MF Global: back to the futures

The implosion of MF Global Holdings Ltd, the largest independent U.S. futures broker until it filed for bankruptcy protection on Monday, calls to mind the collapse of Refco – which in its time was the largest independent U.S. futures broker – after revelations that Refco’s CEO had defrauded his investors. (London hedge fund company Man Group Plc bought Refco’s futures brokerage just about six years ago, and later spun off its brokerage and renamed it MF Global.)

But now that questions are arising on the whereabouts of assets that clients entrusted to Jon Corzine’s firm to back their futures trades,  it may also be worthwhile to bear in mind the bankruptcy of another futures brokerage – that of Sentinel Management, in 2007.

Sentinel was a different kind of futures brokerage than MF Global. The company largely managed money for other futures brokers, delivering outsized returns that, Sentinel’s bankruptcy trustee says, were juiced up by improperly using customer money to secure bank loans that went to fund risky trades.  When the credit crisis hit in the summer of 2007, the scheme unraveled, and Sentinel quickly plunged into bankruptcy. Sentinel managed about $2 billion in customer assets; about $600 million of it was never recovered, and clients are still wrangling over how to divvy up what remains.

Futures brokers are required to keep their customers’ funds in dedicated accounts to protect them from being used for anything other than client business. At Sentinel, customer funds were allegedly moved from those protected accounts to other accounts so they could be used as collateral for loans to Sentinel’s  own trading operations. What happened at Sentinel “is one of the biggest regulatory violations you can commit,” explains Sentinel’s bankruptcy trustee Frederick Grede, because keeping customer accounts separate is a bedrock of the futures industry.  “It is so rare that when you first look at it, you can’t believe that it happened.” (Update: Sentinel’s former owner and head trader both deny they mixed client accounts with the house account.)

Still, it does happen. In fact, Refco was slapped with a $1.25 million fine in 1994 and another $925,000 fine in 1996 for failing to segregate customer funds. But no customers lost money because of it. At Sentinel, it appears they did.

Bernanke and bank rules: lessons sort of learned

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke on Wednesday gave a speech on the lessons about sustained growth that can be gleaned from the experience of emerging markets. Bernanke said not all of the “Washington consensus” policies pushed by multilateral lenders in the 1990s had proven fruitful. In particular, he said the Asian financial crisis showed the risks of opening up financial markets to foreign capital flows until a country has implemented measures to strengthen banks and regulation.

Yet Bernanke missed an opportunity to link his speech back to the recent experience of the United States. For while his message was tailored for the developing world, he may as well have been describing the U.S. banking sector in the run-up to the 2008-2009 financial crisis:

Dismantling controls on the domestic financial industry has proven counterproductive when important complementary factors — such as effective bank supervision … were absent.

from Reuters Investigates:

Let’s be ethical, economists say

Last month's special report “For some professors, disclosure is academic” has been making waves in the academic world, as this story shows:

Economists urge AEA to adopt ethics code: letter

By Kristina Cooke

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Almost three hundred economists have signed a letter to the American Economic Association "strongly" urging it to adopt a code of ethics requiring disclosure of potential conflicts of interests.

The 135-year-old American Economic Association, or AEA, does not have a code of conduct for its approximately 18,000 members. Over half of its members are academics, according to its website.

Transforming the FIRE Economy

What went wrong and where we should go are topical post-crisis discussions and many books have been dedicated to tackle this question.


Eric Janszen, U.S.-based economic analyst, is the latest in analysing the crisis and its aftermath. He thinks that the problems of the global economy are rooted in the flaws of the debt-driven FIRE Economy (Finance, Insurance and Real Estate) and the only way out of the crisis is to change the fundamental approach.

“The entire economic system has been glued together by one profound fantasy: Finance can substitute for production, and credit for savings. Private debt, of households and businesses, and public debt, of governments federal, state, and local, foreign and domestic, piled up like snow by a blizzard of lending through mortgages, bonds offerings, and securitizations over decades. It then avalanched upon us,” Janszen wrote in his new book.

Are CDS markets the euro zone’s iceberg?

icebergIn an unfortunate turn of phrase at the height of his country’s current debt crisis, Greek Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou on Monday compared his government’s Herculean task in slashing deficits and debts as akin to changing the course of the Titanic. Sadly, we all know where the great “unsinkable” ended up almost a century ago and I’m sure,  given the chance, Mr Papaconstantinou would have chosen another metaphor. But if the Greek economy (or perhaps the euro zone at large?) is to be cast as the Titanic, then what is its potential iceberg?

For some euro politicians, look no further than the sovereign Credit Default Swaps market. France’s finance chief Christine Lagarde said as much last week when she questioned “the validity, solidity of CDSs on sovereign risk” and warned speculators to be careful as regulators took a “second look” at the market and European governments closed ranks. Lagarde, of course, is not alone.  You can be sure CDS are being examined long and hard by Spanish intelligence services investigating the “murky manoeuvres” in the debt markets.  But what is the exact charge against CDS?

CDS are ways to buy or sell insurance on the risk of debt defaults without needing to own the underlying bonds in the first place. It’s a way of hedging your debts, if you like, without having to go through the often more complicated game of selling securities short (or selling borrowed paper). In essence, it allows you to take a bet on default without having to go to the trouble of owning the bonds you’re insuring against.  Some critics, not unreasonably, would view this as the epitome of the casino capitalism that has elicited so much public outrage over the past three years . The fear is this market has become the tail wagging the dog.

from Davos Notebook:

Hank Paulson is not Gavrilo Princip, Lehman is not the Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Was letting Lehman go down the biggest mistake of the crisis? Many, including George Soros in the Financial Times, have argued that letting Lehman go down sowed panic to markets, consumers and businesses.

Not so fast, says Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, in an interview in Davos:

"My position is this is a typical error of historical understanding in which a single event is blamed for much more than it can possibly have caused. You can say ‘Hank Paulson is to blame for my troubles' and if you can change one thing in the story it would have a happy ending.

It's like saying if only Princip had not shot the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 there wouldn't have been a First World War.