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.”

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.”

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.”

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.)

House Judiciary Committee Approves Bill to Amend Chapter 11 for Financial Institution Bankruptcies

On February 11, 2016, the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee approved H.R. 2947—the Financial Institution Bankruptcy Act (FIBA)—which would amend the Bankruptcy Code to accommodate more smoothly the resolution of systemically important financial institutions (SIFIs). Introduced in July 2015, the current bill is essentially identical to an earlier version that passed the House in December 2014 (discussed in a Roundtable post here).

Like two pending Senate proposals, FIBA focuses on facilitating the recapitalization of a SIFI through a “single point of entry” (SPOE) approach similar to the strategy the FDIC has developed for implementing the Orderly Liquidation Authority (OLA) created in Title II of the Dodd-Frank Act. During an SPOE resolution, most of the failing SIFI’s assets would be transferred to a non-debtor bridge holding company to continue operations, leaving long-term debt and equity behind in the original holding company to be liquidated. (For a previous Roundtable post describing SPOE, click here.) Although both the House and the Senate bills would adapt the Bankruptcy Code to support recapitalization, FIBA differs from the Senate proposals in some important ways.

First, unlike the Senate proposals, FIBA does not repeal the OLA’s regulatory resolution process. FIBA would eliminate some of the major differences between the OLA and the current Bankruptcy Code to make bankruptcy a more viable route for failing SIFIs, but the OLA would remain an option for regulators.

Second, FIBA does not address either private or public financing for the bridge company. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s proposal, on the other hand, explicitly prohibits federal government funding. The bill pending in the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee also prohibits financing by Federal Reserve banks.

At the same time, FIBA and the Senate bills both impose a 48-hour stay on the exercise of contractual rights to terminate, liquidate, and offset qualified financial contracts to allow their transfer to a bridge company. At present, safe harbors in the Bankruptcy Code exempt such contracts from the automatic stay, and even the OLA imposes a stay of only one business day.

The full text of FIBA may be found here.

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