The MF Global (MFGLQ.PK) story is just another chapter in the continuing saga of the legal fleecing of America by a financial system joined at the hip in an “Unholy Washington-Wall Street Alliance.”
The rules of the game are such that the managements of large Wall Street entities are allowed to gamble with assets entrusted to them by an unsuspecting public. If the bets are successful, the spoils flow entirely to the management and the firm, with nothing going to the clients whose assets are at risk. On the other hand, if the bets fail, the clients take the entire loss! Unfair? Of course.
But, as you will see if you keep reading, MF Global’s client assets will not be “found,” and, worse, unless the NY attorney general becomes incredibly creative, no one is likely to go to jail because no laws appear to have been broken. MF Global is just another piece of evidence that the current financial system is addicted to and permits excessive leverage and is deeply flawed.
Until this is recognized and fixed, the financial system will continue to be besieged with crises spawned by Wall Street greed. There are likely other, yet to be discovered, atrocities lurking in the shadows.
Asymmetrical Borrowing Rules
It appears that MF Global, as well as every other major US investment banking firm, has taken “advantage of an asymmetry in brokerage borrowing rules that allow firms to legally use client money to buy assets in their own name,” Christopher Elias notes in a recent Thomson Reuters article.
Simply put, MF Global borrowed money, and, using that borrowed money, purchased the debt of the European periphery (Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain, and Portugal) at very attractive yields. The borrowings and the debt purchased had the same maturity date, so the proceeds of the debt maturities were to pay back the borrowings. MF collected the difference between the low rate it paid on the borrowings and the high rate it received on the debt.
The euro debt it purchased was guaranteed by the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF). To get the low rate, MF had to pledge collateral. So, it pledged the euro debt, and as additional collateral, it borrowed and pledged its clients’ assets, which assets it held as custodian. Looks like a no-brainer! So thought Jon Corzine and Co.
Margin in the US
In the US, a client with an account at a broker-dealer can place his assets in a “margin” account. The client is then allowed to borrow against those margined assets. There are rules for this called “margin requirements.” Generally, speaking, the value of the assets assigned to “margin” must be greater than the amount borrowed by a factor set by the Federal Reserve under Regulation T.
If the market value of the assets assigned to “margin” falls in value to the point where the margin requirement ratio is violated, a “margin call” is generated. The client either has to assign or pledge more assets to “margin,” or reduce the borrowing via a cash deposit. If the client fails to do either of those in the time allotted by regulation, usually three business days, the assets that were pledged to “margin” are liquidated (sold out) and the proceeds are used to offset the borrowings until the required margin ratio is satisfied.
Of relevance, clients who assign their equities to “margin” (the only other alternative is called “cash”) so that they can borrow against them also automatically grant their broker-dealer the right to “lend” their assets to another investor who wants to “short-sell” that particular asset because a short-seller must first “borrow” existing stock in order to “sell” it. The broker-dealer makes money by lending out equities in margin accounts to short-sellers. The everyday American investor is unaware of this, and earns nothing.
So, how did MF Global lose client assets? In the US, broker-dealers can use margined assets as a funding mechanism, i.e., by borrowing those assets themselves and using them as collateral to borrow. But in the UK, those same borrowed assets can be pledged several times over (called rehypothecation), resulting in very significant leverage. That is, the client assets stand behind several borrowings rather than just one.
Buried somewhere deep in the legalese of the account forms (you know the pages and pages of legal gobbledegook that nobody reads because one has to be an attorney to understand it), the clients gave MF Global the right to transfer those client assets to its UK subsidiary and to “borrow, pledge, repledge, hypothecate, and rehypothecate” those assets.
According to the Thomson Reuters article cited above, such language is common in most large US broker-dealer agreements. That language allows the large broker-dealers to circumvent US law and take advantage of UK law where rehypothecation (leverage) is allowed.
The Impact of Margin Calls
For MF Global, the unanticipated “tail” event occurred. (“Tail” events are only supposed to occur very infrequently. However, in an unstable financial system, they occur often.) When the value of the European periphery debt declined this past fall (even that guaranteed by the EFSF), margin calls occurred. MF Global would have been okay if it hadn’t used so much leverage.
The leverage magnified the margin calls to such an extent that all of the client assets weren’t enough to meet the margin calls. All of the collateral, including the euro debt (at bargain basement prices) and the client assets were sold to offset the borrowings. The clients’ assets are gone. They are not going to be “found.”
No laws appear to have been broken. No one is likely to go to jail. But, as you can see, the financial system is deeply flawed and is rigged in favor of Wall Street and against the ordinary investor. The causes of the financial crisis that appeared in the US in 2009 have not been resolved, only papered over (with money printing). In order to have a “fair” and healthy financial system, the excessive use of leverage, such that success leads to untold wealth for the managers and failure is directly borne by unsuspecting clients or taxpayers, must be changed. Until this occurs, we will continue to experience such debacles. And the volatility caused by them will continue to keep the financial system unstable and limit economic growth.
Robert Barone and Joshua Barone are Principals and Investment Advisor Representatives of Universal Value Advisors, LLC, Reno, NV, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor. Statistics and other information have been compiled from various sources. Universal Value Advisors believes the facts and information to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee to the complete accuracy of this information. Universal Value Advisors, LLC is a registered investment adviser with the Securities and Exchange Commission of the United States. A more detailed description of the company, its management and practices are contained in its “Firm Brochure”, (Form ADV, Part 2A). A copy of this Brochure may be received by contacting the company at: 9222 Prototype Drive, Reno, NV 89521, Phone (775) 284-7778.