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Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Downfall of MF Global: Implications for Banks Too Big To Fail

Here is an alphabet-soup of regulatory agencies that let MF Global, a financial services company that specialized in futures-trading, engage in much, too much, risk: SEC, CME, CFTC and FINRA. On one level, regulators will never be able to stop practitioners from making risky or simply bad decisions; a business system populated only by firms above average is by definition impossible. As long as their managers have any freedom of movement at all, some firms, including some in the financial sector, will inevitably fail. The question I want to pose is whether this means that firms too big to fail (TBTF) should be allowed to exist at all. In short, although MF Global itself was not TBTF, the risk Corzine (who had been chairman of Goldman Sachs) permitted suggests that human nature might be insufficiently disposed to support mammoth concentrations of private capital whose fall could mean the collapse of the financial system itself. Ultimately, I suppose, human nature can only go so far, organizationally speaking.

MF Global admitted to $630 million in missing customer funds. Although accounting errors and bank-cushions could account for the discrepancy, MF Global used customer funds to loan itself money. To be able to do so, the former U.S. Senator and Governor of New Jersey, Jon Corzine, met personally as head of MF Global with federal regulators to get them to relax their proposed rule that would have forbid such a loan. According to the New York Times, financing by borrowing customer funds is not unheard of on Wall Street, but is “carries substantial risk.”

Corzine’s influence with the regulatory agencies may have been similar to the role that Madoff’s status played in his dealings with the SEC. It would seem that regulators are readily “captured” by high status alone—never mind relying on the regulated firms for information and possibly even being influenced by political contributions via elected officials acting on the behalf of big donors. Given the riskiness in borrowing customer funds without the traditional banking oversight of lending, the regulatory “status lapse” syndrome is dangerous—particularly if a firm TBTF is involved. In other words, might we be rolling the dice in Dodd Frank by relying so much on regulators? The possible mix of duplicity and risky multi-billion dollar bets at MF Global should drive home this point.

People at an exchange that cleared trades for MF Global have indicated that Corzine’s firm might have moved money out of customer accounts “in a manner . . . designed to avoid detection” as the firm headed toward collapse. CME Group, the parent company of the Chicago and New York Mercantile Exchanges, indicated that it appears that MF Global dipped into customer accounts after CME finished an onsite review of the securities firm during the last week of October, 2011. The CME statement read in part, “It now appears that the firm made subsequent transfers of customer segregated funds in a manner that may have been designed to avoid detection insofar as MF Global did not disclose or report such transfers to the [Commodity Futures Trading Commission] or CME until early morning on Monday, October 31, 2011.” CME served as a clearing house for trades that were made through MF Global, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, questions regarding MF Global’s $6.3 billion bet on E.U. state debt and the scrutiny by regulators were mounting, according to the Journal. That any bet would be for such a sum ought to raise a red flag for the firm making the bet. Although MF Global was not TBTF, the managers’ willingness to take on such risk suggests that the mentality to take on extraordinary risk carries on in the financial industry. This finding may render the very existence of financial firms deemed too big to fail as something we might want to revisit through legislation. In other words, if bets worth billions of dollars on European government debt were going on through the E.U. debt crisis, the risk alone (to say nothing of the utter stupidity) may suggest that financial-sector firms that are too big to fail are also too big to exist—especially if regulatory scrutiny is insufficient. The risk and the numbers may have reached a dangerous level, given how human nature treats risk (and the limits of human cognition).

Paul Volcker admitted on Charlie Rose in late October 2011 that he never thought he would talk in terms of trillions of dollars, but there it is, that day had arrived and with it, the horrendous risk of banks being too big to fail. Whereas Citigroup had $1.63 trillion in total assets at the end of June 2006, the bank had $1.94 trillion at the end of the third quarter 2011. Comparable figures for Bank of America are $1.45 trillion and $2.22 trillion. JP Morgan Chase: $1.33 trillion and $2.29 trillion. Wells Fargo: $500 billion and $1.3 trillion. Where is the lesson on TBTF from September 2008? It is as if the credit crisis and fall of Lehman Brothers had not happened. Thomas Hoenig, former Kansas City Fed chairman, said in a speech in February 2011, “We must break up the largest banks.” He said the government could do so by restricting the activities of government-backed banks “and significantly narrowing the scope of institutions that are now more powerful and more of a threat to our capitalist system than prior to the crisis.” According to the Wall Street Journal, regulators “can ultimately force a firm to sell off parts of itself if they don’t believe a firm could be wound down without threatening others.” Although Hoenig said he is not against BIG, just too big to fail, so it is possible that the biggest banks could show that “they are manageable, that their risk will not impact the taxpayer in the future,” I contend that the mere existence of concentrations of $1.94, $2.22, $2.29 and $1.3 trillion is inherently dangerous to the financial system and the greater economy. If even one of those should go under all at once, assuming losses are involved, investors, business managers, bankers and even consumers would surely hear a subtle fiscal “thud” and react aversely, even if in a self-fulfilling prophesy. If Wall Street bankers did not learn a lesson from September 2008, however, that “thud” could be far more than psychological. The example of MF Global may suggest that the bankers on Wall Street did indeed continue on in being all too willing to make risky multi-billion-dollar bets, having “slept through” the shrieking “wake-up call” of the financial crisis of 2008. The resumption of the extravagant bonus culture strongly suggests that the bankers still had an incentive to bet big with little regard for risk.

Treating the mega bank as too big to exist as a mega bank does not depend on regulatory scrutiny, which can be subject to the “status syndrome”; rather, once a firm hits the pre-established threshold, the regulators would simply come in and orderly “smash the atom” such that smaller firms result (with different owners, managers and employees—unlike the case of the companies coming out of Standard Oil, which had the same ownership and whose executives were even allowed to continue working in the same building!).

I think perhaps we presume too much regarding human nature, given the edifices we build ever higher and higher, as if in testament to the self-idolatry of our presumption that we cannot be wrong. Lest we come too close to the sun and turn our cities into deserts, we might want to fly our chariots a bit closer to the ground.

Jean Eaglesham, Aaron Luchetti, and Jacob Bunge, “Regulators Enter the MF Fray,” The Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203716204577013753464771104.html

Azam Ahmed and Ben Protess, “As Regulators Pressed Changes, Corzine Pushed Back, and Won,” The New York Times, November 4, 2011. http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2011/11/03/as-regulators-pressed-changes-corzine-pushed-back-and-won/
Victoria McGrane, “Banks’ Critic Poised to Be Head of FDIC,” The Wall Street Journal, November 18, 2011. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204517204577044461881272398.html?mod=googlenews_wsj