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.

Bankruptcy on the Side

By Kenneth Ayotte (University of California – Berkeley School of Law), Anthony J. Casey (University of Chicago Law School), David A. Skeel, Jr. (University of Pennsylvania Law School)


Side agreements—such as intercreditor and “bad boy” agreements—are increasingly at the center of major bankruptcy disputes. Litigation around these disputes can be costly and the results of that litigation can dramatically alter the landscape within which the stakeholders bargain over reorganization.

These agreements commonly include a promise by one party to remain silent by waiving some procedural right they would otherwise have under the Bankruptcy Code. Those waivers are invoked at crucial points in the reorganization process, including the approval of debtor-in-possession financing and plan confirmation.

In our new paper, Bankruptcy on the Side, we show that while side agreements have beneficial potential, the parties entering them often impose negative externalities on outsiders. A promise not to extend new financing, for example, can affect the debtor’s reorganization prospects. Similarly, a promise not to object to a reorganization plan can rob the court of information that might benefit the other classes of creditors.

The paper presents a simple model to derive a proposal that is consistent with the intent of the parties to the side agreement but also limits negative externalities. The core of the proposal is that where there is a nontrivial potential for value-destroying externalities, the court should limit a nonbreaching party’s remedy to its expectation damages. On the other hand, if the agreement is unlikely to cause externalities, a court should enforce the agreement according to its terms. Our proposal is different and superior to the approach taken by most courts, which invokes a narrow interpretative standard to invalidate side agreements. We focus instead on enforcing the provisions under normal interpretative doctrines while limiting the use of special remedies like specific performance and stipulated damages.

The insights of our paper also provide a new answer to thorny questions involved in choosing which courts should resolve disputes over intercreditor agreements, and in deciding whether forum selection clauses should be enforced. Specifically, the bankruptcy courts have no specialized expertise for cases where the plaintiff seeks expectation damages. In those cases, the court should defer to default venue rules and forum selection clauses. Where specific performance or stipulated damages are at issue, by contrast, our model suggests that the dispute should be resolved exclusively in bankruptcy proceedings.


From Chrysler and General Motors to Detroit

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


In the past five years, three of the most remarkable bankruptcy cases in American history have come out of Detroit: the bankruptcies of Chrysler and General Motors in 2009, and of Detroit itself in 2013. The principal objective of this Article is simply to show that the Grand Bargain at the heart of the Detroit bankruptcy is the direct offspring of the bankruptcy sale transactions that were used to restructure Chrysler and GM. The proponents of Detroit’s “Grand Bargain” never would have dreamed up the transaction were it not for the federal government-engineered carmaker bankruptcies. The Article’s second objective, based the comparison of the Detroit cases, is to make a very brief case for reform of bankruptcy sales.

Part I of the Article briefly surveys the increased use of bankruptcy sales and related shifts in Chapter 11 practice over the past several decades. Part II describes the Chrysler and General Motors bankruptcies, which built on but radically expanded the scope of a bankruptcy sale. Part III turns to the Detroit bankruptcy, focusing primarily on the “Grand Bargain,” while also exploring the city’s use of another recent bankruptcy strategy, known as “gifting.” The Article concludes, in a brief final part, that the Detroit cases have pushed recent bankruptcy innovations to their logical extremes — and beyond — exposing the need to update the oversight of bankruptcy sales.

The full version of this article is available here.


Single Point of Entry and the Bankruptcy Alternative

Author: David A. Skeel, Jr., University of Pennsylvania Law School


The Dodd-Frank Act requires systemically important financial institutions to prepare living wills explaining how they could be smoothly resolved in bankruptcy.  Yet Dodd-Frank itself did not do anything to ensure that the bankruptcy laws actually are adequate to the task of handling a major financial institution.  Earlier this month, the House Judiciary committee unanimously approved proposed legislation (known colloquially as “Subchapter V”) that is designed to finish the job.  Subchapter V would mimic the single point of entry strategy that the FDIC has devised for resolution under the Dodd-Frank Act by facilitating a quick sale of the assets and some of the liabilities of the financial institution’s holding company in bankruptcy.

In this Essay (which pre-dates Subchapter V), I consider the risks and benefits of single of entry and the bankruptcy alternative.  The Essay begins with a brief overview of concerns raised by the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, and points out that the Dodd-Frank Act as enacted left nearly all of them unaddressed.   By contrast, the FDIC’s new single point of entry strategy, which is introduced in the second section, can be seen as addressing nearly all of them.  The third and fourth sections point out some of the limitations of single point of entry, first by highlighting potential pitfalls and distortions and then by explaining that single point of entry does not end the too-big-to-fail problem and would not reduce worrisome concentration in the financial services industry.  The final section turns to bankruptcy, and shows that the single-entry-style strategy can easily be replicated in bankruptcy.  Indeed, the strategy harkens back to the original procedure used to reorganize American railroads well over a century ago.

The full version of the article can be found here.

Bankruptcy Law as a Liquidity Provider

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Authors: Kenneth Ayotte & David Skeel

Since the outset of the recent financial crisis, liquidity problems have been cited as the cause behind the bankruptcies and near bankruptcies of numerous firms, ranging from Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers in 2008 to Kodak more recently.  As Kodak’s lead bankruptcy lawyer explained to the court on the first day of the case: “We’re here for liquidity.” In this Article, we offer the first theoretical analysis of bankruptcy’s crucial role in creating liquidity for firms in financial distress.

The dominant normative theory of bankruptcy (the “Creditors Bargain theory”) argues that bankruptcy should be limited to solving coordination problems caused by multiple creditors. Using simple numerical illustrations, we show that two well-known problems that cause illiquidity–debt overhang and adverse selection– are more severe in the presence of multiple, uncoordinated creditors.  Hence, bankruptcy is justified in addressing them.

We discuss the Bankruptcy Code’s existing liquidity-providing rules, such as the ability to issue new senior claims, and the ability to sell assets free and clear of liens and other claims.  In addition to identifying this function in a variety of provisions that have not previously been recognized as related, our theory also explains how the recent trend toward creditor control in Chapter 11 cases can be explained as an attempt to create illiquidity for strategic advantage.  Although bankruptcy’s liquidity providing rules are essential, especially in the current environment, they also carry costs, such as the risk of “continuation bias.”  To address these costs, we propose qualitative principles for striking the balance between debtor liquidity and respect for nonbankruptcy rights.

University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 80, Fall 2013.  A draft is available on SSRN.

Bankruptcy and Economic Recovery

Authors: Thomas Jackson & David Skeel

A striking feature of the recent economic crisis was the long period of subpar economic growth that continued even after the crisis had officially ended.  Although discussion about how to spur economic recovery has focused on the efficacy of Keynesian stimulus spending, this is only one of many factors that might plausibly encourage growth.  For a book entitled “Financial Restructuring to Sustain Recovery,” published by the Brookings Institution, we were asked to discuss the role that bankruptcy policy plays, or might play, in economic recovery.

After summarizing how bankruptcy posits a collective solution to a common pool problem of individual creditors and thereby improves the efficient use of assets, we consider two obstacles to its effectiveness.  The first is that bankruptcy proceedings often seem to begin too late.  The increased influence of debtors’ principal lenders probably counteracts this problem in part, but we suspect not fully.  We consider a wide range of strategies that lawmakers might use to encourage timely filing, some of which are fairly simple, while others are more speculative.

The second major issue is the relationship between bankruptcy and jobs.  The question whether bankruptcy should be used to protect jobs is a recurring theme that came to the fore most recently when the government used bankruptcy to bail out Chrysler, justifying its intervention as preserving jobs.  We caution that distorting the standard bankruptcy rules—focused on efficient use of assets—to save jobs in the short run may have more problematic effects overall.

The full-length article can be found here.