Why MF Global Went Down

MF Global’s Fractional Reserves

by Doug French

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Jon Corzine told the House Agriculture Committee, "I simply do not know where the money is, or why the accounts have not been reconciled to date." The public is outraged that the former CEO of bankrupt global financial-derivatives broker and prime dealer in US Treasury securities MF Global doesn’t know where the missing $1.2 billion in client funds went.

Corzine is the member a few exclusive clubs: he is a Goldman Sachs alum, former US senator, and former New Jersey governor. After the incumbent Corzine was beat by Chris Christie in the 2009 New Jersey gubernatorial race, the MF board probably rejoiced, believing the guy to fix their problems was suddenly available. Now he’s in the club of taking a mere 20 months to create the eighth largest bankruptcy in history.

As a stand-alone entity, MF Global was born in 2007 when it was spun off from UK hedge-fund giant, Man Group. MF booked revenues of $4 billion that year from interest earned by using its customers’ funds, an operation that sounds like fractionized banking: short-term embezzlement used to make profits.

For banks, the practice was sealed in English common law in 1811 in the court case of Carr vs. Carr, where Master of the Rolls Sir William Grant ruled that debts mentioned in a will included bank accounts since the money had been deposited into the bank and wasn’t earmarked in a sealed bag. The deposit was thus a loan rather than a bailment.

The same Judge Grant ruled the same way five years later in Devaynes vs. Noble, despite an attorney’s argument that "a banker is rather a bailee of his customer’s funds than his debtor … because the money in … [his] hands is rather a deposit than a debt, and may therefore be instantly demanded and taken up."

In 1848, in Foley vs. Hill and Others, Lord Cottenham ruled,

"Money, when paid into a bank, ceases altogether to be the money of the principal; it is then the money of the banker, who is bound to an equivalent by paying a similar sum to that deposited with him when he is asked for it.… The money placed in the custody of a banker to do with it as he pleases."

It’s been clear sailing for bankers ever since. No questions asked.

At the same time, people are surprised that a commodity brokerage firm would misplace client assets. As Christopher Elias explains for Thomson Reuters,

"MF Global’s bankruptcy revelations concerning missing client money suggest that funds were not inadvertently misplaced or gobbled up in MF’s dying hours, but were instead appropriated as part of a mass Wall St manipulation of brokerage rules that allowed for the wholesale acquisition and sale of client funds through re-hypothecation. A loophole appears to have allowed MF Global, and many others, to use its own clients’ funds to finance an enormous $6.2 billion Eurozone repo bet."

Free bankers are always insisting that fractional-reserve banking is A-OK, as long as bankers inform depositors up front that the bank will be using their customers’ money to make loans and investments.

That is exactly the case with MF Global. The company’s customer agreements included the following clause:

7. Consent To Loan Or Pledge You hereby grant us the right, in accordance with Applicable Law, to borrow, pledge, repledge, transfer, hypothecate, rehypothecate, loan, or invest any of the Collateral, including, without limitation, utilizing the Collateral to purchase or sell securities pursuant to repurchase agreements [repos] or reverse repurchase agreements with any party, in each case without notice to you, and we shall have no obligation to retain a like amount of similar Collateral in our possession and control.

Back in 2007, customer funds held by MF as collateral against commodities trades could be invested in two-year Treasuries earning north of 4.5 percent. But in the wake of the ’08 meltdown, the Bernanke Fed has flattened yields to be counted in basis points. With these low rates MF Global revenues fell to $517 million in 2010.

The old bond trader Corzine thought he could juice up MF’s earnings with a little financial razzle-dazzle. Thinking outside the box (and off the balance sheet), Corzine moved $16.5 billion in assets into repos. A repo involves putting up assets as collateral, assets to be repurchased later, and borrowing money against those assets. MF used an off-balance-sheet repo called a "repo-to-maturity" where the loan and the collateral in the transaction have the same maturity. US accounting rules consider the transaction a sale and the assets can be moved off the balance sheet.

Most of these assets were bonds from Italy, Spain, Belgium, Portugal, and Ireland, all paying healthy coupon rates that would easily cover the repo interest rate and provide a nice profit. MF Global would have virtually no skin in the game (their customers provided it) and be earning a nice interest-rate spread.

Although things have been rocky in euroland, the collateral value of the short-term bonds appeared safe with the guarantee provided by the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF).

With the $16.5 billion in assets moved off its balance sheet, MF Global then ramped up a net-long sovereign-debt position of $6.2 billion on its balance sheet – exposure that was five times the company’s net worth.

While the EFSF guarantee would insure against the default of the sovereign debt if the bonds were held to maturity, MF was still at risk to make margin calls, if the bonds dropped in price day-to-day. Elias writes,

"Like Wall Street cocaine, leveraging amplifies the ups and downs of an investment; increasing the returns but also amplifying the costs. With MF Global’s leverage reaching 40 to 1 by the time of its collapse, it didn’t need a Eurozone default to trigger its downfall – all it needed was for these amplified costs to outstrip its asset base."

So while MF Global’s eurozone bets had not defaulted, the company’s liquidity was drained making margin calls and trying to meet short-term-debt obligations as the euro-crisis news flow out of Europe vacillated.

MF Global was able to leverage up its euroland bets by way of the rehypothecation of their clients’ collateral. Hypothecation is pledging collateral for a loan. Like the mortgage on your house.

Customers of MF posted cash, gold, or securities as collateral to backstop their commodity futures and derivatives trading. MF would then take those customer assets to back its own trades and borrowing. Mr. Elias explains, "The practice of re-hypothecation runs into the trillions of dollars and is perfectly legal. It is justified by brokers on the basis that it is a capital efficient way of financing their operations much to the chagrin of hedge funds."

Under US rules, a prime broker is allowed to rehypothecate assets to the value of 140 percent of the client’s liability to the broker. The rules are more liberal in the United Kingdom, where there is no limit and in many cases UK brokers rehypothecate 100 percent of collateral value placed in their custody.

Elias writes that by 2007, rehypothecation was half the shadow banking system.

"Prior to Lehman Brothers’ collapse, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) calculated that U.S. banks were receiving $4 trillion worth of funding by re-hypothecation, much of which was sourced from the UK. With assets being re-hypothecated many times over (known as ‘churn’), the original collateral being used may have been as little as $1 trillion – a quarter of the financial footprint created through re-hypothecation."

All of this churning has created rivers of liquidity, much of it with no asset backing. And what assets do provide backing aren’t the quality they used to be. The repo rules were liberalized in the Clinton era. So instead of AAA government paper being required, AA sovereign debt works just fine; after all, as James B. Stewart writes for the New York Times:

"The law also allows commodities firms like MF Global to use segregated customer funds as a source of low-cost financing for their own operations, but they are required to replace any customer assets taken from segregated accounts with supposedly ultrasafe collateral of the same value, typically United States Treasuries, municipal obligations and obligations whose payments of principal and interest are guaranteed by the government." [emphasis added]

Of course all this rehypothecating creates mountains of counterparty risk, all dependent on dubious collateral that has been pledged multiple times. The equivalent of having four mortgages on a house, each having been sold to other parties who have been told their mortgage is in first position. When the property value starts dropping or the borrower doesn’t pay, only one lender will get there first and legal fistfights ensue.

This rehypothecation activity may be the biggest credit bubble of all time, according to Elias. J.P. Morgan alone has rehypothecated over half a trillion dollars in 2011, Morgan Stanley $410 billion, Goldman Sachs $28 billion, and the list goes on.

Americans have been told US banks have little exposure to European sovereign debt, but according to the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), US banks hold $181 billion in the sovereign debt of Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. And while Germany is considered the belle of the Continental ball, Grant’s Interest Rate Observer reports that Deutsche Bank is levered at 43:1 and the Bundesbank has doubled its leverage since 2007 when it was geared at 75:1 – these days the central bank is levered at 153:1.

Extreme leverage is a problem if the slightest thing goes wrong – anywhere. When the cost of swapping euros for dollars soared at the end of last month, a coordinated central-bank cavalry charged out of nowhere, cutting swap rates and establishing temporary bilateral-liquidity swap arrangements. Nobody but financial news junkies seemed to know or care.

The truth about the financial crash wasn’t known until Bloomberg chased its request for information all the way to the Supreme Court to obtain documents that shed light on how much dough the Federal Reserve really provided the banks during the 2008 meltdown.

For instance, it turns out Wachovia shareholders got lucky as the bank was floated a secret loan from the Fed of $50 billion to keep the doors open while a sale could be arranged with Wells Fargo for $7 a share rather than shareholders having to take the buck-a-share offer from the wounded Citibank.

"This deal enables us to keep Wachovia intact and preserve the value of an integrated company, without government support," Wachovia’s chief executive Robert Steel said at the time.

Right, no government support at all.

Instead of being among the bailed out, Corzine and MF Global are now joining Lehman, IndyMac, Colonial, and all the small-fry banks lacking the friends in high places needed to keep them afloat. In the fractional-reserve world, markets don’t decide the winners and losers; government does.

Stewart writes for the NYT, "SIPC will replace up to $500,000 of securities and cash (but not futures contracts) missing from customer accounts at member firms," and the notion of even covering futures accounts has been floated on CNBC by Senator Debbie Stabenow, just as the FDIC replaces deposits up to $250,000. But covering the losses of clients and depositors is hardly the reflection of sound capitalism and the honoring of property rights.

Murray Rothbard wrote,

“If no business firm can be insured, then an industry consisting of hundreds of insolvent firms is surely the last institution about which anyone can mention ‘insurance’ with a straight face. ‘Deposit insurance’ is simply a fraudulent racket, and a cruel one at that, since it may plunder the life savings and the money stock of the entire public."

So it’s unlikely Jon Corzine knows where the $1.2 billion in customer money went any more than the president of a failed bank would know exactly where the customer deposits went.

The bigger issue is that, day by day, Mr. Corzine looks to be merely a canary in the fractional-reserve coal mine.

Reprinted from