Property Fund Suspensions – What are the legal issues about “gates” preventing investors making withdrawals?

08 Jul 2016

This week several of the biggest UK property funds have closed the gates on investors attempting to withdraw their money following a sharp rise in redemption requests since the Brexit vote. But is there anything investors can do to prevent funds blocking access to their money and is anyone accountable if the fund continues to keep it tied up?

This is not a new phenomenon. Similar moves occurred in the wake of the global financial crisis - the Wall St Journal refers to "echoes of Lehman" and it is usual for provisions allowing funds to take action to protect the value of the fund and avoid a messy and expensive fire sale to form part of the contractual documentation investors sign up to when making an investment into the fund.

 

Suspension rights

The funds which have been suspended this week are all “open ended” retail funds, meaning that they do not have a defined size and investors (in normal times) have the right to ask for their money back at any time. Since (again, in normal times) investors do not want their money back all at the same time, the funds only have to keep around 20% of their assets in cash to satisfy redemption requests. However, when an unexpected market event such as Brexit occurs, the level of those requests can quickly exceed the amount of cash available and that presents fund managers with a dilemma. The only way they can satisfy outgoing investors is to sell the property invested in the fund - but that takes time and if too much is sold at one time, it can force prices down, leaving those investors who remain with lower values to their investment. Hence the need to suspend redemption requests to allow the necessary sale of assets to be carried out in a controlled way.

The rights to suspend redemptions are included in the funds’ prospectuses. Those funds which have been suspended this week tend to be in similar form and say in essence that the fund manager, with the consent of the fund trustees, may suspend redemptions “due to exceptional circumstances” and “in the interests of all investors”. The relevant Standard Life fund prospectus says that the suspension is “only allowed to continue as long as justified in the interests of investors”. Typically, suspensions need to be formally reviewed every 28 days.

While it seems clear that the current suspensions have been justified, they do need to be kept under review. The ongoing questions will be how long will the “exceptional circumstances” last and therefore how long will the suspensions be justified?

 

Misrepresentation - Rubenstein v HSBC Bank Plc [2012] EWCA 1184

One potential area for disputes would be where investors have been negligently advised as to the risks when investing. One unfortunate investor who suffered following the 2008 financial crisis was Mr Rubenstein, who sold his £1.25m home and based on advice by HSBC that an AIG Bond in its Enhanced Variable Rate Fund was "the same as cash deposited in one of our accounts" invested the proceeds in that whilst he and his wife looked for a new property.

However, when Mr Rubenstein sought the return of the funds he discovered that the fund had suspended withdrawals (as it was entitled to do) and by the time he was allowed some time later to withdraw this investment he had suffered a significant capital loss. Mr Rubenstein was understandably aggrieved as this situation was very far from that of a "cash deposit".

The Court of Appeal found that HSBC had been negligent in its description of the fund to Mr Rubenstein and was ordered to compensate him for his loss. Interestingly the Judge at first instance had found that HSBC should not be liable for Mr Rubenstein's loss as the extent of it was unforeseeable, resulting as it did from unprecedented market turmoil. The Court of Appeal disagreed and considered the important point was that Mr Rubenstein had made it clear that he wanted no risk to capital.

It is to be expected that financial advisors and those promoting investment funds have learned the lesson of Rubenstein and will have placed more emphasis on the risks posed by "gates" and been alert for investors who had time sensitive requirements for access to their capital. However, issues will always arise in unusual or unprecedented circumstances about the interpretation of contractual provisions setting out triggers for the ability to impose a "gate", how long it lasts, how any parameters by which the gate is set or removed are to be assessed and the exact timing of the cut off in comparison with the notifications provided i.e. where does the guillotine fall within the flood of redemption requests, who will be the last man out?

 

Dangers of contagion

Of more concern is the possibility that the contagion of redemption requests may spread in the market. Since 2008 such gates have become much more popular and, in many cases, more complicated. They are often viewed as a "credit enhancement" for investors as they protect the value of the fund overall in times of market stress. Which is fine as long as investors don't need urgent access to the funds invested, or have an investment strategy that involves redeeming according to a set timescale.

However, if market conditions continue to slow as a result of Brexit uncertainty, businesses may find that cashflow becomes a problem and that could lead to investors requiring withdrawals not just to reallocate funds between asset classes but because they are in urgent need of cash.

If hedge fund investors start withdrawing their funds to the extent that the funds suspend trading, more disputes may arise because hedge fund suspension terms are likely to be a lot more complicated and open to interpretation.

Where a contractual discretion can be applied by the fund manager or administrator in deciding when to close the gate and on what terms, then the courts have considered on many occasions the meaning of the various subtly different forms of wording that regulate the operation of such discretions. Parties have argued on numerous occasions about whether the decision maker has acted in good faith, or in a commercially reasonable manner as the case may be based on the interpretation of the particular wording in question. Cases from the 2008 financial crisis will help to inform parties of the way the court views the obligations of decision makers in this situation, but the contractual wordings are constantly evolving and it will be interesting to see whether sufficient certainty has been achieved to avoid disputes in the wake of this recent spate of "gate" closures.

There may even be clauses referring specifically to the impact of Brexit - it will be interesting to see whether the unprecedented next steps take a form anticipated under such clauses, or whether the pristine path now to be trodden in the wake of the referendum will throw up some unforeseeable obstacles that lead to many more questions than answers.

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