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United States v. Standard & Poor's

February 5, 2013

  

 

United States v. Standard & Poor's

By R Tamara de Silva

January 5, 2013

       The Department of Justice filed a civil lawsuit yesterday against one of the of big three credit ratings agencies, Standard & Poor's ("S&P") and its parent company, McGraw-Hill, Inc.[1]  The suit alleges that S&P deliberately gave its coveted triple-A ratings to sub-prime debt in order to win fees.  The suit does not address the structural conflicts of interest within the three credit ratings agencies that are Nationally Recognized Statistical Rating Organizations ("NSRO"), nor will it address or cure any of the underlying causes of the credit crisis.  While there are problems with the credit rating agency business model, it will be difficult to prove that S&P knew any more than even the audit committees of the investment firms on whom it relied, or the issuers of debt instruments themselves.  The suit will of course result in the levy of a fine.  But while S&P's hands may not be entirely unsullied- far more importantly to the untrained public eye, they are as good a scapegoat as any other.

       S&P is a credit rating agency whose business is to provide credit ratings represented by letters from triple-A to D, in exchange for fees.  Federal laws require that certain institutions only hold investments that have a credit rating of "investment grade," but most of the financial world relies on credit ratings agencies to weigh and measure risk, risk defined in terms of the credit worthiness of investments and institutions.    S&P is the largest of three credit ratings agencies that is recognized by the Securities and Exchange Commission ("SEC") as an NSRO.   From 2004 towards the end of 2008, S&P assigned credit ratings on nearly $4 trillion of debt instruments.  In terms of sheer size and credibility, despite this suit and skepticism of the NSROs particularly in Europe, the world has no credible alternative to credit ratings agencies and specifically nothing to replace, Standard & Poors.

       Keep in mind that almost five years after the worst financial crisis in United States history, the Department of Justice has yet to criminally charge a single culpable senior executive or firm.  If history is any guide, the Justice Department will reach a civil settlement with S&P wherein the firm will agree, without admitting any wrongdoing, to pay a fine that in relative terms, will have as large a fiscal impact on S&P as the cost of one month's dry kibble would have to the owners of the Grumpy Cat.  The suit asks for a fine in excess of $1 billion but these will typically be negotiated down and the government has not latterly demonstrated a willingness to go to trial with these suits.  Like so many Wall Street settlements reached over the past ten years, the cost of the settlement fine imposed will ultimately be a pittance relative to the quarterly earnings of the offending firm-S&P is not likely to become the first exception to this rule.

       There in the gilded annals of academic and economic theory yet remains the tidy axiom that markets are self-correcting.  It is thought that market forces of supply and demand will drive out weaker competitors and bring in new ones through their own determinative natural selection.  It is not necessarily so.  Yet this assumption is an inescapable cliché of economic theory now unfortunately embedded into political discourse.  This axiom ignores the asymmetrical political and economic power of some market participants relative to others, and the use of regulation to give some participants a structural competitive advantage over others.  Self-correcting economic behavior occurs famously in the instance of market bubbles like tulip manias, Internet stocks and real estate bubbles, all of which eventually burst.   However, none of this bursting applies to credit ratings agencies. 

       Credit ratings agencies are often wrong, have been wrong and will not, even under Dodd-Frank, need to be correct, much less try harder to do so, or for that matter make any effort towards attempting to.   All three credit ratings agencies adjusted their triple-A ratings of debt instruments to less than investment grade at virtually the same time the rest of the world figured out there was a problem with them.  In their defense, S&P points out that credit ratings are, "forward-looking opinions about credit risk. Standard & Poor's credit ratings express the agency's opinion about the ability and willingness of an issuer, such as a corporation or state or city government, to meet its financial obligations in full and on time." [2]  The problem is that by the time the credit ratings agencies, self-correct, their statements are no longer forward looking or even present looking but much more akin to being told how a movie ends a few months after you have seen it.

       Not that long ago, collateralized debt obligations were repackaged during the credit bubble into investment pools and other mortgage backed securities and collectively adorned with the gold standard of financial ratings, the coveted AAA ratings of the largest credit ratings agencies, Fitch, S&P and Moody's.   The credit ratings agencies gave their coveted and in theory elusive triple-A rating to investments that were anything but credit worthy or in the best case, possessed of a very mixed credit pedigree.  The agencies' bestowal of triple-A ratings to companies and investment vehicles that were junk and later discovered to be junk, caused losses in the billions and trillions of dollars to everyone who relied on their ratings--essentially everyone.

       The role of the credit ratings agencies, was present from Goldman Sachs' knowingly selling instruments it bet against in Abacus to Citigroup's selling of investments it also bet against-all these transactions of a seemingly knowing fraud were adorned with triple-A ratings.  Triple-A ratings played an essential role in the credit crisis- enough to make them arguably the largest "but-for" causal culprit of the financial crisis.  "But for" the credit ratings agencies bestowal of triple-A ratings on sub-prime debt investments, the credit crisis would not have occurred.   But the financial world does not operate as simply as the liability model used by personal injury lawyers to make someone pay for car accidents or anything resulting in a personal injury.  The financial world is incomparably more complex and the causes of the financial crisis are many.

       In a larger sense, the credit ratings agencies cannot help it.  The fault lies with their business model and that having no competition, they really can be wrong in the largest possible way and not be "wrong" in the conventional sense. 

       The big three credit ratings agencies are bestowed with a monopoly by the government and if the world did not like the big three credit ratings agencies, it would find (with the exception of a few marginal players) that it had precisely nowhere else to go.  Put another away, even after having the SEC accuse them of consumer fraud, and being about as wrong as they can be, the big three credit ratings agencies still rate 96% of the world's bonds.  Sort of as Henry Ford was reputed to have said about offering customers the choice of a new model T in "any color so long as its black."

       What is more, their business model makes the ratings agencies operate within a closed conflict of interest loop.  The credit ratings agencies are paid by the issuers (who are also their clients) of the securities they were supposed to evaluate-this creates a conflict of interest.

       But the government, or specifically the SEC knew of the conflicts of interest within the credit rating agency business model and approved of them.  In June 2007, the SEC acknowledged that there might be a real problem having the referee in a match being paid by one of the sides-not the investors or the public's side either.   The SEC asked S&P for documentation of how S&P handled conflicts of interests and after several months of scrutiny, approved of S&P as a NSRO--again, after having vetted the inherent conflicts of interest within S&P's business model. 

       The ratings agencies have lobbying power in Washington and every interest in protecting their triopoly, which remains, even after the Credit Crisis and the implementation of Dodd-Frank, wholly unscathed.  But really, in the absence of any alternative and near total dependency, the world has an interest in S&P too.

       The most persuasive mitigating factor against charging the S&P or any of the credit ratings agencies with fraud is that they themselves relied on the internal audit committees of their clients/issuers.  The credit ratings agencies relied on the audit committees of their issuer clients, which committees had signed off and attested to the S&P and the other credit ratings agencies about the value and risk profiles of the investments for which they sought ratings.  Ultimately, unless corporate boards are compromised of crony Chia pets distinctly and wholly incapable of bearing any liability or culpability (a very real possibility upon even a cursory scrutiny- and another discussion for another time), they ought to bear the responsibility for misleading the credit ratings agencies, or simply not knowing what they were doing.

       Either the investment banks' audit committees were not qualified to pass on these investments or the credit ratings agencies were not.  What now seems obvious is that both the credit ratings agencies and the audit committees were not sophisticated enough to understand the investment products they were charged with scrutinizing.  They approved of them anyway.  

       The credit ratings 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 their inability to understand what they were analyzing.  Not knowing what they were doing makes them at least guilty, if they were regular market participants, (which they are not) of criminal fraud.   They may have culpability because they perpetuated a fraud on the marketplace by accepting money and using their position of trust, as a government sanctioned arbiter or investments, to pretend to pass on investments when in reality they did not know what they were examining or did and had a financial incentive to lie.  One thing is certain, were the credit ratings agencies like any number of the two-bit individuals the Department of Justice and SEC have prosecuted, one could say that the prosecution of fraud is not disproportionately tilted towards the smallest financial participants, or at least squarely away from the largest ones.

       In theory, the credit ratings agencies exist to level asymmetries of information.  They are also supposed to evaluate risk.   Unfortunately, the credit ratings agencies have conflicts of interests and they evaluate financial products (like collateralized debt obligations) that they do not understand.  They were far from alone in not understanding the debt instruments presented to them.  In 2007, even Ben Bernanke thought the risk of sub-prime debt was contained.  The ratings agencies, like most of Wall Street during financial crises seemed to lack fixed ways to measure absolute risk, and as a result during financial crises, when you would most want risk models to work, they too prove catastrophically wrong.  Moreover, as much as Wall Street was wrong in assessing its risk, so was the government and many of Wall Street's largest institutions-so why merely pick on S&P?  Unlike all of the players on Wall Street however, the credit ratings agencies are still the only game in town.  The Department of Justice's civil suit will do nothing to change this.@

R Tamara de Silva

Chicago, Illinois



[2] http://www.standardandpoors.com/ratings/definitions-and-faqs/en/us

A Tale of Two Classes of Defendant and Lanny Breuer

January 28, 2013

A Tale of Two Classes of Defendant and Lanny Breuer

By R Tamara de Silva

January 28, 2013

 

"swaying power such as has never in the world's history been trusted in the hands of mere private citizens,...after having created a system of quiet but irresistible corruption-will ultimately succeed in directing government itself.  Under the American form of society, there is now no authority capable of effective resistance." 

Henry Adams writing about the corruption of the Erie Railroad for the Westminster Review in 1870, he described corporate influence growing to the point of being uncheckable with political parties that would sacrifice principle for accommodation.

 

       Last week, the Head of the Department of Justice's Criminal Division, Lanny Breuer, announced his resignation.  His resignation is remarkable only in so far that it draws attention to the enormity of what he would not do.  Under Breuer's watch, leaving aside some high profile and related insider trading prosecutions, not one senior Wall Street executive was prosecuted or even charged (by some accounts- not even investigated) with anything having to do with the worst financial crisis in American history-a crisis that resulted in a bailout of Wall Street banks and the financial sector at a cost to American taxpayers of between $43.32-$59.75 billion.[1]  A day before Lanny Breuer's resignation, PBS' Frontline aired an investigation about the failure of the Justice Department to prosecute a single senior banker involved in the mortgage crisis called, "The Untouchables."  During this same time that the Department of Justice refused to go after a single head of a Wall Street firm, they took a particularly hard line on a torture whistleblower (not the torturers), and many financial criminals responsible for not the billions caused by elite Wall Street firms but between thousands to hundreds of thousands like elderly couples for possible pension fraud, an appraiser in Florida, individuals who committed bank fraud by lying on mortgage applications and other criminals like pot smokers and Aaron Swartz.  It is not that I condone wrong-doing, only a record of selective prosecution on steroids.  Lanny Breuer's Justice Department exposed its full fury to the chubs of the criminal justice systems while systematically saving the titans and whales.

 

Prosecutorial Discretion and Sympathy for the Titan

       One of the reasons, Lanny Breuer gave for the non-prosecution of a senior Wall Street executive is sympathy for employees and shareholders.  In his interview with Martin Smith of Frontline, Mr. Breuer repeated a specific if selective, empathy, wholly at odds with the charge he had been given by Senator Kaufman to investigate and hold to account all those responsible for the financial crisis.[2]   This selective empathy is also wholly at odds with the unbiased way in which most of us naively think justice is administered and prosecutions are sought.  By the way, after this interview aired, Martin Smith states that he was called by the Justice Department and told that they would never cooperate with PBS again.[3] 

       In September of last year, Mr. Breuer admitted his particular empathy towards the plight of the largest of Wall Street banks when he addressed the New York Bar Association and said,

In my conference room, over the years, I have heard sober predictions that a company or bank might fail if we indict, that innocent employees could lose their jobs, that entire industries may be affected, and even that global markets will feel the effects.  Sometimes - though, let me stress, not always - these presentations are compelling.  In reaching every charging decision, we must take into account the effect of an indictment on innocent employees and shareholders, just as we must take into account the nature of the crimes committed and the pervasiveness of the misconduct.  I personally feel that it's my duty to consider whether individual employees with no responsibility for, or knowledge of, misconduct committed by others in the same company are going to lose their livelihood if we indict the corporation.  In large multi-national companies, the jobs of tens of thousands of employees can be at stake.  And, in some cases, the health of an industry or the markets are a real factor.  Those are the kinds of considerations in white collar crime cases that literally keep me up at night, and which must play a role in responsible enforcement. 

When the only tool we had to use in cases of corporate misconduct was a criminal indictment, prosecutors sometimes had to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut.[4]

 

 

       It is odd that this same Justice Department did not take sympathy into account in demanding that Aaron Swartz serve 35 years or for that matter, the plight of all smaller defendants.  The omnibus catchall Computer Fraud and Abuse Act ("CFAA") could make criminals of many of us because it seeks to criminalize the use of a computer without authorization but no where defines what "authorization" means. 

       When the government freezes a defendant's assets or seizes property even before a filing of charges making it impossible for them to pay for a decent lawyer (assuming they can even afford one), does it really care how the defendant (before being proven guilty) manages to eat or live in the interim of years it can take from investigation to sentencing? 

       Where was the sympathy for Senator Ted Stevens?  Was it anything but a sheer lack of empathy that led to the career-ending prosecution of a six term Senator and the deliberate withholding of exculpatory evidence in his case?  What about the many cases where defendants are exonerated by physical evidence that the prosecution possessed but did not reveal at the time?  Where is the sympathy for the years or decades of a life that are lost because exculpatory evidence is not released or DNA evidence kits are not processed?  Or is the empathy that Lanny Breuer refers to, as selectively held as its application under Lanny Breuer's tenor suggests?

 

Conflicts of Money

       Money influences prosecutions.  Consider the tale of two men performing the identical act in the criminal law Jon Corzine and Russell Wasenfdorf, Sr.  Corzine was one of President Obama's elite bundlers in 2011 and 2012.  He campaigned heavily for the President as governor of New Jersey, and held private fundraisers for President Obama in his home even after MF Global went bankrupt and $1.6 billion of customer funds went missing in October 2011.  The Justice Department announced that they would not prosecute him.

       It was discovered in June 2012 that Peregrine Financial Group CEO, Russell Wasendorf Sr., like Corzine at MF Global, had tapped into customer segregated funds to the tune of $215 million.  Russell Wasendorf Sr was arrested and criminally charged later same that month.   Same act-missing customer funds that were by law not to touched-but a far disparate prosecution.[5] 

       Under Lanny Breuer, the Justice Department announced it would not go after Goldman Sachs. Goldman Sachs' employees were the second largest single contributor to President Obama in 2008 contributing $1,013,091.[6] Goldman Sachs is also one of the largest clients of Mr. Eric Holder's lawyer firm Covington & Burling.

       Speaking of Covington & Burling, Lanny Breuer worked at Covington along with Attorney General Eric Holder.  Their firm's largest clients were many of the Wall Street banks that were involved in the securitization of mortgage debt that contributed to the financial crisis.

       According to Reuters, Attorney General Holder and Lanny Breuer were expected to recuse themselves (a functional impossibility) under federal conflict of interest laws from Department of Justice decisions related to many of Wall Street's largest banks.  Of course they have not admitted to doing so in any instance of which I am aware.[7] 

 

Abacus and Such

       Goldman's Abacus scheme would fit into the most selective definitions of fraud. Goldman invented Abacus, according to an SEC civil complaint and an investor, to fail so that one of its largest hedge fund clients, Paulson & Co, could short it.[8]  In the meantime, Goldman sold Abacus bonds to many other investors all the while allowing Goldman to take in large investment banking fees from the sale and from the purchase. The problem is, the investors were not aware that Goldman's largest hedge fund client along with Goldman Sachs was betting against them and that as such Goldman Sachs may have a conflict of interest in designing what went into Abacus.  Goldman claimed that somewhere within all the disclosure statements was a reference to all this.   The Department of Justice announced it would not seek any criminal fraud charges against Goldman.  Goldman Sachs settled the civil suit for $550 million, which is not a lot for a company that earns billions of dollars per quarter.

       On November 28, 2011, Judge Jed S. Rakoff rejected what would have been the sixth civil settlement agreement between Citigroup Global Markets Inc. and the SEC since 2003 for $285 million.  Citigroup had sold $1 billion in mortgage-bonds through a vehicle called Class V Funding III, without disclosing that it was betting against $500 million of those assets-in essence offering something to its customers and not disclosing that it would be betting against its customers.  The Department of Justice was not about to seek criminal fraud charges against Citigroup either.

       Civil settlements between the SEC and other parties are alternatively called consent decrees and they are a far cry from criminal prosecution. Nor do they deter misconduct because no admission of wrong-doing is required and the fines are pin money to the banks. 

       It is in the public's interest to prevent fraud upon the market and to prevent the type of financial engineering solely for the sake of fees that can lead to catastrophic losses ultimately borne by society as a whole.  The type of hyperleveraged machinations, not understood by the banks themselves that wind up privatizing profit and publicizing loss. The problem with selective prosecution of financial crime or any crime, is that it undermines the very idea of justice, whose force and majesty lie in its fair and unbiased application.  When the Executive branch's justice department seeks fines from banks which fees are so small as to be written off as a rational and good cost of doing business, while simultaneously pursuing prosecutions against smaller parties and the comparatively disenfranchised, it is no longer dealing out justice.  It is selectively doling out punishments to those not in its favor.@

R. Tamara de Silva



Prosecutorial Discretion, Cambyses and Aaron Swartz

January 15, 2013

 

Prosecutorial Discretion, Cambyses and Aaron Swartz

By R Tamara de Silva

January 15, 2013

 

The Optimist thinks this is the best of all worlds.  The pessimist fears it is true

J. Robert Oppenheimer

 

       The prosecutor of the late Aaron Swartz and Sisamnes have something to tell us about the purpose of those who have the awesome task of administering justice. The power of the prosecutor in modern times is absolute and as such unlike in the case of King Cambyses and judge Sisamnes, unchecked when it is abused.   All the more reason to ask at these times, what is the purpose of prosecution?  Is prosecution in all instances moral?  And is prosecution the same as justice?  In answer to the latter, in the case of Aaron Swartz, the answer is resoundingly in the negative.  The prosecution of Aaron Swartz may have followed the letter of the law and fit an omnibus catchall federal charge like wire-fraud, but it makes mincemeat out of Justice.  Aaron Swartz's prosecution also highlights some of the many problems with our criminal justice system.

       One of the more memorable stories in the fifth book of Herodotus' Histories takes place in the sixth century BC and it tells the fate of judge Sisamnes.  The Persian King Cambyses discovered that Sisamnes had diverted justice and rendered a verdict in a case based upon his acceptance of a bribe.  King Cambyses understood the majesty and power of justice and his retribution for Sisamnes' abuse of it is unforgettable in its brutality.  King Cambyses had Sisamnes stripped of his flesh, while alive and used the strips of flesh to upholster the court's judge's chair.  But Cambyses' retribution for the abuse of justice did not end there for he made Sisamnes' son Otanes sit on the grisly judge's chair as he was made the replacement justice with the lesson that he must always remember his father's fate when administering justice.

       There is no King Cambysis to check the power of the Executive Branch's Department of Justice. The criminal law and the office of the prosecutor was originally meant to punish actual wrongdoing that would harm society and in so doing deter conduct, intentionally and severely harmful to civil society- like murder, theft, burglary, treason.  The Executive Branch and its Department of Justice is given wide latitude and immunity to bring about justice.

       Prosecutors have an immense amount of power-nothing less than the full force and power of the federal government and all its resources.  The power of the prosecutor to charge and the power to offer plea bargain sets the course of justice in America.  Most people indicted by federal prosecutors are convicted and most take plea bargains.   But it is not a fair fight, not even if you can afford the best lawyers money can buy because after all, a federal prosecutor has a theoretically unlimited budget.

       Most people who take plea bargains are poor and contrary to what those ignorant of the legal system would more comfortably believe, they are not necessarily guilty.   Prosecutors use varying degrees of coercion and intimidation in the process of plea bargains.  They can threaten to increase the counts in an indictment, demand higher sentences, or as in the Giuliani's prosecution of Michael Milken, intimidate Milken's 92 year old grandmother, threaten to indict your spouse, keep you locked up before trial, and add obstruction of justice if your defense is anything other than continual and literal silence by invocation of the Fifth Amendment.  We have come along way from Torquemada and yet if you look closely enough, not exactly far enough.

       Aaron Swartz took his life on Friday January 11, 2013.  In the fall of 2011, his lawyer had tried to work out a plea bargain with Assistant United States Attorney Stephen Heymann but was told that Swartz would have to plead guilty to all 13 indictments and would also have to do jail time.  On Wednesday January 9, 2013, his lawyer tried again to work out some deal on the eve of trial and as Swartz worried about the costs of his defense and having his friends be made to testify- the prosecutor refused to budge. 

       Unceremoniously on January 14, 2014, the United States Attorney who had brought charges against Swartz (Case: 11-cr-10260), Carmen M. Ortiz, dismissed them citing his death as the reason for her doing so.[1]  Carmen Ortiz had filed a 13 count superceding indictment of Aaron Swartz on September 12, 2012 charging him with wire fraud, computer fraud, theft of information from a computer, recklessly damaging a computer, forfeiture and aiding and abetting.[2] 

       Aaron Swartz accomplished a lot in 26 years and one gets the impression he would have done a great deal more.  He was only 14 when he developed RSS and later co-founded Reddit.  He was a powerful force in the fight to keep the Internet free and free of government censorship.  In 2008, he wrote a program that extracted twenty percent of the court documents (all public records), on the government's PACER system and put them online so that they would be available to the public for free.  His death is a real loss and a sad commentary on overzealous prosecutors who not once considered the importance of their obtaining a win against the value of young Aaron's life and the actual harm he had done. 

       While the indictment appears facially solid, the charges are less so.  The indictment charges theft because it states that Swartz stole, "a major portion of JSTOR's archive of digitized academic journal articles" through MIT's computer network.  Yet, Swartz was a fellow at Harvard's Safra Center for Ethics and in this capacity allowed to access MIT's computer network-at least as a guest.  If he was allowed to access the network as a guest, then the allegation of computer fraud and theft in using the network become vulnerable.  Also, JSTOR had settled with Swartz and did not want any part in prosecuting him criminally especially after they had recovered their files from Swartz.  JSTOR has also stated it would not have been a complaining witness in this case.

       The government was able to allege wire fraud because JSTOR's computers were not in Massachusetts-this fact is less meaningful considering that JSTOR did not want to prosecute Swartz.  Moreover, wire-fraud does not translate well in the age of cloud computing because information does not exist merely within a state line-its locations are generally closely guarded and sometimes outside the jurisdiction of the United States calling into question, which laws even apply.

 

Prosecutorial Discretion in the Backdrop of Burgeoning Laws

       Unfortunately, the practice of administering justice has systemic fragility-at least from the perspective of the Bill of Rights.  Lawmakers hurriedly make new laws and federal agencies invent new regulations that taken together give prosecutors more ways to prosecute Americans. 

       Prosecutors in turn are given an expanding arsenal of tools for use in prosecution on top of their already unfettered and unchecked authority.  Some prosecutions are entered into because they are high profile.  Many prosecutors like Giuliani and Spitzer used high profile cases as stepping-stones for their political ambitions.[3] Congress and many states, cave to political and media pressures to "do something" about virtually any adverse event, and in the process invent new criminal statutes and environmental regulations at a relatively breakneck speed.  This of course results not just in a stunning enlargement of the government's power over the individual (there is no commensurate enlargement in a person's Constitutional rights), but a dilution of Federal power to enforce important criminal laws.  Another consequence is the invitation to abuse the power of the prosecutor to select which criminal statutes to enforce and on whom to enforce them.   The power of the prosecutor in America has never been greater than it is today because of the greater resources of the federal government and the sheer volume of criminal statutes and criminal offenses, which is greater than it has ever been.

       In an actual case, I came across a multi-state drug dealer, who had been well represented by an experienced defense lawyer and who had trafficked in kilograms of cocaine never even got indicted.  He walks free without being indicted because a prosecutor allowed him to escape decades of federal jail time in exchange for ratting out his co-conspirators.   He even went on to be awarded multi-million dollar contracts with the City of Chicago. Arguably, it is alright that the drug dealer walks away free because the government was able to prosecute at least two of his colleagues.  

       A crime is a crime is a crime-or as Carmen Ortiz was once said about her indictment of Swartz, "Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars...It is equally harmful to the victim whether you sell what you have stolen or give it away."   Or is it?

       When a drug dealer peddles pounds of cocaine from New York to Chicago and never gets indicted, can anyone argue that no one was harmed?  By contrast, who was actually harmed in the case of Aaron Swartz?  Why was it so much more important to make him a felon and place him in jail for 35 years? 

       What content from JSTOR did Aaron Swartz give away for free much less sell?

       All guarantees of individual liberty and freedom protected by the United States Constitution under due process, equal protection and the presumption of innocence have remained as they were written by the Constitution's drafters in the first fourteen amendments, yet the reasons the Government may use to exercise it power to deprive its citizens of their liberty have grown several hundred thousand fold.   This would be as if instead of every side getting one chance at bat in a baseball game, one team would get ten thousand chances at bat for every single time the other team went to bat. 

       The Government has hundreds of thousands of ways to deprive an American of his life and liberty, and yet the number of amendments protecting your civil liberty have remained the same.

       If you think that following the law is simple and you will never run afoul of it and all this I write is pablum, you do not know the law.  Keep in mind that federal law touches upon every facet of an American's everyday life.   All Americans engage in conduct, which falls under the penumbra of use of the United States wire or mails.  Americans are regulated by a myriad of laws, at times obscure, and yet their ignorance of them offers no protection. 

       The federal government spends billions of dollars on prosecutions based upon theories of strict liability for obscure crimes honored more in their breach than by their rule because the crimes lack definition.  There are many examples of obscure but actual and costly prosecutions based upon relatively new criminal statutes: Prosecution of four men for bringing lobsters back that were not packed properly according to a foreign law (Lacey Act); prosecution of handicapped elderly woman who had not trimmed her garden hedges that abutted a side street to the required level of under two feet; criminal prosecutions of manufacturing companies for not being able to label their products for uses, wholly unintended by the manufacturer and not capable of being foreseen; growing orchids according to laws of another country (Lacey Act); registering under false name on Facebook or Myspace; filling out any federal form and making a mistake; running out of gas in a blizzard and abandoning your snowmobile, the list of actual prosecutions is much longer.

       To put this in perspective, in 1790 there were about 6 crimes in America, treason, piracy, murder, maiming, robbery and counterfeiting.  In 2011, there were over 4,500 Federal crimes and hundreds of thousands of regulations whose breach would incur criminal penalties.  Congress invents a new crime on average every week for every week of the year.[4]  Congress is not however, simultaneously repealing existing bad, redundant or conflicting criminal laws.  Basic crimes like murder, robbery and theft are regurgitated into new forms, but what is far more worrisome than the explosion of Federal legislation, whose reach touches every aspect of everyday life, is the invention of crimes lacking any wrongful intent-this phenomenon is called, overcriminalization. 

       There are steep economic costs in overcriminalization but the injustice of criminalizing and prosecuting innocuous conduct is far more disconcerting. This said, the economic costs are staggeringly immense in terms of the growth in the Federal prison population and the tens of millions of dollars per case for the cost of high profile prosecutions based upon amorphous statutes, as in the trial of a Martha Stewart, Roger Clemens or even a Lord Conrad Black.  

       There is a culture of prosecution that regards conviction as a benchmark for success to be rewarded with re-election and advancement, even to the Judiciary.  Along with plea-bargainning (something never envisioned by the Constitution's drafters) we seem to be more concerned with securing convictions than making sure the actual guilty are punished and that the innocent and disenfranchised are never placed behind bars in an already over-crowded and expanding prison population.

       Prosecutors often play to the media and the media affects high profile cases to the point of driving prosecutions and hastening indictments-making a circus side-show of the justice system.  If they get it wrong and destroy lives in the process, as so often happens in the prosecution of vague statutes, prosecutors are never held accountable because of absolute and qualified immunity.  There is effectively no check or balance on the powers of the prosecution.

        Things like the presumption of innocence are tossed aside for ratings or marketing for prosecutors with political ambitions.  Very much akin to the idea that there is no such thing as a bad arrest or a bad conviction, the culture of prosecution measures success by the number of convictions-it is very much a numbers game-unless of course a very high profile defendant comes along.  What suffers in all of this the equal administration of justice.  And let us make no mistake about it Aaron Swartz was a high profile defendant.

       Another contrast to Aaron Swartz's prosecution within the same year is a notable non-prosecution and also of an high profile figure- Jon Corzine.   Corzine engineered the eighth largest bankruptcy in United States history and caused over $1.2 billion in customer funds to go missing when MF Global was supposed to keep their customer funds safeguarded, segregated and not touch them.  Mr. Corzine, like the drug dealer, was never indicted and never will be.  He did not fight against government censorship or control of the Internet, he was not unlike Swartz determined to change the world-he was one of the largest campaign donors to a sitting President and a close friend of the Chairman of the SEC. 

       At the same time that the Department of Justice began its indictment of Aaron Swartz, it announced it would not prosecute Jon Corzine.  You must also keep in mind that prosecutorial discretion is not always discrete.@

R. Tamara de Silva

January 15, 2013

Chicago, Illinois



[3] It is the coolest of ironies that Spitzer was indicted because he asked a bank teller not to put his name on a wire transfer (a request that would have meant violating anti-money laundering laws)-the same action he had prosecuted so many people of doing.

[4] From 2000 through 2007, Congress enacted 452 new criminal offenses. http://www.heritage.org/Research/Factsheets/2011/04/OVERCRIMINALIZATION-An-Explosion-of-Federal-Criminal-Law

 

Oligarchy and Its Discontents-What Money Buys

August 20, 2012

Oligarchy and Its Discontents-What Money Buys

By R Tamara de Silva

August 20, 2012

 

            "The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The      pessimist fears it is true."

                                                J. Robert Oppenheimer

 

 

       Last week it was announced that the United States Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission would not seek any criminal charges against Goldman Sachs or for that matter the executives of MF Global including its CEO, former United States Senator Jon Corzine.  This likely surprised many people who still read the news, but actually infuriated no more than three people among them... and they were probably on the verge of becoming unhinged anyway.  Most people realize that while economists look for optimized states whose existence is perfectly beyond dispute within their own models...optimized models of the actual economy and democracy for that matter, exist only in the Great Books... and many other books.  In point of fact, the discontents of oligarchy are numerous.  While economists may not spend much time successfully modeling the real world-perhaps in part because there are no repercussions for their being in error, catastrophic events happen in the real world and are not modeled or anticipated by any economist.   Recent events like the decision to give Jon Corzine and MF Global a pass are legitimate examples of the role of money in politics and in the law. 

       Henry Adams sort of foresaw the events of last week.  Henry Adams had a privileged perch from which to view the dilemmas of American democracy as he was the great grandson of the second American President John Adams and grandson of our sixth President, John Quincy Adams.  There are certain scathing critiques of politics that have always attracted me to Henry Adams-in the same way I was drawn as child to the diatribes of Cato the Elder.  For example, he regularly wrote about the mortal danger to American democracy manifested by the role of money, especially corporate influence and how its tendency to corrupt the political system, would be the country's ultimate undoing.  In writing about the corruption of the Erie Railroad for the Westminster Review in 1870, he described corporate influence growing to the point of being unchecked,

 

          "swaying power such as has never in the world's history been trusted in the hands of mere private citizens,...after having created a system of quiet but irresistible corruption-will ultimately succeed in directing government itself. Under the American form of society, there is now no authority capable of effective resistance."

 

       He was also disturbed by the party system of politics in America and saw it to be willing to sacrifice principle for accommodation.   This theme comes out in his book, Democracy.  In Democracy the idealistic and hyper-principled heroine, Madeleine Lee is courted by the far more practical and ambitious Senator Silas P. Ratcliffe.  Madeleine decides not to marry Ratcliffe though it seems that he gets the better of her in almost all their arguments about politics.  Ratcliffe has aspirations to the White House and argues that moral authority comes from his political party the party with which he will on principle never disagree, "that great results can only be accomplished by great parties, I have uniformly yielded my own personal opinions where they have failed to obtain general assent."  

       Many of the books exchanges between Madeleine and Ratcliffe find Madeleine losing the argument.  She prefers to remain single and reject Ratcliffe and Washington at the end of the novel as she is determined to return to her philanthropic works saying, "The bitterest part of this horrid story...is that nine out of ten of our countrymen would say I had made a mistake."  And they still would.   I confess I see myself in Madeleine but one who must stay, without leaving, just out of an insatiable curiosity to observe all that will happen.

 

Citizens United v. FEC and the Judiciary

       Money has always played a role in politics.  Any discussion of the role of money in politics, judicial elections or law enforcement in 2012 has to consider the United States Supreme Court's January 2010 decision in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission in which the Court ruled that political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment.  Citizens United allows corporations and unions to spend money to support or denounce candidates in elections through ads.  This is a titan of a case, perhaps unrivalled in its potential to alter the face of representative government in the United States because of the way that most people who vote decide on a candidate-they watch or listen to broadcast media advertisements.   However, Citizens United did not alter much of the McCain-Feingold campaign law, which still regulates corporate donations to political parties and candidates.  Nor does the case affect political action committees or PACs, which can contribute directly to candidates.

       Perhaps the greatest impact of the Citizens United decision will be in the election of state judges.  Judicial independence at one time meant independence from the Crown.  Since then the term judicial independence has come to mean the expectation (however well grounded or not) that when dealing with the justice system, a person can expect a member of the judiciary free from the appearance of personal, monetary or political bias in the outcome of the case.  This mirrors the all important principle stated in Article 40 of the Magna Carta, "To no one will we sell, to one will we refuse or delay right of justice."    

       More money spent on judicial elections, it is feared, will give rise to the impression that justice is for sale very much reminiscent of John Grisham's book, "The Appeal," wherein a billionaire CEO buys himself a state supreme court justice who rules in favor of his company on an appeal.  Grisham's book is eerily like the true story of Supreme Court of West Virginia Justice Brent Benjamin who ruled in favor of the $3,000,000 campaign donor, Don Blankenship, the CEO of A.T. Massey Coal in a case involving a $50,000,000 verdict.  The United States Supreme Court ruled that Justice Benjamin ought to have recused himself in the case Caperton v. Massey.

       There is however one place where Citizens United may have a salutary effect on the judicial system.  In Chicago's Cook County, Illinois the slating of judges is militantly political and based not on merit per se but on a candidate's payment of $25,000 to one of the members of the Judicial Slating Committee of the Cook County Democratic Party.  Judges that are slated, almost invariably win.  Citizens United cannot but have a salutary effect here because it is difficult to imagine a worse system for picking judges anywhere.

 

The Imperial Presidency and Money

       James Madison was a staunch advocate for the separation of powers between all three branches of government.  The authors of a recent book, "The Executive Unbound: After the Madisonian Republic," by sitting Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner and an Adrian Vermeule from Harvard Law argue that the separation of powers is a relic of the past and largely beside the point.  Without getting into questions of judicial activism and the phenomenon of hyper-opinionated sitting justices, they are actually right from an anthropological perspective.   They are right in so far that the Executive Branch has become, with the passage of the Administrative Procedure Act and sweeping acts of legislation such as Dodd-Frank and now the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the most powerful branch of government.  The Executive has created so many branches, departments and agencies under its purview, most with rule-making ability-that its power has become tantamount to that of an imperial monarchy.

       However, Justice Posner because he seems only to view the world through the lense of a relentlessly pragmatic cost-benefit, economic analysis, draws at times predictable but disturbingly simplistic conclusions.   In their book, Justice Posner and Dr. Vermeule acknowledge the relative impotence of the other branches to keep up with or check the Executive and go on to assert that this does not much matter because Presidents are checked by elections, "liberal legalism's essential failing is that it overestimates the need for the separation of powers and even the rule of law."  

       In other words, just because Presidents are above the law, it does not matter because they will be checked by the rule of politics-they will be voted out.  This is startling simplistic and weak logic because it assumes an efficient marketplace, with equal participants and perfectly symmetrical information.  It also allows for the interpretation of the Constitution based upon a pragmatic economic analysis completely at  war with the absolute first principles and "inalienable rights" held sacred by the Founding Fathers and all the state legislators that ratified the Constitution. 

            This is also where money comes in.

       In his run for President in 2008, President Obama spend over $730 million and is expected by Reuters to raise $1 billion for 2012.  Spending for the 2012 election for all parties and candidates could, according to one estimate, top $9.8 billion in large part because of spending by super PACs.   Yet almost 25% of super PAC money comes from just five donors, Harold Simmons (pro-Romney) , Sheldon Adelson (pro-Romney), Peter Theil (pro-Ron Paul), Bob Perry (pro-Romney now) and Jeffrey Katzenberg (pro-Obama).[1]

       If money affects voting and elections, then according to Posner's logic, the people who will actually exercise the rule of politics and check the Executive Branch are to be these handful of businessmen and others like them.   According to the Center for Responsive Data, 3.7% of the contributors to super PACs account for 80% of the money raised-46 donors have given in excess of $67,000,000.[2]

 

Money and Prosecutions

       In the case of MF Global and Jon Corzine, Jon Corzine has been one of President Obama's elite bundlers in 2011 and 2012.  He campaigned heavily for President Obama when he was governor of New Jersey and has held private fundraisers for President Obama in his home even after MF Global went bankrupt and $1.6 billion of customer funds went missing in October 2011.  It was announced last week that he is unlikely to face any criminal charges.

       Contrast this to the Department of Justice's handling of the same violation of the Federal rule requiring the segregation of customer funds in the matter of Peregrine Financial Group.  $215 million of customer funds were discovered to be missing from customer segregated accounts in July 2012 at Peregrine Financial Group.  Russell Wasendorf Sr was arrested and criminally charged later that month.   Same act-missing customer funds-but far disparate prosecution. 

       Remember that in the futures industry, the key difference between futures commissions merchants ("FCMs") like Peregrine and MF Global and securities brokerages is that FCMs, unlike securities brokers, are required by law to keep their customer funds segregated from the FCM's own funds.   It is in this way that FCMs have been able, with comparatively few exceptions, to ensure that customer deposits are completely protected from all losses an FCM may incur due to its own proprietary trading.   Before MF Global, the requirement that FCMs segregate customer funds completely from their own funds largely prevented FCM customers from losing money due to an FCM bankruptcy

       In my first article on MF Global, I suggested that the $1.2 billion missing from customer segregated funds may have been incurred due to over-leveraged positions in European sovereign debt that coincidentally took a dramatic turn for the worse (as they did in fact as yield curves doubled rapidly in some issues) during the last weeks of October, and that funds were transferred to cover margin in customer funds held in European debt.   There is a scenario that nothing illegal would have occurred because CFTC Rule 1.25 had been amended to permit the investment of customer segregated funds in foreign sovereign debt.  Keep in mind that this rule was amended by Jon Corzine's lobbying of Commodity Futures Trading Commission ("CFTC") Chairman Gary Gensler, who is a friend and colleague of Jon Corzine.

        An alternate illegal scenario is that MF Global may have engaged in some late stage embezzlement of customer funds that were supposed to be segregated from MF Global's accounts and never commingled with any other funds.[3] One way this may have occurred is if the funds were transferred out of customer segregated funds for a legal purpose but without the customers' meaningful consent or, more likely, with an intent to deceive the customer.  

       If MF Global transferred customer funds out of segregated accounts as a loan to MF Global to cover margin calls in existing positions in sovereign debt, (perfectly legal)[4], it may however, be fraud and intent to deceive on its part if MF Global knew it could not repay the money.  This fraud may have occurred if MF Global knew (and it would be interesting to argue how it did not) that it sought to legally borrow from customer funds, knowing that it was de facto insolvent and could not replace the money.   

       During Senate and House hearings on MF Global, Terrance Duffy, the CEO of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange contradicted Corzine's testimony and stated that the CME's investigation of the MF Global matter revealed the existence of emails between MF Global's assistant treasurer and Jon Corzine.  These emails where contrary to what Corzine told Congress and suggested that Corzine had in fact authorized the transfer of customer funds out of customer accounts-the funds that went missing.   We also know that while Jon Corzine claimed he knew nothing about the financials at MF Global, he was peddling them to Interactive Brokers as he was trying to broker a last minute sale of MF Global to Interactive Brokers--in other words, he had to have been extremely familiar with MF Global's financials during the exact time period he claims to Congress to know nothing of what was happening.

       We still do not know everything that really happened at MF Global because the Department of Justice has not yet decided to grant any immunity to the one person who would be their chief witness in the matter, the Assistant Treasurer.  The Assistant Treasurer is represented by Reid H. Weingarten, who is as luck would have it, is one of United States Attorney General Eric Holder's best friends.   Some could say they agreed to let the clock run out on this one. 

       From a purely economic cost benefit analysis, Jon Corzine's raising in excess of $500,000 for President Obama in 2012 alone was the smartest money he ever spent and appears to have bought him justice in the sense of a reprieve from the CEO of Peregrine's fate.

      What about Mr. Adelson?  The billionaire casino magnate is being investigated for possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, money-laundering and bribery.  Perhaps contributing by some accounts close to $100 million towards Mr. Romney's election would ensure a stop to the pesky Federal investigators.  If so, this would be money entirely worth spending.

       This brings us to the last bit of news from last week that Goldman Sachs would not be investigated for criminal wrong-doing in connection with mortgage crisis and certain deals like ABACUS. 

       This Justice Department  and SEC have gotten many investment banks to execute settlement agreements with them including Goldman and Citigroup-essentially selling "get out of jail cards." Are these settlement agreements, as the Judge Rakoff and Bloomberg's Jonathan Weil have asked, merely considered the "cost of doing business" or some part of a transaction tax on offending financial titans?[5]   

       If it were in the public's interest to prevent fraud upon the market, then fines should be significant enough to actually deter illegal conduct.  If not, prosecutions should be endured and convictions gotten.    The historic role of punishment in the criminal justice system has not been just punishment, but deterrence.  Having Citigroup or GS pay $285 million is pin money to banks with quarterly revenue in the billions of dollars-the "cost of doing business" is not a deterrent to anyone but more like the cost of a municipal parking sticker to the average Joe.

       What is problematic about bank settlements is that smaller market participants cannot afford to pay for "get out of jail cards" and because the costs of prosecuting anyone other than an investment bank are less, smaller participants are actually prosecuted and do get jail time.   Peter Boyer and Government Accountability President Peter Schweizer have written about how justice is for sale in Mr. Eric Holder's Department of Justice pointing to the fact that despite President Obama's claims to represent the 99%, Department of Justice "criminal prosecutions are at 20 year lows for corporate securities and bank fraud." [6]  Given the correlation between campaign contributions (admittedly protected speech) and selective prosecutions, the 20 year low in bank fraud prosecutions is unlikely to change  with either political party.

       Consider the money.  Goldman Sachs employees were the second largest single contributor to President Obama in 2008 contributing $1,013,091.[7]   Goldman's employees are the largest single contributor to Mr. Romney in the 2012 election cycle having donated $636,080 by the end of the last quarter.[8]   Goldman Sachs is also one of the largest clients of Mr. Eric Holder's lawyer firm Covington & Burling.

       Money has always played a part in politics and it is rational for everyone with a stake in the political process to participate.  But not all participation is equal-not even close.  The odds of one vote ever making a difference in a Presidential election are between 1 in 10 million and 1 in 100 million-depending upon the state in which you live.  Voting only matters in the aggregate but money seems to matter more in terms of affecting action after election.    Above all, justice must never be for sale because as Cato the Elder and many others have pointed out throughout history the selling of justice, like the selling of indulgences, is an attribute of a decaying and dying political system.

       What is disconcerting is that mere principles, be they the adherence to ideas like freedom and individual liberty or the idea that you are secure in the sanctity of your own home, are always bound to be under-represented in the electoral process and as such destined to play the underdogs.   At one point in Democracy, Madeleine asks the impressive Ratcliffe, "Surely...something can be done to check corruption.  Are we for ever to be at the mercy of thieves and ruffians?  Is respectable government impossible in democracy?"  Ratcliffe's reply is haunting, "No representative government...can long be much better or much worse than the society it represents.  Purify society and you purify the government.  But try to purify the government artificially and you only aggravate failure. @

R. Tamara de Silva

Chicago, Illinois

August 20, 2012

 

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

 



[4] Remember CFTC Rule 1.25 which had been amended to allow the investment of customer segregated funds in foreign sovereign debt, was amended back after the fall of MF Global to disallow the investment of customer segregated funds in foreign sovereign debt.

[5] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-11-02/citigroup-finds-obeying-the-law-is-too-darn-hard-jonathan-weil.html


[6]  http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Government/2012/05/07/justice-for-sale-holder

Facebook's IPO, NASDAQ and the Illiquid Electronic Marketplace Revisited

May 24, 2012
Facebook's IPO, NASDAQ and the Illiquid Electronic Marketplace Revisited


By R Tamara de Silva

May 24, 2012



According to the news people, there is blame to be had all around after shares of the largest initial public offering in history, Facebook (FB), lost almost twenty percent of their value in the first three days of being publicly traded. However, the lasting lesson of FB's IPO is that the financial world's increasing reliance exclusively on electronic trading often leads to catastrophic problems during critical market events.

Discontent over FB's IPO is heard from regulators and especially investors who saw the value of the their investment drop, to those who consider that the IPO was priced to perfection at 106 times its last 12 month's earnings or at 5 times the value of the most valuable (according to market capitalization) company in the world, Apple. The possibility of investing in FB's initial public offering, as in any other IPO, always bore the risk of buying an IPO at a price above its market price-that is the price it has in the publicly traded market. That said, very public examples of less than elegant IPOs are said, (whether in practice their impact is meaningful or not), to threaten the investing public's appetite for prospective IPOs. Another concern with FB's IPO is the possibility that FB, and its lead underwriters including Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan, and Goldman, Sachs & Co., failed to disclose material information involving new information about FB's revenue prospects during the IPO roadshow to all but a handful of their large clients-not the public supposedly because their larger clients had paid for the seemingly "inside information." Keep in mind that under the federal Securities laws, information about revenue, operations and prospects of a planned IPO are considered "material information" and must be divulged to the public in a very scripted manner. This has already resulted in a class action lawsuit filed for $15 billion in damages to the investing public. Another and more significant class action lawsuit was filed on the third day of FB becoming public, a lawsuit which picks up on the most important aspect of FB's IPO - the failure of one of the world's largest and its fastest electronic trading platforms-the NASDAQ.[1 ] Traders and investors who placed orders in FB on the day of its IPO were stuck in limbo as the electronic exchange that calls itself, "the power behind 1 in 10 of the world's securities transactions" froze and stopped working. NASDAQ's software issues constitute neither a reasonable failure nor an excusable one. Let the world take note that we will rue the end of the trading floor and open outcry as FB's IPO demonstrates how we are hostage to electronic software that like all software will fail or have glitches and show us how worthless electronic markets are when they are completely illiquid and we are held hostage to them.

All market transactions involve a degree of risk. In the law as in the markets, there is a presumption, albeit rebuttable, that the greater the amount of information a market participant has, the better able the participant is to assume and understand the risk behind a transaction. Information is valuable in decision making until such time that too much information leads to diminishing returns because the amount of information incapacitates the decision-maker and prevents him from making a decision. Risk increases dramatically when a market participant's information about price and order execution becomes nil. This is precisely what happened to the traders of close to 30 million shares of FB on the day of its IPO because of a software glitch at the NASDAQ.
What happened on the day of FB's IPO to most of the traders of FB shares is a condition little understood-the state of high illiquidity along with a lack of transparency. Transparency refers to the degree of information that is available. In a perfectly transparent market all relevant information about a market transaction from the price, order size, order flow, trading volume, identity of the traders/counterparties, all bids and offers available, etc. would theoretically be discoverable.

Transparency's value in the marketplace is best explained by its absence- a condition of opaqueness. Lack of transparency in the financial markets is called opaqueness. The environment that led to the past credit crisis was opaque. In the past mortgage debacle, few of the players knew what the baskets of mortgages they were packaging, buying and selling were actually worth. The participants in instruments that led to that last crisis operated in a very opaque if not downright murky environment. The mortgage related securities being traded from brokers to banks and between banks were not pegged to the value of anything tangible and often marked by model to myth. One could make the case that they were not even derivatives because their value was effectively not derived from an underlying anything.[ 2]

Illiquid and opaque markets occurred during FB's IPO. The opposite of illiquidity in the market is liquidity. Liquidity is the lifeblood of well functioning trading markets. In its simplest terms, liquidity is the ability of a market participant to trade at his or her price-that is to get in and out of the market at their chosen price. A history of the financial markets shows that liquidity requires a broad based collection of market makers to keep markets liquid. The more market participants the better. Without market makers, we see wide illiquid market spreads. These wide bid offer spreads in turn lead to market maker defection, to volume decreases and unfavorable trading markets for the public at large.

The regulated futures market, long a stepchild of the financial markets, with open outcry and electronic trading is the most liquid and transparent market in the world. It has been remarkably free from systemic financial crisis . . .with the exception of a certain salad oil scandal. All over the world at any given time, the value and the price of an S&P500 futures contract are known. What is more impressive is that during all major crises from the market crashes to presidential assassinations, the futures markets with open outcry have maintained their liquidity and their ability to absorb even the world's crisis level order flow or volume-without a glitch.

But most people, even corporate governance committees at financial exchanges conflate volume for liquidity-they are completely distinct. Most of the trading volume now on the largest domestic trading exchanges is in the form of electronic trading or more precisely in the equity markets, it is in high frequency trading. High frequency trading is spreading from securities to other markets like futures, currencies, derivatives, and debt instruments and to the overseas exchanges. To put this in perspective, in 2003 high frequency trading accounted for only 5% of all trading volume while today it is well over 70%.

High frequency trading firms ("HFTs") utilize a series of algorithms to take advantage of the computers' speed and proximity to the marketplaces to get information about orders and price before every other market participant. Three types of institutions comprise the trading volume of HFTs and are what is meant by HFTs: 48% proprietary high frequency trading firms, 46% investment banks and 6% hedge funds. Investment banks often have dual roles in owning proprietary high frequency trading firms and directing investment bank trade to and from these firms.

The physical exchanges like NYSE, NASDAQ and CBOE lease out space to HFTs that allows them to place their supercomputers directly next to the supercomputers of the exchanges thereby giving the HFTs advantages of milliseconds and microseconds-to see price and order information (inside information) before anyone else that is not paying for co-location and does not have a supercomputer with algorithms at the physical exchange. Their proximity to the servers at the physical exchanges give them an insurmountable advantage which they utilize to "trade," or effectively front-run everyone else's orders. Any argument that we have a level playing field in terms of price and order information in the market today is simply false.

It should be said that for the majority of the time and in non-crisis conditions, HFT works and is the major revenue generator for the electronic equity exchanges. It is argued that HFTs, like their human counterparts, are market makers in that they provide price discovery. I am profoundly skeptical of the argument that HFTs are pure market makers as this term has historically been understood because they are not active market makers. HFTs are quintessentially passive, largely using their location and software advantage to detect volume and to see order flow before everyone else and to react to it. Their market making activities are essentially different from the floor trader and floor broker who will take an unqualified risk even in the most volatile times, HFTs make markets passively by reacting to other people's activities that they are able to see happening before anyone else can. HFTs hold their market positions for milliseconds up to a few hours. Often HFTs fish for what order flow is out there by sending out false quotes to induce a reaction and therefore gauge the type of order flow that is out there in milliseconds before retracting its bids and offers-long before anyone would react to them...things non HFTs simply cannot do and what would on the trading floor be called the jailable offenses front-running and trading on inside information...but I digress.

The fact is most volume on equity exchanges like NASDAQ and NYSE are the result of electronic order flow and HFTs. However, these "traders" or algorithms are historically the very worst market-makers when crises occur because unlike their human counterparts, they largely bolt-withdrawing and canceling bids and offers en masse. Hence in times of crisis, in the marketplace dominated by HFTs, liquidity not just lessons, in the absence of human market makers, it largely disappears. What this means for all other traders and the public is that they cannot execute their orders or trade when a market crisis occurs.

This is what happened during the Flash crash of May 6, 2010 wherein the Dow dropped almost 1,000 points (the biggest intraday loss in history) losing nearly 10% of its value in seconds along with most of the 8,000 individual stocks and exchange traded funds, some of which traded 60% below their value of seconds prior before ultimately recovering. A September 30, 2010 report by the joint staffs of the CFTC and SEC to the Joint Advisory Committee on Emerging Regulatory Issues, that studied the causes of the Flash crash found that the presence of electronic trading and its interaction with HFTs during that crisis eroded liquidity, "the interaction between automated execution programs and algorithmic trading strategies can quickly erode liquidity and result in disorderly markets."[3 ]

In the case of FB's IPO, and according to sources including the trading database developer Nanex LLC, HFTs caused the NASDAQ to have to delay the opening of trading on FB because of "excessive quote cancellations," adding that this is "ironic enough, it was mostly HFTs that benefited later when NASDAQ quotes stopped coming from the Securities Information Processor (SIP) which transmits quotes for everyone who doesn't get the premium direct feeds."[ 4] In other words, NASDAQ's software could not handle the volume of bids, offers and cancellations from HFTs before FB's opening.

At this point, it would not be logical for the exchanges to commission independent research and study into the true impact of HFT on price discovery, liquidity and volatility and what this means to their markets because the volume of trades generated by HFTs constitutes their major source of revenue. The exchanges now have a conflict of interest between their vital public functions of providing price discovery and liquidity and their bottom line.[5 ] Both the SEC and CFTC noted in their joint report into the Flash Crash of May 6 2010 that "high trading volume is not necessarily a reliable indicator of market liquidity". As I stated above, liquidity erodes or disappears in a market crisis where there is a prevalence of HFTs because volume comprised of quotes and price information recorded in the milliseconds (1/1000th of a second) if not microseconds (1/millionth of a second and the current speed of many HFTs) that can be withdrawn and cancelled before ever being in danger of being executed is not only not known with certainty to be recorded, but it is "noise" in terms of its impact on price discovery and it is simply not executable liquidity.

There was a time just a few years ago when the largest exchanges in the United States were de facto public utilities. They provided the most crucial of all functions to the world, they established the price of all the metals, grain, oil and bonds the world needed to exist. Price discovery and the liquidity provided by their trading members to the world was a vital service to the world economy. The equity exchanges existed primarily to provide equity capital to businesses through the exchange in ownership of shares traded at the exchange. Now the exchanges are by and large public companies with elaborate corporate structures and well paid corporate boards whose concern has shifted away from assuring the most liquid and crisis-free markets in the world to layers of decisions made by committees all with the view to revenue and deliberately not thinking outside of the revenue generating box. This is not a problem in principle except in this case it will be because the exchanges in protecting their primary revenue source, the HFTs, will no longer function as they once did and the public will suffer. Future crises will likely result in crippling illiquidity that will harm the trading public and result in massive financial losses.@
R. Tamara de Silva

May 24, 2012
Chicago, Illinois

R. Tamara de Silva is an independent trader and lawyer

Footnotes:
1. Case 12 cv 04054 Phillip Goldberg v. NASDAQ, OMX Group, Inc. and the NASDAQ Stock Market LLC-which I am attaching here: Goldberg v. Nasdaq .pdf

2. But if they were, their value was not discoverable, or perhaps not verifiable. The values of mortgage securities were not marked to market, they were not pegged to an underlying asset, and if they were, no reasonable allowance was made for unfavorable movements in the value of the underlying assets.

3. http://www.sec.gov/news/studies/2010/marketevents-report.pdf

4. http://www.nanex.net/aqck/3099.html

5. According to one credible source, one of the Chicago exchanges has established its own HFT that will likely compete with its customers and the investing public.

J.P. Morgan's $2.3 Billion Loss as a Red Herring

May 14, 2012


J.P. Morgan's Loss as a Red Herring
By R Tamara de Silva
May 14, 2012

Much ado is being made about J. P. Morgan's disclosure of over $2 billion in trading losses and one hopes the media and regulators do not use this as yet another opportunity to completely miss the point. Wall street must not rely exclusively on its present risk models that are based exclusively on VaR and variations of VaR-it must learn to think outside its own box and anticipate worse case scenarios. We cannot afford to have many more systemic crises that threaten to bring down the financial system simply because yet again, the unexpected and un-modeled occurs.

Chief Executive Jamie Dimon's public self-flagellation aside, this loss compromises merely 20% percent of J. P. Morgan's pretax profit for the first quarter of this year. Put another way, J. P. Morgan has a market capitalization of $137.4 billion of which $2 billion comprises a bit more than 1 percent--hardly fodder for anyone's angst against quasi-public Wall Street juggernauts that seem to privatize profit and publicize loss being 'too big to fail." Mr. Dimon is wrong to assert that the trading losses were the result of hedges. It would be more wrong for lawmakers on either side of the aisle to call for hasty regulations on an industry they have never really understood and from whose pockets they are lobbied and receive the heftiest campaign contributions. A cursory look at what has happened to the Volcker Rule illustrates this point. The real lesson of J. P. Morgan's $2.3 billion loss is that Wall Street must once and for all adjust the way it manages and understands risk.

Risk management is the difference between success and ruin in the financial markets and its failure is felt around the world by even those hapless individuals who have never sold a credit derivative. No where is the importance of risk management better illustrated than to recount our most recent crises, which according to Wall Street's most prevalent measurement of risk, Value at Risk (VaR), were never supposed to happen: The market crashes of 1987 and 2000, Long-Term Capital Management, the collapse of Bear Stearns, the Savings and Loan Crisis, the crash of 1929, the collapse of Northern Rock, the Russian Debt crisis. Understanding risk is the single most important consideration for any participant, from the independent trader to the juggernaut of a Goldman Sachs.

But what does Wall Street understand by the term risk? There are many discussions of what constitutes "risk" in the financial markets but not surprisingly, there is no one definition. Typically, discussions of risk revolve around the concepts of Value at Risk (VAR), beta, delta, the capital asset pricing model (CAPM) and the Black-Scholes options pricing model (BSM). All these ways of quantifying risk are based on inarguably faulty assumptions.

This is where a refresher on the Gaussian Bell Curve enters any discussion on Wall Street's risk models. There are really only two things worth knowing about a Gaussian Bell Curve this is also taught to the legions of business school graduates who go on to write risk models as analysts and traders on Wall Street. The first is that a Gaussian Bell Curve assumes events occur in a normal distribution. What this means is that in a Gaussian Bell Curve, if events or occurrences were plotted, they would occur in the largest numbers at or towards the very center of the bell curve. All these events, plotted on a chart would take the shape of a bell curve, hence the name. Events which occur less frequently would occur towards the edges of the curve. The further the event was from the center of the bell curve, the more improbable it is to occur. This is called a normal distribution. The second thing one should know about the Gaussian Bell Curve, perhaps less well taught is that it does not predict market events very well at all.

Analysts at investment banks make models of reality with predictive capability-it is called modeling. J. P. Morgan invented Risk Metrics in 1994 as a set of financial models that were to be used by investors to measure portfolio risk. Risk Metrics like financial modeling in general, attempts to take a certain set of variables or causes and isolate them as being the very variables that account for change in financial markets. This is a bit simplistic but works reasonably well when reality happens within the fat center of a bell curve. Financial models seek to replicate financial reality much like economic models and models of human behavior that have become extremely popular in the social sciences writ large. Financial risk models like social science models suffer from all the weakness and frailty of over-simplifying reality and selectively isolating causal variables. In sum, financial risk models fail catastrophically when worse-case scenarios or even the genuinely unexpected occurs.

This does not mean we have a reasonable alternative to risk models as we humans do not like indeterminacy. We do not like to make decisions or look back in hindsight and think we made decisions by tossing a coin. On the contrary, we like to find reasons for why we made decisions and why events occurred. We tend to think we can. We have at times an irrational belief in the rational. But as Pascal once stated, nothing is more rational than the abdication of reason itself. The ability of social scientists or investment bankers to explain events through the actions of rational human actors appeals to our psyche. It is appealing simply to think we can.

Models of the financial markets like models of the human behavior in the social sciences have serious limitations. To start, they have to simplify reality. One of the ways that modeling simplifies and in a sense, falsifies reality is by making assumptions about human beings, which are not true. For example, modeling tends to assume that humans, whether in a marketplace or in a poker game are rational and that they act at all times in accordance with their best interests. This is not borne out by reality. Any cursory historical account of human behavior belies that humans act rationally. Human beings are emotional actors as much as they are rational actors.

The supremacy of emotions to the human story is only matched by our social scientists willful neglect of them. However, given a choice, time and again, we often act on our emotions and against our rational interests. Our strongest emotions keep us awake at night, they cause us physical pain, they have helped our race to achieve beyond all expectation when at other times they have left us paralyzed. We think wishfully when we rationally should not. The markets are replete with examples of irrational exuberance, traders who act out of hope, fear and greed as much as they act out of a consistent rational interest in maximizing their profits. Markets historically at tops and bottoms have betrayed the irrational mob mentally of the masses of its participants.

If humans were truly rational, we simply would not have addictive behaviors like gambling, drug addiction, drinking or any self-destructive behavior. We may not even have much ill-health, skin cancer, road-rage, or obesity because knowing we should take care of ourselves, we would-this is rational. We may never purchase luxury items or clothes. We may not care so much about how our neighbors live because we would not feel envy, jealousy, sympathy or pity. The pursuit of leisure and charitable activities may well be quite different. So many of Tocqueville's observations about American life would not hold water.

But in reality, half of our brains are devoted to pure emotion. And this half has expressed itself as the stuff of life. We cannot seem to choose our emotions one at a time either. If we were, we would want to be able to love without being vulnerable to grief, to experience the wings of hope without putting ourselves in danger of experiencing disappointment or the failure of our hoped-for event. As a race, we have spent most of our time acting on our emotions and being in their grip as is borne out in our history, our mythologies, culture, our wars and literature. It is in every sense human to be irrational or at least to experience emotion. To argue that humans are rational actors is at a minimum to simplify things, but really it is not a valid assumption.

Modeling also suffers from faulty assumptions about the ability of human participants to gather, assimilate and react to information. Most models are sensitive to information. Information causes the rational actor in a model to act a certain way, presumably in a way that will maximize that actor's interests. In the real world, information is not perfect. There is misinformation. Rumors, false tips, erroneous analyst reports are example of misinformation. Some information that is available to a rational actor is false information. Even if we assumed that all the information available to market participants was correct and no false or misinformation was available, market participants would process and assimilate the information differently and at different rates. One example of misinformation and information assimilated at different times is the discovery of a report in 2008 on the internet that United Airlines was facing bankruptcy. This report was over a year old but it caused the price of the stock to drop by over 40% in a single day, before it was discovered that the report was old. In the real world, individually and collectively, we have different intellectual and ideological frameworks, we also have different levels of intelligence, among other factors that allow us to reach very different conclusions when faced with the same information. My neighbor may react to rising gasoline prices years faster than I would by immediately cutting down on his driving or purchasing a hybrid vehicle. Market participants react to identical information at various rates. One person may react quickly to too little information and another may wait much longer accumulating much more information. Sometimes waiting to act while accumulating and digesting information is not a good thing like waiting to liquidate a losing position before your losses wipe you out when acting sooner would have allowed you to cut your loss without going broke.

Another problem with financial models is that they do not account for insider information or conflicts of interest. A good idea for anyone with a year to spare would be to write a volume chronicling conflict of interest in the financial world. One of the inherent conflicts in investment banks has been the Chinese wall that is supposed to separate the investment banking and sales functions of the investment house from the research and analysis side. Some have argued that this Chinese wall did not always exist. There is an inherent conflict between the need to sell the investment banking services of a bank to the same customer who is being covered by the bank's analysts. There is an enormous and still unresolved conflict of interest in the functions of credit ratings agencies. 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. If the analysts or agencies are too harsh in their coverage, then the ability of the bank to sell its investment banking services may suffer or the agencies will lose their clients.

What about the potentially insider information that the analysts obtained in covering a company and the danger that this information would travel across the room to the trading floor of the investment bank? Another conflict of interest certainly, but it is also an example of a market participant having insider information or simply information that other market participants do not have, before they have it.

Another fallacy with financial modeling is that models are required to isolate a fixed amount of causal variables. In other words, a financial model that was designed to predict the risk of an investment portfolio would be comprised of say twenty factors or variables, each of which or a certain number of which would affect a change in measure of risk to the investment portfolio. What if in reality, it was one hundred or ten thousand different variables or things that would change the riskiness of the portfolio?

The financial models of investment bank analysts and traders assign likelihood to the possibility of certain events occurring. Financial models assume a normal distribution (a bell curve) of asset returns or risk. Using a normal distribution, events that diverge from the mean or center of the bell curve, by five or more standard deviations, known as a five-sigma event, are very rare and ten-sigma events are nearly impossible. However, the 1987 market crash represents a change of 22 standard deviations. The odds of such a 22 standard deviation event occurring are so low as to deemed impossible.

In the real financial markets, events considered nearly impossible by financial models assuming normal distributions of events, not only are possible, they are occurring frequently. There have been multiple fluctuations greater than five standard deviations in our most recent past. Events that according to a Gaussian Bell Curve are supposed to occur only once every one hundred thousand years, if at all, are occurring in certain cases, several times in a decade. Dramatic market events or fat tails do occur in a greater frequency than is possible assuming normal distributions suggesting distributions are not normal. Since the 1998 Russian debt crisis, the global financial markets have experienced at least 10 events, none of which were supposed to occur more than once every few billion years.

The financial services industry is full of at least two generations of analysts, investment bankers, statisticians and of course economists, who have been indoctrinated through college, their masters and MBA programs to believe in the bell curve and normal distributions-it is beyond time that they learned to think outside the box. Alternatively, to the extent that any regulations are enacted, they should seek to once more separate investment banking from commercial banking so that as long as Wall Street relies on one VaR number, they are allowed to fail and their losses are never again shared by the public. @
R. Tamara de Silva

May 14, 2012
Chicago, Illinois

R. Tamara de Silva is an independent trader and lawyer

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.

graph.pdf

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."
[4]


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 GDP...my 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

Footnotes:
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).
4. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-08-31/subprime-mortgage-bonds-getting-aaa-rating-s-p-denies-to-u-s-treasuries.html
5. http://www.standardandpoors.com/ratings/sovereigns/ratings-list/en/us?sectorName=null&subSectorCode=39&filter=E

Why MF Global's Last Days May Have Been Criminal

December 19, 2011
Why MF Global's Last Days May Have Been Criminal


By R. Tamara de Silva


December 19, 201
1

Last Thursday December 15, 2011 was MF Global Holdings Ltd.'s and MF Global Inc.'s Chief Executive Jon Corzine's third time to testify before Congress. He may not have faired all that well in light of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Group Chairman Terrance Duffy's testimony on December 13, 2011, which seemed to contradict Corzine's previous testimony. Corzine adjusted his testimony on December 15, 2011 to account for the seeming contradiction. However, how well Corzine may have done to avoid perjury or any role in a possible fraud remains to be seen. A closer examination of Corzine's testimony and the events leading up to MF Global's bankruptcy on October 31, 2011 suggests problems. If there is any purpose to be achieved in having Corzine testify again, lawmakers should focus their questions towards the failed purchase of MF Global by Interactive Brokers and all customer agreements, including emails between MF Global and account holders leading up to the purported transfers of $175 million and $700 million in as yet missing customer segregated funds and the firm's use of a type of repurchase agreement.

Were the Transfers Legal?

In my first article on MF Global, I suggested that the $1.2 billion missing from customer segregated funds may have been incurred due to over-leveraged positions in European sovereign debt that coincidentally took a dramatic turn for the worse (as they did in fact as yield curves doubled rapidly in some issues) during the last weeks of October, and that funds were transferred to cover margin in customer funds held in European debt. In this scenario, as I suggested, nothing illegal would have occurred because CFTC Rule 1.25 had been amended to permit the investment of customer segregated funds in foreign sovereign debt.

Moreover, if the money was transferred legally and without any fraud, but simply lost in the market, there may not be any right to recover the money by MF Global's customers in bankruptcy proceedings. The use of customer segregated funds for margin payments on repo-to-maturity ("RTM") transactions are not illegal and hence unlikely, without anything else, to be recoverable in bankruptcy.

An alternate illegal scenario is that MF Global may have engaged in some late stage embezzlement of customer funds that were supposed to be segregated from MF Global's accounts and never commingled with any other funds. [1] One way this may have occurred is if the funds were transferred out of customer segregated funds for a legal purpose but without the customers' meaningful consent or, more likely, with an intent to deceive the customer.

MF Global was permitted to invest customer funds, and borrow customer funds so long as the dollar value of the funds taken from the customer segregated accounts remained the same-the accounts were kept intact. For example, if MF Global used customer funds by transferring a specific amount of money out of customer segregated accounts; it was required to simultaneously deposit something of equal value in these accounts to equal the dollar value of what had been taken out.

If MF Global transferred customer funds out of segregated accounts as a loan to MF Global to cover margin calls in existing positions in sovereign debt, (perfectly legal) [2], it may however, be fraud and intent to deceive on its part if MF Global knew it could not repay the money. This fraud may have occurred if MF Global knew (and it would be interesting to argue how it did not) that it sought to legally borrow from customer funds, knowing that it was de facto insolvent and could not replace the money.

In other words, an acceptable use of customer segregated funds for margin payments may not exist if at the time MF Global made the transfers, it was insolvent or in the midst of a crisis where insolvency was around the corner to be seen. Even if MF Global asked for and obtained the consent of its of customers, or consent was not required according to customer agreements, and it legally borrowed the money from customers by replacing it with other collateral (collateral such as commercial paper, as permitted by CFTC Rule 1.25), the transfers would still be illegal because MF Global would be deceiving its customers-knowing it was already insolvent. Even though the rules likely permitted the replacement of funds with other collateral (and the collateral was used) MF Global's actions are arguably illegal because they were deceiving their customers knowing they would not be able to make the customers whole. Meaningful deception like this would be fraud and embezzlement in which case, the funds could be clawed back in bankruptcy proceedings-Please note that I am speculating a bit in specific statements about bankruptcy proceedings and do not specialize in this area of law.

Changing testimony or selective recall?

On December 8, 2011, Corzine testified before the House Agriculture Committee that he had "no idea where the money is" and that "I know I had no intention to ever authorize the transfer of segregated moneys. I know what my intentions were."

On December 13, 2011, Corzine testified that, "I never directed anyone at MF Global to misuse customer funds. I never intended to. And, as far as I am concerned, I never gave instructions that anybody could misconstrue."

On December 13, 2011 Terrance Duffy testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee. In Mr. Duffy's testimony he said that the CME has been conducting their own ongoing investigation of MF Global and discovered on December 10, 2011, after questioning a former MF Global employee who knew about the transfer of $175 of customer funds towards MF Global's broker dealer operations, that Corzine knew all about the transfers and likely authorized them.

On Thursday November 15, 2011 Corzine repeated that he did not authorize any illegal transfers, pointing to his General Counsel and Treasurer as the people who would know about the transfers. However, he was able to recall the $175 million transfer enough to tell the Committee that Duffy likely meant a loan advance from customer segregated funds to MF Global's European operations. Remember that all his previous testimony was to the effect that he, "was totally stunned to learn customer money was missing...did not learn about it until October 30, 2011...etc"- in this context it seems a tad odd for him to suddenly develop a very specific recall about one event of October 28, 2011. Sadly, this was wholly lost on the Committee, which asked not one follow-up question.

In addition to Mr. Duffy's testimony that a MF Global back office employee said Corzine was aware of the transfers, the Committee alluded to evidence that the Chief Financial Officer of MF Global's North American operations (presumably Christine Serwinski) said that Corzine knew about the transfers. If so, there are at least two or more MF Global employees and officers who contradict Corzine's sworn Sgt. Shultz testimony.

Not being perfectly honest with FINRA

On December 8, 2011, Steve Luparello, the Vice Chairman of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority ("FINRA") also testified before the House Committee on Agriculture about MF Global's collapse. According to Mr. Luparello, MF Global was not completely candid with the Chicago Board of Options Exchange ("CBOE") and FINRA. In late September 2010, MF Global assured both regulatory bodies that it did not have any positions in European sovereign debt.[3] MF Global did in fact have positions in European sovereign debt during this time but because according to GAAP accounting rules, positions held in RTMs are treated as sales and not liabilities, MF Global did not violate the law in hiding its credit and risk exposure to RTM, which are liabilities in the real, non-accounting world. Technically, MF Global was able to get away with it, at least for a time.

A little background may be helpful and a story of another failed firm, Lehman Brothers that generously indulged in a cousin of RTMs, the Repo 105. The Repo 105 was utilized by Lehman Brothers, among other firms that did not survive the last financial crisis including Washington Mutual, Northern Rock and some that did like Citigroup.

This is how it worked and how a liability (a loan) can be transformed into a revenue-generating event (a sale)...if you are an investment bank that is. Lehman entered into repo transactions with offshore banks. Lehman would sell (though actually a loan) a bundle of toxic assets such as sub-prime mortgages and dubiously collateralized debt obligations to the bank. This transaction is characterized on the books of Lehman as a sale. Lehman agrees to buy back or repurchase (hence the term 'repo') the toxic assets at a later date (maturity). In this way, Lehman moves loans and bad assets off its balance sheets towards the end of each financial quarter-removing liabilities dramatically improves a balance sheet- as if they do not exist. Then Lehman reports the sale as a revenue-generating event, in effect moving by way of example, $39 billion off its balance sheet in what is a liability, and reporting it as a sale of $39 billion. It is fraudulent twice over in that Lehman does not disclose on its financials that it has an obligation (a debt to buy back) to pay back the amount loan and it reports the loan as revenue.

In effect, this is what MF Global did with FINRA and CBOE. However, the regulators caught MF Global's exposure to European sovereign debt and told MF Global to keep substantially more money in reserves because of what FINRA identified in May 2011 as a $7.6 billion risk exposure. MF Global appealed to the SEC and because of the appeal process, it was only in August that FINRA and the CBOE were successful in getting MF Global to put up more money for its European debt exposure and utilization of RTMs.

An accounting error

Also on December 15, 2011, the oversight panel of the House Financial Services Committee released a CME Group document the CME had given to the government containing a detailed log of its dealings with MF Global between October 24, 2011 and October 31, 2011. According to this document, Christine Serwinski, the Chief Financial Officer for North America at MF Global, and its Assistant Treasurer, Edith O'Brien, told a Mike Procajlo, an exchange auditor at 1:00 a.m. on Oct. 31, 2011 that the customer money was transferred on Oct. 27 and Oct. 28 and possibly Oct. 26, 2011. "About $700 million was moved to the broker-dealer side of the business to meet liquidity issues in a series of transactions on Thursday, Friday and possibly Wednesday," Serwinski told Procajlo about eight hours before the firm filed for the eighth-largest bankruptcy in United States history.

Barely three days prior, on October 28, 2011, MF Global had submitted a statement to the CME showing that it had $200,178,912 in excess cash in its customer segregated funds as of the close of October 27, 2011.

On October 30, 2011, an official from the CFTC informed Procajlo that a draft statement of the value of MF Global's customer segregated funds, showed a deficit in customer segregated funds for the day ending October 28, 2011. MF Global's Assistant Controller, Mike Bolan and its General Counsel, Laurie Ferber said they believe the customer-funds deficit is "an accounting error." Ms. Ferber had told the CME on October 25, 2011 that rumors about problems stemming from MG Global's European debt trading were not accurate.

On December 15, 2011 Mr. Duffy told the House Committee that this so called accounting error was "a telling sign that regulators were being kept in the dark" about MF Global's customer accounts. What was Corzine doing during all of this?

Acquisition by Interactive Brokers

While the exchange was trying to get to the bottom of the accounting error, whose magnitude would not be revealed until the evening of October 30, 2011 as being $900 million, Corzine and other MF Global officials were trying to close a deal to sell MF Global to Interactive Brokers Group, Inc. On that same day, October 30, 2011, MF Global issued a press release at 6:00 p.m. announcing that it had reached a deal with Interactive Brokers.

Corzine as CEO of MF Global negotiated the potential sale of his firm to Interactive Brokers. The first question involved in any sale of a going concern involves the determination of an acquisition price. Corzine would have had to know what the assets and liabilities of MF Global were (the balance sheets) to even begin to negotiate a price. The deal was happening at the exact same time of the transfers.

It is beyond the bounds of credibility to argue that MF Global did not have regular if not daily accounting of cash balance sheets and that Corzine did not see them. If Corzine knew what the company was worth, during the very days in which at least $900 million in customer segregated funds was lost, he must have at a minimum known about the company's impending insolvency. How then could he not have known of the transfers?

In addition, as a matter of course in the futures industry, MF Global likely had to report the total daily amounts carried in segregated funds to the CME-it certainly had to do so from October 24, 2011 onwards. This computation is performed as a matter of course every single day at every futures broker.

Corzine's testimony before Congress would have us believe that hundreds of millions of dollars were moved around without the knowledge or approval of the MF Global's CEO and CFO all while the balance sheets were being scrutinized for an acquisition by Interactive Brokers, which Corzine spear-headed.

Corzine has sworn under oath that he did not know anything about the missing money until October 30, 2011. This is simply not possible.

Suggestions for House and Senate Committees

Further education about the industry is in order. Both the House and Senate soft-peddled the issues, and perhaps unintentionally avoided important questions and asked almost no meaningful follow-up questions, allowing Corzine to stretch the bounds of credibility in evasiveness. Further questioning should focus, among other things, on the representations made by MF Global to Interactive Brokers on October 24, 2011-October 30, 2011.@
R. Tamara de Silva
Chicago, Illinois
December 19, 2011

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

Footnotes:
1. http://www.timelyobjections.com/john-corzine/
2. Remember CFTC Rule 1.25 which had been amended to allow the investment of customer segregated funds in foreign sovereign debt, was amended back after the fall of MF Global to disallow the investment of customer segregated funds in foreign sovereign debt.
3. http://www.finra.org/Newsroom/Speeches/Luparello/P125233

Judge Rakoff Rejects SEC Settlement Agreement with Citigroup

November 29, 2011
Judge Rakoff Rejects SEC Settlement Agreement with Citigroup

By R. Tamara de Silva

November 29, 2011


This is the legal version of an NFL upset alert. On November 28, 2011, United States District Judge Jed S. Rakoff rejected what would have been the sixth civil settlement agreement between Citigroup Global Markets Inc. ("Citigroup") and the Securities and Exchange Commission ("SEC") since 2003. The SEC filed a complaint against Citigroup in October because Citigroup had peddled $1 billion in mortgage-bonds through a vehicle called Class V Funding III, without disclosing it was betting against $500 million of those assets-in essence offering something to its customers and not disclosing that it would be betting against them.

Contrary to press reports of the decision, Judge Rakoff is not being an activist judge or legislating from the bench when by refusing to uphold the $285 million settlement agreement. This Judge was upholding (and not without an insignificant amount of courage), the law. Perhaps even more importantly, his decision is a victory for the separation of powers doctrine.

Standard of Review

Civil settlements between the SEC and other parties, or what are alternatively called, consent decrees, are essentially permanent injunctions in that they forbid the party that is accused of violating some part of the securities laws from ever doing so again-often even attaching various conditions and stipulations meant to be honored for all time. The SEC in its filings prior to its last filing (a memorandum in support of a consent order), addressed the legal standard of review required for a court to grant a consent order, except this time when they asked the Court to finally grant the order, they did not fully address the standard of review.

By way of some background, usually, it is the function of the Legislature to make laws that proscribe conduct-not the Judiciary. It is an extraordinary thing to ask a court of law to permanently rule that someone is forever barred from doing something-injunctive relief is an extraordinary remedy because it throws the full weight of the court into what is the de facto making of a law-a judicial order. Breach of a Federal injunction can have criminal consequences-a Federal injunction is no common thing.[1]

The United States Supreme Court established in numerous decisions that there is a four part test courts must use in granting injunctions. Before granting an injunction, a court must determine that the granting of the injunction is at once: 1) fair; 2) reasonable; 3) adequate, and 4) in the public interest (emphasis added). Ebay Inc. v. MercExchange, 547 U.S. 388, 391

The SEC remarkably pled that they need not address the "public's interest," part of the standard of review and that even if they did, they alone could decide that something is in the "public interest." The SEC's argument if followed would abrogate a power given to the court and yet ask the court to stamp its imprimatur and issue an order-thereby making the SEC the judge, jury and executioner.

The Justice Department is part of the Executive Branch and were the Judiciary merely to rubber stamp all settlements entered into between the departments of the Executive Branch and private parties, turning them into judicial orders on the say so of the Executive Branch or other government agencies and departments, the separation of powers would very meaningfully cease to exist. The courts would become in every sense the handmaidens of the Executive and other government agencies, or as in this case, the SEC.

Purely private parties can settle a case without ever agreeing on the facts, for all that is required is that a Plaintiff dismiss his complaint. But when a public agency asks a court to become its partner in enforcement by imposing wide-ranging injunctive remedies on a defendant, enforced by the formidable judicial power of contempt, the court, and the public, need some knowledge of what the underlying facts are: for otherwise, the court becomes a mere handmaiden to a settlement privately negotiated on the basis of unknown facts, while the public is deprived of ever knowing the truth in a matter of obvious public importanc
e. pp. 8-9


What Judge Rakoff did in denying the SEC's request for a consent order was have the courage to point out to the SEC that it cannot alone, ignoring case law, determine the standard of review for the judicial approval of the civil settlement between itself and anyone else.

Settlement agreements between the Justice Department and SEC and private citizens are not like settlement agreements between two private parties in a civil matter or easement dispute. More often than not, the SEC presents an individual or concern with a choice between settling a complaint (not a conviction-we are at the stage of a mere accusation) for a fine or facing criminal prosecution against the full force of the United States Department of Justice and every means at its disposable (unlimited). This is Hobson's choice itself. Somewhat analogous to my accosting a stranger and offering the following choice, "I will beat you to a pulp and it will cost every penny you have to recover medically and years of care or, you may pay me $100,000 and we will pretend this never happened." Of course if it were proven that I did this, I would be unceremoniously tossed in a room not of my choosing for some duration and accused of extortion...but I am not the government. Neither are private civil settlements comparable to civil settlements with the SEC or Justice Department.

Judge Rakoff's Ruling

Judge Rakoff also went on to say in his memorandum and opinion that he would no longer approve of SEC settlement agreements that involved the defendants not providing any admissions of wrong-doing, "because the court has not been provided with any proven or admitted facts upon which to exercise even a modest degree of independent judgment".

In other words, the courts cannot determine what is fair or adequate about a consent agreement between a government agency and private party without some evidentiary basis or knowledge of the facts.

An application of judicial power that does not rest on facts is worse than mindless, it is inherently dangerous. The injunctive power of the judiciary is not a free- roving remedy to be invoked at the whim of a regulatory agency, even with the consent of the regulated. If its deployment does not rest on facts-cold, hard solid facts, established either by admission or by trials-it serves no lawful or moral purpose and is simply an engine of oppression.

Finally, in any case like this that touches on the transparency of financial markets whose gyrations have so depressed our economy and debilitated our lives, there is an overriding public interest in knowing the truth. In much of the world, propaganda reigns, and the truth is confined to secretive, fearful whispers. Even in our nation, apologists for suppressing or obscuring the truth may always be found. But the S.E.C., of all agencies, has a duty, inherent in its statutory mission, to see that the truth emerges; and if it fails to do so, this Court must not, in the name of deference or convenience, grant judicial enforcement to the agency's contrivances

.pp 14-15.


Citigroup is as the Court points out, a bit of a recidivist. Citigroup has signed many settlement agreements with the SEC without admitting any wrongdoing. It is almost a get out of jail for free card for a fee. Surely there is a purpose to these agreements than merely generating revenue for the SEC by making Citigroup part with pin money? Are these settlement agreements, as the Court and Bloomberg's Jonathan Weil have asked, merely considered the "cost of doing business" or some part of a transaction tax on offending financial titans?[2]

If it were in the public's interest to prevent fraud upon the market, then fines should be significant enough to actually deter illegal conduct. If not, prosecutions should be endured and convictions gotten. The historic role of punishment in the criminal justice system has not been just punishment, but deterrence. In the case of the settlement agreement at hand, the actual fine was $95 million with the suggestion that Citigroup pay up to $285 million-this is pin money to a bank with revenue in the billions of dollars-the "cost of doing business" will not deter anyone, nor is its pursuit an enormously wise use of taxpayer funds-certainly not according to a cost benefit analysis. @

R. Tamara de Silva
Chicago, Illinois
November 29, 2011

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

Any questions about this article should be directed to tamara@desilvalawoffices.com
Footnotes:
1. The power of the Federal court to protect and enforce its judgments is unquestioned. United States v. New York Telephone Co., 434 U.S. 159, 172-73(1977).
2. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-11-02/citigroup-finds-obeying-the-law-is-too-darn-hard-jonathan-weil.html

MF Global's Missing Customer Funds and Its Implications on the Futures Industry

November 28, 2011
MF Global's Missing Customer Funds and Its Implications on the Futures Industry

By R. Tamara de Silva

November 28, 2011


Abstract: The collapse of MF Global is an unfortunate and watershed event for the futures industry. The regulated futures markets, long a stepchild of the larger financial markets, have been the most liquid, transparent and crisis free markets in the world. They have been remarkably free from any systemic financial crisis. . .with the exception of a certain salad oil scandal (almost 50 years ago) and until now with MF Global. With former Goldman Sach's CEO Jon Corzine's takeover and bankruptcy of what had been one of the largest and oldest commodity trading firms in the world, the crisis-free reputation of the futures industry is sullied. At the crux of MF Global's fall is CFTC Rule 1.25 which requires that, futures commission merchants ("FCMs"), like MF Global, are allowed to invest and collect interest on customer funds, in excess of customer funds, used as margin for customer trades. Rule 1.25 was amended in 2004 to allow FCMs to invest in sovereign debt (among five other investment vehicles) so long as these vehicles maintained the highest credit ratings by the three credit ratings agencies. If MF Global went into customer segregated funds, which are supposed to separated away from the firm's assets, to meet the FCM's own margin calls, then Corzine and as yet unknown agents will face criminal charges. If however, customer funds were invested in foreign sovereign debt, as firms are allowed to do under CFTC Rule 1.25 and these investments lost over $1.2 billion in value, then there is no criminal liability, only perhaps civil liability. The accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, may face civil liability. A cursory look at all other similar crises from Refco and Griffin Trading (in the futures industry) to Lehman Brothers and rogue trading at UBS, demonstrates that MF Global is unique-this may be the first time in history that customer segregated funds were not properly segregated by an FCM. In any event, $1.2 billion in customer funds would not have been lost had CFTC Rule 1.25 not have been amended in 2004.[1] MF Global's demise has broader implications, other than legal culpability for accounting firms, the effectiveness of self-regulatory organizations and prospective regulation of the futures industry. Lastly, in order to ensure that the futures markets do not have another MF Global, CFTC Rule 1.25 must be amended back to reverse its amendment in 2000 and 2005.

Background

James Man started a sugar trading business in 1783, that became Man Financial and ultimately, the publicly traded MF Global, some 230 years later. In March 2010, a former Goldman Sachs CEO, Jon Corzine became CEO of MF Global joking with not some insignificant degree of obviously unjustified hubris that "I hadn't heard of this company a week ago." Would that he had remained in ignorance.

It was Corzine's stated goal to transform MF Global from a commodity broker into an investment bank with a large proprietary trading operation similar to the one Corzine ran at Goldman in the 1990s. The luster of Corzine's Goldman pedigree was not lost on the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) as they granted Corzine a waiver, from having to have a license to run MF Global. By way of some background, every person in the futures industry has a license, especially everyone interacting with clients.

On October 26, 2011, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange ("CME") performed a spot audit on MF Global. This audit merely verified that customer funds were on deposit at the bank(s) where MF Global represented that they were and in the amount that they were supposed to be. The CME had performed a full audit in January 2011. On October 25, 2011 MF Global reported a substantial quarterly loss due to having leverage of 40:1 on its exposure to European sovereign debt. Predictably, MF Global's stock collapsed and it its bonds began to trade at distressed levels.[2] Corzine utilized all MF Global's credit lines and tried to secure a sale of the firm to Interactive Brokers. Five days later on October 31, 2011, MF Global filed for bankruptcy. There is yet no reason to think that any customer funds, which are supposed to be safeguarded from a futures brokerage going bankrupt by virtue of their being completely segregated, would be in jeopardy.

However, on November 2, 2011, the CME announced that MF Global may have transferred money "
in a manner that may have been designed to avoid detection insofar as MF Global
 did not disclose or report such transfers to the CFTC or CME until early morning on Monday, October 31, 2011." [3]

The first hint of missing customer funds was released on October 31, 2011 when Interactive Brokers announced they are walking away from a purchase of MF Global due to accounting discrepancies. At first MF Global denied anything of the sort, only to admit on November 1, 2011 that there were shortfalls in customer accounts.[4]

Almost one month later, no one can account for where the money has gone. The CME verified that customer money was accounted for on October 26, 2011. It looks as if the money was moved out of customer segregated accounts in the amount of what is now considered to be well over a $1.2 billion shortfall, or the money was lost in trading losses and positions in...you guessed it, sovereign debt. It is possible that legally segregated customer funds could have been lost, in a titanic liquidity squeeze. If this is the case, then no violation of the law that requires customer funds to be segregated occurred.

The illegal scenario is if customer segregated funds were commingled with MF Global's funds. If MF Global went into what are supposed to legally segregated customer funds, that must be completely separated and never used by MF Global either for its own purposes or that of other customers, then fraud and embezzlement would have occurred. Almost one month afterwards, no one outside of MF Global knows which scenario occurred.

Applicable Rules

The key difference between FCMs and securities brokerages is that FCMs, unlike securities brokers, are required by law to keep their customer funds segregated from the FCM's own funds. It is in this way that FCMs have been able, with comparatively few exceptions, to ensure that customer deposits are completely protected from all losses an FCM may incur due to its own proprietary trading. Before MF Global, the requirement that FCMs segregate customer funds completely from their own funds largely prevented FCM customers from losing money due to an FCM bankruptcy.[5]

Having customer segregated funds completely separated and safe from an FCM's own funds and operations meant that protections like SIPC were not needed in the futures world as they are in securities. SIPC on the other hand restores funds to customers with assets in securities brokerage firms.[6] The National Futures Association (NFA) and the CFTC require FCMs to report the amount they carry in customer segregated funds to the clearing house of the FCM's designated self-regulatory organization (DSRO)-in MF Global's case, the CME.

In the case of MF Global, five principal rules applied. CFTC Rule 1.20, 1.23, 1.25, 1.32, 30.7 and Section 4d(a)(2) of the Commodity Exchange Act ("CEA").

CFTC Rule 1.20 holds that customer funds are to be segregated and separately accounted for.

(a) All customer funds shall be separately accounted for and segregated as belonging to commodity or option customers. Such customer funds when deposited with any bank, trust company, clearing organization or another futures commission merchant shall be deposited under an account name which clearly identifies them as such and shows that they are segregated as required by the Act and this part. Each registrant shall obtain and retain in its files for the period provided in §1.31 a written acknowledgment from such bank, trust company, clearing organization, or futures commission merchant, that it was informed that the customer funds deposited therein are those of commodity or option customers and are being held in accordance with the provisions of the Act and this part: Provided, however, that an acknowledgment need not be obtained from a clearing organization that has adopted and submitted to the Commission rules that provide for the segregation as customer funds, in accordance with all relevant provisions of the Act and the rules and orders promulgated thereunder, of all funds held on behalf of customers. Under no circumstances shall any portion of customer funds be obligated to a clearing organization, any member of a contract market, a futures commission merchant, or any depository except to purchase, margin, guarantee, secure, transfer, adjust or settle trades, contracts or commodity option transactions of commodity or option customers. No person, including any clearing organization or any depository, that has received customer funds for deposit in a segregated account, as provided in this section, may hold, dispose of, or use any such funds as belonging to any person other than the option or commodity customers of the futures commission merchant which deposited such funds.
(b) All customer funds received by a clearing organization from a member of the clearing organization to purchase, margin, guarantee, secure or settle the trades, contracts or commodity options of the clearing member's commodity or option customers and all money accruing to such commodity or option customers as the result of trades, contracts or commodity options so carried shall be separately accounted for and segregated as belonging to such commodity or option customers, and a clearing organization shall not hold, use or dispose of such customer funds except as belonging to such commodity or option customers. Such customer funds when deposited in a bank or trust company shall be deposited under an account name which clearly shows that they are the customer funds of the commodity or option customers of clearing members, segregated as required by the Act and these regulations. The clearing organization shall obtain and retain in its files for the period provided by §1.31 an acknowledgment from such bank or trust company that it was informed that the customer funds deposited therein are those of commodity or option customers of its clearing members and are being held in accordance with the provisions of the Act and these regulations.
(c) Each futures commission merchant shall treat and deal with the customer funds of a commodity customer or of an option customer as belonging to such commodity or option customer. All customer funds shall be separately accounted for, and shall not be commingled with the money, securities or property of a futures commission merchant or of any other person, or be used to secure or guarantee the trades, contracts or commodity options, or to secure or extend the credit, of any person other than the one for whom the same are held: Provided, however, That customer funds treated as belonging to the commodity or option customers of a futures commission merchant may for convenience be commingled and deposited in the same account or accounts with any bank or trust company, with another person registered as a futures commission merchant, or with a clearing organization, and that such share thereof as in the normal course of business is necessary to purchase, margin, guarantee, secure, transfer, adjust, or settle the trades, contracts or commodity options of such commodity or option customers or resulting market positions, with the clearing organization or with any other person registered as a futures commission merchant, may be withdrawn and applied to such purposes, including the payment of premiums to option grantors, commissions, brokerage, interest, taxes, storage and other fees and charges, lawfully accruing in connection with such trades, contracts or commodity options: Provided, further, That customer funds may be invested in instruments described in §1.25.
[7]


Section 4d(a)(2) of the Commodity Exchange Act also states that customer funds must not be commingled with funds of the FCM nor ever be used by an FCM for any purpose such as margining other customer accounts or that of the FCM itself.

Section 4d(a)(2) of the CEA and related Commission regulations require that, among other things, all funds deposited with an FCM to purchase, margin, guarantee, or secure futures or commodity options transactions and all accruals thereon, be accounted for separately by the FCM and deposited under an account name that clearly identifies
them as such, not be commingled with the FCM's own funds, and be held for the benefit of customers.\4\ The segregation requirements are intended to prevent an FCM from using customer property to margin the trades of other customers or of the FCM itself. Further, the Division has interpreted the segregation requirements to preclude any
impediments or restrictions on the FCM's ability to obtain the immediate access to customer funds. The immediate and unfettered access requirement avoids potential delay or interruption in securing required margin payments that, in times of significant market disruption or otherwise, could magnify the impact of such market disruption and impair the liquidity of other FCMs and clearinghouses.
[8]

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).

CFTC Rule 1.23 allows FCMs and DCOs to collect interest in the customer-segregated funds they hold.[9]

The provision in section 4d(a)(2) of the Act and the provision in §1.20(c), which prohibit the commingling of customer funds with the funds of a futures commission merchant, shall not be construed to prevent a futures commission merchant from having a residual financial interest in the customer funds, segregated as required by the Act and the rules in this part and set apart for the benefit of commodity or option customers; nor shall such provisions be construed to prevent a futures commission merchant from adding to such segregated customer funds such amount or amounts of money, from its own funds or unencumbered securities from its own inventory, of the type set forth in §1.25, as it may deem necessary to ensure any and all commodity or option customers' accounts from becoming undersegregated at any time. The books and records of a futures commission merchant shall at all times accurately reflect its interest in the segregated funds. A futures commission merchant may draw upon such segregated funds to its own order, to the extent of its actual interest therein, including the withdrawal of securities held in segregated safekeeping accounts held by a bank, trust company, contract market clearing organization or other futures commission merchant. Such withdrawal shall not result in the funds of one commodity and/or option customer being used to purchase, margin or carry the trades, contracts or commodity options, or extend the credit of any other commodity customer, option customer or other person. [10]


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. A repo is simple 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.

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.

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
(viii) Interests in money market mutual funds.
[11]

CFTC Rule 1.32 specifies how FCMs are required to compute the value of customer segregated accounts on a daily basis.

(a) Each futures commission merchant must compute as of the close of each business day, on a currency-by-currency basis:
(1) The total amount of customer funds on deposit in segregated accounts on behalf of commodity and option customers;
(2) the amount of such customer funds required by the Act and these regulations to be on deposit in segregated accounts on behalf of such commodity and option customers; and
(3) the amount of the futures commission merchant's residual interest in such customer funds.
(b) In computing the amount of funds required to be in segregated accounts, a futures commission merchant may offset any net deficit in a particular customer's account against the current market value of readily marketable securities, less applicable percentage deductions ( i.e., "securities haircuts") as set forth in Rule 15c3-1(c)(2)(vi) of the Securities and Exchange Commission (17 CFR 241.15c3-1(c)(2)(vi)), held for the same customer's account. The futures commission merchant must maintain a security interest in the securities, including a written authorization to liquidate the securities at the futures commission merchant's discretion, and must segregate the securities in a safekeeping account with a bank, trust company, clearing organization of a contract market, or another futures commission merchant. For purposes of this section, a security will be considered readily marketable if it is traded on a "ready market" as defined in Rule 15c3-1(c)(11)(i) of the Securities and Exchange Commission (17 CFR 240.15c3-1(c)(11)(i)).
(c) The daily computations required by this section must be completed by the futures commission merchant prior to noon on the next business day and must be kept, together with all supporting data, in accordance with the requirements of §1.31.
[12]


CFTC Rule 30.7 covers the treatment of foreign futures or foreign options and the investment of customer funds in foreign instruments.

(a) Except as provided in this section, a futures commission merchant must maintain in a separate account or accounts money, securities and property in an amount at least sufficient to cover or satisfy all of its current obligations to foreign futures or foreign options customers denominated as the foreign futures or foreign options secured amount. Such money, securities and property may not be commingled with the money, securities or property of such futures commission merchant, with any proprietary account of such futures commission merchant, or used to secure or guarantee the obligations of, or extend credit to, such futures commission merchant or any proprietary account of such futures commission merchant.
(b) A futures commission merchant may deposit together with the secured amount required to be on deposit in the separate account or accounts referred to in paragraph (a) of this section money, securities or property held for or on behalf of other customers of the futures commission merchant for the purpose of entering into foreign futures or foreign options transactions. In such a case, the amount that must be deposited in such separate account or accounts must be no less than the greater of (1) the foreign futures and foreign options secured amount plus the amount that would be required to be on deposit if all such customers were foreign futures or foreign options customers under this part 30, or (2) the foreign futures or foreign options secured amount plus the amount required to be held in a separate account or accounts for or on behalf of customers pursuant to any law, or rule, regulation or order thereunder, or any rule of any self-regulatory organization authorized thereunder, in the jurisdiction in which the depository or the customer, as appropriate, is located.
(c) (1) The separate account or accounts referred to in paragraph (a) of this section must be maintained under an account name that clearly identifies them as such, with any of the following depositories:
(i) A bank or trust company located in the United States;
(ii) A bank or trust company located outside the United States:
(A) That has in excess of $1 billion of regulatory capital; or
(B) Whose commercial paper or long-term debt instrument or, if a part of a holding company system, its holding company's commercial paper or long-term debt instrument, is rated in one of the two highest rating categories by at least one nationally recognized statistical rating organization; or
(C) As designated;
(iii) A futures commission merchant registered as such with the Commission;
(iv) A derivatives clearing organization;
(v) A member of any foreign board of trade; or
(vi) Such member or clearing organization's designated depositories.
(2) Each futures commission merchant must obtain and retain in its files for the period provided in §1.31 of this chapter an acknowledgment from such depository that it was informed that such money, securities or property are held for or on behalf of foreign futures and foreign options customers and are being held in accordance with the provisions of these regulations.
(d) In no event may money, securities or property representing the foreign futures or foreign options secured amount be held or commingled and deposited with customer funds in the same account or accounts required to be separately accounted for and segregated pursuant to section 4d of the Act and the regulations thereunder.
(e) Each futures commission merchant which invests money, securities or property on behalf of foreign futures or foreign options customers shall keep a record showing the following:
(1) The date on which such investments were made;
(2) The name of the person through whom such investments were made;
(3) The amount of money so invested;
(4) A description of the obligations in which such investments were made;
(5) The identity of the depositories or other places where such obligations are maintained;
(6) The date on which such investments were liquidated or otherwise disposed of and the amount of money received of such disposition, if any; and
(7) The name of the person to or through whom such investments were disposed of.
(f) Each futures commission merchant must compute as of the close of each business day:
(1) The total amount of money, securities and property on deposit in separate account(s) in accordance with this section;
(2) The total amount of money, securities and property required to be on deposit in separate account(s) in accordance with this section; and
(3) The amount of the futures commission merchant's residual interest in money, securities and property on deposit in separate account(s) in accordance with this section. Such computations must be completed prior to noon on the next business day and must be kept, together with all supporting data, in accordance with the requirements of §1.31.[13]

Rule 1.25 was amended in 2005 in part because of lobbying by the FCMs, including ironically support from MF Global's current General Counsel.

The principal changes to Rule 1.25 that would have likely affected, or one should say enabled the fall of MF Global involved reverse repos, transactions within FCM that are also broker-dealers ("BDs") and possibly the elimination that investment in money market funds carry the highest credit rating.

Before 2005, CFTC Rule 1.25(b)(4)(iii) imposed concentration limits as to both the issuer and the counterparty in reverse repos, which limits are different from the concentration limits on direct investments. After 2005, the concentration limits would apply to all investments in securities, whether obtained pursuant to direct investment or pursuant to reverse repos.

After 2005, FCMs that are also broker-dealers were allowed to engage in-house transactions involving the simultaneous exchange of customer cash or customer-deposited securities for securities held by the FCM also in its capacity as a broker dealer. What this means is that an FCM can seemingly do both a repo and reverse repo at once-taking both sides. FCMs acting also as BDs would enable the exchanging of securities for a customer so that what is not acceptable as margin at a specific clearing firm would be exchanged by the FCM for another security that would be acceptable.

Another revision of CFTC Rule 1.25(b)(2)(i)(E) eliminated the requirement that FCMs and DCOs that invested customer funds in Money Market Mutual Funds ("MMMFs") invest only in MMMFs that carried the highest ratings by the credit ratings agencies.

Criminal or Civil Liability Contingent on Fraud

The criminal or civil liability, if any, of Corzine and his agents at MF Global, will likely rest on whether customer funds were properly segregated and not commingled with FCM funds, or whether they were converted for use of MF Global. The later situation would involve not just fraud, but also embezzlement-it would constitute a criminal violation of CFTC and SEC rules, et. al. The difference between civil liability and criminal wrong-doing is illustrated by looking at the tale of three FCMs, Refco, Griffin Trading Company and Lee B. Stern & Co.

Refco was once the largest futures brokerage at the CME but will be remembered as possibly the shortest IPO in history. Refco raised and lost over $1billion in investor capital before it went public in August 2005 and bankrupt in October of 2005.

Refco was co-founded by Tom Dittmer and Ray Friedman in 1969. Amid some regulatory scuffles, Dittmer resigned and was replaced by a new CEO, Phillip Bennett.
An internal audit of Refco revealed that Bennett had taken $430 million from Refco's and manipulated Refco's financials to disguise his taking. Refco's accounting firm, Grant Thornton after a complete audit, and all the investment banks that handled the IPO, including Goldman Sachs, and Bank of America Corp., after their due diligence, missed the $430 shortfall. Federal authorities were alerted of the missing funds by Refco's own internal audit. Bennett repaid all of the money but the public had lost faith in the company. Investors sold billions of shares worth of Refco and the resulting liquidity run forced the firm into bankruptcy.

The Justice Department filed criminal charges against Refco principals Phillip R. Bennett, Tone N. Grant, Santo C. Maggio and Robert C. Trosten for fraudulently hiding trading losses of both Refco's and of its customers, and fraudulently manipulating financial statements to secure a leverage buyout of the firm and subsequent IPO.[15] In addition to obtaining guilty pleas and convictions against all of them, the government recovered obtained over $33,000,000 in forfeiture actions against five other Refco officers, including Tom Dittmer. There were also civil suits and a class action.

By contrast, no criminal charges were filed against any of the principles of Griffin Trading Company, a futures commission merchant, that collapsed overnight on December 23, 1998 as a result of the trading losses of one of their customers in London, John Ho Park, lost nearly $10.3 million on December 21 and 22, 1998. Griffin Trading Company was founded by Farrel J. "Tex" Griffin, a former assistant U.S. attorney, and Roger S. Griffin (the two are not related). Some customer funds in segregated accounts were lost in London, but there was no question of criminal liability because customer funds in the United States were segregated and never commingled. Unlike in Refco's case, no one at Griffin committed any fraud.

In the case of Griffin Trading, all customers with money held in the United States did not suffer because their funds were held in segregated customer accounts. Customers of Griffin that had funds in London lost their money because at the time the Securities and Futures Authority's Client Money Rules ("SFA Rules") did not prohibit the use of one customer's money to cover another customer's losses. Although SFA Client Money Rule 4-55 did require that customer accounts be segregated from the firm's account, there was no prohibition on their being commingled with other customer accounts in one pool. This arrangement is typically called having one omnibus account (segregated but pooled account) as opposed to separate sub-accounts for each customer, as required by law in the United States. As a result, customers sued Griffin Trading in bankruptcy proceedings for money lost in the U.K.[16]

On October 22, 1992, two rogue bond traders at the Chicago Board of Trade ("CBOT") made unauthorized trades (they exceeded their trading limits) and forced the clearing firm Lee B. Stern & Co. to default on a $8.5 margin call to the CBOT's Clearing Corporation. The two rogue traders caused a loss to the FCM that exceeded its net worth by $2 million. Lee Stern made up for the shortfall personally, saved the firm and ensured that no customers lost any money-although his firm did lose its clearing status and was never again a member of the Chicago Board of Trade Clearing Corporation.

In the history of financial futures and FCM, customers have seldom if ever lost money even because of rogue trading by FCM employees or other customers because the FCMs, historically at the immediate behest of the exchange clearing house, have made sure that customers were made whole.

Were this not the historic practice within the futures industry and in theory an FCM's entire customer segregated account pool (segregated and not commingled as it may be) would be jeopardized and placed at risk by the trading of one customer making trades they cannot cover and are too large for the capital reserves of the FCM to cover. To put this in perspective, the futures industry has, other than for the very few examples above, had good risk practices.

What happens with MF Global depends on what happened to the missing money and whether it was segregated also not commingled after the CME's spot audit of October 26, 2011.

Liability of PricewaterhouseCoopers

Some ironies are worse than others. The CFTC has subpoenaed Pricewaterhouse Coopers ("PwC") presumably for any information is may have about Mf Global's missing customer funds. PwC advertises what lessons auditors should have learned from the collapse of Lehman Brothers on their website.[17] PwC gave MF Global an unqualified (clean) audit opinion on May 20, 2011. MF Global's bankruptcy is now considered to be the eighth largest in United States history.

One cannot help but wonder at times what use are auditing firms in terms of catching or preventing large financial crisis...ever? Grant Thornton issued an unqualified audit of Refco before its IPO. Lehman, AIG and a host of other financial titans received unqualified audit opinions preceding their failures and bankruptcies.

Are accounting firms like credit ratings agencies in that it is not in their interest to issue qualified opinions because they would in so doing drive themselves out of business? Or are they like the credit ratings agencies (MF Global was downgraded to junk after it filed for bankruptcy-so the ratings agencies were all over this after the fact), and incapable of understanding the securities and market risks of the firms they are paid to pass judgment over?

In their defense, PwC might have been dealing with a rogue trading situation-perhaps Corzine himself, some late stage commingling and embezzlement of customer funds or perhaps just over-leveraged positions in European sovereign debt that coincidentally took a dramatic turn for the worse (they did in fact) during the last weeks of October.

Future Regulation Must Rescind Changes to Rule 1.25

The risk free rate of return is the yield on 30 day United States T-bills. Had MF Global been prohibited from investing customer funds in sovereign European debt or using internal repos (assuming they have done either or both), then their customers' money would be inarguably safer at all times. Customer segregated funds held in T-bills or other United States debt instruments are safer than they would be invested in anything else. The CFTC must amend all the changes to Rule 1.25 that went into affect on 2004 and 2005, including the permission to invest in foreign sovereign debt that became law in 2000.

Regulating What Cannot Be So

The CME is MF Global's "primary regulator." Many argue that it is the exchange's role to have better policed MF Global. However, to impose this burden on the CME is not necessary because it is the CFTC that proposed and finalized all the rules to allow for an FCM's investment of customer funds by the use of repos and in a foreign sovereign debt.

No one has a greater interest in avoiding events like Corzine's MF Global than the CME. To be fair, the exchanges have historically maintained a stellar track record as self-regulatory organizations that police their member firms, whether clearing members or non-clearing member firms. The case of MF Global is of monumental significance to the entire futures industry because it may tragically portray the investment of public funds in the futures markets as somehow unsafe and unprotected.

Regulation can never rule out the rogue actor or sociopath. Whatever costs Corzine was determined to incur upon the world in his quest to self-glorification by making a 230 year firm, a proprietary trading desk, the world must take solace in one simple fact-there are not that many Corzines.

A wholesale revision of the futures regulatory regime would be unfortunate and ineffective because no regulatory regime or social science model can account for the irrational or mad actor-nor must it ever try.@
R. Tamara de Silva
Chicago, Illinois

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

Any questions about this article should be directed to tamara@desilvalawoffices.com
Footnotes:
1. Unless Corzine or his agents deliberately stole this money out of customer accounts, which no one not even the CME has either confirmed or denied.
2. The fact that European sovereign debt was reaching crisis levels began to be apparent to most of the world in 2009 and MF Global's 40:1 leverage and exposure to it should have signaled a red alert to its auditor PwC...but strangely did not seem in any way troublesome to PwC-certainly not worthy of actually pointing out or giving a qualified opinion!
3. http://cmegroup.mediaroom.com/index.php?s=43&item=3202&pagetemplate=article
4. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204394804577012061970129588.html?mod=googlenews_wsj

5. Please see discussion of Griffin Trading Company and Refco cases
6. It is important to remember that SIPC protection does not apply in cases involving fraud or rogue trading like with Barring Bank's Nick Leesen. Were SIPC in play with MF Global, it would not cover losses causes by any fraud or malfeasance on the part of MF Global-were any found to have occurred.
7. http://ecfr.gpoaccess.gov/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=de913862c8633d27e5dbb751f541f29e&rgn=div8&view=text&node=17:1.0.1.1.1.0.4.15&idno=17
8. http://www.cftc.gov/foia/fedreg05/foi050202a.htm
9. It is important to keep in mind that the yield received by the FCMs and DCOs investment of customer segregated funds has historically been a large profit center for them.
10. http://ecfr.gpoaccess.gov/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=1e218e6499b67aee6c250eae86e59bf9&rgn=div8&view=text&node=17:1.0.1.1.1.0.4.18&idno=17
11. http://ecfr.gpoaccess.gov/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=de913862c8633d27e5dbb751f541f29e&rgn=div8&view=text&node=17:1.0.1.1.1.0.4.20&idno=17
12. http://ecfr.gpoaccess.gov/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=1a1599ee01c68b489e7394311a832812&rgn=div8&view=text&node=17:1.0.1.1.1.0.5.27&idno=17
13. http://ecfr.gpoaccess.gov/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=541c9995ee3b4f389cf3273d6aec19f4&rgn=div8&view=text&node=17:1.0.1.1.21.0.7.7&idno=17
14. http://mobile.bloomberg.com/news/2011-11-16/tiny-rule-change-was-at-the-heart-of-mf-global-s-failure-william-d-cohan
15. United States v. Bennett, 485 F.Supp.2d 508 (2007)
16. In re Griffin Trading Co., 245 BR 291 (2000)
17. http://www.pwc.com/jg/en/events/Lessons-learned-for-the-survivors.pdf

Insider Trading Charges Against Goldman's Rajat Gupta

October 26, 2011

Insider Trading Charges Against Goldman's Rajat Gupta
By R Tamara de Silva
October 26, 2011

Yesterday Rajat K. Gupta, a Senior Partner Emeritus and Managing Director of McKinsey & Co. and Board Member of Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., was indicted on criminal charges of insider trading.[ 1] Mr. Gupta is alleged to have provided Raj Rajaratnam, the founder of one of the largest hedge funds in history, Galleon Group inside information from which Rajaratnam profited[2 ]. Mr. Gupta will likely be prosecuted by the same U.S. Attorney, Preet Bharara, who obtained a conviction and eleven year sentence (the longest sentence ever dealt on the charge of insider trading) against Raj Rajaratnam.

Mr. Gupta's arrest comes on the heels of what has been an over four year investigation of alleged insider trading on Wall Street. The principal focus of the government's investigation has been on whether information was passed along by analysts and consultants of companies that provide "expert network" analysis to hedge funds and mutual funds. Expert network companies arranged for meetings and calls with executives from hundreds of companies and then shared this information with traders at hedge funds and mutual funds.

The activities of expert network firms came to be discovered by the Securities and Exchange Commission ("SEC") by analysis of the performance results of hedge funds and mutual funds. Funds that performed much better than other funds were scrutinized and essentially targeted for wiretap and surveillance. Historically the SEC has found inside trades by looking at the ticker tape (in addition to volume and unusual options activity) before and after the release of inside information.[ 3]

Even a superficial definition of terms is necessary. Insider trading is a legal term that encompasses both legal and illegal conduct. Legal insider trading occurs when corporate insiders, defined as officers, directors, and employees, buy and sell stock in their own companies. There are times when corporate insiders are prohibited from buying or selling stocks or making options plays in their own companies. Illegal insider trading generally encompasses "the buying or selling of a security, in breach of a fiduciary duty or other relationship of trust and confidence, while in possession of material, nonpublic information about the security."[ 4 ]

Illegal insider trading also encompasses the "tipping" of information obtained by virtue of a tipper's fiduciary duty, employment of relationship of trust and confidence to any third party "tippee," who trades in the markets using or influenced by this information.

There is a significant amount of ambiguity and fluidity in the definition of who is an "insider," who may become a "constructive insider," what trading "on the basis of" information means, and what information, classified as property is truly "inside information." Some of the terms used in the SEC's Rule 10b-5[ 5], which governs insider trading, are determined in their breach as much as in their observance. Many terms in Rule 10b-5 are subject to the roving interpretations of the judiciary based upon the unique fact patterns of the cases for insider trading that reach trial. The rule prohibits any act or omission resulting in fraud or deceit in connection with the purchase or sale of any security. Efforts to more precisely describe what is and what is not insider trading have been opposed by the SEC for fear that proscribing the precise conduct of Rule 10b-5 too precisely would narrow the powers of the SEC.

Congress and the SEC have extended the prohibition against trading on unequal and inside information to include of certain types of "outside" information-information about takeovers pursued by third parties-wherein there is no insider or fiduciary relationship [6 ].

In the case of Gupta, if the alleged conduct is proven to be true and the prosecution has actual proof of the information alleged exchanged in Mr. Gupta's indictment, then it fits within the unambiguous gambit of Rule 10b-5. This would be the archetypical case of insider trading. The indictment (11 CR 907), alleges among other charges, two clear examples of insider trading:

1) In September 2008, the indictment alleges that 16-20 seconds after leaving a board meeting at Goldman wherein it was discussed that Warren Buffet would buy $5 billion of preferred shares in Goldman (at the time an extremely valuable infusion to Goldman especially given its exposure to AIG), Mr. Gupta called Rajaratnam. Rajaratnam and Galleon Tech Funds began purchasing Goldman stock immediately, which it turned around and sold after the announcement became public for a profit of $840,000 and avoided a loss of several millions of dollars;
2) On January 29, 2009, the day before Proctor and Gamble was to report its quarterly earnings, Mr. Gupta exited a board meeting at P&G wherein the earnings were revealed to be coming out below the guidance P&G had given to analysts, and conveyed this inarguably inside information to Rajaratnam. Rajaratnam immediately began shorting approximately 180,000 shares of P&G.

As in the case of Mr. Gupta, what is described in his indictment is the disclosure by an insider (board member) of unambiguous inside information. However, if the evidence of Mr. Gupta's were not based upon actual wiretap recordings (if the prosecution had no recordings of Mr. Gupta actually conveying this information) but merely on the alleged hearsay conversations between a convicted Rajaratnam, while trying to get a reduced sentence, then the case itself becomes extremely tenuous and the evidence ambiguous.

In other cases, the problem becomes defining what is inside information and what is excellent hard won research-a problem exacerbated by the ambiguities in the definitions of the building block terms that go into what constitutes Rule 10b-5's definition of "inside information." Being privy to a board meeting to discuss earnings before they are released to the public or learning about a merger through a confidential email or conversation easily constitutes inside information. An insider's disclosure of clearly inside information would violate the fiduciary duties that corporate board member and managers, as agents, owe to their principals-the ultimate principal being the shareholders.

However, hiring researchers to park next to a Federal Express shipping station and daily tally the number of shipments loaded on the trucks over time to forecast seasonal shipping performance, is by way of an example, gumshoe research that may be proprietary and hard won, but is it ever inside information? What if a hedge fund routinely employed these tactics and achieved results far superior to other funds. Assuming there are 8,000 hedge funds in the United States each trying to out guess the performance of public companies and taking a bet on whisper numbers, no one in theory has an edge aside from inside information. Unless, certain funds simply had superior information through the most aggressive research. A fund that outperformed its competitors enough would likely draw attention from the SEC, but would this fund's use of research be inside information? To some degree the work of expert networks illustrates the problems with a roving and malleable definition of insider trading. Mr. Gupta's indictment, taking the alleged facts as true, does not.@

R. Tamara de Silva
October 26, 2011
Chicago, Illinois
Footnotes:
1. The topic of insider is large and discussed thoroughly and much more substantively in my upcoming book on the United States Criminal Justice System.
2. Copy of the indictment can be retrieved here: http://www.securitiesdocket.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Gupta-Rajat-Indictment-Signed-and-Stamped.pdf
3. The exchanges are called self-regulatory organizations (SROs) and have historically been the best regulators and watchdogs of unusual and potentially illegal market activity.
4. http://www.sec.gov/answers/insider.htm
5. 17 C.F.R. § 240.10b-5, promulgated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, pursuant to its authority granted under § 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934.
6. United States v. O'Hagan, 521 U.S. 642 (1997)