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

posted in: Cramdown and Priority | 0

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.

Practitioners, Academics, and a Judge Testify about Safe Harbors before Congress

Author: Stephen D. Adams

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial, and Antitrust Law has held two sets of hearings in recent months on the bankruptcy safe harbors for repos and derivatives from the automatic stay, from preference and fraudulent conveyance law, and from the limitations on ipso facto clauses.

This past Wednesday, March 26, Judge Christopher Sontchi, Seth Grosshandler, Jane Vris, Thomas Jackson, and Michelle Harner testified. Last December, Jeffrey Lacker, Donald Bernstein, and Mark Roe testified.

Judge Sontchi argued that the 546(e)’s exception for all settlement transactions is too broad and also urged Congress to narrow the safe harbors for repos. Seth Grosshandler, of Cleary Gottlieb, reported on the work of the ABI safe harbors advisory committee (which includes both Judge Sontchi and Prof. Roe) and warned that the safe harbors are complex and potentially costly to alter.  Jane Vris, representing the National Bankruptcy Conference (NBC), and Thomas Jackson, professor at the University of Rochester, testified on bankruptcy of SIFIs as an alternative to Dodd Frank resolution of bail-out.  Michelle Harner, professor at University of Maryland School of Law, testified in her role as the Reporter to the ABI Commission on Bankruptcy Reform about the Commission.

Mark Roe, professor at Harvard Law School, testified that the safe harbors facilitate excessive short-term funding of financial institutions and impede effective resolution of large financial failures, like that of Lehman in 2008.  Donald Bernstein, of Davis Polk, a member of the ABI bankruptcy commission, testified about the bankruptcy adjustments needed to adapt bankruptcy law to the FDIC’s Single Point of Entry resolution mechanisms.  Jeffrey Lacker, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, testified about the importance of bankruptcy reform to reduce the problem of too-big-to-fail and reduce reliance on short-term debt.

The written testimonies are linked above, and the video of the oral testimonies for the March 26th hearing will be found here once it has been posted, and is here for the December 3rd hearing.

For more on the bankruptcy safe harbors for derivatives and repurchase agreements, please see the post by Steven L. Schwarcz and Ori Sharon summarizing their recent paper, The Bankruptcy-Law Safe Harbor for Derivatives: A Path-Dependence Analysis, and the post by Kathryn Borgeson, Mark Ellenberg, Lary Stromfeld, and John Thompson, entitled Lehman Bankruptcy Court Issues Safe Harbor Decision, summarizing a recent Lehman case decision on the safe harbors, both published Tuesday.

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