When I worked on several swaps and over-the-counter options trading desks, there was always a lot to do in order in order to properly set up a program with an end-user. Sometimes this involved in-person training of a board or asset-liability management committee or otherwise authorized persons who had made an organizational decision to employ derivatives. Credit limits had to be vetted, decisions about collateral had to be made and master agreements were negotiated and signed. Throughout the process, everyone was mindful that big money was at stake and that getting the preliminaries finished on time, with diligence and care, was both crucial and important. The key was (and still is) to plan ahead for a worst case scenario wherein a contractual counterparty cannot or will not perform. Should that occur, the remaining party would likely seek to unwind or offset a given position rather than allow a bad situation to linger. A valuation of the over-the-counter derivative instrument in question, such as an interest rate swap, would be determined and mutually agreed upon. Contractual terms such as the rate of swap exchange, time remaining and the quality and quantity of collateral posted by either or both counterparties would typically be used to determine the amount of money owed by the non-performing entity. An agreement as to when "non-performance" commenced would be yet another factor. In a dispute situation such as a lawsuit, damages might be part of the calculation.
Sounds straightforward, right? Well, things are seldom simple, especially when one counterparty is in financial distress. When a counterparty owes money but cannot pay on a given date or has insufficient monies to settle a swap as part of a buyout, the remaining counterparty has to look to the underlying collateral, consider litigation and/or negotiate for some type of remuneration. Legal decisions can complicate things. Consider the situation with Detroit.
On January 16, 2014, Judge Steven W. Rhodes, U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, opined that a $165 million payment to UBS and Bank of America to end certain interest rate swaps was too much money to outlay right now. Refer to "Detroit bankruptcy judge rejects $165M swaps deal with banks" (Crain's Detroit Business, January 16, 2014).
By way of background, these over-the-counter derivative contracts were related to the issuance of pension obligation bonds. The objective at that time was to protect the Detroit issuer (and taxpayers by extension) from higher funding costs if interest rates climbed. By having a swaps overlay, the bank counterparties were to pay Detroit if rates increased above a specified level. Conversely, lower rates would obligate Detroit to make periodic swap payments to the banks involved.
Reporters Nathan Borney and Alisa Priddle describe a 2009 effort to collateralize the swaps with casino-related revenue in "Detroit bankruptcy judge denies proposal to pay off disastrous debt deal" (Detroit Free Press, January 16, 2014). They add that this move was aimed at avoiding "an immediate payment of $300 million to $400 million on the swaps, potentially violating the Gaming Act" since interest rates had not risen. According to "Detroit continues talks with banks after canceling swaps truce" (Bloomberg, February 7, 2014), the swaps have a monthly price tag of about $4 million, "have cost taxpayers more than $200 million since 2009" and are being questioned by the city with respect to their "legitimacy."
Numerous questions come to mind and will no doubt be raised as the banks and city officials continue to talk or the attorneys take over, should litigation ensue. The list includes, but is not limited to, the following:
- Who had the authority to commit Detroit to the swaps trades? Click to view an interesting visual put together by the Detroit Free Press and entitled "Were The $1.44-Billion Pension Deal And The Pledge Of Casino Tax Revenue Legal?" (September 14, 2013).
- Were any of the recommending swaps agents subject to a conflict of interest, as has been suggested by The Detroit News?
- What was the due diligence carried out by city officials before the swaps were put in place?
- How were the collateral-related terms decided and by whom?
- How were swap interest rate triggers determined?
- Was there an independent party in place to regularly review the quality and quantity of posted collateral?
- What role did the internal and external auditors play with respect to oversight of the reporting of the swaps and related bond financing?
- Was there an appreciation that rising rates would mean a payment by the swap banks to the city and that this inflow could have been used to offset the higher cost of variable rate debt?
- Who undertook the analysis of the effectiveness of the swaps as a hedge against rising rates and was the hedge deemed likely to be protective?
There are lessons to be learned aplenty about swaps, contractual protection, collateral valuation, oversight, authority and much more. No doubt there will be much more to say in future posts.