CFTC Sommers testifies to House Ag Committee of MFGI bankruptcy

TESTIMONY OF COMMISSIONER JILL E. SOMMERS
COMMODITY FUTURES TRADING COMMISSION
BEFORE THE
U.S. HOUSE COMMITTEE ON AGRICULTURE
DECEMBER 8, 2011

Good morning Chairman Lucas, Vice Chairman Goodlatte, Ranking Member Peterson, and members of the Committee. Thank you for inviting me today to discuss the MF Global Bankruptcy. I understand the severe hardship this bankruptcy has caused for customers of MF Global. These customers correctly understood the risks associated with trading futures and options, but never anticipated that their segregated accounts were at risk of suffering losses not associated with trading. Many customers have reached out to me and my staff directly, and we are doing everything we can to get as much of their money back to them as quickly as possible. I have made that my number one priority.

On November 9th, the Commission voted to make me the Senior Commissioner with respect to MF Global Matters. This authorizes me to exercise the executive and administrative functions of the Commission solely with respect to:

  • The pending enforcement investigation;
  • The pending bankruptcy case in the Southern District of NY involving MF Global, Inc. (which is the broker-dealer/futures commission merchant);
  • The pending bankruptcy case in the Southern District of NY involving MF Global Holdings, Ltd. (which is the parent company); and
  • Other actions to locate or recover customer funds or determine the reasons for shortfalls in the customer accounts.

The Commission has dozens of staff members (including auditors, attorneys, and investigators) in New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. working on these issues. I am unable to discuss matters that might compromise the ongoing enforcement investigation, or parallel investigations by any other government agency, so I will focus my comments on the bankruptcy cases pending in New York and on the legal requirements surrounding the segregation of customer funds held at futures commission merchants (FCMs).

Pending Bankruptcy Cases

As I understand the Securities Investors Protection Act of 1970 (SIPA), the SEC has the authority to refer an entity registered as a broker-dealer (whether or not such entity is also registered as an FCM) to the Securities Investors Protection Corporation (SIPC) if there is reason to believe that the entity is in or is approaching financial difficulty. SIPC may initiate a liquidation proceeding to protect customers of an insolvent broker-dealer when certain statutory criteria are met. In this instance, the liquidation was initiated on October 31st, with the support of the CFTC and consent of MF Global. When a broker-dealer is also a registered FCM, as MF Global was, there is one dually-registered entity and the entire entity gets placed into liquidation. Because there is one entity, it is not possible to initiate a SIPA liquidation of the broker-dealer, and a separate bankruptcy proceeding for the FCM. It is important to note, however, that when a dually-registered BD/FCM is placed into a SIPA liquidation proceeding, the relevant provisions and protections of the Bankruptcy Code, the Commodity Exchange Act (“CEA”), and the Commission’s regulations apply to customer commodity accounts just as they would if the entity were solely an FCM and in a non-SIPA bankruptcy proceeding.

An obvious point to make is that if a firm is involved in a bankruptcy proceeding, something must have gone very wrong. Bankruptcy proceedings can be very complicated and at times, messy. This can be magnified when the bankruptcy is among the largest in history and there are serious questions about the location of customer funds. The Commission is no stranger to FCM bankruptcies. Lehman Brothers and Refco are the two most recent FCM bankruptcies. While the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy was monumental in scale, and the Refco bankruptcy involved serious fraud at the parent company, commodity customers did not lose their money at either firm. In both instances, commodity customer accounts were wholly intact, that is, they contained all open positions and all associated segregated collateral. That being the case, customer accounts were promptly transferred to healthy FCMs, with the commodity customers having no further involvement in the bankruptcy proceeding. Unfortunately that is not what happened at MF Global because customer accounts were not intact.

In FCM bankruptcies, commodity customers have, pursuant to Section 766(h) of the Bankruptcy Code, priority in customer property. This includes, without limitation, segregated property, property that was illegally removed from segregation and is still within the debtor’s estate, and property that was illegally removed from segregation and is no longer within in the debtor’s estate, but is clawed-back into the debtor’s estate by the Trustee. If the customer property as I just described is insufficient to satisfy in full all the claims of customers, Part 190 of the Commission’s regulations allow other property of the debtor’s estate to be classified as customer property to make up any shortfall. A parent or affiliated entity, however, generally would not be a “debtor” unless customer funds could be traced to that entity.

Within the first weeks of the MF Global bankruptcy, the Trustee for the BD/FCM had, with the encouragement and assistance of the CFTC, transferred nearly all positions of customers trading on U.S. commodity futures markets, and transferred approximately $2 billion of customer property. On November 29th, the Trustee moved to transfer an additional $2.1 billion back to customers, to be used to “top up” all commodity customers to at least two-thirds of their account values as reflected on the books and records of MF Global, Inc. The Bankruptcy Court will hear the motion on December 9th. If the Court grants the motion we expect the transfer may be complete in two to four weeks, given the Trustee’s estimate of the timeframe within which he can complete the administrative functions necessary to effectuate the transfer. These transfers demonstrate that commodity customers are indeed receiving the highest priority in claims to customer property. We understand that more must be done.

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