Jon Corzine, rogue trader

December 12, 2011
Dealbook has a big piece on what went wrong at MF Global today, which removes any doubt about the way in which the firm's sudden death was entirely the fault of Jon Corzine.

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Dealbook has a big piece on what went wrong at MF Global today, which removes any doubt about the way in which the firm’s sudden death was entirely the fault of Jon Corzine. The idea that Jon Corzine was a “rogue trader” has been raised in the past by the likes of Bill Cohan and John Carney, just on the basis of the size and riskiness of MF Global’s $6.3 billion bet on European sovereign debt. But now it’s looking increasingly as though Corzine demonstrated virtually all of the pathologies of the rogue trader more generally.

Lots of financial firms make big bets and blow up. But what we saw at MF Global was much more than that. In fact, as Corzine detailed at great length in his prepared testimony last week, his big sovereign-debt bet didn’t actually lose money at all. But MF Global died all the same, because the bet was so large and risky that it caused a fatal cascade of downgrades and margin calls.

Now the risk of such a fatal cascade is always front of mind at any broker-dealer, and all such firms have mechanisms in place to prevent any single bet getting big enough to imperil the company as a whole. What distinguishes rogue traders from traders who simply have big losses is fourfold:

  • they develop an ability to circumvent risk-management controls;
  • they aspire to be recognized as a star trader making huge amounts of money for the firm;
  • they tend to arrive earlier and leave later than anybody else, as they jealously guard their trades;
  • and they panic when losses start appearing, doing things which are downright illegal in the process.

Corzine had much more ability to get around risk-management controls than most rogue traders, because he was the CEO. As a result, his big sovereign bet was, relative to the size of the company which made it, by far the largest rogue trade of all time. And the way that he circumvented existing controls was brazen:

Soon after joining MF Global, Mr. Corzine torpedoed an effort to build a new risk system, a much-needed overhaul…

The size of the European position was making the firm’s top risk officers, Michael Roseman and Talha Chaudhry, increasingly uncomfortable by late 2010, according to people familiar with the situation. They pushed Mr. Corzine to seek approval from the board if he wanted to expand it… Mr. Roseman eventually left the firm.

In August, some directors questioned the chief executive, asking him to reduce the size of the position. Mr. Corzine calmly assured them they had little to fear.

“If you want a smaller or different position, maybe you don’t have the right guy here,” he told them.

As CEO, of course, Corzine could and did overrule or ignore any concerns about his big trade: “One senior trader said that each time he addressed his concerns, the chief executive would nod with understanding but do nothing,” we’re told in the Dealbook piece. Only the board had the ability to rein Corzine in — but Corzine made it abundantly clear that as far as he was concerned, the board had only one job: to keep him in his job, or to fire him. If they wanted him to run the company, he was going to run it his way, with all the risks that entailed.

Of course, Corzine was happy to structure his bet in such a way as to minimize its perceived riskiness:

The firm bought its European sovereign bonds making use of an arcane transaction known as repurchase-to-maturity. Repo-to-maturity allowed the company to classify the purchase of the bonds as a sale, rather than a risky bet subject to the whims of the market.

This is absolutely the kind of thing that a rogue trader does, rather than a CEO. A CEO wants to be paranoid about all risks; a rogue trader wants to hide them. It’s clear which one Corzine was.

Corzine’s risk circumvention has been widely reported already. But other parts of Corzine’s pathology were new to me. For instance:

He fashioned new trading desks, including one just for mortgage securities and a separate unit to trade using the firm’s own capital, a business known as proprietary trading.

Not to be outdone, Mr. Corzine was the most profitable trader in that team, known as the Principal Strategies Group, according to a person briefed on the matter. Mr. Corzine traded oil, Treasury securities and currencies and earned in excess of $10 million for the firm in 2011, the person said…

His obsession with trading was apparent to MF Global insiders over his 19-month tenure. Mr. Corzine compulsively traded for the firm on his BlackBerry during meetings, sometimes dashing out to check on the markets. And unusually for a chief executive, he became a core member of the group that traded using the firm’s money. His profits and losses appeared on a separate line in documents with his initials: JSC…

At Goldman, which he joined in 1975, the young bond trader quickly gained a reputation as someone able to take big risks and generate big profits. Even after ascending to the top of the firm, he kept his own trading account to make bets with the firm’s capital.

I still can’t quite believe this, although it does seem to be true — did Corzine really have his own personal trading account while also being CEO, both at Goldman and at MF Global? At Goldman, which was still a partnership when Corzine was in charge, there would at least have been serious limits on what he could trade, and the bank was big enough to be able to withstand losses in his personal account. But at MF Global, where he was charged with turning around the entire company, the picture of the CEO trading on his Blackberry during meetings is, frankly, bonkers.

Does this happen elsewhere? Are there other brokerages where the CEO has his own personal P&L line in the trading books? Citadel, perhaps.* But this is not a good idea. You want the CEO encouraging the rest of the trading desk, not competing with them. And you want the CEO judging himself by the performance of the firm as a whole, rather than obsessing over the profits and losses he’s personally responsible for.

Certainly the fact that Corzine was working two jobs — as well as more general rogue-trader pathology — helps to explain the fact that he “impressed colleagues” with his work ethic:

He often started his day with a five-mile run, landing in the office by 6 a.m. and was regularly the last person to leave the office.

(I’ll guess, though, that he wasn’t up at 2:30 most mornings, trading the European markets from the foot of his bed.)

In the macho world of Wall Street, working incredibly long hours is generally grounds for admiration, so it’s easy to see how this didn’t raise any red flags. But it should have.

And then, at the end of the story of any rogue trader comes the spiral of panic-driven illegal activity.

MF Global filed for bankruptcy on Oct. 31. As the firm spun out of control, it improperly transferred some customer money on Oct. 21 — days sooner than previously thought, said people briefed on the matter. And investigators are now examining whether MF Global was getting away with such illicit transfers as early as August, one person said, a revelation that would point to wrongdoing even before the firm was struggling to survive…

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’s enforcement 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.

It’s quite common for rogue traders to go to jail; as one of the biggest rogue traders in history, it looks as though Corzine might well join their ranks. It would certainly be a great shame if he avoided that fate by dint of the fact that he was CEO and therefore has some kind of plausible deniability about the mechanics of the illegal transfers. Everything in this sorry story has his fingerprints all over it.

*Update: Citadel calls to say that Ken Griffin, the CEO, does not engage in trading at the company.


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