[Crypto-Bankruptcy Series] Concluding Thoughts on the Series

By Xiao Ma (Harvard Law School)

Xiao Ma

Note: This post is the concluding post in a series of posts on bankruptcies of cryptocurrency companies and the emerging issues they pose. Previous posts in the series include:

1. The FTX Bankruptcy: First Week Motions, Jurisdictional Squabbling, and Other Unusual Developments, by Megan McDermott

2. Quantifying Cryptocurrency Claims in Bankruptcy: Does the Dollar Still Reign Supreme?, by Ingrid Bagby, Michele Maman, Anthony Greene, and Marc Veilleux

3. The Public and the Private of the FTX Bankruptcy, by Diane Lourdes Dick and Christopher K. Odinet

4. Staking, Yield Farming, Liquidity Mining, Crypto Lending – What are the Customer’s Risks?, by Matthias Lehmann et al. (University of Vienna)

5. The Treatment of Cryptocurrency Assets in Bankruptcy, by Steven O. Weise, Wai L. Choy, and Vincent Indelicato

6. FTX Bankruptcy – A Failure of Centralized Governance in the Name of Decentralized Cryptocurrencies, by Vivian Fang

7. Roundup: Celsius Network LLC, by Jessica Graham

8. The Implications of CeFi and DeFi in Bankruptcy: A Hot Take on Celsius, by Kelvin FK Low and Timothy Chan

9. Crypto Volatility and The Pine Gate Problem, by Anthony Casey, Brook Gotberg, and Joshua Macey

This series is being managed by the Bankruptcy Roundtable and Xiao Ma, SJD at Harvard Law School, xma [at] sjd [dot] law [dot] harvard [dot] edu.

Check the HLS Bankruptcy Roundtable periodically for additional contributing posts by academics and practitioners from institutions across the country.


There is a new category of bankruptcies: crypto-bankruptcies. Although difficult to pinpoint the exact beginning of the recent wave of crypto winter (the common belief is that it can be traced back to the collapse of Terra/Luna in May 2022.) Since then, several crypto companies – such as Voyager, Celsius, FTX, BlockFi, and Genesis – have landed in U.S. bankruptcy courts. This trend has prompted our Roundtable to devote a special series to exploring these new developments. I appreciate the opportunity to have managed this series and enjoyed working with authors who contributed thought-provoking posts. While the crypto-bankruptcies will continue to unfold, we are concluding our series for now to feature other content on our forum. We hope that the series has provided some initial food for thought, and that discussions will extend beyond this series as we, the community of bankruptcy academics and practitioners, continue to learn and forge new thinking together about these novel crypto-bankruptcies. 

I would like to take this opportunity to add some concluding thoughts. First, the jurisdictional squabbling present in FTX’s bankruptcy, as highlighted by Megan McDermott, may signify a broader trend that the U.S. bankruptcy courts could become the leading venue in resolving crypto-related insolvencies. Cryptocurrencies are perhaps uniquely international, with no clear need for insolvency proceedings to take place in any particular jurisdiction. Indeed, other jurisdictions (most notably Singapore and London) have recently tried to increase their attractiveness as the home of major cross-border insolvencies, and cryptocurrency companies may have been a major test case for these efforts. Nevertheless, this wave of crypto-bankruptcies has taken place in the United States.

This new set of crypto-bankruptcy cases will put the efficacy and efficiency of Chapter 11 to the test. Crypto investors worldwide are closely monitoring the processes and carefully studying the rulings of U.S. bankruptcy judges (such as the critical Celsius opinion briefed by Jessica Graham). These opinions may have broad implications and global reach for the whole crypto industry. The ongoing crypto-bankruptcy proceedings also provide great insights into the business activities, financial condition, and commercial realities of major players in this fast-evolving industry. For example, the 600+-page Celsius examiner’s report not only detailed how Celsius struggled to generate enough yield to support its high reward rates and made terrible investment and asset deployment decisions, but also brought  public attention to its governance deficiencies and problematic representations made to the public. Diane Dick and Christopher Odinet reminded us of the need to investigate the causes of debtors’ failures and to craft appropriate laws and regulations safeguarding substantial public interests. On the other hand, they also highlight the dilemma of whether the limited resources of bankruptcy estates can support the type of independent management and fact-finding that might be essential to addressing the public concerns of crypto-bankruptcies, but which are not typically central to the chapter 11 model. 

Second, in reflecting on the cause of FTX’s massive failure, Vivian Fang noted how distressed companies’ financial positions have been inflated with illiquid assets and obscure instruments throughout corporate history. In FTX’s case, the related party transactions that are secured by FTTs, its own token, remind us of the SPVs of Enron that were solely financed by its own stock, and how a drop in the value of this stock led to Enron’s collapse. Investigations of fraudulent transactions and preferential payments are likely to be themes shared by the highly interconnected crypto-bankruptcies. Note that one essential (and as-yet-unanswered) issue that will greatly impact how these cases proceed is how to effectuate transaction avoidance law and enforce the clawback of payments that take place on the blockchain via nodes of anonymity. 

Another major theme, as predicted and discussed by Matthias Lehmann, Kelvin Low and Timothy Chan, and Diane Dick and Christopher Odinet, is how to characterize the crypto assets that the customers stake on the troubled crypto platforms. Steven Weise, Wai Choy and Vincent Indelicato’s memo analyzed the legal framework under which the crypto assets that are custodially held by a platform should be treated as customers’ assets, not the property of the bankruptcy estate. Whether such a custodial relationship exists would be a separate question, as many customer agreements provide otherwise (e.g., terms governing Celsius customers’ earn accounts were central to the opinion in that case). Crypto exchanges commonly comingle and rehypothecate crypto assets, making it even harder for customers to withdraw their staked cryptos during a chapter 11 case. This, in turn, makes the industry more susceptible to contagion (and such contagion has reached traditional banking where institutions have substantial ties to crypto, e.g., Silvergate Capital) as downward pressure on the value of crypto assets could quickly spread among a network of lenders and borrowers whose financial activities are linked to an identical set of collateral. The ongoing crypto-bankruptcy proceedings also revealed much interconnectedness among these distressed debtors through crypto-collateralized loans and cross-crypto-holdings.

In these evolving crypto-bankruptcies, judges are likely to set parameters around various substantive issues related to the valuation and recovery of crypto assets. Ingrid Bagby, Michele Maman, Anthony Greene, and Marc Veilleux considered the popular request for “payment-in-kind” distribution as prices of crypto assets are incredibly volatile and concluded that the USD continues to reign for now. The fluctuation of crypto assets’ value raises other concerns, such as the Pine Gate problem, as Anthony Casey, Brook Gotberg, and Joshua Macey noted. With the petition date serving as the artificial moment of reckoning, debtors in crypto-bankruptcies may effectively force customers into a bottom-of-market sale to finance the Chapter 11 process, and the liquidity generated may be redistributed to other creditors or managers. Relatedly, Kelvin Low and Timothy Chan discussed the fungible nature of crypto assets and how they do not have any inherent utility except for the ability to (potentially) make a profit upon alienation. 

This line of reasoning, in turn, gets to the heart of the heavily debated question of the nature of cryptocurrencies. Since the beginning of crypto-bankruptcies, a lingering question of mine has been – if these crypto exchanges and debtors’ business models bear significant similarities to banks, stock brokers, or commodity brokers, should they be excluded from filing under Chapter 11 in the first place pursuant to 11 U.S.C. § 109? Before Judge Wiles approved the Voyager-Binance deal, regulators raised objections stating that Voyager may be involved in unregistered offers and sales of securities, as well as illegal operations of virtual currency businesses without licenses. Once these crypto debtors’ business endeavors are better defined through the magnifying glass of bankruptcy proceedings and the governmental agencies settle on the regulatory framework for the crypto industry, future crypto debtors may not necessarily be eligible to seek chapter 11 remedies but will have to resort to chapter 7 liquidation or other proceedings that are specifically tailored to financial institutions. 

It is fascinating that U.S. bankruptcy courts, in addition to resolving mass torts, are now facing new challenges in navigating the ambiguities and uncertainties of U.S. crypto regulations. As they make rulings and decisions, these courts are essentially shaping the law for the entire crypto world, which was founded on the ideal of transcending centralized governance. While some jurisdictions, such as Singapore, have a manifested ambition to become a crypto hub, others, like China, have shown great animosity toward the industry. In contrast, the European Commission has recently launched a blockchain regulatory sandbox, which aims to facilitate dialogues between developers and regulators. Nonetheless, I find no dialogue more informative and soul-searching than the evolving crypto-bankruptcy cases happening here in the U.S. All eyes are on these cases, and questions are hammering at the doors of courthouses.

Ultra III: Law Firm Perspectives

By Xiao Ma (Harvard Law School)

Xiao Ma

On November 26, 2019, the Fifth Circuit granted a petition for rehearing en banc and issued a revised opinion in In re Ultra Petroleum Corp., No. 17-20793 (5th Cir. Nov. 26, 2019). The new opinion reaffirmed the court’s prior holding that the alternation of a claim by the Bankruptcy Code does not render a claim impaired under 11 U.S.C. § 1124(1), while withdrew the court’s earlier guidance that make-whole premium was the “economic equivalent of ‘interest’” together with its prior suggestion on setting the appropriate post-petition interest rate via reference to general post-judgment interest statute or bankruptcy court’s equitable discretion.

Noting that issues relating to make-whole premiums is a common dispute in modern bankruptcy, the Fifth Circuit retracted its dicta and emphasized in the revised opinion that specific facts are essential in determining the difficult question of whether any premiums are effectively unmatured interest. The court concluded that “[t]he bankruptcy court is often best equipped to understand these individual dynamics – at least in the first instance.”

Firms took notice of the issues remain unsolved and offered perspectives on implications of this case. Morgan Lewis specifically notes that the revised opinion did not alter the original opinion’s reversal of the bankruptcy court’s ruling that creditors who are unimpaired in a bankruptcy plan pursuant to section 1124(a)(1) must receive the full amount of their claim under state law. Weil finds the opinion “does not answer the question of whether, or when, a make-whole may be payable in the Fifth Circuit”, but acknowledges that the ruling is “viewed by some as a victory” for certain creditors. Cleary highlights that the court’s revised opinion “withdrew essentially all of the guidance it had offered in its prior opinion” which had cast doubt on the enforceability of make-whole claims in bankruptcy. “Given the legal and economic significance of the questions left to be resolved”, debtors and creditors alike are likely to watch closely how the questions will proceed at the bankruptcy court, says Mayer Brown.

An earlier post on the Roundtable, Fifth Circuit’s Ultra Petroleum Decision Suggests Make-Wholes are Unenforceable in Bankruptcy, Questions Collectability of Contract Rate Postpetition Interest, discussed the original opinion on Ultra by the Fifth Circuit dated Jan. 17, 2019.

Tribune II: Law Firm Perspectives

By Xiao Ma (Harvard Law School)

Xiao Ma

On December 19, 2019, the Second Circuit issued its amended opinion in In re Tribune Company Fraudulent Conveyance Litigation, 2019 WL 6971499 (2d Cir. Dec. 19, 2019), which held the “safe harbor” provision in section 546(e) of the Bankruptcy Code covers Tribune Company’s payments made to public shareholders as Tribune constitutes a “financial institution” in pursuance with the Bankruptcy Code definition, and such definition includes the “customer” of a financial institution when the financial institution acts as the customer’s “agent or custodian…in connection with a securities contract”.

The Second Circuit’s opinion was controversial in light of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Merit Management Group, LP v. FTI Consulting, Inc., 138 S.Ct. 883 (2018) on the scope of safe harbor, with law firms perceiving it as moving away from the position of Merit by opening new room for application of safe harbor protection. Jones Day suggests that the Tribune’s reasoning “avoided the strictures of Merit”, while Nelson Mullins finds it “shifting the focus from the financial institution as a ‘mere conduit’ to an ‘agent’.” Kramer Levin comments that the decision represents a “dramatic, and perhaps unexpected, extension of the safe harbor from the position it occupied in the immediate aftermath of Merit.” Weil calls it throwing the 546(e) safe harbor a lifeline.

Firms also find the case paving a way to protect LBO payments from subsequent attacks. King & Spalding notes that the Second Circuit’s opinion provides protection for recipients involved in LBO transaction where the debtor is the “customer” of the intermediary financial institutions. Cadwalader believes that the decision may “narrow the impact” of Merit, as market participants could structure their transaction to involve a financial institution thereby bypassing the “mere conduit” carve-out. Skadden agrees on the likely trend of structured LBOs, highlights that the customer defense is “likely to continue gaining momentum” after the Second Circuit’s decision. Parties would ensure they meet the “financial institution” and “customer” criteria methodically articulated in Tribune. “An appropriately structured principal/agent relationship could continue to shelter transfers or distributions within the ambit of section 546(e) safe harbors,” says Weil, adding that the operative facts will be key to strengthen the position.

Finally, Gibson Dunn notes that Tribune is not binding on other circuits. It remains to be seen whether such holding will be extended to different circumstances by other courts. “Some courts may find (in contrast to the Second Circuit) that the Supreme Court in Merit could not possibly have intended that its narrowing of the section 546(e) safe harbor be so easily vitiated by an argument that the Court itself acknowledged in a footnote,” says Kramer Levin.

In a prior Roundtable post, Professor Bussel noted that a plain meaning interpretation of the term “financial institution” should not include the customers of commercial banks, thus precluding a sharp change from Merit.

For Roundtable’s other posts on Tribune, see Bankruptcy Court Disagrees with Second Circuit’s Holding in Tribune, Tribune Fraudulent Conveyance Litigation Roundup. For Roundtable discussions relating to the 546(e) safe harbor, please refer to the tag #Safe Harbors.

China Continues to Issue New Rules Promoting Corporate Rescue Culture, Facilitation of Bankruptcy Proceedings

By Xiao Ma (Reorg | Harvard Law School)

Xiao Ma

Coupled with continued efforts in financial deleveraging and industrial reorganization, China delivered a number of changes to its bankruptcy law in 2019 in an effort to further accommodate smooth market exits for non-profitable businesses and to provide greater opportunities for viable businesses that experience temporary liquidity issues to be restructured as going concerns.

Currently, a lack of detailed rules and practical solutions to issues arising out of bankruptcies often deters parties from initiating such proceedings in China. The new rules will provide further clarification on extensively litigated/disputed issues and enhance transparency and consistency in the bankruptcy courts’ handling of cases. The developments encourage more usage of restructuring and compromise proceedings to find market solutions to address insolvency of Chinese companies.

“China’s bankruptcy laws and practices will be more and more market-driven,” said Xu Shengfeng, a Shenzhen-based bankruptcy and restructuring partner of Zhong Lun Law Firm, notwithstanding perceptions among foreign investors that “China’s bankruptcy regime is rather bureaucratic and administrative, with a certain level of involvement by local governments.”

“The goal is to build an institution in which the government’s role can be minimized, until its complete exit,” Xu said. “It cannot be done within a year or two, but this is certainly where things are headed.”

Market players, in particular financial institutions and asset management companies, are becoming more active and playing a greater role in leading restructuring and compromise proceedings. “Right now, many of the restructuring cases need capital injection from outside investors, and it is a great time for asset management companies,” Xu said. The recent U.S.-China Trade Deal promises to open doors for U.S. firms to obtain asset management licenses to acquire Chinese NPLs – see Article 4.5 of the US-China Economic and Trade Agreement.

Key changes to China’s restructuring regime in 2019 included:

  • establishment of specialized bankruptcy courts in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Wenzhou and Hangzhou;
  • Supreme People’s Court’s Judicial Interpretation III on the Enterprise Bankruptcy Law (EBL);
  • joint announcement of the Plan for Accelerating Improvement of the System for Market Entity Exits by 13 major state departments;
  • further establishment of regional bankruptcy administrator associations, including those in Beijing and Shanghai;
  • comment solicitation and final issuance of the Minutes of Conference on National Courts’ Civil and Commercial Trial Work, which devoted a section specifically for amendment of bankruptcy rules and restructuring regimes; and
  • launch of National Enterprise Bankruptcy Information Disclosure Platform, a platform for the public to access information related to bankruptcy cases and facilitate bankruptcy proceedings in terms of claim registration, notices for creditors’ meeting, publication of announcements, etc.

“It was definitely a year of highlights,” said Xu. “The professionalism of bankruptcy trial teams, the establishment of online bankruptcy information disclosure platform, the promotion of pre-packaged restructurings and so on. The Supreme People’s Court is also making headways in the areas of personal bankruptcy and cross-border bankruptcy.”

The full article is available here.