Nine weeks after its bankruptcy, the general public still hasn’t quite realized the implications of the MF Global scandal.
My own sense is, this is the first tremor of the earthquake that’s coming to the global financial system. And how the central banks and financial regulators treated the “Systemically Important Financial Institutions” that had exposure to MF Global—to the detriment of the ordinary, blameless customer who got royally ripped off in its bankruptcy—is both the template of how the next financial crisis will be handled, and an accelerator that will make the next crisis happen that much sooner.
So first off, what happened with MF Global?
Simple: It went bankrupt—because it made bad bets on European sovereign debt, by way of leveraging positions 100-to-1. Yeah, I know: Stupid. Anyway, they went bankrupt—which in and of itself is no big deal. It’s not as if it’s the first time in history that a brokerage firm has gone bust. But to me, the big deal in this case was the way the bankruptcy was handled.
Now there are several extremely serious aspects to the MF Global case: Specifically, how their customers were shut out of their brokerage accounts for over a week following the bankruptcy, which made it impossible for those customers to sell out of their positions, and thus caused them to lose serious money; and of course how MF Global was more adept than Mandrake the Magician at making money disappear—about $1 billion, in fact, which still hasn’t turned up. These are quite serious issues which merit prolonged discussion, investigation, prosecution, and ultimately jailtime.
But for now, I want to discuss one narrow aspect of the MF Global bankruptcy: How authorities (mis)handled the bankruptcy—either willfully or out of incompetence—which allowed customer’s money to be stolen so as to make JPMorgan whole.
From this one issue, it seems clear to me that we can infer what will happen when the next financial crisis hits in the nearterm future.
Brokerage firms hold clients’ money in what are known assegregated accounts. This is the money that brokerage firms hold for when a customer makes a trade. If a brokerage firm goes bankrupt, these monies are never touched—because they never belonged to the firm, and thus are not part of its assets.
Think of segregated accounts as if they were the content in a safety deposit box: The bank owns the vault—but it doesn’t own the content of the safety deposit boxes inside the vault. If the bank goes broke, the customers who stored their jewelry and pornographic diaries in the safe deposit boxes don’t lose a thing. The bank is just a steward of those assets—just as a brokerage firm is the steward of those customers’ segregated accounts.
But when MF Global went bankrupt, these segregated accounts—that is, the content of those safe deposit boxes—were taken away from their rightful owners—that is, MF Global’s customers—and then used to pay off other creditors: That is, JPMorgan.
(The mechanics of how this was done are interesting, but insanely complicated, and ultimately not relevant to this discussion. To grossly simplify, MF Global pledged customer assets to JPMorgan, in a process known as rehypothecation—customer assets which MF Global did not have a right to. Needless to say, JPMorgan covered its ass legally. Ethically? Morally? Black as night.)
This was seriously wrong—and this is the source of the scandal: Rather than being treated as a bankruptcy of a commodities brokerage firm under subchapter IV of the Chapter 7 bankruptcy law, MF Global was treated as an equities firm (subchapter III) for the purposes of its bankruptcy.