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.”