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.

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.

The Bankruptcy-Law Safe Harbor for Derivatives: A Path-Dependence Analysis

Authors: Steven L. Schwarcz and Ori Sharon

Bankruptcy law gives creditors in derivatives transactions a “safe harbor” in the form of special rights and immunities. In The Bankruptcy-Law Safe Harbor for Derivatives: A Path-Dependence Analysis, available on SSRN here, we argue that this safe harbor grew incrementally from industry lobbying, without a rigorous vetting of its consequences. This type of legislative accretion is path dependent, in that its outcome is shaped by its historical path.

Path-dependent legislation is not necessarily bad; but if it’s not fully vetted, its significance and utility should not be taken for granted. For example, advocates of the safe harbor contend that the collapse of a highly connected derivatives counterparty might systemically disrupt the derivatives market, impacting the broader financial system. But there’s little evidence to support this.

Scholars also seriously question the safe harbor, estimating that the net exposure of the major derivatives dealers to their counterparties is small. They also argue that the safe harbor may not be focused on the right parties because it operates independently of the size of the counterparty and applies to non-financial firms. Thus a bank that makes a secured loan cannot enforce its collateral against a bankrupt borrower, but an ordinary company can enforce its collateral against a bankrupt derivatives counterparty. The safe harbor is also overly broad, tempting parties to try to document ordinary financial transactions as derivatives transactions.

Because the derivatives safe harbor has important consequences for systemic risk, there should be a more fully informed discussion of its merits.

[Editor’s note: Please stay tuned for a special post later this week on hearings on bankruptcy reform, financial institution insolvency, and derivatives in front of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Regulatory Reform, Commercial, and Antitrust Law.]