FTI Argument Analysis: Justices Dubious About Limiting Bankruptcy Court’s Right to Recover Fraudulently Transferred Assets

By Ronald Mann. Published by SCOTUSblog and re-posted with permission.

Perhaps a week with only two cases on the argument calendar gave the justices more time to prepare than normal. They certainly seemed to come to the argument in Merit Management Group v FTI Consulting with a strong predisposition about how to decide the case.

As I explained in more detail in my preview, the case involves the “avoidance” powers of the bankruptcy court, which generally permit the court to recover (“avoid”) dubious payments that bankrupts make before their bankruptcy filings. The provisions are intricately drafted, with numerous detailed exceptions – excellent terrain for law-school exam questions! This case involves a “safe harbor” exception that protects transactions in the securities industry; that provision bars recovery of any “settlement payment” made under a “securities contract” if the payment is made “by or to” a financial institution. The transaction here involved a transfer of assets between parties that were not themselves financial institutions; to make the transfer, the assets had to pass through a financial institution. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit has held for many years that those “conduit” payments are protected from avoidance; the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in this case disagreed.

From the earliest moments of the argument, it seemed clear that the justices were skeptical of the 2nd Circuit’s position. (…)

The remainder of the post can be found here.


Oral argument took place on November 6, 2017. The transcript is available here. The roundtable previously posted the Amici Curiae Brief of Bankruptcy Law Professors, an article by Ralph Brubaker on the meaning of § 546(e), and a roundup of law firm perspectives on the Seventh Circuit’s decision in FTI Consulting, Inc. v. Merit Management Group, LP, 830 F.3d 690 (7th Cir. 2016). The Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the Seventh Circuit’s decision on May 1, 2017. Petitioner Merit Management Group, LP’s opening brief was subsequently filed, along with the Respondent’s brief, and Petitioner’s reply. Additional amicus curiae briefs were filed by Opportunity Partners, L.P.Various Former Tribune and Lyondell ShareholdersTribune Company Retirees and Noteholders, and the National Association of Bankruptcy Trustees.

Amicus Brief on the Scope of the Bankruptcy Safe Harbor for Securities Settlement Payments Filed in Merit Mgmt. v. FTI Consulting

By Ralph Brubaker (University of Illinois College of Law), Bruce A. Markell (Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law), Charles W. Mooney, Jr. (University of Pennsylvania Law School), and Mark Roe (Harvard Law School).

Bankruptcy Code § 546(e) contains a safe harbor that prevents avoidance of a securities settlement payment, e.g. as a preferential or constructively fraudulent transfer. This amicus brief was filed in Merit Management Group, LP v. FTI Consulting, Inc., No. 16-784 (U.S.). The brief explains how § 546(e) rationally constrains its scope via the statutory specification that the safe harbor only applies (because it need only apply) if the “transfer” sought to be avoided was allegedly “made by or to (or for the benefit of)” a protected securities market intermediary, such as a stockbroker or a financial institution.

Ascertaining the meaning and function of that determinative scope language requires an understanding of (1) the concept of a “transfer” as the fundamental analytical transaction unit throughout the Code’s avoidance provisions, and (2) the relationship between that avoidable “transfer” concept and the inextricably interrelated concepts of who that “transfer” is “made by or to (or for the benefit of).” By its express terms, § 546(e) only shields a challenged “transfer” from avoidance if (1) that transfer was “made by” a debtor-transferor who was a qualifying intermediary, “or” (2) a party with potential liability—because the challenged transfer allegedly was made “to or for the benefit of” that party—was a protected intermediary. Thus, the transfer of cash to a stock seller and of the stock back to the buyer is not safe-harbored. The delivery of the cash (and the stock) through financial intermediaries, however, is.

The full amicus brief may be found here.


Oral argument took place on November 6, 2017. The transcript is available here. The roundtable previously posted an article by Ralph Brubaker on the meaning of § 546(e) and a roundup of law firm perspectives on the Seventh Circuit’s decision in FTI Consulting, Inc. v. Merit Management Group, LP, 830 F.3d 690 (7th Cir. 2016). The Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the decision on May 1, 2017. Petitioner Merit Management Group, LP’s opening brief was subsequently filed, along with the Respondent’s brief, and Petitioner’s reply. Additional amicus curiae briefs were filed by Opportunity Partners, L.P.Various Former Tribune and Lyondell Shareholders, Tribune Company Retirees and Noteholders, and the National Association of Bankruptcy Trustees.

Understanding the Scope of the § 546(e) Securities Safe Harbor Through the Concept of the “Transfer” Sought to Be Avoided

By Ralph Brubaker (University of Illinois College of Law)

Bankruptcy Code § 546(e) contains a safe harbor that prevents avoidance of a securities settlement payment. To date, pleas for sane limits on the scope of the § 546(e) safe harbor have focused upon what kinds of transactions should be considered a “settlement payment.” That language, however, is not the primary means by which § 546(e) both reveals its manifest object and correspondingly limits its reach thereto. Section 546(e) rationally constrains its scope via the statutory specification (the meaning of which the Supreme Court will consider in the pending case of Merit Management Group v. FTI Consulting) that the safe harbor only applies (because it need only apply) if the “transfer” sought to be avoided was allegedly “made by or to (or for the benefit of)” a protected securities market intermediary, such as a stockbroker or a financial institution.

Ascertaining the meaning and function of that determinative scope language requires an understanding of (1) the concept of a “transfer” as the fundamental analytical transaction unit throughout the Code’s avoidance provisions, and (2) the relationship between that avoidable “transfer” concept and the inextricably interrelated concepts of who that “transfer” is “made by or to (or for the benefit of).” By its express terms, § 546(e) only shields a challenged “transfer” from avoidance if (1) that transfer was “made by” a debtor-transferor who was a qualifying intermediary, “or” (2) a party with potential liability—because the challenged transfer allegedly was made “to or for the benefit of” that party—was a protected intermediary.

The full article is available for download here.


The roundtable previously posted a roundup of law perspectives on the Seventh Circuit’s decision in FTI Consulting, Inc. v. Merit Management Group, LP, 830 F.3d 690 (7th Cir. 2016). The Supreme Court granted certiorari to review that decision on May 1, 2017. Petitioner Merit Management Group, LP has filed its opening brief, and amicus curiae briefs have been filed by Opportunity Partners, L.P. and Various Former Tribune and Lyondell Shareholders. Argument has been scheduled for November 6, 2017.

Repo Regret?

By Rohan Ganduri (Goizueta Business School, Emory University)

In April 2005 Congress expanded the range of bankruptcy safe-harbored repurchase agreements (repos) to include mortgage-related securities with the passage of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (BAPCPA). The rationale behind this provision was to prevent a chain of failures among financial institutions by granting derivative counterparties an exemption to the automatic stay, thereby allowing them to close out their positions.

In “Repo Regret?” I show that there were unanticipated adverse consequences of BAPCPA, which exacerbated the growth of risky mortgage credit in the U.S. economy. BAPCPA affected the funding of non-bank mortgage originators, which fund their mortgage origination business primarily through short-term revolving lines of credit, typically secured by the originated mortgages. However, after BAPCPA, short-term secured loans were cloaked in repurchase agreement (repo) terms consistent with the bankruptcy code. This was because a repo lender has greater protection in bankruptcy, although a secured loan and a repo are economically equivalent.

Furthermore, safe harboring eliminated any long-term risk associated with a drop in the collateral’s value at liquidation. Lower exposure to the collateral’s risk drove down funding costs for non-bank originators and also reduced the incentives of short-term funding intermediaries to screen the mortgages that the non-banks placed as collateral to obtain funding. This increase in funding and lax screening led to the growth of risky mortgage credit.

Conferring seniority on derivative counterparties does not eliminate risk, however; it transfers the risk to other investors. In the case of BAPCPA and the mortgage market, the seniority accorded to repo lenders transferred the long-term credit risk associated with the holding of mortgage-related collateral entirely to the end mortgage-backed security (MBS) investors.

To the extent that greater defaults, due to increased origination of riskier mortgages, have externalities and spillover effects that cannot be internalized by the MBS investors by demanding higher yields, the cost of awarding seniority to derivative counterparties may outweigh its expected benefits.

The full article is available here.


For previous Roundtable posts on the safe harbors, see Morrison, Roe & Sontchi, “Rolling Back the Repo Safe Harbors“; Janger & Pottow, “Implementing Symmetric Treatment of Financial Contracts in Bankruptcy and Bank Resolution“; and Lubben, “Lehman’s Derivatives Portfolio.”

We at the Bankruptcy Roundtable will take a break from posting this August and hope that you too will be able to get away from your desk at work. We’ll be back on September 5th.

Do the Financial Institution Bankruptcy Act and the CHOICE Act Undermine an Effective Restructuring of a Failing Financial Institution?

By Bruce Grohsgal (Delaware Law School, Widener University)

The House recently passed the Financial Institution Bankruptcy Act of 2017 (FIBA). FIBA’s provisions are incorporated into the Financial CHOICE Act of 2017, passed by the House last week, which would repeal Dodd-Frank’s receiverships for failing financial institutions that pose risk to the financial system. The Senate may soon consider both bills.

FIBA creates a subchapter V of chapter 11 for financial institutions. Only the holding company will file. In the first 48 hours of the case, it will transfer certain assets—consisting primarily of its equity in its subsidiaries and its derivatives—to a newly-formed bridge company. It will leave behind pre-designated “bail-in debt,” mostly unsecured term obligations owed to 401ks and pensions and shorter term unsecured trade debt.

In my view, however, FIBA is unlikely to result in an effective restructuring. First, because of FIBA’s 48-hour deadline, individual determinations likely will not be made with respect to the hundreds of thousands, if not millions of repo, derivatives, and other qualified financial contracts. Instead, the entire book of financial contracts—the “bad” along with the “good”—likely will be transferred to the bridge company. The bankruptcy court’s jurisdiction over the bridge company and its property—and the restructuring—ends on the transfers.

Second, the bridge company must assume 100% of the debt secured by any property transferred—without any write down, even if the property is worth less than the claim—and all liabilities owed on the derivatives and repo transferred. These statutory provisions may weaken the bridge company’s balance sheet and imperil its ability to obtain financing.

Though the Federal Reserve’s total loss-absorbing capacity (TLAC) rule includes “clean holding company” requirements to facilitate restructuring, the rule does not adequately address these balance sheet ills that FIBA creates. The clean holding company requirements apply only to eight U.S. global systemically important banks, and do not reach dozens of $50+ billion banks or nearly 5,000 other FIBA-eligible financial institutions. Moreover, TLAC does not prohibit secured borrowing even by those eight bank holding companies, though undersecured borrowings by those eight banks may be limited by TLAC’s regulatory capital requirements. But at a time of declining asset values and a ramp-up to a subchapter V filing, it is likely that many previously fully secured loans will have become undersecured. FIBA will require the bridge bank to either assume the unsecured portion of the debt or lose the collateral to the lender.

FIBA’s bankruptcy proceeding makes a run by the bridge company’s derivatives and repo counterparties more likely. If the bridge company’s balance sheet is weakened by the wholesale assumption of qualified financial contracts and by the assumption of debt above asset value, then the bridge company’s ability to obtain new financing may be diminished. Actions against the bridge company and its assets are not stayed under FIBA. As a result, when repo lenders and other counterparties require post-transfer haircuts and margin payments, and the bridge company is unable to obtain new funding, the run on repo and derivatives will continue.


The text of FIBA is available here. My testimony on FIBA before the House Judiciary’s subcommittee is available here. The text of The Financial CHOICE Act of 2017 is available here. The “clean holding company” requirements of TLAC are at 12 CFR § 252.64, and the TLAC final rule release is available here.

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 Value of Insolvency Safe Harbors

By Philipp Paech (London School of Economics)

“Safe harbor” privileges in insolvency are typically afforded to financial institutions. They are remotely comparable to security interests as they provide a financial institution with a considerably better position as compared to other creditors should one of its counterparties fail or become insolvent. Safe harbors have been and continue to be introduced widely in financial markets. The common rationale for such safe harbors is that the protection they offer against the fallout from the counterparty’s insolvency contributes to systemic stability, as the dreaded “domino effect” of insolvencies is not triggered from the outset. However, safe harbors also come in for criticism, being accused of accelerating contagion in the financial market in times of crisis and making the market riskier. In this article, I submit that the more important argument for the existence of safe harbors is liquidity in the financial market. Safe harbor rules do away with a number of legal concepts, notably those attached to traditional security, and thereby allow for exponentially increased market liquidity. Normative decisions by legislators sanction safe harbors, as modern markets could not exist without these high levels of liquidity. To the extent that safe harbors accelerate contagion in terms of crisis, which in principle is a valid argument, specific regulation is well suited to correct this situation, whereas to repeal or significantly restrict the safe harbors would be counterproductive.

The full article may be found here.


For previous Roundtable posts on the safe harbors, see Morrison, Roe & Sontchi, “Rolling Back the Repo Safe Harbors“; Janger & Pottow, “Implementing Symmetric Treatment of Financial Contracts in Bankruptcy and Bank Resolution“; and Lubben, “Lehman’s Derivatives Portfolio.”

Senator Reed Introduces Study Bill to Assess Systemic Risk Impact of “Bankruptcy-for-Banks” Reforms

On December 6, Senator Jack Reed introduced a bill aimed at establishing a more informed basis for regulatory and policymaking action on financial institution bankruptcies. The bill would mandate bi-annual reports by financial regulators on key issues in the resolution of financial companies under the Bankruptcy Code, such as potential reforms to the safe harbors for repos and derivatives, strategies for mitigating the systemic impact of financial company bankruptcies, risks embedded in the “single point of entry” strategy (particularly if it is tried and fails), and sources of liquidity for a financial company in bankruptcy. Overall, the bill calls for regulators to make a big picture assessment of how various bankruptcy reforms would affect systemic risk, drawing attention to weaknesses in some of the policy proposals in this area.

The bill also would also amend bankruptcy court procedure for financial firm bankruptcies. Most notably, it would revise the Bankruptcy Code to give the Federal Reserve and other regulators standing to be heard in financial company bankruptcies. Additionally, the bill would provide for the Federal Reserve and the FDIC, jointly, to propose five potential trustees for the financial company, with the United States trustee selecting the final appointee from this list. Finally, the bill would require the Supreme Court to issue a rule establishing a procedure for appointing a bankruptcy or district court judge with appropriate expertise to preside over the bankruptcy resolution of a financial company.

The Roundtable’s full update on the bill is available here.

(This post was authored by Rebecca Green, J.D. ’17.)


Related posts on legislative reform proposals are available here and here. The Roundtable has also posted previously on policy issues surrounding “bankruptcy for banks” reforms. For example, see Morrison, Roe & Sontchi, “Rolling Back the Repo Safe Harbors“; Roe & Adams, “Restructuring Failed Financial Firms in Bankruptcy“; and Lubben & Wilmarth, “Too Big and Unable to Fail.”

Tinkering with Ipso Facto Provisions Could Send Them Sailing out of Safe Harbors

By Maurice Horwitz (Weil, Gotshal & Manges)

Recently, the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Louisiana considered whether a bankruptcy termination provision in a forward contract continues to be safe harbored under section 556 if its enforcement is conditioned on other factors – in this case, the debtor’s failure to perform under the contract.  Consistent with prior case law, the court held that termination is only safe harbored if it is based solely on a condition specified in 365(e)(1) (i.e., the financial condition of the debtor, bankruptcy, or the appointment of a trustee).

The contract in Louisiana Pellets contained a standard ipso facto provision that permitted either party to terminate the agreement upon commencement of a bankruptcy case by the other party.  But the debtor’s counterparty could only invoke the provision if the debtor was also in breach of its obligations under the agreement.  The counterparty alleged that both requirements of the ipso facto provision – bankruptcy and breach – had been satisfied, and sought to terminate.

The court held that because the ipso facto provision contained an additional condition to enforcement (the debtor’s breach), it no longer fell within the 556 safe harbor.  Thus, even if both conditions were satisfied (bankruptcy and breach), the automatic stay applied and the termination clause could not be exercised absent relief from the automatic stay.

The lesson of Louisiana Pellets is that ipso facto provisions in financial contracts should be drafted carefully so that their enforcement depends solely on one of the conditions specified in Section 365(e)(1) of the Bankruptcy Code.

The full article is available here.

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.”

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