The Resolution of Distressed Financial Conglomerates

By Howell E. Jackson (Harvard Law School) & Stephanie Massman (Harvard Law School, J.D. 2015)

One of the most elegant legal innovations to emerge from the Dodd-Frank Act is the FDIC’s Single Point of Entry (SPOE) initiative for resolving the failure of large financial conglomerates (corporate groups with regulated financial entities as subsidiaries), whereby regulators would seize only the top-tier holding company, down-stream holding-company resources to distressed subsidiaries, and wipe out holding-company shareholders while simultaneously imposing additional losses on holding-company creditors. The SPOE strategy is designed to resolve the entire group without disrupting the business of operating subsidiaries (even those operating overseas) or risking systemic consequences for the broader economy.

Although SPOE’s underlying creativity is admirable, the approach’s design raises several novel and challenging questions of implementation, explored in this chapter. For example, the automatic down-streaming of resources raises the so-called pre-positioning dilemma. If too much support is positioned at subsidiaries in advance, there may be inadequate holding-company reserves to support a severely distressed subsidiary. Alternatively, without such pre-positioning, commitments of subsidiary support may not be credible (especially to foreign authorities), and it may become difficult legally and practically to deploy resources in times of distress.

It is easiest to envision SPOE operating in conjunction with the FDIC’s Orderly Liquidation Authority (OLA), established in the Dodd-Frank Act; however, Dodd-Frank’s preferred regime for resolving failed financial conglomerates remains the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, and several complexities could arise if a bankruptcy court had to implement an SPOE resolution today. While many experts are working on legislative proposals to amend the Bankruptcy Code to facilitate SPOE resolutions, this chapter examines some legal levers that federal authorities could deploy under current law to increase the likelihood of a successful SPOE bankruptcy. For example, with appropriate pre-failure planning, section 365(o) of the Bankruptcy Code—which requires the debtor to assume and cure immediately any deficiency under an obligation to federal regulators to maintain the capital of an insured depository institution—could be used to prioritize holding-company commitments to all material operating subsidiaries, including affiliates that are not insured depository institutions. Such priority status would shield the down-streaming of value to operating subsidiaries from possible legal challenges, thereby alleviating some of the difficulty of the pre-positioning dilemma. Additionally, broad-based credit facilities under section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act or targeted lending under the Federal Deposit Insurance Act’s systemic risk exception may be available to provide government-sponsored debtor-in-possession financing where no private or other public alternative (like that provided under OLA) is available.

Implementing these strategies would be challenging and would require considerable planning. However, it is important to take steps now to increase the likelihood that bankruptcy represents a viable and credible alternative for effecting SPOE transactions outside of OLA.

The full chapter is available here.

The Roundtable has covered bank resolution and the SPOE strategy previously. For example, see Lubben & Wilmarth, “Too Big and Unable to Fail“; Crawford, “Establishing ‘Credible Losers’“; Roundtable Update, “Bankruptcy Code Amendments Pass the House in Appropriations Bill.”