Following the recent market shakedown amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, banks have been issuing margin calls to their counterparties.

Who is affected? Broadly speaking, two types of investors: The first category are wealthy clients who have been investing in stock markets on a leveraged basis, through so-called Lombard loans, which are secured against a portfolio of liquid assets like equities and bonds. The other category comprises counterparties who have entered into derivatives transactions or secured lending agreements with banks.

In simple terms, a margin call is the demand by the bank to increase the collateral or to reduce the credit exposure of the bank by repaying a part of the loan.

In times that are already challenging enough, the margin calls have caught many investors off-guard. Banks typically allow not more than two days to top up the collateral. This often requires affected investors to source substantial liquidity amounts to meet the bank's request, which can prove difficult in the context of a general market sell-off.

The present contribution provides a brief overview of the legal framework and main issues arising under Swiss law, including the rights and remedies available to affected parties.


2.1 Primarily contractual provisions

In practice, lending transactions are subject to contractual freedom. Very few statutory provisions apply. In a lending transaction, the contractual documentation ("Transaction Documents"), typically consist of a (framework) credit facility agreement and of a (general) pledge agreement, in each case between a bank and a client. The Transaction Documents specify, inter alia, the following parameters:

  • The maximum credit amount or credit limit
  • The use the borrower can make of such credit amount: for example, a current account overdraft, a fixed term advance, a guarantee or as margin cover for OTC derivative transactions (forwards, futures, options, swaps, etc.).
  • The eligible collateral: this will ordinarily include all borrower's present and future assets, claims and rights deposited with the bank. The bank will often require wide discretion to determine what eligible collateral is. It will typically be defined as cash, cash-equivalent assets or other assets acceptable to the bank (often time "at its sole discretion").

The bank will not consider every type of collateral as equally eligible for lending. Indeed, the lending value or Loan-to-value ("LTV") for an asset against which the bank is prepared to lend is calculated based on various risk parameters. The LTV is the ratio of a loan to the value of an asset, expressed in percentage. As a rule of thumb, assets with low volatility and/or high liquidity are considered safer than more volatile and illiquid asset classes. Hence, a diversified portfolio of stocks has a higher lending value compared to a single stock, while an investment grade bond portfolio has typically a higher lending value than an equity portfolio. Assets are valued on a "mark to market" basis, with daily valuations.

The Transaction Documents will also define the conditions under which the bank is entitled to issue a margin call. This will be the case, when the total outstanding amounts including accrued interest exceed the Lending Value of the collateral.

In general, borrowers can comply with the margin call by either selling collateral, by closing open positions (in derivatives), by supplying additional assets considered eligible collateral, or by providing funds.

If a borrower fails to honour the margin call, all outstanding amounts under the Transaction Documents automatically become due and payable. Accordingly, the bank is authorized to freely liquidate all collateral and to set off the liquidation proceeds against the outstanding amounts, or to close out open positions and/or transactions.

2.2 Obligations of the bank

Contractual provisions typically grant banks wide discretion at virtually every step in the lifecycle of a credit transaction, including for issuing margin calls. Nonetheless, the bank remains bound by certain restrictions when issuing a margin call and liquidating collateral.

2.2.1 Obligation to issue a margin call before liquidating the assets

Under certain standard clauses found in Transaction Documents, banks are authorized, but not obliged, to issue a margin call in order to inform the borrower about such shortfall and request immediate adjustment of the overdrawn position. Such provisions may conflict with the contractual provisions agreed between the parties in other asset management/advisory documentation, and with Swiss law, thereby overriding the standard clauses of the Transaction Documents.

Where the bank acts as a discretionary asset manager of the client, the duty of diligence and faithful performance (Art. 398(2) CO) dictates that the bank notifies the client of all important events in relation to the management mandate. In our view, this includes an obligation for the bank to inform the client of any margin deficiency. The bank is therefore required to monitor the collateral value and take the necessary measures, i.e. issue a margin call, in case of a collateral shortfall, not only to protect its own interests, but also to limit the risk of losses to the client.

The same holds true, when the parties are bound by a general advisory agreement, under which the bank provides only investment advice to the client, based on his or her risk profile. In our opinion, where a bank advises a client in relation to his or her portfolio, it also has the obligation to follow up on the changes in collateral value, issue a margin call where necessary and advise the investor to adjust the portfolio accordingly (by either selling positions to reduce the credit exposure or posting additional collateral).

The situation may vary if the bank provides only sporadic advice to the client. The Swiss Federal Supreme Court ruled that under such agreements, the bank is, in principle, neither obliged to monitor the client's portfolio nor to warn the client unless there is an express prior agreement or practice between the parties.

16 Consequently, even where the bank has contractually reserved its right to issue a margin call before liquidating the assets, it may nonetheless be obliged to do so based on the applicable investment agreements. In that sense, the margin call can be even considered a protecting mechanism for a borrower.

Whenever the bank issues a margin call, it must (i) indicate the amount of collateral called and (ii) set the time limit to post it. The Geneva Court of Appeal ruled that absent these prerequisites, the bank is exposed to liability.

2.2.2 Obligation to exercise its discretion with care

A typical contractual clause may read as follows: "the Bank may at its sole discretion, at any time and without notice to the Borrower, adjust with immediate effect the percentage figures mentioned under "Lending Value", "Margin-Call Level" and "Close-out Level" to reflect - in particular but not limited to - changes in economic, market or liquidity conditions".

As a matter of principle, the Swiss Federal Court and scholars question whether it is at all permissible to grant a contractual party such broad discretion. In any event, the bank must always exercise its right to adjust the contractual parameters in good faith and not be abusive.

This is particularly true when issuing a margin call. In practice, the Transaction Documents are often silent on the detailed requirements for margin calls, the level of information required to communicate to the investor, and the rules applying to liquidation of assets, in particular, for those without tradeable price. In practice, banks communicate a collateral shortfall without further explanation to the clients. An investor is thus unable to understand, react and – most importantly – challenge the bank's calculation. This is particularly difficult given the time pressure they are under.

Under its obligations to provide an accounting (see Section, a bank must communicate to the borrower the calculation details and all relevant parameters of the margin call. Otherwise, the borrower will never be able to make informed choices, especially regarding steps required to protect his or her interests.

2.2.3 Obligation in connection with the liquidation of assets

When liquidating collateral, and although the bank may privilege its own interests, it still owes a duty of care and loyalty and is obliged to act in good faith and avoid damage to the borrower, provided this is compatible with the bank's own legitimate interests.

The prevalent view among authors is that the bank is not liable to the borrower for bad timing when liquidating collateral, i.e. where its value recovers after the liquidation. However, there may be arguably situations where the bank can delay or time the execution of the relevant selling order to minimize the impact on the market price. For instance, in highly volatile markets the liquidation should be spread over successive days. Also, for large positions, the liquidation strategy should aim at minimizing the volatility risks and market impact, according to the principle of best execution.

Finally, when selecting the collateral to be liquidated, the bank must take into account the requests of the borrower, if this is compatible with the bank's legitimate interests. Such requests are instructions that the bank must carry out according to the best execution principle.

2.2.4 Obligations of the bank in connection with liquidation of collateral Private liquidation vs. debt collection proceedings?

Where the collateral consists of intermediated securities, a liquidation of the collateral by the bank, outside of the framework of debt collection proceedings, is only permissible if the securities are traded on a representative market.

A market is considered representative if it allows to determine an adequate price that rules out the possibility of the borrower being overcharged. The specific requirements vary depending on the method of realization. Where the bank acquires the collateral in its own name (Selbsteintritt), stricter requirements apply than in the case of a sale to an independent third party. Obligation to exercise its rights moderately

In line with what has been said above, the Commercial Court of Zurich held that the exercise of a right to liquidate an asset may be considered abusive if it is detrimental to the other party and if it can be avoided by an alternative, less detrimental method that could achieve the same objective (Commercial Court of Zurich HG090170 of 22 August 2011). Obligation to provide an accounting

In connection with the liquidation of collateral, the bank must provide an accounting. This is relatively straightforward for exchange-traded securities (a transaction advice and internal bank documents indicating the exact time of the trade are generally sufficient). It is however more difficult for non-traded securities or derivative instruments, or where the bank acquires the collateral in its own name (Selbsteintritt). Here the bank owes the borrower an accounting of the liquidation procedure and parameters to value the options/derivatives (Geneva Court of Appeal ACJC/1515/2019 of 4 October 2019).

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The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.