Derivatives and the Bankruptcy Code: Why the Special Treatment?
Franklin R. Edwards
Columbia Business School - Finance and Economics
Edward R. Morrison
Columbia Law School
August 16, 2004
Columbia Law and Economics Research Paper No. 258
The collapse of Long Term Capital Management (LTCM) in Fall 1998 and the Federal Reserve Bank's subsequent efforts to orchestrate a bailout raise important questions about the structure of the Bankruptcy Code. The Code contains numerous provisions affording special treatment to financial derivatives contracts, the most important of which exempts these contracts from the "automatic stay" and permits counterparties to terminate derivatives contracts with a debtor in bankruptcy and seize underlying collateral. No other counterparty or creditor of the debtor has such freedom; to the contrary, the automatic stay prohibits them from undertaking any act that threatens the debtor's assets. It is commonly believed that the exemption for derivatives contracts helps reduce "systemic risk" in financial markets, that is, the risk that multiple major financial market participants will fail at the same time and, as a result, drastically reduce market liquidity. Indeed, Congress is now contemplating reforms that would extend the exemption to include a broader array of financial contracts, all in the name of reducing systemic risk. This is a mistake. The Bankruptcy Code can do little to reduce systemic risk and may in fact exacerbate it, as the experience of LTCM suggests. Risk of a systemic meltdown arose there and prompted intervention by the Fed precisely because derivatives contracts were exempt from the automatic stay. Derivatives contracts may merit special treatment, but fear of systemic risk is a red herring.
A better, efficiency-based reason for treating derivatives contracts differently arises naturally from the economic theory underlying the automatic stay. The stay protects assets to the extent they are needed to preserve a firm's going-concern surplus (its value above and beyond the sale value of its assets). Assets are needed to preserve going-concern surplus only if they are firm-specific, that is, only if they are worth more inside the firm than outside it. This is often true for plant and equipment. It is never true for derivatives contracts. This observation helps rationalize the Code's treatment of derivatives contracts and other features of the automatic stay. There are, however, downsides to treating derivatives contracts differently (creditors, for example, would like to disguise loans as derivatives contracts). These downsides are probably not significant, but they highlight the fragility of the Code's treatment of derivatives contracts, which should worry members of Congress as they consider arguments to expand the Code's exemptions for derivatives contracts.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 36
Keywords: Bankruptcy, Derivatives, Systemic Risk, Automatic Stay, Long-Term Capital Management, Enron, Asset Specificity
JEL Classification: K22, G28, G33, G38
Date posted: September 10, 2004