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A Glut of “Opportunistic” Margin Calls: Are Creditors Moving Too Quickly to Seize Assets?

Philip R. Stein

What can companies expect from their funding sources as COVID-19 does damage to the economy? In at least some instances, perhaps, opportunistic attempts by lenders to illegally take control of business assets. A real estate investment trust (REIT) in New York alleges in a new lawsuit that it has already fallen victim to that type of misconduct.

AG Mortgage Investment Trust Inc. (AG) filed suit against the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) on March 25 for allegedly taking advantage of the pandemic to unlawfully seize the trust’s assets and sell them at below-market prices. AG says RBC is just one of many banks that are now trying to trigger margin calls on entities like AG. It alleges that RBC is doing so by applying “opportunistic and unfounded” markdowns on mortgage-based assets. A margin call then occurs, according to AG, with RBC contending that the value of a margin account — an investment account with assets bought with borrowed money — has fallen, requiring the borrower either to make up the difference with more collateral or have the asset seized. RBC, the suit further alleges, is being unreasonable in its valuations. Having seized assets based on what AG calls an “entirely subjective and self-serving calculation” of true market value, RBC then auctioned off $11 million worth of AG’s commercial mortgage-backed securities.

Two days before filing the suit, AG had warned in a statement that it might not be able to satisfy the glut of margin calls it now faces from lending banks like RBC, as coronavirus crisis fears and fallout cripple the mortgage-based asset market. In its complaint, AG asserts that rampant, unwarranted margin calls have brought the nation’s mortgage-based REITs “to the brink of collapse.” AG notes, however, that unlike RBC, most banks have thus far agreed to hold back on taking action against those trusts’ assets — for the time being, at least.
“Recognizing the aberrant state of the markets, most banks have stopped short of taking precipitous steps that could push the mREIT industry into the abyss. This action is brought to stop one outlier bank—Royal Bank of Canada—that has not stopped short but is instead hitting the accelerator to unlawfully seize and unload a large portfolio of Plaintiffs’ assets at fire-sale prices into the seized markets which will have a cascading effect in the market for mortgage-based assets, and potentially the entire U.S. economy. These consequences are likely to undermine the emergent efforts currently being undertaken by federal and state agencies to provide breathing room and help stabilize the economy.”

Hours after filing its suit, AG sought a temporary restraining order to halt the auction. The auction had already begun that day by the time the judge had a chance to review AG’s request. RBC must soon respond to AG’s complaint, and, as the case progresses, will have to defend itself against AG’s claims for damages. If AG’s perception of a glut of unjustified margin calls is shared by other business entities, we should expect many similar suits to follow.

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