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

posted by Adam Levitin

I have a new (short!) paper out, Bankruptcy's Lorelei:  The Dangerous Allure of Financial Institution BankruptcyThe paper, which builds off of some Congressional testimony from 2015, makes the case that proposals for resolving large, systemically important financial institutions in bankruptcy are wrongheaded and ultimately dangerous. At best they will undermine the legitimacy of the bankruptcy process, and at worst they will result in crash-and-burn bankruptcies that exacerbate financial crises, rather than containing them.  The abstract is below.

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.

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  • As a public service, the University of Illinois College of Law operates Bankr-L, an e-mail list on which bankruptcy professionals can exchange information. Bankr-L is administered by one of the Credit Slips bloggers, Professor Robert M. Lawless of the University of Illinois. Although Bankr-L is a free service, membership is limited only to persons with a professional connection to the bankruptcy field (e.g., lawyer, accountant, academic, judge). To request a subscription on Bankr-L, click here to visit the page for the list and then click on the link for "Subscribe." After completing the information there, please also send an e-mail to Professor Lawless (rlawless@illinois.edu) with a short description of your professional connection to bankruptcy. A link to a URL with a professional bio or other identifying information would be great.

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