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.”

Did Bankruptcy Reform Contribute to the Rise in Structured Finance?

By Kandarp Srinivasan

Financial contracts such as repurchase agreements (“repos”) have effective “super-priority” in a bankruptcy situation—they are safe harbored from the automatic stay provision. The common justification for this special treatment is the threat of cascade effects (systemic risk). The 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (“BAPCPA”) expanded safe harbor provisions for repos collateralized by mortgage-related securities.

This paper highlights an unintended consequence of preferential treatment: Safe harbor exemptions increased incentives for financial institutions to issue complex securitized products. From an economic standpoint, an increase in demand for collateral in repo markets can cause securitized products to become more attractive to issue (Gorton and Metrick (2012)). This theoretical premise has remained untested so far.

Using data from bank holding companies and underwriters of structured mortgage products, this paper finds an increase in mortgage securitization activity in years preceding the financial crisis. Hand-collected data on repo collateral in the tri-party repo market reveals underwriters of securitized products increased use of mortgage-backed repos in the quarters following the law change.

Understanding the securitization “flash flood” is important because regulatory responses during the financial crisis (for example, TARP) were primarily targeted at buying securitized assets. Yet, the Dodd-Frank Act directs little attention to repurchase markets (Acharya (2010)). If safe harbor contributed to the proliferation of securitized products, it renews the debate (Roe (2011), Duffie and Skeel (2012)) on the costs and benefits of preferential treatment of financial contracts in bankruptcy.

For the full article, please click here. The Roundtable has posted work on this topic previously. See Morrison, Roe, and Sontchi, “Rolling Back the Repo Safe Harbors.”

Tribune Fraudulent Conveyance Litigation Roundup

Recently, in In re Tribune Co. Fraudulent Conveyance Litig., 2016 WL 1226871 (March 29, 2016), the Second Circuit held that 11 U.S.C. § 546(e) preempts state law constructive fraudulent conveyance claims brought by creditors even though the text of § 546(e) mentions only trustees. The court thought it unwise to focus exclusively on § 546(e)’s limitation to trustees in ignorance of its context and legislative history. Using those indicia of meaning, the court concluded that the statute’s purpose is to insulate securities markets from avoidance proceedings, and that allowing creditors to assert state law constructive fraudulent conveyance claims would frustrate that purpose. Accordingly, it held such claims preempted.

Weil Gotshal, Shearman & Sterling and Mintz Levin believe the decision properly forecloses creditors from circumventing § 546(e) by either suing individually under state fraudulent conveyance laws or assigning their claims to the trustee. According to these firms, the decision thus reinforces equitable distributions because it prevents creditors from enhancing their individual recoveries.

Latham & Watkins, on the other hand, believes the decision’s “sweeping” language leaves creditors “stranded at sea” and doubts other circuits will join the Second Circuit’s expansive interpretation. Caplin & Drysdale agrees that the court went too far. “Any untoward consequences threatened by the simultaneous prosecution of claims by a trustee and creditors,” the firm explains, “could be prevented by a Section 105(a) injunction.”

Meanwhile, according to Freshfields, Schulte Roth, and Paul, Weiss, the decision merely reaffirms the Second Circuit’s commitment––announced in Enron and Quebecor––to expansive interpretations of the Bankruptcy Code’s safe harbors.

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.)

Bankruptcy Code With No Repo Safe Harbor — An Evaluation

By Jeffrey Murphy and Lee Smith of Dentons

The ABI Reform Commission recommended that the safe harbors under Section 555 and 559 of the Code be revised to return to their pre-2005 contours and, specifically, that the safe harbors exclude mortgage warehousing, which is a short-term revolving credit facility extended by a financial institution to the loan originator. We believe that excluding mortgage warehousing transactions from the safe harbors will increase “contagion risk” and also reject the Commission’s assertion that mortgages, in comparison with other safe-harbored asset types, are “illiquid” investments based upon our experience with mortgage loan trading.  The largest banks, and ever increasingly, the largest investment funds, are major participants in the mortgage markets as originators, buyers, and market makers (the same cannot be said of, say, municipal bonds), and the financial crisis started with a subset of the mortgage markets: subprime mortgages.

We are not persuaded that repo financing contributed to the excesses of the credit boom of the mid-2000s, nor do we believe that the Bankruptcy Code safe harbors for the liquidation, termination or acceleration of repurchase agreements are to be indicted for causing “runs” on debtors that knowledgeable market actors will not restructure.  To the contrary, mortgage repos are a crucial component of healthy housing markets, and fairness requires that debtors relieved of their margin call obligations by a bankruptcy filing not have options to satisfy their obligations while the repo buyers are exposed to all the market risk.

For our full analysis of the ABI recommendation, please see here.

The ISDA 2014 Resolution Stays Protocol and the Bankruptcy Code Safe Harbors

By David Geen and Samantha Riley of the International Swaps and Derivatives Association (ISDA)

The International Swaps and Derivatives Association (“ISDA”) recently published the 2014 Resolution Stay Protocol (the “Protocol”). Developed by a working group comprised of both dealer and buy-side market participants in consultation with regulators from France, Germany, Switzerland, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, the Protocol has been hailed by the Financial Stability Board as a “crucial element[] of the policy framework to end too-big-to-fail.” In addition to addressing the failure of systemically important financial institutions (“SIFIs”) under special resolution regimes, such as the Orderly Liquidation Authority provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act or the EU Bank Recovery and Resolution Directive, Section 2 of the Protocol also addresses the failure of SIFIs under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code (the “Code”).

Section 2 of the Protocol was developed to support SIFI resolution strategies under the Code where operating companies, such as banks and broker dealers, are kept out of insolvency proceedings altogether, while affiliates, such as a parent holding company, are restructured through Chapter 11 proceedings. Section 2 introduces a short, temporary stay on the exercise of default rights that arise because of the parent’s or other affiliate’s entry into bankruptcy proceedings to enable the SIFI to take actions to preserve the operating companies as going concerns. If the actions taken satisfy the conditions established by the Protocol, the termination rights that arose as a result of the SIFI entering bankruptcy proceedings would be permanently overridden.

Naturally, questions have arisen as to the interplay between Section 2 of the Protocol and the safe harbors for swap agreements under the Code. The Code stays, and safe harbors, default rights that arise because a counterparty to an ISDA Master Agreement subject to the Protocol enters proceedings under the Code; it does not stay (and therefore does not need to safe harbor) contracts between non-debtor affiliates and their counterparties. The Protocol only addresses the affiliate contracts, and thus does not alter the scope or application of the safe harbors.

To help interested parties better understand the Protocol, ISDA has developed a detailed FAQ. The full text of the Protocol can be found on ISDA’s website.

Derivatives and Collateral: Balancing Remedies and Systemic Risk

By Steven L. Schwarcz, Duke University School of Law

schwarczProfessor Schwarcz examines whether the bankruptcy “safe harbor” for derivatives is necessary or even appropriate to protect against systemic risk—such protection being the safe harbor’s articulated justification. The article examines the most important function of the safe harbor: allowing derivatives counterparties to exercise their contractual enforcement remedies against a debtor or its property notwithstanding bankruptcy law’s stay of enforcement actions. A threshold question is whether there is anything inherently risky about derivatives that might cause a systemic failure.

The standard answer is volatility. But, the article observes, regulation could reduce that potential for systemic risk in a more limited fashion. The article next addresses the safe harbor from the standpoint of its impact on avoiding contagion. The safe harbor is supposed to enable large derivatives dealers to enforce their remedies against a failed counterparty, thereby minimizing the dealer’s losses and reducing its chance of collapse. There are, however, several flaws in the safe harbor’s design to accomplish that. First, the safe harbor incentivizes systemically risky market concentration by enabling dealers and other parties to virtually ignore counterparty risk. Second, the safe harbor operates independently of the size of the counterparty or its portfolio. The article then examines how the Lehman bankruptcy might inform the safe harbor debate. The article offers a final caution: To the extent the safe harbor might amplify, rather than protect against, systemic risk, its negative impact would transcend the traditional derivatives market.

The full version of this article is forthcoming from the University of Illinois Law Review and is available in draft form here.

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