A Romance With Risk That Brought On a Panic
Early Warning Signs, Then a Panic
Earlier, one of MF Global’s many regulators noticed something curious. The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which helped watch over MF Global’s securities business, noticed a sharp swing in profits in a monthly report the firm filed to regulators. Finra asked MF Global executives about the volatile accounting line but did not get a satisfactory answer, say people familiar with the matter, until the annual report came out weeks later.
When Finra realized what MF Global was doing, it grew concerned. The Wall Street self-regulator told MF Global to set aside enough money in case the trades went bad. But Finra didn’t have the authority to force the firm to do so — that power was in the hands of the Securities and Exchange Commission, whose rule Finra was citing.
Mr. Corzine then personally took the firm’s case to the S.E.C. in mid-August, taking the Delta Shuttle to Washington for a meeting with a top agency official.
The S.E.C. indicated it would side with Finra, but needed a few weeks to make a final determination. In the meantime, MF Global and Finra haggled over the size of the capital cushion: the regulator wanted $200 million set aside, while the firm pushed for a figure closer to $50 million. In late August, Finra won out.
It would be the beginning of the end for MF Global.
MF Global’s investors may not have been fully informed about the European bet, but the firm’s executives had been explaining the strategy to the ratings agencies for months, according to two people with direct knowledge of the conservations. Indeed, Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poor’s had applauded Mr. Corzine’s effort to overhaul the firm, a move that included ratcheting up risk.
“We consider the most recent strategic plan of the new C.E.O. Jon Corzine to be sound,” S.& P. said in 2010, while acknowledging the plan “will incrementally increase the firm’s risk profile.”
But the move by Finra to force the extra capital cushion appeared to only unnerve the ratings agencies when news reports about it emerged in October. A week later, Moody’s cut its rating on MF Global to a notch above junk, pointing to the European debt holdings.
The reversal angered some executives at MF Global, who felt it was disingenuous for the agency to change its mind so suddenly. A spokesman for the ratings agency said, “Moody’s does not refrain from taking rating action when its opinion on the credit risk of an issuer has changed.”
The downgrade sent MF Global into free fall on Oct. 25. Its stock price plunged and trading partners and lenders demanded more capital to continue doing business with the company. At day’s end, rattled employees dialed into a conference call with Mr. Corzine, who tried to be encouraging.
“The sun will come out tomorrow,” he told them, according to one employee.
In truth, the company had just two options: sell itself or unload assets. Mr. Corzine organized two teams. Mr. Abelow, his deputy, began hunting for a buyer and decamped to the 40th floor of the firm’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters. On the 39th floor, where his office was next to the trading floor, Mr. Corzine took charge of selling the assets.
On Friday evening, Oct. 28, regulators and top executives trooped into Mr. Corzine’s office, joining a phone conference with Mary L. Schapiro, chairwoman of the S.E.C. Pictures of Mr. Corzine with Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton sat on shelves near his desk. Towering stacks of paper lined the walls and windowsills of his modest office, partly obscuring the window view.
Dressed in his trademark sweater vest, Mr. Corzine expressed confidence a deal would be reached with one of the potential buyers, which included Interactive Brokers, JPMorgan Chase , the Jefferies Group and the Macquarie Group, according to people briefed on the call.
A deal became crucial as trading partners and lenders circled the firm. LCH. Clearnet, the firm responsible for clearing the vast majority of MF Global’s European sovereign debt trades, was also demanding $200 million to maintain the positions, atop $100 million it had claimed from MF Global earlier in the week, one person briefed on the situation said.
Other people close to the investigation, led by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission’senforcement division, have said that as the firm rushed to pay off creditors, MF Global dipped again and again into customer funds to meet the demands.
The bidders dropped out one by one, leaving just Interactive Brokers on Sunday, Oct. 30. Mr. Corzine and his team briefed regulators at 2 p.m. saying a sale looked likely to go through. About nine hours later, he got word that more than $950 million in customer funds was missing, making a merger impossible. The day after the bankruptcy, Mr. Corzine sifted through transactions in the hope of locating the missing money, one person said.
Ultimately, the bets Corzine placed wound up better than the firm itself. The European debt trades were profitable, though too late for MF Global.
Before Congress on Thursday, Mr. Corzine continued to emphasize how well his trades held up. “As of today, none of the foreign debt securities that MF Global used,” he said, “has defaulted or been restructured.”
“There actually were no losses.”