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.

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.”

Three Ages of Bankruptcy

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By Mark J. Roe (Harvard Law School)

During the past century, three decisionmaking systems have arisen to accomplish a bankruptcy restructuring — judicial administration, a deal among the firm’s dominant players, and a sale of the firm’s operations in their entirety. Each is embedded in the Bankruptcy Code today, with all having been in play for more than a century and with each having had its heyday — its dominant age. The shifts, rises, and falls among decisionmaking systems have previously been explained by successful evolution in bankruptcy thinking, by the happenstance of the interests and views of lawyers that designed bankruptcy changes, and by the interests of those who influenced decisionmakers. Here I argue that these broad changes also stem from baseline market capacities, which shifted greatly over the past century; I build the case for shifts underlying market conditions being a major explanation for the shifts in decisionmaking modes. Keeping these three alternative decisionmaking types clearly in mind not only leads to better understanding of what bankruptcy can and cannot do, but also facilitates stronger policy decisions today here and in the world’s differing bankruptcy systems, as some tasks are best left to the market, others are best handled by the courts, and still others can be left to the inside parties to resolve.

The full article is available here.

The Trust Indenture Act of 1939 in Congress and the Courts in 2016: Bringing the SEC to the Table

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By Mark J. Roe, Harvard Law School

The Trust Indenture Act’s ban on restructuring payment terms via a vote has come to the fore in recent litigation. This memo examines broad aspects of the recent controversies to outline a path forward for a sensible legal structure governing out-of-bankruptcy restructurings.

There are four points to be made:

  1. The recent Southern District of New York decisions striking down exit consent transactions are justified under the Trust Indenture Act.
  2. The Act impedes out-of-bankruptcy restructurings because it clearly but mistakenly bars votes that restructure bond payment terms. Restructurings outside bankruptcy cannot succeed when widespread consent is needed. But in an institutionalized bond market, there is little reason to bar restructuring by vote.
  3. The Act’s ban on votes creates the potential for holdouts (or earnest dissenters) to destroy a good deal that most bondholders sincerely want. But to combat the Act’s voting ban (and sometimes to force an unsound restructuring), issuers use exit consent offers, which can impair bondholders’ indenture rights so severely that they reluctantly accept an offer whose terms they dislike. Courts cannot resolve both of these distortions; other lawmakers need to come to the table.
  4. Legislative solutions are possible. While awaiting wise legislation, there is another way to construct sensible rules for bond workouts — one that has previously not been recognized. The Securities and Exchange Commission has broad authority to exempt indentures and transactions from the full force of the ban on voting.

SEC exemptive rulemaking provides a viable path to facilitate out-of-bankruptcy restructurings of public bond issues going forward. The appellate courts can and should affirm the lower court decisions that the Trust Indenture Act bans exit consent degradation, and the SEC can and should then use its exemptive power to carve out uncoerced votes on payment terms from the Act’s voting ban.

The full memo is available here.

For some of our most recent previous posts on the Trust Indenture Act see here, here, and here.

Breaking Bankruptcy Priority: How Rent-Seeking Upends the Creditors’ Bargain

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Editor’s Note:  Breaking Bankruptcy Priority: How Rent-Seeking Upends the Creditors’ Bargain, by Mark Roe and Fred Tung, was selected as one of the ten Best Corporate and Securities Articles of 2014. This “10-best” list reflects the choices of academic teachers in this area from more than 560 articles published last year. The article was the subject of a Bankruptcy Roundtable post on April 8, 2014 at its time of publication. It was the only bankruptcy-based article on the “10-best” list. That list can be found here.

By Mark Roe, Harvard Law School, and Frederick Tung, Boston University School of Law

Roe 124tungprofileIn “Breaking Bankruptcy Priority:  How Rent-Seeking Upends the Creditors’ Bargain,” recently published in the Virginia Law Review, we question the stability of bankruptcy’s priority structure. Bankruptcy scholarship has long conceptualized bankruptcy’s reallocation of value as a hypothetical bargain among creditors: creditors agree in advance that if the firm falters, value will be reallocated according to a fixed set of statutory and agreed-to contractual priorities.

In “Breaking Priority,” we propose an alternative view. No hypothetical bargain among creditors is ever fully fixed because creditors continually seek to alter the priority rules, pursuing categorical rule changes to jump ahead of competing creditors. These moves are often successful, so creditors must continually adjust to other creditors’ successful jumps. Because priority is always up for grabs, bankruptcy should be reconceptualized as an ongoing rent-seeking contest, fought in a three-ring arena of transactional innovation, doctrinal change, and legislative trumps.

We highlight a number of recent and historical priority jumps. We explain how priority jumping interacts with finance theory and how it should lead us to view bankruptcy as a dynamic process. Breaking priority, reestablishing it, and adapting to new priorities is part of the normal science of Chapter 11 reorganization, where bankruptcy lawyers and judges expend a large part of their time and energy. While a given jump’s end-state (when a new priority is firmly established) may sometimes be efficient, bankruptcy rent-seeking overall has significant pathologies and inefficiencies.

The paper is available here.

Restructuring Failed Financial Firms in Bankruptcy: Selling Lehman’s Derivatives Portfolio

By Mark J. Roe, Harvard Law School, and Stephen D. Adams, Ropes & Gray LLP

adams-stephen-200 Roe 124Lehman Brothers’ failure and bankruptcy led to the deepest part of the 2008 financial crisis. Yet, while Congress reformed financial regulation in hopes of avoiding another crisis, bankruptcy rules, such as those that governed Lehman’s failure, have persisted unchanged. When Lehman failed, it lost perhaps tens of billions of dollars of further value when its contracting counterparties terminated their financial contracts with Lehman.

Bankruptcy must be able to market salable parts of the failed institution’s financial contracts portfolio at other-than-fire-sale prices. Current law prevents this marketing, however. It allows only two polar choices: sell the entire portfolio intact (currently impossible in bankruptcy and only narrowly viable under Dodd-Frank) or allow for the liquidation of each contract, one-by-one (which worked poorly in Lehman). Bankruptcy needs authority, first, to preserve the failed firm’s overall portfolio value, and, second, to break up and sell along product lines a very large portfolio that is too large to sell intact.

Congress and the regulators favor bankruptcy for financial resolution. Yet, bankruptcy law has neither been fixed nor even updated here since the financial crisis. We here outline one critically needed fix: authorizing bankruptcy to break up a large derivatives portfolio by selling its constituent product lines, one-by-one, instead of a Lehman-style close-out of each contract, one-by-one.

This article is forthcoming in 32 Yale Journal on Regulation. A full draft of the article can be found here.

For related pieces discussing safe harbors, see here and here.

Fixing the Trust Indenture Act to Allow Restructuring Votes

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By Mark J. Roe, Harvard Law School

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The Trust Indenture Act of 1939 bars binding bondholder votes on core payment terms. The inability of deal proponents to get a binding vote can lead the debtor to file for an otherwise unnecessary bankruptcy. To get a deal done when there are economically-important holdouts, deal proponents often seek exit consents to induce enough holdout bondholders to reluctantly tender into a deal they don’t otherwise like, by stripping the bond indenture of those covenants on which bondholders can vote.
Exit consent transactions have generally been upheld, despite that in analogous corporate settings such distortions induce doctrinal and deal structure issues. Recent decisions indicate that exit consents that oust the bondholders from an effective individual choice ran afoul of the Trust Indenture Act, which may well have been the intent of the 1930’s drafters of the law.
Regardless, the anti-voting provision is anachronistic. It was passed when bankruptcy law did not respect bondholder votes without a judge’s substantive approval of the deal, but the Code was updated in 1978 to allow binding votes. Bondholders should also be free to agree in advance to a binding vote in an out-of-court workout. More restructurings will succeed and avoid bankruptcy. And proponents will have less reason to resort to arm-twisting with exit consents. Similar individualized consent difficulties and holdout issues have hobbled sovereign debt restructurings, with sovereign debt issues moving in recent years to include majority vote provisions.
For my analysis of the incentives and structure of bond restructurings in light of the TIA, see 97 Yale L.J. 232 (1987).

Rolling Back the Repo Safe Harbors

Authors: Edward R. Morrison, Mark J. Roe, and Hon. Christopher S. Sontchi

Morrison PicMarkRoeSontchi, Christopher resized_1

Recent decades have seen substantial expansion in exemptions from the Bankruptcy Code’s normal operation for repurchase agreements. These repos, which are equivalent to very short-term (often one-day) secured loans, are exempt from core bankruptcy rules such as the automatic stay that enjoins debt collection, rules against prebankruptcy fraudulent transfers, and rules against eve-of-bankruptcy preferential payment to some creditors over other creditors. While these exemptions can be justified for United States Treasury securities and similarly liquid obligations backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government, they are not justified for mortgage-backed securities and other securities that could prove illiquid or unable to fetch their expected long-run value in a panic. The exemptions from baseline bankruptcy rules facilitate this kind of panic selling and, according to many expert observers, characterized and exacerbated the financial crisis of 2007–2009, leading to a bailout of the repo market and the institutions supporting mortgage-backed securities. The exemptions from normal bankruptcy rules should be limited to United States Treasury and similarly liquid securities, as they once were. The more recent expansion of the exemption to mortgage-backed securities should be reversed.

This article is forthcoming in The Business Lawyer, and a draft is available here.

Breaking Bankruptcy Priority: How Rent-Seeking Upends the Creditors’ Bargain

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Post by Frederick Tung, Professor at Boston University School of Law

In “Breaking Bankruptcy Priority:  How Rent-Seeking Upends the Creditors’ Bargain,” recently published in the Virginia Law Review, Mark Roe and I question the stability of bankruptcy’s priority structure and suggest a new conceptualization of bankruptcy reorganization that challenges the long-standing creditors’ bargain view. Bankruptcy scholarship has long conceptualized bankruptcy’s reallocation of value as a hypothetical bargain among creditors: creditors agree in advance that if the firm falters, value will be reallocated according to a fixed set of statutory and agreed-to contractual priorities.

In “Breaking Priority,” we propose an alternative view. No hypothetical bargain is ever fully fixed because creditors continually attempt to alter the priority rules, pursuing categorical rule changes to jump ahead of competing creditors. These moves are often successful, so creditors must continually adjust to other creditors’ successful jumps. Because priority is always up for grabs, bankruptcy should be reconceptualized as an ongoing rent-seeking contest, fought in a three-ring arena of transactional innovation, doctrinal change, and legislative trumps.

We highlight a number of recent and historical priority jumps. We explain how priority jumping interacts with finance theory and how it should lead us to view bankruptcy as a dynamic process. Breaking priority, reestablishing it, and adapting to new priorities is part of the normal science of Chapter 11 reorganization, where bankruptcy lawyers and judges expend a large part of their time and energy. While a given jump’s end-state (when a new priority is firmly established) may sometimes be efficient, bankruptcy rent-seeking overall has significant pathologies and inefficiencies.

The paper is available here.

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