To say the MF Global situation is a mess may be the understatement of the century. What began as an excuse to extol the segregated account's safeguards against an FCM stock slide as MF Global shares lost 70% of their value in a week rapidly morphed into a full-fledged industry disaster as bankruptcy papers were filed and executives acknowledged a shortfall in those previously sacrosanct accounts.
This admission, in conjunction with the bankruptcy, has caused over $5 Billion of customer funds held by MF Global to be frozen, unable to be accessed or transferred out. Right on cue, the lawyers have begun to circle, with employees, bondholders, and the customers themselves filing claims for their piece of the $40 Billion in Assets MF Global reportedly had on hand.
What was a very small probability just two weeks ago now looks to be a near certainty – that over 150,000 futures industry customers who held accounts at MF Global will have their money locked up for anywhere between several months to several years. Before a single penny can be distributed, a legal team charging $1,000 an hour will have to go line by line through books that have been described by regulators as a "disaster," making the potential (and incentive) for a speedy turnaround non-existent. Even then, once the books have been closed on the accounting side, the legal battle royale begins, and if the Sentinel case is any indication, we'll be waiting for quite a while to run through all the cases.
My firm, Attain Capital, uncomfortable with the direction MF Global was taking, moved all of its accounts from MF Global 2.5 years ago. Even with that foresight, we have had clients close their accounts in the MF Global aftermath because they are worried about the safety of their segregated funds, while many others heatedly question what the industry is going to do to make sure this never happens again.
While the lawyers fight with JP Morgan over who should get what money (how would you feel about being a taxpayer who bailed out the big banks only to have them get priority over your money in bankruptcy?), the rest of the industry needs to be talking about how to salvage our collective business.
Many of you may be feeling lucky you didn’t have exposure to MF Global, or even enjoying an uptick in business because of the MF Global accounts being transferred to you, and that's understandable. However, that joy becomes short-lived as one realizes that this mess threatens the continued growth of not only your firm, but our entire industry. Brokers, CTAs, service providers, technology companies, and more will all go out of business because of this – some immediately because they won’t get their most recent payments due from MF Global, and others over the next several months as their business falls due to their client base's inability to access the funds held at MF Global that they need to trade.
But the biggest threat is to the future. It's that large investor who would have happily opened a futures account just a month ago, but now chooses not to because he is unsure what would happen to his funds should a bankruptcy occur at his broker of choice.
How do we make sure that such an investor regains confidence in the industry, and chooses to go ahead with that investment? The hollow emails by FCM presidents and owners to their clients saying they care is simply not enough; actual solutions and fixes to the problems which allowed the MF Global mess to happen need to be enacted.
The industry needs to change to protect that which was formerly held most dear – the segregated account. Here is what we propose:
Create a coalition to make all the MF Global customers whole, immediately.