The President and members of Congress are considering proposals that would give the government broad authority to rescue financial institutions whose failure might threaten market stability. These systemically important institutions include bank and insurance holding companies, investment banks, and other “large, highly leveraged, and interconnected” entities that are not currently subject to federal resolution authority. Interest in these proposals stems from the credit crisis, particularly the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers. That bankruptcy, according to some observers, caused massive destabilization in credit markets for two reasons. First, market participants were surprised that the government would permit a massive market player to undergo a costly Chapter 11 proceeding. A very different policy had been applied to other systemically important institutions such as Bear Stearns, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac. Second, the bankruptcy filing triggered fire sales of Lehman assets. Fire sales were harmful to other non-distressed institutions that held similar assets, which suddenly plummeted in value. They were also harmful to any institution holding Lehman’s commercial paper, which functioned as a store of value for entities such as the Primary Reserve Fund. Fire sales destroyed Lehman’s ability to honor these claims.
Lehman’s experience and the various bailouts (of AIG, Bear Stearns, and other distressed institutions) have produced two kinds of policy proposals. One calls for wholesale reform, including creation of a systemic risk regulator with authority to seize and stabilize systemically important institutions. Another is more modest and calls for targeted amendments to the Bankruptcy Code and greater government monitoring of market risks. This approach would retain bankruptcy as the principal mechanism for resolving distress at non-bank institutions, systemically important or not.
Put differently, current debates hinge on one question: is the Bankruptcy Code an adequate mechanism for resolving the distress of systemically important institutions? One view says “no,” and advances wholesale reform. Another view says “yes, with some adjustments.” This Essay evaluates these competing views: Section II discusses the current structure of the Bankruptcy Code and its limited ability to protect markets from failing systemically important institutions. Section III outlines policy responses. In Section IV, I conclude that the Code is indeed inadequate for dealing with failures of systemically important institutions. A systemic risk regulator is needed because a judicially administered process cannot move with sufficient speed and expertise in response to rapidly changing economic conditions.