In Defense of Bailouts

80 Pages Posted: 22 Mar 2010 Last revised: 4 Mar 2014

See all articles by Adam J. Levitin

Adam J. Levitin

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: January 15, 2010


Systemic risk - the possibility that an individual firm’s failure will result in broad damages to the economy as a whole - is the epitome of financial crisis. Bailouts of troubled firms have long been the standard response to systemic risk. Yet, bailouts suffer from problems of political legitimacy.

Bankruptcy is often presented as more legitimate alternative to bailouts because its loss allocation system is preset and determined in the abstract. This Article argues that the choice between bailouts and bankruptcy is illusory. Bailouts and bankruptcy are not alternative choices, but an integrated system; any preset resolution system will be abandoned for a bailout if it would produce socially unacceptable loss allocations. Therefore, bailouts’ political legitimacy is critical.

Accordingly, the Article proposes a framework for analyzing bailouts’ legitimacy. It identifies and explores two fundamental questions involved in all bailouts. First, should bailouts be done ad hoc through Congress or should bailout authority be institutionalized in an agency? And second, should creditors of bailed out firms be forced to accept less than full payment (or take a “haircut”) as part of the bailout? Ensuring accountability and fairness in resolving these issues is essential for bailouts’ political legitimacy and ultimate efficacy.

Keywords: bailout, systemic risk, contagion, common shock, resolution authority, living will, bankruptcy, haircut, GM, AIG

JEL Classification: G28, G20, G33, K20, K23

Suggested Citation

Levitin, Adam J., In Defense of Bailouts (January 15, 2010). Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 99, p. 435, 2011, Georgetown Law and Economics Research Paper No. 10-08, Georgetown Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 10-19, Available at SSRN:

Adam J. Levitin (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

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Washington, DC 20001
United States

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