debt securities that can be “bailed in” (converted into equity) in a resolution proceeding to make the holding company solvent again. In our view, TLAC debt will also create a new, more opaque way to impose the costs of SIFIs’ financial distress on ordinary citizens, because retail investors in brokerage accounts, mutual funds, and pension funds are likely to be the largest TLAC debtholders.

We propose several strategies for forcing SIFIs and their Wall Street creditors to internalize at least some of the costs of the enormous risks they create. Among other things, mutual funds and pension funds that invest in TLAC debt should disclose the bail-in risks to investors and should include in their offering materials “black box” warnings similar to those already used in selling junk bonds to investors. In addition, each SIFI should describe its resolution plan on a web page that also contains a straightforward discussion of the risks TLAC debtholders are taking on—risks that creditors and counterparties of operating subsidiaries are unwilling to assume. Only with such disclosures can the hazards of TLAC debt be appropriately priced by the market.

The full paper can be found here.

 

FTI Roundup

The Seventh Circuit held last July in FTI Consulting, Inc. v. Merit Management Group, LP, 2016 BL 243677 (7th Cir. July 28, 2016), that § 546(e) of the Bankruptcy Code is not a safe harbor for “transfers that are simply conducted through financial institutions.” This decision deepens a circuit split on this issue. While the Second, Third, Sixth, Eighth, and Tenth Circuits have held that the plain language of § 546(e) protects transfers through financial institutions as settlement payments, the Seventh Circuit’s interpretation agrees with the Eleventh Circuit’s older decision in In re Munford, 98 F.3d 604, 610 (11th Cir. 1996). The legislative purpose of § 546(e) was to prevent the insolvency of one financial institution from causing systemic harm to the market as a whole. However, its text also has deep implications for leveraged buyouts that might render target corporations insolvent because payments to selling shareholders almost invariably pass through brokers and clearinghouses that are covered by the safe harbor.

Several law firms have now written memos on the FTI decision. Schiff Harden postulates that debtors will be more likely to forum shop when filing for bankruptcy when they have recently undergone a leveraged buyout. Jones Day makes clear that shareholders selling into a leveraged buyout face differing levels of risk depending on which forums the corporation could legally avail itself of in a bankruptcy proceeding. And Dechert argues that FTI Consulting will result in different treatment for parties selling identical securities in leveraged buyouts: financial institutions, stockbrokers, and the like will remain protected by the safe harbor when they are beneficial owners of stock, but other shareholders will be subject to avoidance action.

Tinkering with Ipso Facto Provisions Could Send Them Sailing out of Safe Harbors

By Maurice Horwitz (Weil, Gotshal & Manges)

Recently, the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Louisiana considered whether a bankruptcy termination provision in a forward contract continues to be safe harbored under section 556 if its enforcement is conditioned on other factors – in this case, the debtor’s failure to perform under the contract.  Consistent with prior case law, the court held that termination is only safe harbored if it is based solely on a condition specified in 365(e)(1) (i.e., the financial condition of the debtor, bankruptcy, or the appointment of a trustee).

The contract in Louisiana Pellets contained a standard ipso facto provision that permitted either party to terminate the agreement upon commencement of a bankruptcy case by the other party.  But the debtor’s counterparty could only invoke the provision if the debtor was also in breach of its obligations under the agreement.  The counterparty alleged that both requirements of the ipso facto provision – bankruptcy and breach – had been satisfied, and sought to terminate.

The court held that because the ipso facto provision contained an additional condition to enforcement (the debtor’s breach), it no longer fell within the 556 safe harbor.  Thus, even if both conditions were satisfied (bankruptcy and breach), the automatic stay applied and the termination clause could not be exercised absent relief from the automatic stay.

The lesson of Louisiana Pellets is that ipso facto provisions in financial contracts should be drafted carefully so that their enforcement depends solely on one of the conditions specified in Section 365(e)(1) of the Bankruptcy Code.

The full article is available here.

Implementing Symmetric Treatment of Financial Contracts in Bankruptcy and Bank Resolution

By Edward J. Janger (Brooklyn Law School) and John A.E. Pottow (University of Michigan Law School)

Financial contracts, such as swaps, repos, and options, are excepted from the Bankruptcy Code’s automatic stay by so-called “derivative safe harbors.” The Lehman Brothers bankruptcy provides a graphic illustration of how this device makes it almost impossible for non-bank financial firms, or other firms with significant derivative exposure, to restructure in chapter 11. Without a stay, non-debtor counterparties may run for the exits by exercising early termination rights, demanding payment, and offsetting obligations, thereby draining assets from the struggling debtor in a destructive rush.

The resolution regime for banks takes a different approach. It imposes a short stay on financial contract termination to permit the orderly transfer of a failed bank’s derivative portfolio intact to a solvent bank. This approach has been used for decades to preserve the value of financial contracts and to minimize the systemic disruption occasioned by bank failures. It has been extended contractually to cover many non-bank SIFIs through the relatively recent ISDA Resolution Stay Protocol. There are, however, significant gaps in the contractual regime. Non-SIFI financial institutions are not covered, and neither are non-financial firms that may have significant derivatives exposure, and may also be systemically important.

Our article offers a road-map for translating and generalizing the “short-stay” regime used for banks into chapter 11. The key to this synthesis is the bankruptcy concept of “adequate assurance of future performance,” provided through a commonplace bankruptcy device—debtor-in-possession financing. This financing can backstop the debtor’s timely performance of its financial obligations. We note that our approach would facilitate use of the “Single Point of Entry” strategy for restructuring financial firms in bankruptcy. Our approach also would, we contend, bring greater stability to financial markets, preserve otherwise evaporating value for insolvent debtors with a significant book of derivatives, and ultimately make it possible for many more firms to restructure in bankruptcy.

The full article, published in 10 Brooklyn Journal of Corporate, Financial and Commercial Law 155 (2015), is available here.

 


This article was recently published in the Brooklyn Journal of Corporate, Financial and Commercial Law as part of a symposium volume entitled: The Treatment of Financial Contracts in Bankruptcy and Bank ResolutionThe volume includes papers by Riz Mokal, Anna Gelpern and Eric Gerding, Adam Levitin, and Irit Mevorach.

The Roundtable has also posted on this topic previously. See Morrison, Roe, and Sontchi, “Rolling Back the Repo Safe Harbors” and Murphy and Smith, “Bankruptcy Code with No Repo Safe Harbor—An Evaluation.”

Did Bankruptcy Reform Contribute to the Rise in Structured Finance?

By Kandarp Srinivasan

Financial contracts such as repurchase agreements (“repos”) have effective “super-priority” in a bankruptcy situation—they are safe harbored from the automatic stay provision. The common justification for this special treatment is the threat of cascade effects (systemic risk). The 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (“BAPCPA”) expanded safe harbor provisions for repos collateralized by mortgage-related securities.

This paper highlights an unintended consequence of preferential treatment: Safe harbor exemptions increased incentives for financial institutions to issue complex securitized products. From an economic standpoint, an increase in demand for collateral in repo markets can cause securitized products to become more attractive to issue (Gorton and Metrick (2012)). This theoretical premise has remained untested so far.

Using data from bank holding companies and underwriters of structured mortgage products, this paper finds an increase in mortgage securitization activity in years preceding the financial crisis. Hand-collected data on repo collateral in the tri-party repo market reveals underwriters of securitized products increased use of mortgage-backed repos in the quarters following the law change.

Understanding the securitization “flash flood” is important because regulatory responses during the financial crisis (for example, TARP) were primarily targeted at buying securitized assets. Yet, the Dodd-Frank Act directs little attention to repurchase markets (Acharya (2010)). If safe harbor contributed to the proliferation of securitized products, it renews the debate (Roe (2011), Duffie and Skeel (2012)) on the costs and benefits of preferential treatment of financial contracts in bankruptcy.

For the full article, please click here. The Roundtable has posted work on this topic previously. See Morrison, Roe, and Sontchi, “Rolling Back the Repo Safe Harbors.”

Establishing “Credible Losers” at Systemically Important Bank Holding Companies

By John Crawford, UC Hastings College of Law

Systemically important bank holding companies (“SIBs”) have always had an abundance of creditors that can legally absorb losses in the event of failure. The SIB bailouts of 2008, however, were driven by regulators’ unwillingness to allow losses to fall on these creditors. The Fed has recently proposed a rule requiring SIBs to issue large quantities of “loss-absorbing” long-term debt (“LTD”) out of their parent holding companies. If, however, regulators were averse to haircuts for SIB creditors before, how will creating a new class of debt help? I attempt to answer this question here. First, regulators fear the consequences of loss or delay for SIBs’ short-term creditors. These consequences include, inter alia, the risk of “contagion by simile,” as short-term creditors of other SIBs “run” to avoid a similar fate. This risk does not extend to long-term debt per se. The challenge of imposing losses on long-term debt while protecting short-term debt goes beyond mere repayment priority, however, as involuntary haircuts typically require a bankruptcy or resolution process that creates the risk of uncertainty or delay for all claims—potentially triggering the very contagion dynamics regulators wish to avoid. I nevertheless argue that the combination of a “single point of entry” resolution strategy for SIBs and a set of proposed “clean holding company” requirements plausibly solves the problem for LTD, so that it can absorb losses without creating these risks. In short, LTD may be the “credible loser” that SIBs previously lacked.

 

The full article may be found here.

Bankruptcy Code Amendments Pass the House in Appropriations Bill

On July 7, the House of Representatives passed an appropriations bill (H.R. 5485) that includes a revised version of H.R. 2947, the Financial Institution Bankruptcy Act (FIBA), which passed the House by voice vote earlier this year. This bill, which the Roundtable has covered previously (here and here), would add to Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code a “Subchapter V” to facilitate the bankruptcy resolution of troubled financial institutions. The inclusion of FIBA in the appropriations bill suggests there could be a substantial effort to pass the bankruptcy bill this year.

The version of FIBA included in the appropriations bill is largely the same as the bill that was introduced in the House last July. Importantly, however, the current version of the bill, which passed the House by voice vote this past spring, no longer allows the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (the Board) to force a financial institution into bankruptcy. The role of federal regulators in the initiation and conduct of bankruptcy proceedings has been a controversial issue in debates about how to adapt the Bankruptcy Code to handle failed financial institutions more effectively. As included in the appropriations bill, FIBA permits only the debtor to file for bankruptcy. At the same time, the current bill would still provide for federal financial regulators, including the Board, to appear and be heard in any case under Subchapter V.

Although the bill aims to make bankruptcy feasible for large financial institutions, Subchapter V has been designed to facilitate a two-day, single-point-of-entry (SPOE) resolution strategy. FIBA’s proposed changes to the Bankruptcy Code would not support financial institutions during a lengthier path through bankruptcy. As the two-day bankruptcy resolution of a large, complex firm has no precedent, it is unclear whether the resolution strategy contemplated by Subchapter V would prove workable in practice. Thus, FIBA may not go as far as its proponents claim in making bankruptcy feasible for systemically important financial institutions (SIFIs).

H.R. 5485 is now in the Senate, which will consider it after the summer recess.

For a link to the full text of H.R. 5485, click here.

(This post was authored by Rebecca Green, J.D. ’17.)

Bankruptcy Court Disagrees with Second Circuit’s Holding in Tribune

By Lee Harrington of Nixon Peabody.

Recently, in In re Physiotherapy Holdings Inc., the Bankruptcy Court in Delaware held that section 546(e) of the Bankruptcy Code did not preempt various state fraudulent transfer actions because the allegedly fraudulent transfers implicated neither the rationale for that section nor preemption generally. The decision is at odds with recent case law, notably: (i) the Tribune litigation, in which the Second Circuit concluded that state law constructive fraudulent transfer claims involving payments in LBO transactions are prohibited under section 546(e); and (ii) a proceeding in which the Southern District of New York concluded that the interest payment at issue, which did not retire the underlying debt, were not “settlement payments” and was thus outside section 546(e).

Section 546(e) precludes certain bankruptcy avoidance actions involving settlement payments made by or to a financial institution and transfers made by or to a financial institution in connection with a securities contract. It is intended to prevent litigation that might have a destabilizing “ripple effect” on the financial markets and provides a defense to constructive fraudulent transfer actions against shareholders receiving LBO payments.

Physiotherapy found that section 546(e) was not intended to shield “LBO payments to stockholders at the very end of the asset transfer chain, where the stockholders are the ultimate beneficiaries of the constructively fraudulent transfers, and can give the money back . . . with no damage to anyone but themselves” without the attendant destabilizing “ripple effect.”

The full memo is available here.

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The Bankruptcy Roundtable has previously covered treatment of 546(e), most recently in our Tribune Fraudulent Conveyance Litigation Roundup.

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