Survival of Obligations - 1992 ISDA Provision
1992 ISDA Master Agreement
Section 9(c) in full
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In which ISDA’s crack drafting squad™ grapple with the existential question: if I close out all my Transactions because the other guy fundamentally breached the contract, can I still rely on the good bits of the contract to manage my risk position and enforce my bargain?
We are deep into ontological territory here, fellows.
The subtle difference between an event of default and a fundamental breach of contract
A fundamental breach of contract is a failure to perform its terms in such a way that deprives the other party of the basic benefit of the contract. This could be anything — like a duck, you know it when you see it — but beyond being an outright failure to perform one’s material obligations it need not, and logically cannot, be comprehensively articulated in the contract.
An event of default, on the other hand, is articulated, usually at painful length, in the contract, which then contains detailed provisions setting out what should happen, to whom, by when, if an event of default befalls either party.
Now while the same set of circumstances might be an event of default and a fundamental breach of contract — almost certainly will be, in fact — treating a case as an event of default is to see it as “infra-contractual action”, contemplated by and provided for within the four corners of the contract; while treating it as a fundamental breach is thereby to cast the whole contract into the fire. For what good are the promises in it, after all, if the other fellow won’t keep them?
Thus, alleging fundamental breach is to terminate the contract with prejudice to your remaining rights under it, and to prostrate yourself at the feet of the Queen’s Bench Division for redress by way of damages, being the liquidated net present value of those remaining rights, determined by reference to the golden streams of common law precedent, whose terms might not be quite as advantageous to you as those you might have asked for were you able to agree them in advance. These common law principles are about the contract, they are not rules of the contract. The contract itself it a smoldering husk.
Thus, an event of default leaves the contract on foot, while you exercise your options to extract the value of your party’s commitments under it, without resorting to the courts. A fundamental breach requires the intervention of our learned friends
Now in most scenarios, which route you take might not make a whole heap of difference: In a contract between a supplier and consumer, or lender and borrower, there is a fundamental asymmetry you can’t cure with fancy words: if the guy owes you stuff, or money, that he hasn’t ponied up, you will need the court’s help to get it out of him. But master trading contracts are normally more bilateral than that: you have exposure, I have collateral. Maybe, the next day, I have exposure and you have collateral. Close-out is a self-help option, and it is quicker and cleaner than praying for relief from the QBD. But exercising it requires the contract to still be there.
Netting and close-out
Why should this matter here? Well, because netting, in a word. Here the fabulous nuances of the ISDA Master Agreement come into play. Close-out netting — as we all know, a clever if somewhat artificial and, in practical application, quite tedious concept — is not something that just happens by operation of the common law. Set-off, which does, is a narrower and flakier thing requiring all kinds of mutuality that might not apply to your ISDA Master Agreement.
The contractual device of close-out netting, by contrast, relies on the patient midwifery of ISDA’s crack drafting squad™ and the sophisticated contrivances they popped into the ISDA Master Agreement: especially the parts that say all Transactions form a Single Agreement, and those long and dusty passages in Section 6 which painfully recount how one terminates those Transactions and nets down all the resulting exposures should things go tits up.
Now, it really wouldn’t do if one were found to have thrown those clever legal artifacts on the fire before seeking the common law’s help to manage your way out of a portfolio with a busted counterparty would it. Section 9(c) is there to avoid the doubt that you might have done so: Just because you’ve declared an Early Termination Date, that doesn’t mean all bets are off. Just the live Transactions.
As far as the JC can see, through his fogged-up, purblind spectacles, this doubt, like most, didn’t need avoiding and shouldn’t have been present in the mind of a legal eagle of stout mental fortitude: it is clear on its face that terminating a transaction under pre-specified mechanism in the contract is not to cancel the contract and sue for damages, but to exercise an option arising under it, and all your mechanical firepower remains in place.
Indeed, there is no mechanism for terminating an ISDA Master Agreement itself, at all. Even in peace-time. This has led at least one commentator to hypothesise that this proves that derivatives trading is all some kind of Illuminati conspiracy.
- I just made that expression up, by the way