Accounting to Clients for Trailer Fees and Inducements— The Decision of the Swiss Supreme Court 4A_127/2012 and 4A_141/2012 of 30 October 2012 and its Regulatory Consequences

In a recent decision of 30 October 2012, the Swiss Supreme Court held that banks are, as a matter of principle, obliged to account to their clients for inducements and trailer fees they received in connection with portfolio management agreements. Moreover, in the wake of this decision, FINMA issued guidance to all banks requiring them to inform all affected clients of this decision and implementing appropriate procedure to respond effectively to client claims.

By Rashid Bahar (Reference: CapLaw-2012-52)

1) Introduction

Financial institutions are often at the junction between clients and the financial industry: on the one hand, they help their clients choose investments and manage their portfolio. On the other, they work hand in hand with producers of financial products helping them promote and distribute funds and structured investment products in consideration for placement fees, distribution fees and non-monetary benefits. These payments have long been the subject of a controversy under Swiss law as to the applicability of the duty to account for profits under article 400 (1) of the Code of Obligations (CO).

In a recent decision of 30 October 2012, the Swiss Supreme Court held that banks are, as a matter of principle, obliged to account to their clients for inducements received when acting as a distributor of financial products (BGE 4A_127/2012 and 4A_141/2012 of 30 October 2012). This decision goes against the view of a part of the industry, who had argued until then that trailer fees or ongoing distribution fees paid by funds (Bestandespflegekommissionen) were not subject to the duty to account. This decision was, however, just a prelude to a more significant move. On 26 November 2012, the Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority FINMA (FINMA) issued a communication requiring banks to inform their clients of their rights following this decision and take further measures to enable them to have an effective access to justice (FINMA Newsletter 41/2012 of 26 November 2012). These two recent developments, which are at the centre of this article, are likely to leave a lasting mark on the Swiss financial industry.

2) The Swiss Supreme Court Decision of 30 October 2012 — Distribution Fees Received in Connection with a Portfolio Management Agreement are Inducements

In the case at hand, the bank acted as an asset manager for the client under a portfolio management agreement. In this capacity, it had invested the assets of the clients in various funds and structured investment products. In 2007, the client asked the bank to account for all fees and commissions it received in this capacity. The bank refused to do so, arguing that the placement fees and commissions it received were the consideration for the service of the bank and were not profits realized by the bank in connection with its mandate for the client.

Hearing the matter on appeal from the Superior Court of the Canton of Zurich, the Swiss Supreme Court confirmed that a bank acting as an asset manager, as any agent  under a mandate agreement, owes under article 400 (1) CO a duty to account for any benefits it receives in connection with the performance of the agreement. It held further that this obligation applied to all indirect benefits received in connection with the performance of the mandate, such as rebates, commissions or kick-backs, regardless whether the third party intended to give such benefits to the client or not (BGE 4A_127/2012 and 4A_141/2012 of 30 October 2012, E. 4.2).

The Swiss Supreme Court then moved on to address the controversy at hand: whether ongoing distribution fees (Bestandespflegekommissionen) are paid in connection with the performance of the portfolio management agreement and are, consequently, covered by the duty to account. After highlighting that the duty to account for profits was an extension of the duty of loyalty, the Swiss Supreme Court argued that accounting for profits was necessary whenever such benefits threatened to induce the agent to disregard the interests of the principal (BGE 4A_127/2012 and 4A_141/2012 of 30 October 2012, E. 5.3). Therefore, since inducements for distributing investment products were likely to skew the incentives of an asset manager, such payments qualified as benefits received in connection with the agreement and were, thus, covered by the duty to account for profits. This characterization applies regardless whether the distribution fees were appropriate or in line with market practice. Indeed, the duty to account for profits was not even conditioned on a breach of the duty of loyalty (BGE 4A_127/2012 and 4A_141/2012 of 30 October 2012, E. 5.7) and would prevail over any regulatory duty to treat investors equally, since a financial institution could set up its business in a way to comply with both duties (BGE 4A_127/2012 and 4A_141/2012 of 30 October 2012, E. 5.8.2).

Furthermore, overturning the appellate decision, the Swiss Supreme Court also held that the duty to account for profits extends to payments within a group of companies considering that, notwithstanding the economic ties that exist in such a context, a conflict of interest would also arise if distribution fees flow from a related entity. Moreover, the court considered that, insofar as the bank needed to consider all possible investments when managing the assets of a client, limiting the duty to account for profits to third party products would skew the incentives in favor of financial instruments produced by the affiliates of the bank (BGE 4A_127/2012 and 4A_141/2012 of 30 October 2012, E. 8.5).

Finally, the court confirmed its previous decisions in respect of a waiver of the duty to turn over benefits received in connection with a mandate agreement. It, therefore, held that the client could validly forgo his rights only if the bank disclosed the drivers of its compensation and their relation with the overall remuneration of the bank, e.g. by disclosing the range of the commissions it would be allowed to receive in terms of a percentage of the assets under management. It added that, to be valid, the disclosure needed to be sufficiently specific for the client to assess the extent of the conflict of interests. Therefore, logical upper bound set by the amounts received by the fund management company as a management fee would not meet this requirement (BGE 4A_127/2012 and 4A_141/2012 of 30 October 2012, E. 6.3).

Overall, while this decision confirms to a large extent the two leading cases on retrocessions (BGE 132 III 460 and 137 III 393), it settles the controversy on the duty to account for distribution fees in favor of clients and made it clear that this duty applied also to profit allocation within a group of companies, regardless whether these payment flows were driven by regulatory or tax-related considerations. The Swiss Supreme Court, however, expressly limited the scope of its holdings and stated explicitly that it would not necessarily come to the same conclusion in cases where the bank assumed a more limited role, e.g. merely executing orders of the client in an execution-only relationship (BGE 4A_127/2012 and 4A_141/2012 of 30 October 2012, E. 5.5). Thus, it remains to be seen how the court would treat distribution fees paid in connection with execution-only clients and advisory clients. Moreover, the court also recognized that, while the purpose of the duty to account was to bar the bank from realizing a secret profit, article 400 CO entitled the bank to be indemnified for any costs incurred in connection with the mandate and that, consequently, if the bank were in a position to evidence any expenses incurred for the distribution of the fund, it would be entitled to be compensated (BGE 4A_127/2012 and 4A_141/2012 of 30 October 2012, E.5.8). Nevertheless, this decision is likely to leave a longstanding trace in the financial industry.

3) Regulatory Duty to Inform Clients

While the decision of the Swiss Supreme Court of 30 October 2012 sent a shockwave through the industry, the reaction of FINMA was even more surprising: in the wake of the Swiss Supreme Court Decision of 30 October 2012, FINMA raised the stakes. It published a newsletter addressed to all banks in which it sketched what it expected banks to do from a regulatory perspective (FINMA Newsletter 41/2012 of 26 November 2012). After summarizing the key holdings of the decision, FINMA stated that it considered that many banks were likely to be affected by the decision and argued that, while the enforcement of civil claims of clients did not fall within its remit, it expected regulated institutions to uphold their obligations under civil law. Consequently, FINMA concluded that it expected banks to:

  • take promptly account of the Swiss Supreme Court’s decision for current business activities;
  • contact all their clients who are potentially affected and inform them about the court decision to ensure transparency;
  • provide these clients with the coordinates of the contact point within the bank with which they can then get in touch for further information; and
  • inform the clients upon request about the amount of inducements received by the bank.

In other words, the FINMA acting as a regulator considered that it would not permit regulated institutions to disregard their obligations under civil law now that the highest court of the land had ruled on this issue. Consequently, FINMA instructed banks to inform their clients of their rights and to provide them with means to receive an effective redress.

At this stage, certain questions remain open: does FINMA expect all institutions that received distribution fees to inform their clients or should only institutions that did not secure a valid consent act? Should all clients be informed or can a bank limit its actions to clients who entered into a portfolio management agreement, without informing execution-only clients or even advisory clients? To what extent are banks expected to take active steps with respect to former clients, whose contact details may be unknown to the bank?

In any event, this reaction surprised many financial institutions. It is, however, not as unusual as several commentators seem to believe: while Swiss financial regulations do not expressly oblige financial institutions to set up an effective process to handle customer claims, this step echoes the obligations provided for by article 10 of the MiFID level 2 Directive, which provides that financial institutions must establish, implement and maintain effective and transparent procedures for the reasonable and prompt handling of complaints received from retail clients. Moreover, this is not the first time the Swiss regulator seeks to improve the enforcement of civil claims using its regulatory powers. The Swiss Federal Banking Commission, FINMA’s predecessor, repeatedly stated in connection with front-running and mispricing cases that serious breaches of contractual duties were also breaches of regulatory obligations to ensure a proper conduct of business (see, e.g., BGE 108 Ib 201, E. 2b, aa; EBK Bulletin 18 (1988), p. 16; EBK Bulletin 20 (1990), p. 25). In the Biber case, it even ordered banks to set up a compensation fund to indemnify clients following a large-scale case of market abuse, although the validity of this measure was questioned by the Swiss Supreme Court at the time (see BGer, EBK Bulletin 40 (2000), p. 37, E. 9d, p. 75–77 questioning the validity of the measure).

Nevertheless, this measure has a truly unprecedented scope. In other cases, the actions of the regulator were limited to specific institutions that were found to have breached their obligations. By contrast, based on the guidance set forth in the newsletter, FINMA expects all regulated institutions to take active steps to determine whether the Swiss Supreme Court’s decision applies to them and to proactively inform potentially affected clients of their rights.

Therefore, this measure is likely to be more than an isolated decision in a highly controversial area and gives an insight as to the powers FINMA may aspire to receive to ensure access to justice for retail clients under the upcoming financial services act, which is currently being prepared by the Federal Department of Finance.

4) Outlook

In any case, after these two developments, the controversy surrounding inducements is far from being settled. First of all, although the scope of the duty to account is now clear in connection with portfolio management agreements, it remains to be seen if these precedents will be extended to advisory agreements and to pure execution-only relationships. Since inducements are just as likely to skew the advice provided by a bank than to induce a bias in the investment decisions, they are very likely to be also subject to the duty to account for profits in connection with advisory services. By contrast, a case can still be made that execution-only relationships are not covered by this precedent, because the bank is not instructed to choose the investment product but merely to execute an order and, therefore, does not receive the distribution fee in connection with its mandate for the client. Nevertheless, all three relationships are based, formally at least, on a mandate agreement which entails a duty to account for profits.

Second, another question that has been heavily debated is the scope of the statute of limitation: is the duty to account for distribution fees subject to a five year statute of limitation as for other recurring obligations or is it—to the contrary—subject to a ten year statute of limitation, which, taking the most pessimistic stance for the banks, starts to run only once the agreement has been terminated, as the Superior Court of the Canton of Zurich has argued? Until now, the Swiss Supreme Court did not need to consider this question and thus the issue remains unresolved.

Finally, the Swiss Supreme Court did not challenge the validity of inducements and allows clients to waive their rights to receive such payments provided they are sufficiently transparent. It held that a valid consent would presuppose that the client is informed of the parameters determining the amount of commissions to be paid and their relationship to the overall fees charged to the client for the services of the bank, e.g. by disclosing the range of the inducements as a percentage of the assets under management (BGE 4A_127/2012 and 4A_141/2012 of 30 October 2012, E. 6.3; see also BGE 137 III 393, E.2 4). However, such a waiver is not likely to cover the duty to account for profits in its narrow meaning. Financial institutions, even if they secured a waiver from their clients will probably need to detail the benefits they received from third parties in connection with the portfolio management agreement. Since most financial institutions are not set up to deal with such detailed accounting, this is likely to mean that financial institutions may need to go through a costly and tedious exercise of allocating various benefits to specific clients.

In any event, the future of this set-up is uncertain considering international developments: the UK Financial Services Authority has already decided to ban such payments from 30 December 2012 on and the European Union in connection with the proposed MiFID II rules are one step further and propose to allow Member States to issue an outright ban on such payments considering that they are incompatible with independent investment advice and portfolio management (Art. 24 (5) of MiFID II, COM 2011/0298 (COD) as amended by the European Parliament). Therefore, it remains to be seen whether Swiss courts, FINMA or parliament will take another step to restrict the use of inducements in the financial industry. In other words, developments were certainly not the last ones in the long story of inducements in the financial industry.