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Total Return Swap


A Total Return Swap is a financial derivative contract in which one party agrees to make payments based on the set rate, either fixed or variable, while receiving payments based on the return of an underlying asset. These swaps allow one party to gain exposure to a specific asset without actually owning it. This form of contract transfers both the risk and the return between parties.


The phonetics of the keyword “Total Return Swap” would be: Total: /ˈtoʊ.tl/Return: /rɪˈtɜrn/Swap: /swɑːp/

Key Takeaways

  1. Total Return Swap is a derivative agreement in which one party makes payments based on a set rate, either fixed or variable, while the other party makes payments based on the return of an underlying asset, which includes both the income it generates and any capital gains.
  2. Risk and Reward Transfer: In a Total Return Swap, the total return receiver effectively gets exposure to the underlying asset without actually owning it. In return, they must pay the Total Return Payer a set rate, as mentioned above. This arrangement can potentially provide the receiver with significant profits but also exposes them to high levels of risk.
  3. Uses of Total Return Swap: Total Return Swaps are utilised for various reasons such as gaining access to assets without owning them, hedging risk, benefiting from capital gain or income on an asset or investment, or taking advantage of arbitrage opportunities. Some investors also use it to avoid restrictions on direct ownership of an asset.


A Total Return Swap (TRS) is a critical financial instrument in the business and finance sector. It is particularly significant due to its influence on risk management and capital efficiency. In a TRS, two parties agree to exchange the return from a financial asset between them, typically involving cash flows from interest and capital gains or losses. This structure allows one party to derive the economic benefit of owning an asset without having to formally own it, therein providing a means of gaining large exposure to a certain asset class or market with a small amount of upfront capital. Therefore, the importance of TRS lies in its ability to diversify a portfolio, manage risk, retain desired investment exposure, and exploit arbitrage opportunities, providing institutional investors with a versatile tool for leveraging and optimizing portfolio performance.


Total Return Swap (TRS) serves as an agreement between two parties enabling one party to receive the total return from a specific asset or set of assets, in exchange for paying the other party a specified funding rate. This financial instrument epitomizes the notion of risk management in the world of finance, allowing investors to gain exposure or hedge against an asset without actually owning or removing it. Under a TRS, the total return received includes appreciation or depreciation of the asset value, in addition to any interest, dividends or other funds from the asset.Total Return Swaps are commonly used in the financial industry for various strategic purposes. For instance, investors who wish to avoid certain tax implications, restrictions on investment, or transaction costs while maintaining exposure to an asset or portfolio can use TRS. The instruments are also commonly used by hedge funds and investment managers to gain leverage in their portfolio. On the flip side, a TRS can provide a hedging mechanism to offset potential losses associated with owning an asset. In short, TRS offers flexibility and serves different purposes depending on the position of the involved parties in the financial markets.


1. Trading and Hedging: In November 2008, when the hedge fund industry was at its peak, many funds used Total Return Swaps (TRS) to gain exposure to hard-to-reach markets and asset classes. For example, a hedge fund based in the United States might have used a TRS to gain exposure to Australian bonds. Rather than buying the bonds outright, it would have entered a TRS agreement with a bank. This allowed the hedge fund to profit from the total return of the bonds without having to physically own them. The bank, in return, received a fixed or variable interest rate payment from the hedge fund during the life of the swap, and any depreciation in the value of the assets would be compensated by the hedge fund.2. Structured Products and Collateralized Debt Obligations: During the 2008 financial crisis, TRSs became infamous for their role in synthetic collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). Investment banks would assemble a portfolio of risky subprime mortgages, then enter into a TRS with a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV), effectively creating a Synthetic CDO. Investors who bought tranches of these Synthetic CDOs were indirectly buying exposure to the total return of the subprime mortgage portfolio, often without fully understanding the associated risks.3. Pension Funds: Pension funds often employ TRS as a strategy to diversify their investments and manage risk. Suppose a US pension fund wants to invest in emerging markets but does not want to expose itself to the risk of currency fluctuation. Here, the fund could enter into a TRS agreement with a bank. The bank would be responsible for buying the foreign stocks and managing the currency risk, while the pension fund would receive the total return of the foreign stocks in their home currency.

Frequently Asked Questions(FAQ)

What is a Total Return Swap?

A Total Return Swap is a financial derivative contract where one party transfers the total economic performance of a reference asset to another party. This includes income from interest and dividends as well as gain or loss in market price.

How does a Total Return Swap work?

In a Total Return Swap, one party called the total return payer, pays the other party, known as the total return receiver, the total return generated by an asset. In return, the total return payer receives a fixed or floating cash flow.

What kinds of assets are used in a Total Return Swap?

Assets used in a Total Return Swap can include loans, bonds, equities, or commodities. Essentially, any asset that generates a return can be used.

What are the potential benefits of a Total Return Swap?

Total Return Swaps allow investors to benefit from the total return of an asset without actually owning it. This can provide exposure to certain markets or assets while avoiding some of the challenges of direct ownership, such as transaction costs or liquidity issues.

What are the risks involved in a Total Return Swap?

Risks involved in a Total Return Swap include counterparty risk, where one party may fail to meet its obligations, and market risk, where the performance of the reference asset may decline.

Who uses Total Return Swaps?

Total Return Swaps are commonly used by hedge funds, institutional investors, and other investment entities that seek to adjust their risk exposure without needing to buy or sell the underlying assets.

Why might a total return payer choose to enter a total return swap?

The total return payer might enter into a total return swap if they want a dependable income stream, and are willing to give up potential large profits in exchange.

What is the duration of a Total Return Swap?

The duration of a Total Return Swap can vary greatly depending on the agreement between both parties. It could be as short as a few months or last several years.

What happens if the reference asset defaults in a Total Return Swap?

If the reference asset defaults, the total return receiver would still be obligated to pay the total return payer the set rate of interest on top of the capital depreciation.

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