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Living Wills for Dying Banks

di - 24 Novembre 2009
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Il “testamento in vita” (living will) di una banca è simile a quello di una persona, che stabilisce come comportarsi in caso di sua sopravvenuta incapacità fisica. Nel Regno Unito, la procedura fallimentare opera in modo soddisfacente per le imprese in genere, ma il caso Northern Rock ha messo in evidenza il problema dell’assenza di procedure concorsuali specifiche per le banche. Né, in quel caso, si è ritenuto di far fallire la N.R. e di attivare il credito di ultima istanza della banca centrale per prevenire il contagio dal suo fallimento. La sola soluzione praticabile è stata la sua nazionalizzazione. A seguito di ciò, il Regno Unito ha introdotto una normativa per la liquidazione coatta (Special Resolution Regime) degli istituti di deposito. Tale normativa però non si applica a istituti che non raccolgono depositi (banche d’investimento) e perplessità vi sono circa la sua applicabilità a grandi banche internazionali, per la complessità delle loro transazioni. I living wills, in tali casi, sono essenzialmente piani, concordati con l’organo di vigilanza, volti – tra l’altro – ad assegnare attività e passività a singole divisioni della banca, fornire elenchi delle controparti, dare spiegazioni sulle procedure di messa in sofferenza o cancellazione di attività, in modo che, in caso di crisi, sia resa possibile una tempestiva e ordinata “liquidazione”dell’istituto. Essi possono essere visti come un’alternativa a radicali proposte di separazione dell’attività bancaria da quella d’investimento.

“The sanction that capitalism imposes on imprudence, incompetence, sometimes just bad luck, is failure. It is the brooding presence of that sanction that keeps managers on their toes, that keeps them acting in a prudent way.”
(Lee Bucheit – Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP – to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee, 2009)

The Living Will

The Governor of the Bank of England has recently advocated not only that banks be split up into utilities – those which provide basic payment system activities – and the rest. He has also urged, though, that banks be required to draw up “living wills”.  The Treasury Select Committee of the House of Commons has also recommended the idea. What are these wills? Why may they seem desirable? And are they preferable to splitting up banks?

The term “living will” comes from a development in English law relating to individuals and their well-being. When an individual dies, if they leave a will which is legal then whatever property they leave on death is disposed of according to their wishes, subject to taxes and any challenges from parties who think they were entitled to a bequest (or a bigger bequest). A “living will” does very much the same thing, but for an individual who although incapacitated is not dead. The “will” appoints “attorneys”, who can take decisions for the individual who can no longer do so, either according to instructions given in the “living will” or if discretion has been given then according to what they think best for the individual. These decisions can appertain either to medical treatment (including its withdrawal or withholding) or to financial matters, or both.

The idea is then that banks draw up an analogous document. Why has this idea taken hold, and what would the document do?

Earlier Problems

To continue with the analogy, when a company is declared bankrupt it has its affairs wound up under the bankruptcy code. This is analogous to the will of a person, except that every company has the same will; the order in which creditors are paid off, and the proportions if apportioning is necessary, are prescribed in law. This normally works well, giving a degree of certainty to commercial transactions by letting people know the risks they are exposed to if things go wrong with a company with which they are dealing. Changes were made to it over the years, but there was no questioning of whether it was an appropriate procedure for all kinds of company.

Then, in 2007, the banking system got into difficulties. In Britain this showed first in the struggles of Northern Rock, the mortgage lender. This bank was eventually nationalised, and there are now plans to break it up and sell off a part of it into private hands again[1]. Before its nationalisation several possible courses of action were considered. It might find a buyer; markets might revive to such an extent that it could once more be able to finance itself; or Northern Rock could receive a government guaranteed loan from the Bank of England. What is notable about that list is that the classic response to a failing bank is missing. Never considered was the possibility that Northern Rock be allowed to fail, with any resulting alarm prevented from spreading to the rest of the banking system by the kind of lender of last resort operation that had in the past, in Britain and elsewhere, prevented an individual bank failure turning into a widespread banking crisis.


1.  The possibility that it be turned into a mutually owned institution is being discussed also, but a normal commercial sale seems at the moment to be the government’s preferred option.

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