Reports from the Christian Science Monitor indicate that former New Jersey Governor and CEO of MF Global Jon Corzine may have known about the use of client money in a loan to one of the company’s European partners.
The report is just the latest in the saga in MF Global’s bankruptcy case, which it filed on October 31, 2011. At the time of the filing, Corzine allegedly claimed that he had been unaware of the missing customer money until the day before the firm entered bankruptcy protection.
The new information (from sources including an executive from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME)), however, suggests that Corzine might have known about the misuse of client funds much earlier. Given the questionable circumstances surrounding the case, Corzine and others involved could face criminal charges for their involvement in the trades.
Brokerage Firms, Client Money, and Bankruptcy
So what does the disappearance of $1.2 billion in client money mean? Here’s a breakdown of how MF Global operated and what the various facets of its bankruptcy might mean:
- MF Global, before its bankruptcy filing, was a brokerage firm. It traded client money (as well as its own funds) on CME exchanges.
- During his tenure as CEO (March 2010 to November 2011), Corzine attempted to convert MF Global into a full investment bank. As such, the company would have been able to engage in more types of financial transactions. As a brokerage firm, MF Global only managed transactions between buyers and sellers of various derivatives. In theory, the company might have been able to pull in greater profits as an investment bank.
- Legally, brokerage firms and other investment institutions are not permitted to use client money for company expenses. In other words, MF Global could invest its own funds but could not dip into client accounts—for precisely the reason that a bad bet could translate to the disappearance of such money.
- MF Global apparently broke that rule (and possibly the law), by investing client funds in questionable places.
- Because of heavy losses linked to investments in European debt, MF Global filed for bankruptcy protection in late October. As its financial standing became a matter of public record, it became clear that the firm lost client money on ill-advised investments.
At present, it isn’t clear how the bankruptcy judge and trustee overseeing the MF Global case will handle the problem of the missing funds. In this situation, clients who invested with MF Global are among the firm’s bankruptcy creditors and as such will lose money if MF Global’s debts are discharged by the bankruptcy court.
The bankruptcy court will rule on how money will change hands regarding this incident. If investigators have reason to believe that insiders at MF Global broke the law (in addition to the rules that regulate brokerage firms), the Justice Department may try Corzine and others in criminal court.