Are Bankruptcy Laws Too Tough?

I’m late to this good post from Steve Waldman, which has some provocative ideas about how stringent bankruptcy laws should be. He contends that the current regime is too friendly to creditors, which means they can and do make overly optimistic assumptions about recovery, which in turn makes them too ready to take risks.We’ve seen that phenomenon with credit cards. As we wrote last month:

The irony is rich, even if the consequences to both credit card issuers and borrowers are painful.

Many readers no doubt know that the October 2005 bankruptcy law changes were a long sought, hard lobbied for win for credit card companies. It considerably restricted access to Chapter 7 bankruptcies which allow borrowers discharge the debt once they liquidation of existing assets, save those exempted by the state, and divides the proceeds among creditors, including credit card issuers. Debtors who are above median income in their state are most likely to have to file for a Chapter 13 bankruptcy. In Chapter 13, the borrower has to repay debts over five years. In addition, before 2005, the judge determined, based on information provided by the debtor, what a reasonable repayment plan would be. The new standard is based on IRS living standards, which a cousin who is a bankruptcy attorney described as “draconian” (for instance, the food budget per month for an adult individual is $200).

MBNA estimated that passage of the bill would enable it to collect an additional $100 per month per bankrupt, which would increase its profits $85 million a year.

So what did these credit card issuer do with their new enhanced rights? Emboldened, they went out and lent more to near-deadbeats, confident they could extract blood from turnips.

They are now reaping what they have sown….

Waldman focuses on the same issue as it applies to derivatives

Commenting on Nassim Taleb’s provocative agenda for fixing the world, Felix Salmon notes that

Looking at the rest of the list, how on earth do you stop the financial sector from… creating complex products? Derivatives are, at heart, bilateral contracts: how can you ban two consenting adults from entering in to such a contract?

The only bilateral contract is a gentleman’s agreement. Binding contracts involve an implicit third party, the state which (through its courts system) stands ready to enforce the terms of private arrangements… Libertarians may have perfect freedom to contract, if their agreements are self-enforcing or voluntarily adhered to. For the rest of us, every contract is a negotiation between three parties, the two who put a signature at the bottom the document, and the state which will be called upon to give force to the arrangement when disputes arise or someone fails to perform….

This has something to do with derivatives, but even more to do with one of Taleb’s broader concerns: debt. At present, the state enforces debt contracts by permitting lenders to force nonperforming borrowers into bankruptcy. That is not a natural or obvious arrangement. Bankruptcy evolved as an improvement over automatic liquidations or men with big necks and brass knuckles. It serves to balance the contractual right of a lender to be timely paid with a broader interest in preserving the overall value of enterprises and preventing extremes of immiseration. To some degree, bankruptcy lets debtors to escape the terms of their own agreements and limits the right of contract (though bankruptcy is onerous enough that debtors don’t seek this sanctuary easily). The fact that creditors’ rights are limited is socially useful: it encourages lenders to discriminate between good borrowers and bad, reducing the frequency with which resources are lent foolishly and then destroyed.

One thing I think that we are learning from the present crisis is that the logic of bankruptcy hasn’t been taken far enough. Creditors’ rights are too strong. Creditors have insufficient incentive to discriminate, especially when lending to “critical” organizations, because the bankruptcy that would attend a failure to pay is too disruptive and destructive to be permitted by the state. We have seen tremendous resources lent to banks thoughtlessly, and then squandered or stolen rather than carefully invested. Similarly, those who entered into derivative contracts often ignored credit risk when a counterparty was seen as too dangerous to bankrupt. If it were possible for borrowers and counterparties to welsh on their agreements without provoking consequences as disruptive as bankruptcy, creditors would have more reason to be careful of whom they do business with, and potential deadbeats (like large financial firms) might not be able to take levered risks cheaply.

I think that, going forward, the state will have to limit the right of debtors to enforce claims by bankruptcy. Creditors and counterparties who go to the courts would run the risk of having their claims converted into something like cumulative (and maybe convertible) preferred equity. This would ensure that no dividends are paid to stockholders until the disgruntled creditors are made whole, but would not otherwise disrupt the operation of firms or affect other claimants. (Such conversions could be combined with tight compensation limits, to prevent shareholders and managers from taking payouts as wages and bonuses while failing to pay creditors forcibly converted to equity.) Judges would weigh the rights of creditors against the costs to other stakeholders in deciding between formal bankruptcy and ad hoc conversions, so that the risk to creditors would increase with the size and interconnectedness of borrowers.

It may be hopeless to try to control what kind of contracts private parties write amongst themselves. But we can control how contracts are enforced. There is nothing natural or neutral about how we currently enforce debt contracts. We made up some procedures that seemed to work reasonably well. The current crisis has exposed some shortcomings. Nothing prevents us from modifying how we enforce contracts in order to improve the incentives of parties to manage their own risk, and to prevent collateral damage when private contracts come undone.:

One change in the 2005 bankruptcy laws that has not gotten much attention in the wider world may have contributed to the dislocations last year, namely, that derivative positions were exempted from the creditor stay of bankruptcy. That per Waldman may have lead to more willingness to enter into derivative exposures. From the Financial Times:

Wall Street unwittingly created one of the catalysts for the collapse of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and American International Group by backing new bankruptcy rules that were aimed at insulating banks from the failure of a big client, lawyers and bankers say.

The 2005 changes made clear that certain derivatives and financial transactions were exempt from provisions in the bankruptcy code that freeze a failed company’s assets until a court decides how to apportion them among creditors.

The new rules were intended to insulate financial companies from the collapse of a large counterparty, such as a hedge fund, by making it easier for them to unwind trades and retrieve collateral.

However, experts say the new rules might have accelerated the demise of Bear, Lehman and AIG by removing legal obstacles for banks and hedge funds that wanted to close positions and demand extra collateral from the three companies.

“The changes were introduced to promote the orderly unwinding of transactions but they ended up speeding up the bankruptcy process,” said William Goldman, a partner at DLA Piper, the law firm. “They wanted to protect the likes of Lehman and Bear Stearns from the domino effect that would have ensued had a counterparty gone under. They never thought the ones to go under would have been Lehman and Bear.”…

The changes in the code expanded the scope and definition of financial transactions not covered by bankruptcy rules to include credit default swaps and mortgage repurchase agreements – products used widely by Lehman, Bear and AIG.

Lawyers said under the old rules, creditors of companies facing financial difficulties were wary of settling trades or seeking extra collateral because they knew such demands could precipitate a bankruptcy filing and potentially freeze their claims.

However, when the financial health of Bear, Lehman and AIG took a sharp turn for the worse this year, their trading counterparties – mainly hedge funds and other banks – were not deterred from seeking to settle their trades or forcing the three companies to put up more collateral.

Such pressure exacerbated the liquidity squeeze that ultimately forced the three companies to hoist the white flag. Bear was sold to JPMorgan in a cut-price deal in March, while Lehman filed for bankruptcy last month and AIG was rescued by a $120bn government loan.

Lawyers said the 2005 exemptions also could apply to non-financial companies, potentially complicating the bankruptcy process of any company that uses derivatives. Stephen Lubben, professor at Seton Hall University School of Law, said: “These provisions affect a non-financial firm, such as a car company or an airline, because they also engage in derivatives trading.”

Originally published at Naked Capitalism and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

One Response to "Are Bankruptcy Laws Too Tough?"

  1. Anonymous   April 18, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    Great article!