Total Return Meltdown: The Case for Treating Total Return Swaps as Disguised Secured Transactions
47 Pages Posted: 27 Mar 2022
Date Written: March 24, 2022
Archegos Capital Management, at its height, had $20 billion in assets. But in the spring of 2021, in part through its use of total return swaps, Archegos sparked a $30 billion dollar sell-off that left many of the world’s largest banks footing the bill. Mitsubishi UFJ Group estimated a loss of $300 million; UBS, Switzerland’s biggest bank, lost $861 million; Morgan Stanley lost $911 million; Japan’s Nomura, lost $2.85 billion; but the biggest hit came to Credit Suisse Group AG which lost $5.5 billion. Archegos, itself lost $20 billion over two days. These losses were made possible due to the unique characteristics of total return swaps and Archegos’ formation as a family office, both of which permitted Archegos to skirt trading regulations and reporting requirements. Archegos essentially purchased beneficial ownership in large amounts of stocks, particularly ViacomCBS Inc. and Discovery Inc., on credit. Under Regulation T of the Federal Reserve Board, up to 50 percent of the purchase price of securities can be borrowed on margin. However, to avoid these rules, Archegos instead entered into total return swaps with the banks whereby the bank is the actual owner of the stock, but Archegos would bear the risk of loss should the price of the stock fall and reap the benefits if the stock were to go up or were to make a distribution. Archegos would still pay the transaction fees, but the device permitted Archegos to buy massive amounts of stock without having the initial margin requirements, thus making Archegos heavily leveraged. This article argues that the total return swap contracts are analogous to and should be re-characterized as what they really are – disguised secured transactions. Essentially the banks are lending money to enable the Archegoses of the world to buy stocks, and are simply retaining a security interest in the stocks. Such a re-characterization should place such transactions back into Regulation T and the margin limits. But re-characterization also offers another contract law approach that is more draconian. If the structure of the contract violates a regulation, then total return swaps could be declared void as against public policy. This raises the specter that a court could apply the doctrine of in pari delicto and leave the parties where they found them in any subsequent suits to recover outstanding debts.
Keywords: Archegos, total return swap, derivative, Regulation T, Schedule 13D, SEC, SEA, Securities Exchange Act, FINRA, securities, margin, in pari delicto, secured transactions, disguised secured, Viacom, Credit Suisse, great depression, market crash, leverage
JEL Classification: K1, K10, K12, K2, K20, K22, K23, G00, G01, G1, G10, G11, G2, G21, G23, G24, G28, G3, G32
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation