Bankruptcy's Lorelei: the Dangerous Allure of Financial Institution Bankruptcy

34 Pages Posted: 17 Feb 2018 Last revised: 22 Feb 2018

See all articles by Adam J. Levitin

Adam J. Levitin

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: February 6, 2018

Abstract

The idea of a bankruptcy procedure for large, systemically important financial institutions exercises an irresistible draw for some policymakers and academics. Financial institution bankruptcy promises to be a transparent, law- based process in which resolution of failed financial institutions is navigated in the courts. Financial institutions bankruptcy presents itself as the antithesis of an arbitrary and discretionary bailout regime. It promises to eliminate the moral hazard of too-big-to-fail by ensuring that creditors will incur losses, rather than being bailed out. Financial institutions bankruptcy holds out the possibility of market discipline instead of an extensive bureaucratic regulatory system.

This Essay argues that financial institution bankruptcy is a dangerous siren song that lures with false promises. Instead of instilling market discipline and avoiding the favoritism of bailouts, financial institution bankruptcy is likely to simply result in bailouts in bankruptcy garb. It would encourage bank deregulation without the elimination of moral hazard that produces financial crises. A successful bankruptcy is not possible for a large financial institution absent massive financing for operations while in bankruptcy, and that financing can only reliably be obtained on short notice and in distressed credit markets from one source: the United States government. Government financing of a bankruptcy will inevitably come with strings attached, including favorable treatment for certain creditor groups, resulting in bankruptcies that resemble those of Chrysler and General Motors, which are much decried by proponents of financial institution bankruptcy as having been disguised bailouts.

The central flaw with the idea of financial institutions bankruptcy is that it fails to address the political nature of systemic risk. What makes a financial crisis systemically important is whether its social costs are politically acceptable. When they are not, bailouts will occur in some form; crisis containment inevitably trumps rule of law. Resolution of systemic risk is a political question, and its weight will warp the judicial process. Financial institutions bankruptcy will merely produce bailouts in the guise of bankruptcy while undermining judicial legitimacy and the rule of law.

Keywords: systemic risk, bankruptcy, bank resolution, orderly liquidation authority, contingent convertible bonds, CAT bonds, too-big-to-fail, bailouts, DIP lending

JEL Classification: K23, G21, G28, G33

Suggested Citation

Levitin, Adam J., Bankruptcy's Lorelei: the Dangerous Allure of Financial Institution Bankruptcy (February 6, 2018). North Carolina Law Review, Vol. 97, Forthcoming . Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3120145 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3120145

Adam J. Levitin (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

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