Christopher Helman, Forbes Staff
I’m based in Houston, Texas, energy capital of the world.
Paul Buhlman swears the president’s ban on deepwater drilling killed his oil company. The whole story is a bit more complex.
(This story will appear in the Sept. 11, 2012 issue of Forbes Magazine)
When I get Paul Bulmahn on the phone rumors are swirling that he’s just days from putting his company, ATP Oil & Gas, into Chapter 11. He can’t confirm it yet, but he wants to make one thing perfectly clear: If it does come to bankruptcy (which it did on August 17) it isn’t his fault. The founder and chairman of publicly traded ATP (Nasdaq:ATPG), Bulmahn wants the world to know that the Obama Administration—and its illegal ban on deepwater drilling in the wake of the BP disaster—is to blame for the implosion of his company. Not him.
“It is all directly attributable to what the government did to us,” he rails. “This Administration has gone out of its way to create problems for my company, the company that I formed from scratch.” He’s more than angry. Bulmahn, 68, has already brought suit against the U.S. government seeking damages ($68 million to start with) for the 2010 moratorium that shut down deepwater operations in the Gulf of Mexico for the better part of a year. In an earlier case brought by ATP and rig company Ensco, Federal District Judge Martin Feldman ruled in May 2011 that the feds “acted unlawfully by unreasonably delaying action” on drilling permit applications. Still, ATP has a long, winding road to any hope of recovering damages from the government (which says it’s protected from claims by sovereign immunity).
That’s proving disastrous for Bulmahn. While hundreds of companies with operations in the gulf were affected by the government’s decision, perhaps no other was as hard hit as ATP—or as vulnerable. In 2010 the company had completed work on its $800 million deepwater production platform Titan and floated it out to the deepwater Telemark field 160 miles south of New Orleans. Bulmahn planned for Titan to complete drilling the final feet of four wells, hook them up, and let the oil—and the cash—start rolling in.
On April 19, 2010 ATP refinanced and rolled up $1.5 billion in debt into a new bond issue “and celebrated with champagne.” He says that at the time ATP stood a good chance of doubling its oil and gas volumes to 50,000 barrels per day within a year.
But the Deepwater Horizon exploded April 20. “We didn’t foresee an impact. The Titan is 80 miles farther south, and the spill is going to drift to the north,” says Bulmahn. Underwriter JPMorgan agreed, and it closed on the bond offering.
Soon ATP was informed by regulators that it would not be allowed to complete those Telemark wells, even though Titan was already outfitted with all the safety redun- dancies subsequently required for deepwater work. “They closed our spigot on revenues, but didn’t stop our expenses” for interest payments, rig contracts and the like. Bulmahn scrambled to spin off Titan as a subsidiary and borrowed $350 million more against it. ATP posted a net loss of $349 million in 2010.
It hasn’t gotten much better since. Overleveraged, ATP was balanced on a knife edge. The final Telemark wells didn’t get hooked up until earlier this year. Meanwhile, ATP has been burning through cash on what appears to be an ill-advised exploratory drilling campaign off Israel. In the past year ATP has lost $250 million on $600 million in revenues and now heads into bankruptcy, crushed by $2.7 billion in long-term debt and obligations and $300 million in annual interest payments. Bulmahn’s shares used to be worth $400 million; now they’re worthless.
But, say those who know ATP, you can only blame the Obama Administration for so much of the drama. “The moratorium had an effect on a lot of companies, but this is the only one blaming the moratorium two years later,” says an oil executive with direct knowledge of ATP.
Ravi Kamath, high-yield analyst with Global Hunter Securities, has been bearish on ATP for years and had a sell rating on ATP debt since early 2011, when it was trading at 104 cents on the dollar. It’s fallen to 29 cents now. Kamath says ATP’s problems reach far beyond the moratorium. He keeps a spreadsheet with 105 instances from the past decade where he says ATP has overpromised and then underdelivered. “Bulmahn has said lots of stuff that never happened,” says Kamath. “They have 11 years of bad forecasts.”
The first Telemark well was hooked up to Titan before the BP blowout, “but the project was already a year behind schedule and over budget.” Multiyear delays were normal at other ATP fields, too. What’s more, in August 2011 ATP said the third Telemark well was going to deliver 7,000 barrels per day. One month later the well was doing only 3,500. “With their cost of capital it’s just crazy to invest hundreds of millions to build a platform from scratch,” says Kamath. “They live in fantasyland.”
Yet instead of slashing costs and circling wagons, Bulmahn in late 2010 chose to take ATP on an international adventure. “I felt the need to find a way to keep our technically expert people occupied,” he says. That meant forging a deal with Isramco to drill an exploratory well offshore of Israel, near an area that has seen some massive natural gas discoveries. One well was finished in June; drilled to a depth of 14,000 feet it tapped as much as 800 billion cubic feet of gas. Sounds good, but it will be years before the infrastructure can be put in place to harvest it. Meanwhile ATP has $40 million in costs sunk off the coast of Israel.
Bulmahn says he’d like to retire; he owns a horse farm in Florida and has cashed out $100 million in ATP stock over the years (though, he insists, he’s eschewed $7 million in bonuses granted him since 2009). Earlier in 2012 he hired Matt McCarroll as ATP’s new CEO. McCarroll had expanded deepwater operator Dynamic Offshore Resources and sold it to SandRidge Energy for $1.3 billion. Yet after a week at ATP McCarroll left and rescinded his agreement to buy 1 million shares. The belief is that McCarroll was scared off by Bulmahn’s unwillingness to back a complete overhaul of ATP. Trying to salvage the status quo wasn’t an option. “He wasn’t the right fit,” says Bulmahn. McCarroll declined comment.
So what happens to ATP from here? They have already secured $600 million in debtor-in-possession financing, but after first-lien holders like Michael Dell’s MSD Capital are paid off, that won’t get it very far. Analysts say investors holding common shares, preferreds, convertible bonds and unsecured debt will get wiped out. Buyout bids are welcome.
So at this point, legal claims might be the most valuable asset ATP has left. In addition to the case pending against the U.S. government, ATP is pursuing claims against deep-pocketed BP. Who knows? With luck and lawyers, Bulmahn could still strike something.
More from the archives:
- ATP Oil And Gas Files For Bankruptcy, CEO Blames Obama (zerohedge.com)
- Drilling Moratorium Leads ATP to Chapter 11 (gcaptain.com)
Industry analysts are predicting a massive bout of bankruptcies for hundreds of American solar firms as the market for solar panels, inflated by zealous government backing, begins to cool down.
The fallout could be dramatic, CNN reported Wednesday. “Of the few hundred or so solar panel makers worldwide, just 20 to 40 are expected to remain standing in a few years time, said Mark Bachman, a renewables analyst at Avian Securities.”
“A combination of slack demand and massive oversupply” is leading to rapidly declining prices for solar panels, CNN reports. The supply side of that equation, at least, has been exacerbated by a federal government that gives lavish incentives to startups looking to sell solar panels. Given that solar remains a more expensive alternative to fossil fuels, a lack of consumer demand is perhaps unsurprising.
But the impending bankruptcies of so many solar companies will almost assuredly ensnare companies backed by taxpayer financing. Solyndra was the most high profile federally-backed company to go under. Evergreen Solar also received support from the Energy Department.
Those two will not be the last to go under, analysts say. “Solyndra was just the beginning,” another industry expert said. “We’re going to see a lot of companies go bankrupt.”
Heads should roll. Don’t bet on it.
He also was one of legions of corrupt politicians as US senator and New Jersey governor. His extreme, longstanding criminality warrants putting him in prison for life. No restitution can reverse his harm. It’s true also for many others like him.
Before its collapse, MF Global (MFG) faced a run on its holdings. On October 31, it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
On November 19, Reuters said the firm “moved hundreds of millions of dollars in customer money from its US brokerage unit to Bank of New York Mellon Corp. in August, just months before filing for bankruptcy….”
In other words, MFG lawlessly looted customer accounts. It used client money for its own purposes to speculate, as well as cover debt obligations and losses. At issue is grand theft.
In fact, it’s one of the most brazen acts in memory in a business notorious for outrageous criminality. What ever’s gotten away with incentivizes Wall Street crooks to steal more. Why not! At most, they’re slap on the wrist punishments mock rule of law justice.
On November 19 on the Kaiser Report, Barry Ritholtz commented on the big lie, hyper-leveraged banks, the MFG scandal, and congressional political whores, saying:
People responsible for creating these problems shift blame to others. Facts say otherwise. Wall Street speculators take big risks. They use hyper-leverage that’s only effective when it works.
“Their models were wildly optimistic. Banking is supposed to be very boring.” Decisions are supposed to be made about who’s credit worthy and who isn’t. Instead, reckless speculation replaced investing and sound lending policies.
Wall Street’s ideology is bankrupt, “and it’s causing global damage to the economy. For investment banks, the five biggest houses got waivers on leverage rules.”
SEC collaborators rigged the system for them. These banks also “happen to be the five biggest donors to Congress,” or among the largest. Over time, successful lobbying removed everything affecting profits, no matter the risk. The SEC, Fed, FDIC and CME rigged the system for them.
Brazen fraud became standard practice. Criminals deserving prison keep stealing. The dirty game involves grabbing “whatever the hell you want and run for the hills. No one will prosecute you.”
“MF Global is another order of magnitude. If anyone is going to jail over this whole period, it has to be” their top officials. Don’t bet on it, especially a power broker like Corzine.
He’s directly responsible for stealing $1.2 billion in client funds. He looted them brazenly. According to Bloomberg:
“Examiners from CME Group Inc., the world’s largest futures exchange, found unexplained wire transfers” and $1.2 billion “during the weekend the failing broker was talking with possible buyers, a person briefed on the matter said.”
Multiple investigations began, including by Justice Department lawyers. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) were responsible for overseeing MFG. They knew what went on but did nothing.
Huffington Post writer Daniel Dicker said the Koch Brothers were tipped off in time to get out safely. Others weren’t as lucky.
MFG is America’s eighth largest bankruptcy, the first major one the Eurozone crisis caused. Expect more ahead.
Practices cratering economies in 2008 continue. Nations teeter on bankruptcy. Corzine bet heavily that Spanish and Italian debt wouldn’t collapse.
Using 40 to 1 leverage, he bet massively the wrong way. His second quarter $190 million loss drove investors away. Those remaining lost everything. Corzine and top executives pocketed millions.
In 1999, he was worth an estimated $400 million when he left Goldman Sachs. Perhaps its double that now, including funds looted from MFG. We may know more later on.
From 1994 – 1994, Corzine headed Goldman Sachs during the time banking became deregulated. Carter began it late in his tenure. Reagan did much more. Clinton completed unfinished business. James Petras calls the 1990s “the golden age of pillage,” the decade of anything goes.
It persists in the new millennium because political Washington and regulators look the other way, profiting handsomely by doing it. Everyone feathers nests belonging to others. Self-sustaining corruption continues. Only little people and unknowing investors get scammed. Power brokers make out like bandits.
After losing his 2009 gubernatorial reelection bid, government regulators welcomed Corzine back on Wall Street. New York Fed president William Dudley (a fellow Goldman alumnus) made MFG a “primary dealer.” Despite its size and a former trading scandal $10 million fine, it became one of a handful of firms marketing US Treasuries.
At the behest of Corzine and other power brokers, CFTC head Gary Gensler suspended implementation of new rules imposing limits on broker-dealer use of client funds, especially for foreign sovereign debt. In other words, they were freed to commit grand theft. MFG took full advantage.
Wall Street Journal Money & Investing editor Francesco Guerrera wrote about “Three Lessons From the Collapse.” He quoted University of San Diego Professor Frank Partnoy, saying:
MFG’s “failure illustrates how much financial markets are about trust and confidence. Once you lose those, you are done.”
Guerrera’s three lessons include:
- closing accounting loopholes and strengthening oversight;
- establishing lead regulators for nonbank financial firms; and
- writing new rules for “nonsystemic” firms as well as “too big to fail” ones.
Dodd-Frank financial reform left a broken system in place. The entire law needs rewriting. Better still, scrap it and start over. Stiff regulations with teeth are needed, including mandatory prosecution of crooks, especially those highest up to let others know invulnerability days are over.
When culpable CEO heads roll, it’ll be a good start. However, game-changer differences won’t happen until all high level Wall Street swindlers wear numbered striped suits.
Trends forecaster Gerald Celente lost $100,000 in an MF Global gold futures account. He told Russia Today:
“I really got burned. I got a call,” saying “I needed to have a margin call. (W)hat are you talking about,” he asked? “I’ve got a ton of money in my account. They responded, oh no you don’t. That money’s with a trustee now.”
His advice for everyone holding gold ETFs is cash out because “they are going to steal all our money.” Angry about MF Global’s theft, he called Corzine a “cheap SOB.” He’s that and much more.
“How come he’s not in Jail,” railed Celente. It’s “because he’s one of the white shoe boys from the Goldman Sachs crowd.” He added that “the merger of state and corporate power” brought “fascism” to America.
The entire system’s too corrupted to fix. Only tearing it down and starting over can work. It’s high time the process started. Hopefully, OWS protests began it.
Rumor has it that JPMorgan Chase and perhaps other Wall Street banks are involved. Judge Martin Glenn is handling MFG’s bankruptcy. HL Camp, Proprietor of HL Camp Futures , wrote him as follows:
“Our firm is a registered introducing broker with the CFTC. I have written to you previously on behalf of our customers.”
“Here is a comment this morning from one of our former customers in Europe,” saying:
“I will never do business in the United States of America again.”
According to Camp, “(t)he system is to protect futures accounts is broken. And the whole world knows it.”
“What started as a failure of one FCM (Futures Commission Merchant) that quickly gave a black eye to the CFTC and especially the CME has now made our United States of America a very bad joke to commodity futures traders all over the world.”
“The problem this morning is not just excess margin equity.”
“The problem this morning is the reputation of the United States of America.”
“Thank you very much for your time and for listening.”
Forbes staff writer Robert Lenzner said traders and clients didn’t know about MFG’s unscrupulousness. He said a CFTC loophole lets firms speculate with segregated client accounts. Few know it without carefully reading contract fine print or getting sound legal advice.
Lenzner’s lesson one is CFTC Rule 1.29 must be scraped. It lets futures commission merchants gamble with client funds.
Lesson two is knowing personal funds aren’t safe in futures metals, energy, precious metals, or agricultural
Lesson three is resolving which regulator oversees firms like MFG – the CFTC or CME. One should have primary responsibility and be held accountable for fraud.
Lenzner added that Justice Department attorneys are determining whether federal crimes occurred. He expects a lengthy process because MFG’s books “are in a state of chaos,” deliberately no doubt.
Whether anyone ends up indicted isn’t sure. At most perhaps, expect lower level patsies hung out to dry to let crime bosses like Corzine stay free to steal more. It’s how it always works.
- MF Global trustee doubles estimates of shortfall (mb50.wordpress.com)
- MF Global Revelations Keep Getting Worse (mb50.wordpress.com)
- Janet Tavakoli: MF Global Revelations Keep Getting Worse (huffingtonpost.com)
- MF Global may be missing $1.2-billion (business.financialpost.com)
- Shortfall estimated at $1.2 billion or more (up from $600 million)
- “Repo-to-Maturity” is a “Total Return Swap-to-Maturity,” a Type of Credit Derivative
- Probable Shortfalls Throughout 2011
- Jon Corzine to Credit Derivatives Head: Next Time “Double Up”
JT Note: Subsequent to this report Jim Parascandola told me that he was never
told to increase the size of any position, albeit his trades were profitable.
- Regulators Waive Required Tests for Jon Corzine
- Questions About How MF Global Became a Primary Dealer
- MF Global Wrote Rubber Checks for some Electronic Checks for Others
- Tip-Offs for Some Customers?
- CFTC’s Gary Gensler Didn’t Act
- MF Global Debacle Damages a Key Global Market
When MF Global collapsed on October 21, it was the biggest financial firm to collapse since Lehman in September 2008. Then Chairman and CEO Jon Corzine is connected to the head of one of his key regulators, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), through his former protÃ©gÃ© at Goldman Sachs, Gary Gensler. He also knows the Fed’s William Dudley, a key member of the Fed’s Open Market Committee, from their days at Goldman Sachs. The Fed approved MF Global’s status as a primary dealer, a participant in the Fed’s Open Market Operations, just before Jon Corzine took its helm and beached it on a reef called leveraged credit risk.
MF Global’s officers admitted to federal regulators that before the collapse, the firm diverted cash from customers’ accounts that were supposed to be segregated:
MF Global Holdings LTD. “violated requirements that it keep clients’ collateral separate from its own accounts…Craig Donohue, CME Group‘s chief executive officer, said on a conference call with analysts today that MF Global isn’t in compliance with the rules of the exchange and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.”
“MF Global Probe May Involve Hundreds of Millions in Funds,” Bloomberg News – November 1, 2001 by Silia Brush and Matthew Leising
Cash in customers’ accounts may be invested in allowable transactions, and MF was allowed to make extra revenue from the income. But what isn’t allowed, and what MF Global apparently admitted to doing, is to commingle customers’ money with its own and take money from customers’ accounts to meet margin calls on MF Global’s own allowable transactions. Even if all of the money is eventually clawed back and recovered, this remains an impermissible act. Moreover, full recovery–even if it is possible–is not the same as restitution. People have been denied access to their money, and businesses and reputations have been tarnished.
In layman’s terms, you may buy a Rolls Royce with customers’ excess cash, sell it at a profit, and pocket part of the profits. You may buy a Rolls Royce and try to resell it at a profit with your firm’s cash. But you aren’t allowed to take customers’ money to make the car payments on your firm’s Rolls Royce. If one engages in this impermissible activity, it becomes almost impossible to cover up if you have an accident driving your Rolls Royce.
Implausible Denial and an Ugly Surprise
On November 1, Kenneth Ziman, a lawyer for MF Global, relayed information from MF Global to U.S. Bankruptcy judge Martin Glenn in Manhattan: “To the best knowledge of management, there is no shortfall.” If that sounded like a cover-up, it was, unless of course you prefer to believe that the “best knowledge” of management is actually no knowledge at all.
How long does it take to find more than $600 million to $1.2 billion of customers’ money? MF Global’s books seem so messed up that one person couldn’t have created this chaos alone. A lot of people had to agree to throw away controls, standards, and procedures. I doubt this happened just in the final week or two before MF Global blew itself up.
“According to a U.S. official, MF Global admitted to federal regulators early Monday [October 31, 2011] that money was missing from customer accounts. MF Global acknowledged a shortfall in a phone call amid mounting questions from regulators as they went through the firm’s books.”
The initial bankruptcy estimate was a shortfall of around $600 million. As of Monday November 21, MF Global’s liquidating trustee believes the shortfall may be as much as $1.2 billion and possibly even more
“Repo-to-Maturity” is a “Total Return Swap-to-Maturity,” A Type of Credit Derivative
If you call a total return swap-to-maturity a “repo-to-maturity,” you are much less likely to freak out regulators. Many regulators still remember that Long Term Capital Management (LTCM) used total return swaps (among other things). Jon Corzine should remember, too, since he was closely involved with LTCM when he headed Goldman Sachs. In September of 2011, FINRA seemed to catch on that MF Global’s transactions were riskier than it previously thought and asked for more capital against these trades.
Part of AIG’s acute distress in 2008 was due to credit default swaps, another type of credit derivative, linked to the risk of shady overrated collateralized debt obligations. The basic problem was risk on fixed income assets that could only go down in value combined with lots of leverage.
I’d like to interject a side note. I understand that some pundits tried to say that the New York Times’s Gretchen Morgenson was incorrect when she wrote MF Global was felled by derivative bets. She is correct. The pundits leaped to the conclusion that when she referred to credit derivatives and “swaps” that she meant credit default swaps, but she was referring to total return swaps, a type of credit derivative. (Later in the article she discussed a different topic, lack of transparency in credit default swaps, another type of credit derivative.)
MF Global’s problematic trades were different from AIG’s, but they were also derivatives, in fact, they were a form of credit derivative. The “repo-to-maturity” transaction was just a form over substance gimmick to disguise this fact. Specifically the transactions are total return swaps, a type of credit derivative, and the chief purpose of these transactions is leverage.
A total return swap-to-maturity includes a type of credit derivative. It allows you to sell a bond you own and get off-balance sheet financing in the form of a total return swap. Alternatively, you can get off-balance sheet financing on a bond with risk you want (but do not currently own so there is no need to sell anything) and take the risk of the default and price risk. (Price risk can be due both to credit risk and/or interest rate risk.) This is an off-balance sheet transaction in which the total return receiver (MF Global) has both the price risk and the default risk of the reference bonds. In this case, MF Global had the price risk and the default risk of $6.3 billion of the sovereign debt of Belgium, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland. As it happened, the price fluctuations of this debt in 2011 weren’t due to a general rise in interest rates, they were due to a general increase in the perceived credit risk of this debt.
Repo transactions are on balance sheet transactions, but they don’t draw as much scrutiny from regulators. There was just one little problem. MF Global wanted the off-balance sheet treatment of a derivative, a total return swap, but it didn’t want to call it a total return swap, so it used smoke and mirrors. Even if MF Global engaged in a wash trade at the end (if there is no default in the meantime) to buy back the bonds, MF Global would receive par on the bonds from the maturing bonds. The repurchase trade at maturity is a formality with no real (or material) economic consequence.
In other words, the “repo-to-maturity” exploits a form-over-substance trick to avoid calling this transaction a total return swap. Accountants paid by the form-over-substance seekers and asleep-at-the-switch regulators will sometimes, at least temporarily, go along with this sort of relabeling.
The fact that MF Global was exposed in a leveraged way to default risk and liquidity risk because of these transactions and that the risk was- linked to European sovereign debt was disclosed in MF Global’s 10K for the year ending March 31, 2011, a required financial statement filed with the SEC. The CFTC and other regulators had the information right under their noses, but it appears they didn’t understand that they were looking at a leveraged credit derivative transaction that could lead to margin calls that MF Global would be unable to meet.
See Also: “Credit Derivatives and Leverage Sank Jon Corzine’s MF Global,” by Janet Tavkaoli, Huffington Post, November 4, 2011,
The result is that yet another large financial institution has been felled when it couldn’t meet margin calls due to the credit risk of fixed income assets combined with high leverage in an off-balance sheet transaction. The ugliest part of this story, however, isn’t that MF Global got in over its head, it’s that the bankruptcy trustee estimates customers’ money to the tune of $1.2 billion or more is still missing.
Probable Shortfalls Throughout 2011
MF Global reportedly employed 35:1 leverage–some reports are 40:1–against a portfolio comprised around 20% of European Sovereign risks including Belgium, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland. MF Global would have had several trading days in 2011 with moves of 5% to 10% on this sovereign risk. MF Global was so thinly capitalized that this trade alone could eat up half of its capital. Any of MF Global’s other asset positions moving the same way in 2011’s highly correlated markets would have put MF Global in a position of negative equity. From a risk management point of view, examiners have to consider the very strong possibility that MF Global had several negative equity days throughout 2011.
How did MF Global meet margin calls throughout 2011? It seems an investigation into money flows throughout 2011 is in order.
By the end of October, the combination of a $90 million August legal settlement against MF Global coming due, increased capital calls by FINRA, and margin hikes from counterparties worried about MF Global’s credit made it impossible for MF Global to cover up its shortfall.
Regulators Waive Required Tests for Jon Corzine
Jon Corzine resigned as Chairman and CEO of MF Global on November 4, just days after the October 31 bankruptcy announcement. As a matter of corporate governance, holding the position of Chairman and CEO meant that Corzine had a lot of concentrated power with little oversight. Many question the wisdom of a corporate structure that allows officers to hold this dual position. (Ken Lewis, the former Chairman and CEO that merged Bank of America into the poorhouse held this dual role, too. Lewis defended this practice at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago’s Bank Structure Conference in 2003.) Corzine was the former governor of New Jersey and had been out of the active markets for twelve years. Prior to that, until 1999 he had been the CEO of Goldman Sachs.
The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Inc. (FINRA) gave Jon Corzine a waiver from his Series 7 and Series 24 exams when he took the helm of MF Global in March 2010. The former is required for anyone involved in the investment banking or securities business including supervision, solicitation, or training of persons associated with MF Global, and that included Corzine. As an officer of MF Global the latter was required for Corzine, since he had been out of the business for around 12 years or more than six times the 2 year expiration date for reactivating these qualifications.
Jon Corzine to Credit Derivatives Head: Next Time “Double Up” (See note below)
The test waiver by regulators seems to be blatant cronyism, because Corzine not only hadn’t been involved in the day-to-day markets for more than a decade, his responsibilities at MF Global included active decision making. The waiver wasn’t justified. Corzine reportedly authored the strategy for the MF Global killing trades, and he also had authority on the trading floor.
Jon Corzine pushed traders to increase their risk. According to an MF Global employee, Corzine knelt down beside Jim Parascandola, head of credit derivatives trading, and told him that next time he should “double up” on his winning protection bets on brokerages. Traders loved Corzine, because he pushed them to increase risk. Now the traders aren’t lifting offers, they’re pounding the pavement.
Update: Subsequent to this report Jim Parascandola told me that he was never told to increase the size of any position, albeit his trades were profitable.
MF Global Becomes a Primary Dealer Unregulated by the Fed: How Did That Happen?
MF Global’s financials were shaky ever since Man Group spun it off in 2005 and saddled it with a lot of debt. Yet MF Global was added to the Fed’s list of 22 primary dealers in February 2011, just before former Goldman CEO Jon Corzine officially came on board. Primary dealers buy and sell U.S. treasuries at auction and are a counterparty to the Fed’s Open Market operations.
William C. Dudley is the president and chief executive officer of the FRBNY. He is also vice chairman of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) and VP of the Markets Group, which oversees open market and foreign exchange trading operations and provisions of account services to foreign central banks and manages the System Open Market Account. Dudley is a former partner at Goldman Sachs (1986-2007), and he was Goldman’s chief economist.
David Kotok of Cumberland Advisors has raised important questions about the fact that the Fed has dropped its role of surveillance of primary dealers, and his commentaries are available here.
Besides trading treasuries, the big benefit to primary dealers is the perception that the Fed will provide funding to primary dealers during a systemic liquidity crunch. Just before Bear Stearns imploded, the Fed changed the rules so that non-U.S. banks, along with brokers that were primary dealers (as MF Global later became), were allowed to borrow through a program called a Term Securities Lending Facility (TSLF) to finance mortgage backed securities, asset backed securities, and more. TSLF’s start date was too late to help Bear Stearns, and the program has now been discontinued, but the perception of a Fed safety net has precedence.
Why did the Fed award prestigious primary dealer status to a shaky operation like MF Global, an entity it does not regulate?
MF Global Stalled and Wrote Rubber Checks: Did Some Customers Get Better Treatment?
The week before the bankruptcy, when customers asked for excess cash from their accounts, MF Global stalled. According to a commodity fund manager I spoke with, MF Global’s first stall tactic was to claim it lost wire transfer instructions. Instead of issuing an electronic check or sending an overnight check, MF Global sent paper checks via snail mail, including checks for hundreds of thousands of dollars. The checks bounced. After the checks bounced, the amounts were still debited from customer accounts, and no one at MF Global could or would reverse the check entries. The manager has had to intervene to get MF Global to correct this, and still hasn’t gotten the entries corrected. Reuters’s Matthew Goldstein reported more in “MF Global and the Rubber Check.”
I thought that was bad enough, but on November 10 I was a guest on Stocks & Jocks, a Chicago radio show, when Jon Najarian said that a large broker he knows got a $400,000 electronic check from MF Global the Friday before that bankruptcy, and the check cleared. If that’s accurate, MF Global treated some customers differently than others.
Tip-Offs for Some Customers?
In August, customers started pulling billions of dollars out of their segregated accounts with MF Global. It was the biggest outflow of funds since January 2009. The bankruptcy trustee may clawback transfers of funds from MF Global as it was teetering, because it is likely that employees within MF Global were well aware of the problems and tipped off key customers.
Yet Gary Gensler, head of the CFTC, did not investigate or begin transferring accounts out of MF Global before the bankruptcy, and that is unprecedented for the CFTC. Given that Gary Gensler was a protÃ©gÃ© of Jon Corzine at Goldman Sachs, one should question why Gary Gensler didn’t act and why he should be allowed to remain head of the CFTC.
CFTC’s Gary Gensler Didn’t Act
Gary Gensler, Jon Corzine’s former Goldman Sachs colleague and current head of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), had reason to be concerned about MF Global’s risk management. In early 2008, a rogue trader racked up $141.5 million in losses in unauthorized trades that exceeded his trading limits. It seems he accomplished this in under seven hours. In August of this year, MF Global and the underwriters of its 2007 initial public stock offering (IPO) agreed to pay around $90 million to settle claims by investors that they were misled about MF Global’s risk management prior to the rogue trader’s actions. Since 2008, MF Global’s financial condition has been nothing to brag about. Now the settlement is in jeopardy due to the bankruptcy. [Michael Stockman, the chief risk officer of MF Global as of January 2011 (after the previous mentioned incident) was in my Liar’s Poker training class lampooned by another classmate, Michael Lewis.]
In the past, the exchanges and CFTC “always” moved customer positions before a Futures Commission Merchant (FCM) declared bankruptcy. The CFTC had ample reason to have contingency plans for MF Global based on publicly available information. Yet the Gensler-led CFTC hasn’t followed this historical precedent when an FCM led by his former Goldman colleague teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Gensler has recused himself from the CFTC’s probe of MF Global.
The exchange-traded futures markets have been shaken to the core. The Bankruptcy Code apparently conflicts with the Commodity Exchange Act, so customers of MF Global have less protection than one might expect. The Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC) is not the FDIC. Account holders have no idea how long it will take to get back all of their money, if it is there to be recovered, and right now, it appears a lot of it cannot be found. This is why many traders sweep all of the excess cash out of their accounts each day, and only put in cash when required.
MF Global Debacle Damages a Key Global Market
The “risk wizards” of Goldman Sachs once again look like market wrecking balls. The futures market is a globally connected market and it is a key mechanism for farmers, metals miners, and metals fabricators (among others) to hedge their risk. Confidence in the futures market has been shaken. No one knows if their money is safe, but what is more disturbing is the appearance of crony capitalism once again giving favored treatment, lax regulation, and absent oversight to a crony capitalist that abused all of these perks to blow up a large financial firm and damage a key global market.
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- MF Global may be missing $1.2-billion (business.financialpost.com)
- MF Global Trustee Says Commingling Shortfall May Be Double Previous Estimate, Could Reach “$1.2 Billion Or More” (zerohedge.com)
- CME May Face Liability Related to MF Global (forexlive.com)
- Trustee: Up to $1.2 billion missing from MF Global customers’ accounts (mercurynews.com)
- Janet Tavakoli: MF Global Revelations Keep Getting Worse (huffingtonpost.com)