Pepperdine Law Review
Archegos Capital Management, at its height, had $35 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. The unique characteristics of total return swaps and Archegos's formation as a family office made these losses possible, permitting Archegos to skirt trading regulations and reporting requirements.
Archegos essentially purchased beneficial ownership in large amounts of stock, particularly ViacomCBS Inc. and Discovery Inc., on credit. Under Regulation T of the Federal Reserve Board, up to 50% 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 was the actual owner of the stock, but Archegos would bear the risk of loss if the price of the stock was to fall and reap the benefits if the stock was to go up or 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 recharacterized 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 recharacterization should place these transactions back into Regulation T and the margin limits. But recharacterization 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.
Colin P. Marks, Total Return Meltdown: The Case for Treating Total Return Swaps as Disguised Secured Transactions, 50 Pepp. L. Rev. 93 (2023).