Is Your Money Safe at Merrill Lynch and Fidelity?

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The MF Global debacle has clearly shaken people up. Despite devoting one major post to the safety of investment accounts, I continue to receive email questions about the safety of specific firms including Merrill Lynch and Fidelity.

As a follow up to my initial post, here are a few thoughts.

Is your money safe at Merrill Lynch and Fidelity? Most likely, yes.

BUT, I would have said the same thing about the commodity brokerage firm Lind-Walldack, which was owned by MF Global and where client accounts are now frozen.

The blow up of MF Global is not an unusual event. Many hedge funds have blown up in recent years (e.g. Long Term Capital Managemnet), and brokerage firms have blown up (e.g. Lehman Brothers), but it is rare for supposedly segregated funds do be involved in such blow ups.

In the case of hedge funds, they usually don’t own brokerage firms. In the case, of brokerage firms, they usually don’t dip into segregated funds because that is a major violation (read: jail time). You need someone pretty desperate and not thinking very clearly do so.

Francine McKenna reports at Forbes:

The CME conducted an audit of segregated funds on October 24. According to several published accounts, this review was completed that same day. At that time, the CME says, “MF Global was in compliance with its segregation requirements.”…On October 27, Thursday, as a result of the earnings call, Moody’s reduced MF Global two more steps to Ba2 and put it under review for more possible cuts. Bloomberg reported that the company had exhausted all of its credit lines the night before.

This is most likely when the real desperation kicked in. Bankruptcy should have been filed right then, but instead, a decision was likely made to use client segregated assets to meet margin calls, insanely hoping that markets would turnaround in a day or two and the assets would be put back in client accounts without any clients aware of the major violation that had occurred, or perhaps hope it would buy time to sell the firm.

McKenna describes a very strong plausible theory on how the thinking would have gone down, if Corzine was hoping to sell the firm:

I’ve given those who executed the “nuclear option” to save MF Global the benefit of the doubt. I believe those executives used all available legitimate means to raise cash first, including trying to sell proprietary assets, as CNBC reported, and exhausting existing credit lines. When margin calls on the repurchase agreements and account closure demands from strategically important clients – not the bread and butter individual traders and smaller investors and money managers who got rubber checks – kept coming, they hit the wall.

Why do I believe MF Global executives transferred customer assets not cash to “house” accounts? Because missing cash would be noticed immediately. Their clients were still trading and clearing and cash was required to settle. Securities such as U.S. Treasury Bills, blue-chip equities such as CME Group stock held by many exchange members, and physical assets such as gold, warehouse receipts, and other certificates of title are less active. They would not be missed Thursday through Monday.

What did MF Global do once these assets were moved to a “house” account? I believe they pledged the customer assets as collateral for a short term loan…Corzine planned to sell the company not file bankruptcy.

There was no time to monetize the assets by selling them outright. That would have made replacing them quickly, in kind, much more difficult. A privately arranged line of credit, secured by a basket of assets discounted by up to 50% due to the risk of default and the firm’s desperation, could be unwound as soon as a deal to sell the firm was struck. All the assets could go back into the customer accounts and no one would be the wiser.

Any firm willing to lend $300-400 million for a week or so against approximately $700 million of customer assets was certainly wise enough to require recourse to those assets in the event of a bankruptcy. Some of the assets, like CME stock, were sure to drop in value if the bankruptcy occurred.

When MF Global filed for bankruptcy midday on Monday October 31, 2011, the lender owned the customer assets.

My guess is the pledged assets were immediately liquidated.

In other words, this was a situation that developed over a very short-term period that an outside accounting firm would have little chance of catching.

Could this type of thing happen at Fidelity or Merrill Lynch? Very unlikely. Fidelity is an entirely different operation with no leveraged hedge fund activities that I am aware of. Merrill Lynch is owned by Bank of America, a bank that seemingly is considered TBTF by the government, This probably also means Merrill.

That said, we live in very unusual economic times. It’s hard to see how Fidelity or Merrill would get themselves into such a desperate financial situation with desperate man at the top making very desperate decisions , but it can’t be ruled out. The best thing, as I pointed out in my first post on this topic, is to diversify your assets over many different firms, and where possible take delivery of certificates, gold and cash.

Reprinted with permission from Economic Policy Journal.

2011 Economic Policy Journal

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