What happened at MF Global

By Felix Salmon
November 1, 2011

MF Global made a massive leveraged bet on European debt, and then it died. That seems to be the conventional wisdom at this point, but it’s a bit oversimplified. A more accurate story would be to say that MF Global got involved in a complex liquidity-management trade, and that it didn’t have risk managers with the power or ability to cap the trade before it got too big.

Izabella Kaminska has the wonky details of MF Global’s repo-to-maturity trade. It’s not easy to follow, but here’s the general gist. MF Global buys a bunch of European debt. The bank’s explanation of the trade says that the purchases were “entered into repurchase and reverse repurchase transactions to maturity, which are accounted for as sales”. This is the repo-to-maturity trade.

In order to understand what that means, you first need to understand that banks like MF Global used to do nearly all their borrowing on an unsecured basis. But in recent years, that’s changed: nowadays, if you want to borrow billions of dollars for what MF Global calls “client facilitation and principal activities”, then you’re going to need to put up collateral.

So as soon as MF Global bought those bonds, it turned around and pledged them as collateral when it was borrowing money. That’s the repo.

Now here’s the trade: the rate at which it was borrowing money was lower than the coupon payments on the European sovereign bonds. And because this was a “repo-to-maturity”, MF Global was essentially locking in the difference as profit. It got to keep all the coupon payments, while it had to pay out something less than that in interest.

There were two risks with this trade. The first risk was that the European sovereigns would default, and that MF Global then wouldn’t have the resources to pay back in full the money it had borrowed. That was a solvency risk, but MF Global had a hedge there — a $1.3 billion short position in French government bonds.

And then there was the liquidity risk. As the MF Global slide notes, “MF Global retains obligation to post margin”. If the people lending money to MF Global started getting worried, they could require MF Global to put up more money.

And that seems to be exactly what happened. When questions started being raised about MF Global’s ability to continue as a going concern, its counterparties probably started asking for more collateral if they were locked into repo trades to maturity in 2012.

But MF Global, leveraged to the eyeballs, didn’t have that kind of extra money lying around. And so it needed to find a partner with deeper pockets who did. Corzine put the firm up for sale — and at one point it looked as though Interactive Brokers might be interested in buying the company at a fire-sale price. (Even after taking into account the fact that such a sale would generate an automatic $12 million check for Corzine.)

That sale didn’t happen, for a very good reason: there seemed to be $700 million missing from the bank accounts of MF Global’s customers.

MF Global, then, had two huge risk-management strikes against it. It had no way to manage the risk that its counterparties would ask for extra collateral, and it had a very weak grasp of where its customers’ money was.

In both cases, the buck stops with Jon Corzine.

At MF Global, Mr. Cohan asked: “Who in the world was going to stand up to Jon Corzine? Nobody. They didn’t have the compliance or the culture.”…

In the case of Mr. Corzine, at MF Global, he was the chairman and chief executive. Given that he was directing the investment strategy, he might as well have been the compliance officer too. The only people with any authority who could have meaningfully pushed back were the board.

The first job of the chairman of an investment bank is risk management. But Corzine has always been an aggressive trader; even at Goldman Sachs, with its legendary risk management, there were major trading losses under his watch in 1994.

For traders, risk managers are always the enemy; Corzine was a poacher who was never going to be comfortable in a role as gamekeeper. The Goldman culture kept him in check, to some degree, before it pushed him out; on his own, he was — literally — out of control. And as a result, thousands of his employees are now out of jobs. It’s a truly ignominious end to Corzine’s career.

Here’s Corzine from an earnings conference call just last week. This should be his epitaph.

“The spread between interest earned and the financing cost of the underlying repurchase agreement has often been attractive even as the structure of the transaction themselves essentially eliminates market and financing risk.”

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