Recently in European debt crisis Category

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

Any questions about this article should be directed to


Comparing the Incomparable- Credit Ratings Agencies Revisited

January 17, 2012
Comparing the Incomparable- Credit Ratings Agencies Revisited

By R. Tamara de Silva
January 17, 2011

Yesterday, Standard & Poor's relieved the Eurozone's bail-out fund, the European Financial Stability Facility ("EFSF") of its AAA credit rating, possibly hampering the fund's ability to contain the European debt crisis. This comes on the heel's of the S&P stripping both France and Austria of their triple-A rating in favor of a rating of AA+.[1] The effect of the S&P downgrade may be negative. Ratings agencies exist to level asymmetries in information and evaluate risk but one of their inherent oddities is that they seek to compare things whose differences in scale make them incomparable. Ratings agencies also have conflicts of interests, they often evaluate financial products (like collateralized debt obligations) that they do not understand, they seem to lack fixed ways to measure absolute risk, and they are at times, catastrophically wrong.

Elephants and aardvarks

Downgrades should not be considered in a vacuum. When the ratings agencies equate economies based upon ability to repay debt, they artificially equate countries disregarding factors such as size, geo-political risk and political infrastructure that make their comparisons odd.

S&P announced on August 5, 2011 that it would downgrade the credit rating of the United States. Interestingly it announced during the last day of this same month that while the world's only superpower and largest economy would now get only a AA+ rating, securities backed by sub-prime home loans, the same type of investments that led to the worst financial debacle since the Depression (and one from which we have not yet arguably recovered) would receive its once coveted triple AAA rating...unlike the United States.

There is no question that the United States will be able to repay its debts, we will continue to print more money-the larger issue is the continual erosion in the Dollar over time. Although a currency cannot be devalued ad infinitum without catastrophic results, at least for the time being, there is no credible replacement for the Dollar continuing to be the world's reserve currency. No other nation has the assets to back up being the world's reserve currency.

Looking at the S&P's downgrade of the United States in a vacuum, one would think that it is more prudent (according to all three ratings agencies), to prefer Austria, Denmark, Norway, France, Germany, Singapore, Luxemburg, the Swiss or even Finland. There is no consensus by all three agencies on countries like Hong Kong, Australia and the Isle of Mann. Yet other than ratings, the similarity ends there. Comparing the United States, the largest and most analyzed economy in the world with relatively petite nations like Luxemburg and Finland are like comparing the teeth of an otter and an elephant-one is so remarkably larger than the other that a comparison seems problematic. Admittedly both animals have teeth. Or like comparing the speed of an elephant and an aardvark.

To put the utility of comparison between the United States, which has a GDP of $14.657 trillion, in perspective, here are the GDPs of some of the remaining triple AAA rated countries in 2010 according to the IMF [2] :

• Luxemburg has a GDP of $52.43 billion,
• Germany's GDP is $3.314 trillion (largest in the EU)
• France $ 2.582 trillion,
• United Kingdom $2.172 trillion
• Lichtenstein $4.83 billion
• China $10 trillion (largest behind United States)

Comparing the largest most innovate, most scrutinized economy in the world to a nation like China is humorous because in terms of actual accounting standards, any meaningful transparency, the complete absence of a stable democracy or political freedoms-China is a peasant country. When the United States is downgraded, there is no other United States to compare it to, so to some extent, the rating downgrade may not be absolutely everything the media proclaims it to be.

Effect of downgrade on United States so far

When the markets opened on the first Monday after S&P's downgrade of the United States, the benchmark 10-year Treasury bond's yield dropped to 2.5%. Price, which is inverse to yield in bonds, has continued to increase even approaching all-time historic levels. This past August, the 10-year yield dropped almost 60 basis points, piercing below 2% (lower than their historic all-time low in 2008 when Lehman Brothers collapsed). The demand for United States' Treasuries has increased dramatically immediately following the S&P downgrade.

If the United States were deemed less credit worthy (less likely to pay its creditors), then investors and bond holders would demand higher returns for buying any U.S. debt/bonds. The very ability of the United States to borrow money by issuing bonds would be jeopardized. The market has ruled against this logic and to a large extent against S&P-justifiably so.

Remember a government bond is a debt instrument issued by a national government denominated in that government's currency. United States Treasury securities are valued in US dollars-their price is in United States Dollars.

A risk-free interest rate is the nominal rate of return for an investment with no risk (no credit risk) [3] of financial loss. The risk-free rate of return for almost all this century was the yield of United States Treasuries.


Why would the market seemingly disregard the opinion of S&P? Perhaps because many people remembered that during the housing bubble, sketchy loans (once again I proffer this as a new legal term of art) were repackaged by investment banks into investment pools and other mortgage backed securities and received the gold standard of financial ratings, the coveted and in theory elusive, AAA rating by the largest credit ratings agencies, including S&P and Moody's. S&P's granting of triple AAA ratings to companies and investment vehicles that turned into junk ratings caused $2 trillion in losses to everyone that relied on them-basically, everyone. No one else seemed to find it ironic that this same agency told the United States by how much it thought its debt should be lowered.

Conflicts of interest and fraud

But back to the credit ratings agencies... Not that long ago, in August 2010 and again in July of 2010, the SEC threatened to charge all three ratings agencies with fraud. Some would say better late than never. During the housing bubble, sketchy loans (I use this as a new legal term of art) were repackaged by investment banks into investment pools and other mortgage backed securities and received the gold standard of financial ratings, the coveted and in theory elusive, AAA rating by the largest credit ratings agencies, including S&P and Moody's. The agencies' granting of triple AAA ratings to companies and investment vehicles that turned into junk ratings caused billions if not trillions of dollars in losses to everyone that relied on them-basically, everyone. The credit ratings agencies are paid by the issuers (their clients) of the securities they were supposed to evaluate, creating an inherent conflict of interest. They were the game's referee and one of its players at the same time.

The SEC report on Credit Ratings Agencies from June 2007 identified another problem other than having the referee in a match being paid by one of the sides, (not the investors or the public's side mind you), that prevented the agencies from giving accurate ratings. The agencies could not give accurate ratings of many of the instruments involved in the housing bubble and credit crisis because of the complexity of the transactions involved and the inability of agencies to understand what they were analyzing.

One could argue that the agencies were not engaging in a deliberate (alright not a horribly deliberate) fraud, that is having a public position of trust, being paid and knowing they cannot do what they are assigned to do but pretending to do it anyway. Mind you, if anyone else had engaged in this behavior, they would have likely been indicted for fraud and possibly RICO.

What may let the agencies off the hook is that they relied on the issuers' (the clients again, usually investment banks) audit committees. Audit committees cannot seem to be comprised of Chia Pets in human dimension. The fact that these committees represented having signed off on the financial instruments in question should mean something-if not, why have these corporate committees?!

Furthermore, one could argue that the credit ratings agencies must not be held responsible for their ratings because they did not and could not have understood the trading transactions taking place at the investment banks because they had to rely on the information they were given which was not itself transparent.

A possible longer term solution to the conflict of interest driven nature of the credit ratings agencies is to take away the compensation structure of the credit ratings agencies and deregulate them completely in-order to discourage inherent conflict of interest or use the Credit Spread Market-problem solved! Take away what is essentially a government-sponsored monopoly of credit ratings agencies and allow investor paid credit ratings agencies, which could open up the market and privatize the ratings industry. Without credit ratings agencies, the market will determine value more efficiently than the analysts at the agencies. A problem with this approach is that there might be variance between the ratings of twenty agencies as opposed to just three, causing the rating on any one agency to mean less and to make more work for risk managers.

No liability

S&P has somehow avoided to this very day, all criminal and civil liability for its part in the most recent financial crisis. If the agencies had some liability for their ratings, they may have a better incentive for assuring that they got them right. Neither the Justice Department nor the SEC (which has itself managed to miss all the major financial debacles of the past five years) has ever charged S&P with criminal conflict of interest (as they in practice do and would do to any number of much smaller economic participants with a much smaller fields of damage). Neither the Justice Department nor the SEC has gone after S&P for admitting before Congress in 2008 and 2009, that their being paid by the issuers (their clients) of the securities they were supposed to evaluate, created an inherent conflict of interest and did in fact wrongly influence their ratings.

Nobody has charged the S&P with criminal fraud or fraud on the marketplace for taking money from issuers in simple bad faith (playing the part of the referee and judge in a boxing match after being paid by one of the boxers) for rating securities, they admitted in sworn testimony they did not understand!

This sordid tale has no end. According to Bloomberg, S&P is giving its self-coveted triple AAA rating to junk,

"Standard & Poor's is giving a higher rating to securities backed by subprime home loans, the same type of investments that led to the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, than it assigns the U.S. government.
S&P is poised to provide AAA grades to 59 percent of Springleaf Mortgage Loan Trust 2011-1, a set of bonds tied to $497 million lent to homeowners with below-average credit scores and almost no equity in their properties."

A spokesperson for S&P when asked about why it would give its higher rating of triple AAA yet again to subprime securities repackaged by many of the scions of AIG and Goldman that participated in causing the Credit Crisis and profited from its bailout simply stated, "We believe our ultimate success will be driven by the value investors derive from our ratings and analysis."
However, it is not honest, however much one is paid, to issue a triple AAA rating to what Bloomberg calls,

"More than 14,000 securitized bonds in the U.S. are rated AAA by S&P, backed by everything from houses and malls to auto- dealer loans and farm-equipment leases, according to data compiled by Bloomberg,"

and not the United States of America.

Relatively speaking

Size matters. Pension funds and many of the largest institutional investors have rules about what investments they may invest in and these rules are based on the ratings given to investments by the credit ratings agencies. Consider that Australia, Andorra, Bermuda, Canada, Cook Islands, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom retain their triple-A ratings.[5] These countries represent less than 21% of the world's collective math may be slightly off. If investment funds were limited to investing in triple-A products, it would be preposterous to think that less than 21% of the economy of the world would fund the remaining 79%.

Another weakness of the credit ratings agencies is that there is no set standard employed for measuring absolute risk. What I mean by absolute risk is the measure in gambling parlance, of the risk of ruin. Wall Street and regulators have, in the example of a bank lets say, no better way other than asking for capital ratios to ascertain a bank's risk or ruin. Other factors, like the value of assets and counterparty transactions lack still, even in 2012, transparency.

Because the credit ratings agencies share this problem of being unable to objectively ascertain absolute risk, they lag the markets' own detections of absolute and relative risk. For example, the agencies did not foresee the Latin American debt crises, the European debt crisis, AIG, the Credit Crisis, Enron, Worldcom, or even MF Global. In this sense, credit ratings agencies look backwards better than they can look ahead. Arguably, there are extremely few economists or market participants that can look ahead-this may be a wholly unfair criticism...except this is part of the reason for having the ratings agencies.

The most obvious problems with the existing regulatorily instituted regime of three credit ratings agencies is that they have no competition, no real accountability because they have to be utilized even when wrong, and no liability. This oligopoly ought to be dismantled and the private sector should be allowed to get into the ratings game in the same way that analysts exists in the financial markets for every other type of investment. Doing so would eliminate the existing conflicts of interests within the credit ratings agencies and allow investors to pay the private ratings agencies for their research. Competition will have to drive the caliber of research and ratings upward.

Sadly, nothing in the gargantuan 2,300 page Dodd-Frank Act or that has been discussed in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs addresses the problems with the credit ratings agencies...the same ones that contributed to our recent financial crisis.@

R. Tamara de Silva

Chicago, Illinois
January 17, 2012

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

1. The EFSF's ratings are derived from its backers and France and Austria were two of the largest guarantors behind Germany. S&P's downgrade of the EFSF will mean the fund has 440 billion less in Euros than before the downgrade.
2. These numbers are adjusted by PPP (purchasing power parity), basis-this takes into account, relative cost of living and inflation rates, rather than just exchange rates.
3. There are other risks like inflation risk (the principal returned on a debt instrument upon maturity would have less purchasing power) and currency risk (the Dollar could as it has, decline in value relative to other currencies).