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.”

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.”

The Resolution of Distressed Financial Conglomerates

By Howell E. Jackson (Harvard Law School) & Stephanie Massman (Harvard Law School, J.D. 2015)

One of the most elegant legal innovations to emerge from the Dodd-Frank Act is the FDIC’s Single Point of Entry (SPOE) initiative for resolving the failure of large financial conglomerates (corporate groups with regulated financial entities as subsidiaries), whereby regulators would seize only the top-tier holding company, down-stream holding-company resources to distressed subsidiaries, and wipe out holding-company shareholders while simultaneously imposing additional losses on holding-company creditors. The SPOE strategy is designed to resolve the entire group without disrupting the business of operating subsidiaries (even those operating overseas) or risking systemic consequences for the broader economy.

Although SPOE’s underlying creativity is admirable, the approach’s design raises several novel and challenging questions of implementation, explored in this chapter. For example, the automatic down-streaming of resources raises the so-called pre-positioning dilemma. If too much support is positioned at subsidiaries in advance, there may be inadequate holding-company reserves to support a severely distressed subsidiary. Alternatively, without such pre-positioning, commitments of subsidiary support may not be credible (especially to foreign authorities), and it may become difficult legally and practically to deploy resources in times of distress.

It is easiest to envision SPOE operating in conjunction with the FDIC’s Orderly Liquidation Authority (OLA), established in the Dodd-Frank Act; however, Dodd-Frank’s preferred regime for resolving failed financial conglomerates remains the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, and several complexities could arise if a bankruptcy court had to implement an SPOE resolution today. While many experts are working on legislative proposals to amend the Bankruptcy Code to facilitate SPOE resolutions, this chapter examines some legal levers that federal authorities could deploy under current law to increase the likelihood of a successful SPOE bankruptcy. For example, with appropriate pre-failure planning, section 365(o) of the Bankruptcy Code—which requires the debtor to assume and cure immediately any deficiency under an obligation to federal regulators to maintain the capital of an insured depository institution—could be used to prioritize holding-company commitments to all material operating subsidiaries, including affiliates that are not insured depository institutions. Such priority status would shield the down-streaming of value to operating subsidiaries from possible legal challenges, thereby alleviating some of the difficulty of the pre-positioning dilemma. Additionally, broad-based credit facilities under section 13(3) of the Federal Reserve Act or targeted lending under the Federal Deposit Insurance Act’s systemic risk exception may be available to provide government-sponsored debtor-in-possession financing where no private or other public alternative (like that provided under OLA) is available.

Implementing these strategies would be challenging and would require considerable planning. However, it is important to take steps now to increase the likelihood that bankruptcy represents a viable and credible alternative for effecting SPOE transactions outside of OLA.

The full chapter is available here.


The Roundtable has covered bank resolution and the SPOE strategy previously. For example, see Lubben & Wilmarth, “Too Big and Unable to Fail“; Crawford, “Establishing ‘Credible Losers’“; Roundtable Update, “Bankruptcy Code Amendments Pass the House in Appropriations Bill.”

Developing a New Resolution Regime for Failed Systemically Important Financial Institutions

Stephanie Massman, J.D. 2015, Harvard Law School

 

In the wake of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, criticism surrounded not only the government bailouts, but also the decision to not bail out Lehman Brothers, which led to its lengthy and value-destructive chapter 11 bankruptcy. In response to this criticism, Congress enacted the Orderly Liquidation Authority (“OLA”), a regulatory alternative to bankruptcy for systemically important financial institutions (“SIFIs”), included as Title II of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. The OLA, although perceived to be a radical departure from traditional bankruptcy, incorporates many familiar resolution principles. The most significant departures from the Bankruptcy Code are those designed to ensure financial stability in the national and global economies in the event of a SIFI failure; because the Bankruptcy Code does not currently specifically provide for a SIFI failure, it does not address financial stability concerns at all. Furthermore, by banning future government bailouts and imposing new stays on qualified financial contracts, the OLA also seeks to correct skewed market discipline incentives surrounding SIFIs—including those arising due to the “Too Big To Fail” subsidy—which may have caused the “moral hazard” problems that were a contributing factor in the financial crisis. Unfortunately, the prescribed tactics for accomplishing a resolution under the OLA may in fact implicate new moral hazard concerns, which have yet to be addressed by regulators. What further remains to be seen is both the extent to which the regulatory agencies will assume their new statutorily ordained authority to regulate these SIFIs and the extent to which the market will find their regulations credible.

This article examines the current state of development of a resolution process for SIFIs under the OLA and evaluates how effective the OLA is likely to be in preserving financial stability and minimizing moral hazard.

To view the full article, click here.

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.)