Say you are the head back office guy at MF Global, it is the close of trading on Thursday, the firm has already completely drawn down on its revolver, and all the resulting cash in addition to all the firm's cash at your disposal in affiliated bank accounts, up to and including petty cash, has been used to satisfy margin demands due to declining collateral value, yet the collateral calls just won't stop, and impatient voices on the other side of the phone line demand you transfer even more cash over immediately or else risk default proceedings commenced against you within minutes. What do you do? Do you go ahead and tell your superior that the firm is broke even though the co-opted media is trumpeting every 5 minutes that "MF Global is fine", knowing full well you will be immediately fired for being the bearer of bad news, or do you assume that courtesy of your uber-boss being the former head of the Vampire Squid, and thanks to infinite moral hazard which after Lehman made sure nobody would ever fail ever again, that there is simply no way that you will be left without some miraculous rescue, if only you can last one more day, and as a result proceed to "commingle" some client funds with the firm's cash. It turns out that at MF Global you do the latter... over and over... until you have literally stolen hundreds of millions from the firm's client accounts in hopes that the miracle rescue will come on Friday... then over the weekend... and then you realize no miracle is coming, partly because your actions have been exposed, partly because miracles only exist in fairy tales. The next thing you know, your firm is bankrupt and hundreds of clients are about to learn that all their money is gone. Poof. This is not a fictional tale. This is precisely what very likely happened at MF Global in the past 72 hours. And someone has to go to jail. That someone, if indeed this criminal act is proven to have taken place, should be none other than Jon Corzine himself.
The sad truth of just how low Wall Street has fallen comes to us courtesy of the New York Times:
Federal regulators have discovered that hundreds of millions of dollars in customer money have gone missing from MF Global in recent days, prompting an investigation into the company’s operations as it filed for bankruptcy on Monday, according to several people briefed on the matter.
The revelation of the missing money scuttled an 11th hour deal for MF Global to sell a major part of itself to a rival brokerage firm. MF Global, the powerhouse commodities brokerage run by Jon S. Corzine, had staked its survival on completing the deal.
As for the details:
What began as nearly $1 billion missing had dropped to less than $700 million by late Monday. It is unclear where the money went, and some money is expected to trickle in over the coming days as the firm sorts through the bankruptcy process, the people said.
But regulators are examining whether MF Global diverted some customer money to support its own trades as the firm teetered on the brink of collapse. If that was the case, it could violate a fundamental tenet of Wall Street regulation: Customers’ money must be kept separate from company money.
And just like in the Lehman collapse where tens if not hundreds of international prime brokerage hedge fund clients, due to no fault of their own, found themselves insolvent after their cash ended up being caught at the London Lehman office (the details of how that money was illegally transferred from London to the US is a different topic entirely) and never to be seen again except to satisfy general unsecured claims, so thousands of MF clients are about to realize that money they thought they had, even if completely unencumbered with other assets, read pure cash, read money not at risk, is now gone forever, and they will have to wait years until the bankruptcy process determines if the claim deserves priority status to the unsecured bondholders. Best case: assume a 70% haircut on the money, if it is every to be seen again at all.
So who can be sued? Who can be blamed for this malicious and purposeful criminal act? Why everyone from the back office clerk presented in the thought experiment above, all the way up to the man at the very top, Jon himself, who, like in every other act of Wall Street impropriety will plead stupidity and deny he ever knew of this crime. Unfortunately, our criminal regulators, who will be just as complicit in clearing him of all wrongdoing, will aid and abet this latest destruction of faith in US capitalism.
What happens next? Why customers at all other brokerages, all other exchanges, afraid that their money will suffer the same fate as MF, even if they transact with perfect solvent clearers and agents, will proceed to pull their money, as they know they have nobody to trust but their own prudent and forward looking actions. Which in turn will start the kind of liquidity drain that killed not only Lehman, but froze money markets, and with that brought the complete capital markets to a standstill, only to be thawed after the Fed pledged multiples of the US GDP to rescue Wall Street in October of 2008.
And that, dear reader, is called unintended consequences, and how the bankruptcy of a small exchange can avalanche into a crippling Ice Nine of what is left of capital markets all over again, courtesy of crony capitalism, rampant criminality and a regulator and enforcement body that is more fascinated with midget porn than any regulating or enforcing of the very firms it hopes to get an assistant general counsel job from in a few short years.