Opes investors fail at first hurdle

I know that some people have lost a lot of money through the collapse of Opes Prime, so it seems a bit ghoulish to be fascinated by it – but there you have it, I can’t help myself – I’m fascinated. There are so many interesting equitable and property law questions raised by it (tracing, equitable mortgages, mere equities, trusts in undifferentiated property), not to mention corporate governance issues. Some of my favourite topics!

Anyway, I saw yesterday that Finkelstein J of the Federal Court had handed down an important judgment from the point of view of investors seeking to reclaim their shares (Beconwood Securities Pty Ltd v Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Limited [2008] FCA 594).

I should explain briefly how the Opes Prime arrangement worked before getting into the judgment. Investors “loaned” their shares to Opes Prime in return for a cash advance. As a term of the Securities Lending Agreement (SLA), Opes promised that when the money advanced to the investor was repaid to it, Opes would redeliver shares to the investor which were equivalent in number and type to those originally provided. The value of the cash advance supplied was less than the value of the shares provided to Opes. The difference between the value of the cash advance and the value of the shares is referred to as the “margin”. Problems occur if the value of the shares fall below the value of the cash originally advanced to the investor, because then the value of the security is less than the value of the loan, and will not be sufficient to recompense Opes if the investor does not pay it back. In those circumstances, a “margin call” should be made to the investor, whereby the investor is required to “top up” the amount of shares provided so that the value of the shares is again greater than the value of the cash. One of the issues seems to have been that margin calls were not made when they should have been made to certain significant and substantial investors. And of course, the general stock market slump contributed to the drop in value of the shares beyond the margin.

As Finkelstein J notes at [9]:

In this case credit risk is all important. Boiled down to its essence, a party’s exposure to loss in the event of default is equal to the margin. That is to say, if the non-defaulting party is on the short side of the margin (ie the value of the assets delivered to him is less than the value of the assets provided) he will suffer a loss and, in the case of insolvency, be required to prove for the difference in the insolvency of the defaulting party.

In other words, the investors will have to pay the difference if their shares are not adequate security for the cash advances they received.

The investors are alleging that they were told by Opes that they would retain some form of ownership in their original shares. In fact, this was not true from a legal perspective (as will be discussed in greater detail below). Opes loaned the shares received from investors to its bankers, ANZ Bank (the defendant in this case) and Merrill Lynch. In return for this, Opes received cash advances, which were presumably used in part to fund the provision of cash collateral to investors. However, ANZ became aware that Opes was in financial difficulties, and appointed receivers to the firm. ANZ and Merrill Lynch commenced selling the shares that had been provided by Opes as security for its loans. Presumably this drove the value of shares even further below the margin. It was at this point that shocked investors started challenging the sales, as they had thought they retained some kind of ownership in the shares, and that it was not in ANZ’s power to sell them off.

In Beconwood, the plaintiffs claimed that they had retained a proprietary interest in the shares which they had loaned to Opes in two ways:

  1. Through an equity of redemption pursuant to a mortgage of the legal title to the shares
  2. Through an equitable charge over the shares

Both of these interests are proprietary security interests. Let me explain the equity of redemption first. In general law land, the actual title to the property is transferred to the lender, but the borrower retains the beneficial interest in the property (so he or she can live there and enjoy the property). What happens when the borrower has paid back all of her loan? It is then that the equity of redemption comes into play – it means that the lender has to transfer the legal title back to the borrower – the borrower is entitled to “redeem” her property.

An equitable charge is a little different. Legal ownership in the security property is never transferred to the lender at all – the lender merely has a right to sell off the borrower’s property if the borrower defaults.

The investor failed to make out either kind of security interest. In essence, this came down to Clause 3.4 of the SLA between Opes and the Investor, which stated as follows:

Notwithstanding the use of expressions such as “borrow”, “lend”, “Collateral”, “Margin”, “redeliver”, etc., which are used to reflect terminology used in the market for transactions of the kind provided for in this Agreement, all right title and interest in and to Securities “borrowed” or “lent” and “Collateral” which one Party transfers to the other in accordance with this Agreement will pass absolutely from one Party to the other free and clear of any liens, claims, charges or encumbrances or any other interest of the Transferring Party or of any third party (other than a lien routinely imposed on all securities in a relevant clearance system) without the transferor retaining any interest or right to the transferred property, the Party obtaining such title being obliged only to redeliver Equivalent Securities or Equivalent Collateral, as the case may be. Each Transfer under this Agreement must be made so as to constitute or result in a valid and legally effective transfer of the Transferring Party’s legal and beneficial title to the recipient.

In other words, it was clearly stated in the SLA that full ownership of the shares was transferred to Opes. All that the investor was entitled to upon repayment of the cash advance was equivalent shares – not necessarily the same shares as those which were originally provided to Opes. The point to be made about shares is that they are fungible – one share is very much like another, and it doesn’t particularly matter which one you get as long as you get an equivalent back. Finkelstein J makes the point that economically speaking, the arrangement was very much like a mortgage, but legally speaking, the analysis just could not be sustained.

The plaintiff then tried to argue that there was a necessary implied term in the SLA that the investor had a charge over any shares of the equivalent type held by Opes until it received its shares back, but it also failed in this respect too.

Finkelstein J’s judgment seems correct to me. Regardless of the representations Opes may or may not have made to its clients, it is the terms of the SLA which are fundamental, and the terms are explicit that the investors do not retain an interest in the shares. Clearly the investors did not read the terms of the SLA closely enough.

Finkelstein J makes an interesting analysis of US law. It is clear that the US has been using these kind of “securities lending arrangements” for longer than Australia, and that the market in the US is highly regulated in respect of these arrangements (unlike the Australian market). Perhaps the Australian regulators need to consider instituting US-style regulation if these kind of securities lending arrangements continue in popularity.

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9 Comments

Filed under courts, equity, Federal Court, insolvency law, law, property, shareholders, stock exchange, USA

9 responses to “Opes investors fail at first hurdle

  1. LDU

    I feel sorry for Chris Murphy.

  2. Yes, a lot of money lost there! Apparently, his was one of the accounts which should have had a margin call, but I think they were hoping the stock market would bounce back up and they wouldn’t have to tell him the bad news…

  3. pete m

    LDU – he of all people should have known better. Greed can be dangerous, and he has now learnt this for the second time. I do feel sorry that some people have been misled about this, but unlike LE, I think they may have a case on it. And likely a stronger case than ordinary customers.

    Whatever happens, a bad story all round, with the bank especially taking some credibility hits.

  4. Pete, yes, it seems extraordinary that a lawyer wouldn’t realise the implications of what he was doing. Yet again: if it sounds too good to be true it is!

    I do think the customers of Opes might have some recourse, but not via an equitable mortgage. The interesting argument is whether Opes was forced to let ANZ sell the shares pursuant to duress (economic duress or other). They will also definitely have a strong argument against Opes on so many fronts – the only problem is that Opes is unlikely to have any money left. I will be watching this space.

  5. Martha Maus

    I can understand why you are fascinated by Opes Prime, Legal Eagle, all that expensive ( in monetary and personal costs) law and equity to be unravelled, Underbelly screening on TV and Mr Gatto flying off to try to recover some money and saying in the Australian : ” they can run but they can’t hide, you can quote me on that”.

    For more financial ins and outs, I have been following it in various discussions in the Business Spectator. (Sorry I don’t know how to hyperlink) http://www.businessspectator.com.au/bs.nsf/Conversations/ANZ-and-Opes-Prime-DH3B4?OpenDocument

  6. Martha Maus

    And, congratualations on your pregnancy and the PHD confirmation, good luck with both.

  7. Indeed, the involvement of an alleged underworld figure recently acquitted of murder adds an extra dimension of spice! Not to mention luxury vehicles distributed to prime investors and directors, the involvement of criminal lawyers to the rich and infamous, and other tantalising details.

    That’s an interesting page that you have linked to there. The point about whether ANZ actually disclosed its ownership of the shares it held as security is interesting – I wonder how these assets were listed on ANZ’s books, if at all?

    Thanks for the congratulations! 🙂

  8. Martha Maus

    Legal Eagle, FYI, today’s Australian comments about the validity of the charge taken by ANZ over Opes as it appears not to be in the 6 months window before the collapse of the company.http://business.smh.com.au/murphys-super-fight-offers-hope-to-opes-clients/20080508-2cd3.html
    and further whether charges were taken over inappropriate assets, like Chris Murphy’s superannuation fund.

  9. Hmm, interesting! Potentially voidable transactions in bankruptcy… I did not realise that the charge was made so soon before the company went into receivership. And what is the consequence of the SLAs if they were made over superannuation funds…?

    I will keep watching with interest…

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