Concurring Statement of Commissioner Bowen on the Final Interpretation Concerning Embedded Volumetric Optionality
May 12, 2015
Today we are approving a final interpretation regarding forward contracts with embedded optionality. This interpretation is improved compared to the proposed interpretation and I am voting in favor of it. However, I am concerned that this interpretation does not provide the clarity that may be required.
Staff has done a remarkable job in considering the comments received and drafting this final interpretation and they deserve ample praise for their hard work. Yet, staff, and this Commission, face statutory restrictions regarding the definitions of forwards and options that place limits on the relief available through interpretations of the forward contract exclusion. There is no interpretation, by this Commission or its staff, which can turn an option into a forward.
Given the interpretive questions about the final rule defining “swap” and the difficulties in classifying forward contracts with embedded optionality, I think it is important to be clear on what this interpretation can and cannot do – I do not want people to make business decisions based upon a mistaken belief that they have received relief when they have not.
The central issue industry faces is that, in the manufacturing, agriculture and energy sectors, a wide variety of physically-delivered instruments are used to secure companies’ commercial needs for a physical commodity. These instruments often contain elements of both a forward contract and a commodity option. These contracts, particularly in the energy sector, are all commonly referred to as physical contracts, and they, according to what I have been told, often receive similar treatment from both a business operations and an accounting standpoint within the entities that use them.
Furthermore, my understanding is that these physical contracts are often handled and accounted for separately from other derivatives, such as futures contracts or cash-settled swaps. Treating some portion of these physical contracts as swaps simply because they may contain some characteristics of commodity options can lead to significant costs and difficulties. For instance, companies may have to reconfigure their business systems to parse transactions where there was, before Dodd Frank, no need to undertake such a reconfiguration.
I have studied this issue closely, meeting with industry and the public and reviewing the comments we have received. In the case of these transactions which are used to address physical commodity needs, I have doubts about whether any public interest is served by requiring manufacturing, agricultural and energy companies to undertake such a burden and reconfigure processes to comply with Commission swap regulations.
The limits on relief through this interpretation flow from the statutory lines drawn between options and forward contracts. Under the CEA, options and forwards are discrete, mutually exclusive categories. Options are subject to the Commission’s plenary, exclusive jurisdiction. Forward contracts, on the other hand, are almost entirely excluded from the Commission’s jurisdiction. If a contract, or some portion of a contract, meets the definition of an “option,” that portion which is an option inherently cannot be a forward contract.
Under the CEA, a critical difference between a physically-delivered option and a forward contract is the nature of the delivery obligation. A forward contract binds both parties to make and take delivery of a commodity at some date in the future. The contract may only be offset through a separate negotiation of the parties. In a physically-settled option contract, only the party offering the option is bound to make or take delivery at the time of contract.
The forward contract exclusion from the swap definition, applies only to a “[A] sale of a nonfinancial commodity or security for deferred shipment or delivery, so long as the transaction is intended to be physically settled.” The key part of this definition is that it only applies to a “sale” of a commodity. A “sale” means that one party has agreed to make and the other to take delivery of that commodity.1
An option, in contrast, is only the option to undertake such a “sale”, not the sale itself. The sale occurs only when the option is exercised. The option to buy or sell a commodity at some later point simply is not the same thing as the sale of that commodity itself. The Commission’s Office of the General Counsel memorialized this interpretation in 1985:
[T]he [forward] contract must be a binding agreement on both parties to the contract: one must agree to make delivery and the other to take delivery of the commodity. Second, because forward contracts are commercial, merchandizing transactions which result in delivery, the courts and the Commission have looked for evidence of the transactions’ use in commerce. Thus, the courts and the Commission have examined whether the parties to the contracts are commercial entities that have the capacity to make or take delivery and whether delivery, in fact, routinely occurs under such contracts
Thus, an option is a contract in which only the grantor is obligated to perform. As a result, the option purchaser has a limited risk from adverse price movements. This characteristic distinguishes an option from a forward contract in which both parties must routinely perform and face the full risk of loss from adverse price changes since one party must make and the other take delivery of the commodity. In contrast, in an option, only the grantor of a call (put) is required to sell (buy) a given quantity of a commodity (or a futures contract on that commodity) on or by a specified date in the future if the option is exercised. “Characteristics Distinguishing Cash and Forward Contracts and ‘Trade Options’”, 50 FR 39656-02 (September 30, 1985)
The Commission ratified this interpretation in 1990 in its “Statutory Interpretation Concerning Forward Transactions”, 55 FR 39188-03 (September 25, 1990) (“Brent Interpretation”) and again in 2012 its final rule, “Further Definition of ’Swap,’ ‘Security-Based Swap,’ and ‘Security-Based Swap Agreement’; Mixed Swaps; Security-Based Swap Agreement
Recordkeeping, 77 FR 48208, 48227-48235 (August 13, 2012) (“Products Release”). In doing so, the Commission explicitly rejected the argument that physically-delivered commodity options could fall within the forward contract exclusion.2
The interpretation being promulgated today does not change this, and therein lays my concern regarding this interpretation’s limits.
I think much of the confusion regarding the seven-part test has been based upon a failure to recognize the difference between forward and option contracts under the Commodity Exchange Act. The fact that a forward contract element and a commodity option are packaged together does not change the regulatory treatment of the different components. Hybrid or packaged instruments are common throughout the industry. There are hybrid or packaged instruments which may have characteristics of futures contracts and securities, swaps and security-based swaps, futures and forward transactions, and even forward contracts and commodity options. Each portion of the contract might be subject to different regulatory treatment. A security does not become a future, nor does a future become a security simply by virtue of being packaged in the same instrument.
Relevant to the instruments we are discussing today, forward contracts with embedded volumetric optionality, it seems that most of them, as described in the comments, have at least two separate, identifiable contractual obligations, each of which must be considered on their own merits. There is a forward contract element which binds the parties to make and take delivery of a set amount of a commodity. In addition, there is an embedded volumetric optionality element that binds the forward contract offeror to make or take delivery of an additional amount of the commodity if the embedded volumetric optionality is exercised by the forward contract offeree. The latter contractual obligation looks like a classic option.
The difficulty this interpretation faces in providing the relief industry seeks is this: even though the embedded optionality has the form of an option, can it somehow fit within the forward exclusion? The answer this interpretation gives is, essentially, yes, it can, if it can be demonstrated that, despite the embedded optionality having the form of an option, it is utilized, in practice, as a forward contract. While the seven-prong test and the interpretive guidance around it do not provide an exact roadmap for determining when embedded volumetric optionality included in a forward contract may or may not fall into the option definition, or when embedded volumetric optionality may undermine a forward contract, I think it does provide a good sense of the factors that parties must consider in making those determinations for themselves.
Such a test, however, is necessarily a facts and circumstances test with no bright lines. Ensuring compliance with this interpretation poses a challenge, and, therefore, that is an area where I would like to see greater legal certainty for these contracts.
In closing, I support this final interpretation, but I think industry would benefit from broader relief that provides greater legal certainty. I look forward to continuing to work with my fellow Commissioners and staff to make sure that commercial entities have access to the tools they need to manage the commercial risks of their operations.
1 The phrase, “so long as the transaction is intended to by physically settled,” has been interpreted by the Commission to be consistent with its traditional approach to determining whether an instrument is a forward contract. As was stated in the Commission’s proposed rule,
The CFTC believes that the forward contract exclusion in the Dodd-Frank Act with respect to nonfinancial commodities should be read consistently with th[e] established, historical understanding that a forward contract is a commercial merchandising transaction.
Many commenters discussed the issue of whether the requirement in the Dodd-Frank Act that a transaction be ‘‘intended to be physically settled’’ in order to qualify for the forward exclusion from the swap definition with respect to nonfinancial commodities reflects a change in the standard for determining whether a transaction is a forward contract. Because a forward contract is a commercial merchandising transaction, intent to deliver historically has been an element of the CFTC’s analysis of whether a particular contract is a forward contract. In assessing the parties’ expectations or intent regarding delivery, the CFTC consistently has applied a ‘‘facts and circumstances’’ test. Therefore, the CFTC reads the ‘‘intended to be physically settled’’ language in the swap definition with respect to nonfinancial commodities to reflect a directive that intent to deliver a physical commodity be a part of the analysis of whether a given contract is a forward contract or a swap, just as it is a part of the CFTC’s analysis of whether a given contract is a forward contract or a futures contract. Proposed Rule on “Further Definition of ’Swap,’ ‘Security-Based Swap,’ and ‘Security-Based Swap Agreement’; Mixed Swaps; Security-Based Swap Agreement Recordkeeping, 76 FR 29818, 29828 (May 23, 2011) (“Proposed Products Release”).
This interpretation was ratified in the final rule, “Further Definition of ’Swap,’ ‘Security-Based Swap,’ and ‘Security-Based Swap Agreement’; Mixed Swaps; Security-Based Swap Agreement Recordkeeping, 77 FR 48208, 48227-48228 (August 13, 2012) (“Products Release”).
2 See also, Products Release at 4236-37.
Last Updated: May 12, 2015