MF Global Bankuptcy Revisited: Gary Gensler's Conflicted Role

February 3, 2012

MF Global Bankuptcy Revisited: Gary Gensler's Conflicted Role

By R. Tamara de Silva

February 3, 2012

Does anyone police the regulators? Are more regulators needed to police regulators for conflicts of interest that at least superficially would seem to affect their judgment? And why must we as a society perpetually add to a body of existing regulations just because we seem unable to effectively enforce the ones we already have? I ask all this in thinking about Gary Gensler, the current Chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission ("CFTC"). There is a legal standard for causality, the "but for" rule. Under this legal standard, had Mr. Gensler not been involved with Jon Corzine, $1.2 billion in customer funds may not have gone missing. In hindsight, Mr. Gensler's conflicts of interest regarding MF Global required policing.

MF Global filed for bankruptcy in the amount of $41 billion on October 31, 2011 after a loss of confidence over the firm's $6.3 billion bet on European sovereign debt. Since then, while most of the missing $1.2 billion in customer funds has been located, in excess of $600 million in customer money remains missing. There are no guarantees, the commodity customers from whom most of the money was lost, will regain their money. As of this writing, it is still not known what happened to the lost money nor why it has remained unaccounted for three months.

I suggest a possible conflict of interest between Jon Corzine and Mr. Gensler based upon their friendship, and a common political and professional involvement. What follows is a laundry list of connections-the applicability to MF Global comes later. For starters, Jon Corzine was the Chairman of Goldman Sachs during part of the eighteen years that Gary Gensler worked at Goldman Sachs. Mr. Gensler donated $10,000 to Corzine's campaign for governor of New Jersey. They worked together in Congress when Corzine was a Senator and Mr. Gensler a Senate aide. They worked closely together drafting large portions of the investor protection act, Sarbanes Oxley, while Corzine served on the Senate Banking Committee. In 2010, Corzine invited Gensler to lecture at Princeton about financial regulation and Gensler also spoke to the audience assembled about his friendship with Corzine. Gensler donated $300,000 to the prominent Democratic candidates including President Obama and Hillary Clinton. Corzine has been one of President Obama's elite bundlers, this past April 2011, alone holding an exclusive fundraiser from his Manhattan apartment where he was able to pass the hat around for more than $500,000. Gensler authored much of the Dodd-Frank Act and analysts like Sandler and O'Neill Partners wrote that they expected Corzine's contacts in Washington as he took over as CEO of MF Global in 2010 to help him "navigates a shifting regulatory environment."[ 1]

Conflicts of interest are ubiquitous on Wall Street and deserving a voluminous treatment. The tension between principal and agent is entrenched and accepted.

But is not just on Wall Street and not just between the principal and agent that conflicts of interest reside-they are everywhere-in politics, between the State and the governed, the employee and the employer, at credit ratings agencies, really at some level in every aspect of our public and personal life. It seems that government agencies are inclined to grow and expand seemingly without limit, an interest or will to power, entirely distinct from merely serving the governed well. I am conflicted between my love for pizza and bikinis. What is problematic about conflicts of interests are that among competing interests, something has to give and what usually does is the fiduciary duty of either the agent of the principal. No public figure and no investment bank can be all things to all competing interests- there is often a tension between shareholder profits, trader profits and a customer's best interests. Contrary to the silly ideas that many belch out, there is no simple cure either. What is the evidence of a conflict of interest, if any, in Mr. Gensler's role as Chairman of the CFTC and the fall of MF Global?

Bankruptcy proceedings under conflicting regulatory regimes.

As if things have not been bad for MF Global's customers since October 2011, they became much worse when two days ago on February 1, 2012, Judge Martin Glenn of the United States Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York ruled that the commodity customers of MF Global (the majority of people whose money was lost) do not have any priority over other creditors in the firm's bankruptcy proceedings. Had the customers with segregated accounts at MF Global been given priority status, they would be assured of receiving all of their missing money, before any other creditors, like JP Morgan Chase were paid.

There are two dueling regimes under which MF Global's assets in bankruptcy could have been adjudicated-one for securities broker dealers and one for commodity brokers. MF Global was both a broker-dealer and a commodity broker. Broker dealers are liquidated in accordance with the provisions of the Securities Investor Protection Act ("SIPA"), and a SIPC-appointed trustee oversees the liquidation.

MF Global was also a commodities broker or futures commission merchant ('FCM"). Commodity brokers are liquidated in accordance with the provisions of Subchapter IV of Chapter 7 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code.[2 ] According to this bankruptcy regime, customer funds must be identified, kept separate and are not made available to pay for a firm's obligations to other creditors of the FCM. Under this second regulatory regime, a trustee overseeing the liquidation in bankruptcy of an FCM must apply the CFTC's Regulation part 190 (CFTC derives its authority to make this rule under the Commodity Exchange Act or CEA), which holds that commodity customer must receive priority over all other creditors of an FCM in the event of bankruptcy.[ 3]

Judge Glenn wrongly decided that the operative bankruptcy regime for MF Global should be that used for a broker-dealer rather than a commodities broker. Judge Glenn was able to disregard or may not have been presented with the fact that most of MF Global's business was in commodities and not securities. According to one of my sources, MF Global had 50,000 futures customer accounts and 400 customer accounts in securities.

This ruling is made worse when one considers that many of the customers whose missing money totaled $1.2 billion were small traders who invested with MF Global perhaps because they were not able to open accounts with larger institutions.

Did Gary Gensler play a role in deciding upon an SIPA bankruptcy a decision that would harm thousands of commodity account holders and forever damage investor confidence in the commodity markets- in lieu of choosing a bankruptcy regime based upon the CEA and CFTC's Regulation part 190? There are those like the blog, "MFGFACTS," who would argue that he did just that but the evidence cited appears to be invisible.[ 4 ]

Before Gensler recused himself from the CFTC's investigation of MF Global, he had participated in two closed-door CFTC meetings on October 31, 2011 and November 2, 2011-the purpose of both meetings was according to Bloomberg News, MF Global's bankruptcy.[5 ] Senator Pat Roberts sent Gensler a letter on November 10, 2011 demanding to know what was discussed between Gensler and his staff regarding MF Global's bankruptcy during these meetings.[6 ]

But to be fair, no one has yet presented any actual proof that Gensler believed the appointment of a SIPC trustee (an automatic occurrence I think in the event of the broker dealer going bankrupt) would preclude the utilization of a CEA based bankruptcy proceeding. If some deal was struck as a favor to institutional creditors like Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan Chase over small farmers in Iowa, no proof has come to light.

The CFTC to its credit, filed a reply brief on January 18, 2012 urging the bankruptcy court to apply the bankruptcy provisions of the CEA and CFTC that would give MF Global's commodity customers priority over all other creditors and warning that a prior filing by MF Global's bankruptcy Trustee Louis Freeh contained, "errors and misstatements of law that, if accepted, may inhibit commodity customers from recovering their property."[ 7]

Gensler differs to Corzine's lobbying and MF Global allowed to make bets on European debt

The stage was set for MF Global on February 3, 2005, when the CFTC published proposed amendments to its Rule 1.25, which governed what types of investments an FCM may make of customer segregated funds. Before 2000, FCMs and designated clearing organizations ("DCOs") were only permitted to invest in United States debt (including municipal and state debt). On May 17, 2005, the CFTC published final rules that further amended Rule 1.25 to allow for the practice of FCMs using repurchase agreements called "repos" with customer funds. The size of the repo market in the United States alone is $1.6 trillion.

A repo is simply the sale of a security (typically a government debt) tied to an agreement to buy the securities back later. A reverse-repo is the purchase of a security tied to an agreement to sell back later. Repos are essentially loans secured against a security. The interest rate received is called the repo rate. The party that sells a security agreeing to buy it back in the future at a higher price later is engaging in a repurchase agreement. The party that agrees to buy the security and sell it back in the future is engaging in a reverse repo.

Corzine took over as CEO of MF Global around March 2010. According to its former risk manager, Michael Roseman in his testimony yesterday before the House Oversight Committee, by October 2010, MF Global bets on European debt were $4 billion. The use of repos by MF Global would have permitted the firm to leverage customer deposits, although it is unknown that they did. However, leverage of 30:1 or greater, through the use of repos would have resulted in larger losses if the repos were in sovereign European debt. This does not mean that repos are per se instruments of financial destruction.

Repos are part of what is the shadow banking system. I would define shadow banking as simply the collection of unregulated activities (repos, credit default sways and collateralized debt obligations, etc) engaged in by regulated and unregulated entities. Shadow banking like is very like traditional banking (other than existing regulations do not address it) and it provides a very important supply of short-term credit.

CFTC Rule 1.25 governs the investment of customer funds by an FCM.

(a) Permitted investments. (1) Subject to the terms and conditions set forth in this section, a futures commission merchant or a derivatives clearing organization may invest customer money in the following instruments (permitted investments):
(i) Obligations of the United States and obligations fully guaranteed as to principal and interest by the United States (U.S. government securities);
(ii) General obligations of any State or of any political subdivision thereof (municipal securities);
(iii) General obligations issued by any enterprise sponsored by the United States (government sponsored enterprise securities);
(iv) Certificates of deposit issued by a bank (certificates of deposit) as defined in section 3(a)(6) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, or a domestic branch of a foreign bank that carries deposits insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation;
(v) Commercial paper;
(vi) Corporate notes or bonds;
(vii) General obligations of a sovereign nation [emphasis added]; and

In late 2010, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission -- one of MF Global's regulators -- proposed changing one of its regulations, known as rule 1.25, to limit the kinds of investments that firms like MF Global could make using their customers' idle funds, including risky debt of sovereign nations. It was Corzine himself who lobbied for the change in Rule 1.25 to allow for customer-segregated funds to be held in foreign debt instruments.

On July 20, 2011, Corzine said, he "took part" in a conference call with CFTC Chairman Gary Gensler in which MF Global executives made clear their opposition to any changes in rule 1.25. On the call, Corzine said, he argued that the repo transactions with other broker-dealers should be permitted "because such transactions could be beneficial to" firms like MF Global.

Later that same afternoon, Corzine and his General Counsel at MF Global again called the CFTC and again reiterated their view that rule 1.25 should be left alone. Gensler complied.

Had Mr. Gensler changed CFTC Rule 1.25 as he was supposed to do after the passage of Dodd-Frank and not given into lobbying by Corzine, I would not be writing this and $600 million in customer money would not still and inexplicably be lost.

In an irony almost too much to bear, Commissioner Gensler told Reuters this past Wednesday that he, "has ordered an extensive review of how futures brokerages are regulated, following the collapse of MF Global three months ago." Is this like his recusal this past November anything other than a belated grasp at having clean hands or another smokescreen?

Why now impose more regulation on an industry that he and Corzine single-handedly played a role in damaging perhaps (though I hope not) beyond complete repair. MF Global would not have gone bankrupt but for Gensler and Corzine choosing not to amend Rule 1.25, an amendment that would have wholly prohibited MF Global's European bets. Congress should think clearly and focus on Corzine and Gensler's conflict of interest instead of inviting C-Span to broadcast itself yet again, as it did today, chasing a stream of red herrings for causation in the form of credit ratings agencies, credible risk officers and the exchanges.@
R. Tamara de Silva

Chicago, Illinois
February 3, 2012

R. Tamara de Silva is an independent trader and securities lawyer

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