A Functional Analysis of SIFI Insolvency

By Stephen J. Lubben (Seton Hall University School of Law)

Since the disgrace of Lehman, the question of how to handle failing SIFIs has been quite vexed.   On the one hand, governmental rescue of shareholders and other investors is beyond annoying, and there is some intuitive sense that if management does a poor job, they and their investor backers should face the consequences, just like any other firm.   That bank managers would have the temerity to pay themselves large bonuses shortly after a taxpayer rescue only emphasizes the point.

On the other hand, there is a widespread understanding that a large bank, or a sufficiently interconnected one, is not quite like Kmart, Enron, or even American Airlines, in that when the bank fails, it tends to take a large chunk of the economy along with it.   Pre-failure regulation can mitigate some of the effects, but by the time we get to insolvency—or “financial distress”—the regulatory string has pretty much played out.   And in the end, we have trouble deciding if we really mean to treat large financial institutions like normal failed firms.

In A Functional Analysis of SIFI Insolvency, I argue that we need to consider what it is that we are trying to achieve in a bank insolvency case, and how that compares with bankruptcy law in general.  Bank insolvency, I submit, is all about special priorities: both ordinal and temporal.  The Bankruptcy Code, on the other hand, takes an “equality is equity” approach to priorities as a baseline, mostly using state law to draw the claim-asset border.

Financial insolvency law expressly rejects this model; it instead is all about protecting some favored group from the effects of insolvency.   There is no equality here, and it was never intended that there would be equality.   And thus it is time to stop pretending SIFI insolvency is “normal” corporate insolvency but bigger.

The full article is available here.

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.

Do Economic Conditions Drive DIP Lending?: Evidence from the Financial Crisis

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By Colleen Honigsberg (Stanford Law School) and Frederick Tung (Boston University School of Law)

For many firms, obtaining debtor-in-possession (DIP) financing is crucial for a successful reorganization. Such financing can be hard to find, however, as lenders are understandably hesitant to lend to firms in severe financial distress. The Bankruptcy Code solves this potential dilemma by authorizing debtors to provide DIP lenders with various sweeteners to induce lending. But because these sweeteners are thought to come at the expense of other stakeholders, the Code permits these inducements only if the judge determines that no less generous a package would have been sufficient to obtain the loan.

Certain types of lending inducements, frequently described as “extraordinary provisions,” have become the subject of growing concern. Anecdotal evidence suggests the use of these provisions has skyrocketed in recent years, leading important bankruptcy courts and the American Bankruptcy Institute to question whether these provisions are really necessary for a robust DIP market—or whether DIP lenders are extracting excessively generous terms. Defenders of DIP lenders, however, have pointed to a plausible external explanation for the popularity of extraordinary provisions in recent years: The Financial Crisis. When credit is tight, lenders demand more inducements. Indeed, judges have explicitly cited credit conditions in approving controversial inducement packages.

In this article, we provide the first evidence on the relationship between credit availability and DIP loan terms. Using a hand-collected dataset reflecting contract terms from DIP loans issued between 2004 and 2012, we study the relationship between DIP loan terms and broader market conditions. As predicted, we find a statistically significant relationship between credit availability and ordinary loan provisions like pricing and reporting covenants. By contrast, we find no evidence that “extraordinary” provisions like roll-ups and case milestones are related to credit availability. We hope that our findings will inform judges and policymakers struggling to evaluate whether the sweeteners extracted by DIP lenders are really necessary to induce lending.

The full article is available 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.