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Corzine Starting Small in Bid for Redemption

Nelson D. Schwartz|The New York Times
Thursday, 13 May 2010 | 11:25 AM ET

For Jon S. Corzine, it has come to this: a bare Manhattan office still littered with mementos from the previous occupant, at a company few outside Wall Street have heard of.

It is a long way from Goldman Sachs , which he once ran, or Drumthwacket, the New Jersey governor’s mansion, from which he was booted by the voters in November.

Comedown though it may be, this is where Mr. Corzine, 63, finds himself, having returned to Wall Street in March as the chief executive of MF Global Holdings, a brokerage firm that specializes in futures and derivatives trading and is one-twentieth the size of Goldman.

Showing the kind of political poise that sometimes eluded him as governor, and before that, senator, Mr. Corzine professes to be thrilled, even energized, by the new job. “This was like a starburst. It’s hard to believe this kind of opportunity presented itself,” he said. “Goldman was small when I joined it, too.”

Unfortunately, ex-banker from Goldman Sachs is an even less appealing credential than one-term governor these days.

As bad as the rejection by the voters was, the fraud suit brought against Goldman by the Securities and Exchange Commission is another blow for Mr. Corzine, who ran Goldman from 1994 to 1999 and helped guide its journey from private partnership to public company.

Jon Corzine
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Jon Corzine

“When I ran for senator in 2000, being a Wall Street banker from Goldman Sachs was a major plus in your résumé,” he said. “People have seen excesses. There’s a different attitude about it.”

Still, Mr. Corzine has always shown the ability to bounce back from setbacks, whether it was being forced out as chief executive of Goldman a decade ago, or recovering from a near-fatal car accident as governor in 2007.

“He was tenacious,” said Jack Mazzotti, a friend of Mr. Corzine since their days in high school in rural Taylorville, Ill., about a four-hour drive south of Chicago. “He set out early on to make his mark and nothing was going to stop him.”

Second acts may be common enough on Wall Street, but this would be a much tougher third act, especially given the fierce competition in MF Global’s sector, where commissions have been whittled down and small companies have to fight for each transaction. As Mr. Corzine puts it, “We’re not too big to fail.”

At an age when contemporaries and rivals like Henry M. Paulson Jr., who succeeded Mr. Corzine at Goldman and went on to become the Treasury secretary, are writing memoirs, Mr. Corzine is aiming for a shot at redemption. He is getting his hands dirty at a firm full of rough-edged traders, rather than the Ivy League types who populate Goldman.

What is more, he is not the only former Wall Street chief to return with the goal of turning around a much-smaller company. John A. Thain, the former Goldman Sachs executive who ran the New York Stock Exchange and, less successfully, Merrill Lynch, is now steering CIT after its bankruptcy filing last fall.

Old Wall Streeters do not have a habit of fading away. There is always one more trade, especially when the last two or three have not worked out. And Mr. Corzine hardly wants to go out on a low note, not when regulation is about to transform the securities industry and he has enough contacts in Washington to help shape the process.

Mr. Corzine, who worked his way up from trading government bonds at Goldman, hardly needs the money. But he said his love of markets drew him back to his roots, as well as the opportunity to build up a firm that has a strong presence in futures and options trading but is still trying to expand into other areas, like bonds, and has not fully overcome a 2008 trading scandal.

“I wouldn’t have come here if I thought MF Global were going to be the same company in five or 10 years,” he said. “We have to find other ways of building revenue.”

His horizons will not be limited to MF Global, however. He plans to teach a class on public policy at Princeton this fall and now also serves as a partner at J. C. Flowers & Company, the private equity firm founded by his friend J. Christopher Flowers. J. C. Flowers owns a 10 percent stake in MF Global.

Seven months after Mr. Corzine lost a bid for a second term as governor, it is clear that the rejection at the polls still smarts. “It’s painful to lose, and anybody who tells you that it isn’t is disconnected from reality,” he said. “It impacts you personally and how you feel about yourself for a while. And it always sets up 20/20 hindsight.”

Unlike his loss in the election, Mr. Corzine never saw his ouster from Goldman coming. Power at Goldman has swung back and forth between investment bankers and traders for decades, and in 1999 Mr. Corzine lost out to the bankers, including Mr. Paulson, who was later the Treasury secretary under President George W. Bush.

Treasury Secretary Nominee Jon Corzine
CNBC.com
Treasury Secretary Nominee Jon Corzine

“Goldman was more of a shock,” he said. “It took a while to get my mind around it.”

Bruising as these exits have been, Mr. Corzine is not quite ready to quit the public arena. He hopes to emulate other elder statesmen who managed to bridge the gap between finance and public life, like Felix Rohatyn, the Lazard banker who helped save New York from bankruptcy in the 1970s and has been an adviser to mayors, governors and presidents ever since. Still, Mr. Corzine does a delicate dance when the subject of Goldman comes up, not exactly defending the company but not throwing it under the bus, either.

Goldman was among many big players in the market for synthetic collateralized debt obligations, the complex mortgage securities at the heart of the S.E.C.’s civil fraud suit, he said. “This transaction isn’t unique relative to what other people have done. They’re a proxy for the industry, so maybe that calls on you to carry yourself with a little more discretion.”

He cannot help sympathizing with Lloyd C. Blankfein, Goldman’s chief executive and a former subordinate of Mr. Corzine’s on the trading floor.

“You had a prosecutor’s mentality in terms of how the senators acted,” he said. “The committee has a mentality and a mandate to discover wrongdoing.”

What about the charges? “It looks like a thin legal case to me,” he said. “You had people identified as suitable customers. Ultimately, it’s an issue of whether you wanted to be in synthetic C.D.O.’s.”

But as he knows well from politics, public attitudes are a whole different story. “On a public relations basis, Goldman was going to lose to begin with when you see civil fraud on the table,” he said.

For all the negative publicity surrounding Goldman, Mr. Corzine’s presence could help restore investor confidence in MF Global’s top management.

MF Global had a scandal of its own in 2008, when a rogue trader made unauthorized bets on wheat, incurring a $141 million loss and sending MF Global’s shares 93 percent lower. The company was fined $10 million, and late last month, the trader was indicted on fraud charges.

Shares of MF Global have never recovered from that plunge, and with estimated 2010 revenue of $1.86 billion, MF Global is a minnow compared to Goldman and its $45 billion in revenue.

Still, Mr. Corzine is having more success so far with MF Global shareholders than he did with New Jersey voters. The stock is up 25 percent since he joined, and Wall Street was pleased that MF Global was able to snag him.

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