FCM Investment of Customer Funds
An FCM is authorized to invest funds that are in customer segregated accounts. This authorization is found in Section 4d of the CEA and in Commission Regulation 1.25 (a brief history of changes to Regulation 1.25 is found in the attached Appendix). Regulation 1.25 only relates to how an FCM can invest customer funds. Moreover, any losses that may occur as a result of those permissible investments are the responsibility of the FCM, not the customer. Prior to last week, Regulation 1.25 allowed an FCM to invest customer funds in highly-rated foreign sovereign debt, but the investment was strictly limited to the amount of that nation’s foreign currency a customer posted to the FCM. Regulation 1.25 does not, and has never, had anything to do with investments that an SEC/FINRA-regulated BD makes for its own account.
In thinking about the investment of customer funds, it may be helpful to draw an analogy to a savings account at a bank. Let’s say someone opens a savings account with $1,000 and the bank agrees to pay 0.25% interest annually. That $1,000 is not just sitting at the bank waiting for the depositor to come and get it. The bank invests that money, or loans it to others, etc., with the goal of earning a rate of return greater than the 0.25% interest the bank is obligated to pay the depositor. Very simply stated, if the bank earns a rate of return greater than 0.25%, that is net revenue for the bank. If the bank earns a rate of return less than 0.25%, there is a net loss.
Broadly speaking, the investment of customer funds by an FCM is similar, but there are critical safeguards and restrictions placed on FCMs. Section 4d of the CEA and Commission Regulation 1.25 list the only permissible investments an FCM can make with customer funds. The Commission has been, and continues to be, mindful that customer segregated funds must be invested in a manner that minimizes their exposure to credit, liquidity, and market risks both to preserve their availability to customers and DCOs and to enable investments to be quickly converted to cash at a predictable value. As such, Regulation 1.25 establishes a general prudential standard by requiring that all permitted investments be “consistent with the objectives of preserving principal and maintaining liquidity.”
While an FCM is permitted to invest customer funds, it is important to note that if an FCM does so, the value of the customer segregated account must remain intact at all times. In other words, when an FCM invests customer funds, that actual investment, or collateral equal in value to the investment, must remain in the customer segregated account at all times. If customer funds are transferred out of the segregated account to be invested by the FCM, the FCM must make a simultaneous transfer of assets into the segregated account. An FCM cannot take money out of a segregated account, invest it, and then return the money to the segregated account at some later time.
Customer Accounts at FCMs
When a customer opens a trading account at an FCM, Commission Regulations require the customer to be provided with a risk disclosure statement that generally centers on market risk, market volatility, and leverage. Pursuant to Commission Regulation 1.55(b)(6), the required risk disclosure statement must also include the following: “You should consult your broker concerning the nature of the protections available to safeguard funds or property deposited for your account.” There are no required disclosures concerning how customer funds can be invested by an FCM.
Commission Regulation 1.20 requires that accounts holding segregated funds be titled specifically to identify the contents of the account as separate from the ownership of the FCM. In addition, FCMs must obtain letters from their depositories acknowledging that the depositories cannot exercise any rights of offset to such accounts for obligations of the FCM.
Commission Regulation 1.12 requires FCMs to notify the Commission immediately of an occurrence of under-segregation. FCMs also must notify the Commission of instances of significant margin calls (such as a margin call to a customer, which if not made, would put fellow customers at risk if an adequate buffer or “excess segregation” was not in segregated accounts).
A customer is required to post margin to support futures positions. Generally, a customer deposits more than the minimum initial margin required for the positions established. The additional funds provide a buffer so a customer can place trades without posting additional margin, and lessen the likelihood of repeated margin calls or having positions liquidated if margin calls are not met on a timely basis. In addition to customers depositing additional margin, in practice, FCMs typically maintain significant amounts of their own capital as “excess segregated funds.” By doing this, one customer’s deficit due to market moves or unmet margin calls is covered by the FCM’s buffer and does not result in one customer’s funds being exposed to the credit risk of another customer. FCMs are not obligated to provide excess segregated funds, but given the legal obligation at all times to have sufficient funds in segregated accounts to cover all liabilities to customers, FCMs generally find it wise to have a buffer.
A customer may withdraw excess margin funds or use such funds as the customer deems appropriate. This would include using the funds for non-futures related transactions with the FCM. If the excess funds held by the FCM are used in a manner directed by the customer such that the funds are not maintained in a futures segregated account, the funds would not have the protections afforded segregated customer funds under the Bankruptcy Code and Part 190 of the Commission’s Regulations.