After the implosion of a little-known investment firm saddled banks around the world with billions of dollars in losses last week, one big question is being asked all over Wall Street: How did they let this happen?
The answer may stem from the way the firm, Archegos Capital Management, with ample assistance from at least half a dozen banks, made bets on stocks without actually owning them.
Archegos used esoteric financial instruments known as swaps, which get their name from the way they exchange one stream of income for another. In this case, Wall Street banks bought certain stocks Archegos wanted to bet on, and Archegos paid the banks a fee. Then, the banks paid Archegos the stocks’ returns.
These swaps magnified the fund’s buying power, but they also created a two-pronged problem. Archegos was able to build up much more influence over the share prices of a few companies, including ViacomCBS and Discovery, than it could afford on its own. And because there are few regulations about these types of trades, it was under no disclosure obligations.
was embroiled in an insider-trading case under his leadership. But it used leverage — essentially, trading with borrowed money to amplify its buying power — perhaps as much as eight times its own capital, some Wall Street analysts calculated.
In this case, leverage showed up in the form of swap contracts. In return for a fee, the bank agrees to pay the investor what the investor would have gotten from actually owning a share over a certain period. If a stock rises in price, the bank pays the investor. If it falls, the investor pays the bank.
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Archegos focused its bets on the share prices of a relatively small number of companies. They included ViacomCBS, the corporate parent of the country’s most-watched network; the media company Discovery; and a handful of Chinese technology firms. The banks it used to buy swaps held millions of shares in ViacomCBS alone.
Normally, big institutional investors are required by the S.E.C. to publicly disclose their holdings of stock at the end of each quarter. That means investors, lenders and regulators will know when a single entity holds a big ownership stake in a company.
But S.E.C. disclosure rules don’t usually cover swaps, so Archegos didn’t have to report its large holdings. And none of the banks — at least seven that are known to have had relationships with Archegos — saw the full picture of the risk the fund was taking, analysts say.
the most recent data available, according to the Bank for International Settlements, an international consortium of central banks.