Corzine Dodges the Fraud Question

It’s as if Jon Corzine’s PR machine is in top spin mode. You’ll recall Jon Corzine is the former head of Goldman Sachs and former CEO of MF Global that appeared in front of Congress yesterday to answer questions about an estimated $600 million to $1.2 billion in missing money from the segregated accounts of customers of MF Global.

Yesterday and today, I heard confusion about whether or not MF Global’s diverting customer funds was allowable and the possibility that customers will eventually get the money back.

Let me be clear. The diverting of customer funds from segregated accounts is not legal or allowable, and even if the money is later “found” it is fraud.

Jon Corzine was a bond trader in his past life and he says he doesn’t know where the money is and that he didn’t understand the details of the operations of MF Global, which appear to be a mess due to negligence or intent.

Corzine Knew or Should Have Known About an Alleged Federal Crime

Corzine may truthfully say he doesn’t know exactly where the money is at the moment, but as head of MF Global and as the proponent of risky leveraged sovereign bond trades, he knew or should have known that MF Global didn’t have enough cash (or collateral) to support those trades.

Instead of unwinding the trades, it appears that MF Global illegally wired money from customer accounts to satisfy margin calls on MF Global’s trades. If that illegal activity happened, Corzine as a bond trader aware of risk and as the head of MF Global, knew it or should have known it. This should be the focus of Congress’s investigation. Wire fraud is a Federal Crime

“Finding” Money Doesn’t Excuse Fraud

Let me address the implication of the potential to “find” the money. The money may indeed be “found.” If the bonds mature and pay off one hundred cents on the dollar, it may be possible to claw back money from MF Global’s trading partners without much of a fight. Otherwise there may be a legal battle for money that as creditors of MF Global, they were never entitled to in the first place.

The rights of MF Global’s customers are superior to the claims of these creditors. But eventually replacing the filched funds is not the same as restitution, since reputations and businesses have already been ruined. Damage has also been done to the trust in the global futures market and Futures Commission Merchants (FCMS).

Never Allowable to Filch Customers’ Funds

The key issue is that it is never allowable to divert money from customers’ segregated accounts. CFTC Commissioner Jill E. Sommers did a good job of stating that in her testimony yesterday. Moreover, if any trades mimicking Corzine’s were done on behalf of the tiny minority of customer accounts that could engage in this trade, the trades would have to be segregated and credits or losses would show up in the relevant customers’ accounts.

That still doesn’t explain the missing funds in most customer accounts. Most customer accounts would not even be eligible for the “Corzine sovereign bond trade.” Why is that? Here’s an excerpt from Sommers’ testimony: “Under Section 4d of the CEA, customer segregated funds may be invested in: general obligations of a sovereign nation (to the extent the FCM holds customer funds denominated in that sovereign nation’s currency).” Most MF Global customers now missing money did not hold foreign currency accounts.

Pushing the idea that this trade was “allowable” for some customer is a distraction trick to avoid the question of whether MF Global impermissibly wired money from customers’ accounts to satisfy margin calls for its own trades. Wire fraud is a Federal crime.

At Issue is Massive Fraud

The issue under investigation is what appears to be a bold and massive fraud, and Jon Corzine offered no alternative explanation, in fact it seems he cannot explain anything about the firm he ran to anyone’s satisfaction.

Jon Corzine may not know where the money is right now, but as head of MF Global, he knew or should have known his trades needed collateral and that customers’ money went missing to satisfy part of that need. If it is proved that fraud occurred–and money missing this long is a very suspicious sign–it’s not plausible to me that Jon Corzine was unaware it was happening at MF Global.

It seems Jon Corzine would have Congress believe he’s hopelessly incompetent, because it is better to have them believe that than the business for which he was responsible was breathtakingly wrong.

Janet Tavakoli is the president of Tavakoli Structured Finance, a Chicago-based firm that provides consulting to financial institutions and institutional investors. Ms. Tavakoli has more than 20 years of experience in senior investment banking positions, trading, structuring and marketing structured financial products. She is a former adjunct associate professor of derivatives at the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business. Author of: Credit Derivatives & Synthetic Structures (1998, 2001), Collateralized Debt Obligations & Structured Finance (2003), Structured Finance & Collateralized Debt Obligations (John Wiley & Sons, September 2008). Tavakoli’s book on the causes of the global financial meltdown and how to fix it is: Dear Mr. Buffett: What an Investor Learns 1,269 Miles from Wall Street (Wiley, 2009).
About Janet Tavakoli 34 Articles

Affiliation: Tavakoli Structured Finance, Inc.

Janet Tavakoli is the founder and president of Tavakoli Structured Finance, Inc. (TSF), a Chicago based consulting firm providing expert experience and knowledge about maximizing value in the capital markets in the face of complexity and uncertainty. TSF provides consulting services to financial institutions, institutional investors, and hedge funds.

Ms. Tavakoli was years ahead of the financial industry predicting lax underwriting and misrating of structured financial products would result in the collapse of the global credit bubble. She also predicted the collapse of the thrift industry, Long Term Capital Management, and First Alliance Mortgage prompting Business Week to profile her as "The Cassandra of Credit Derivatives." [2008].

Ms. Tavakoli pointed out grave flaws in the methodology for rating structured financial products in her books, Structured Finance & Collateralized Debt Obligations (2003, 2008), and Credit Derivatives (1998, 2001). She wrote the first letter the SEC posted in February 2007 in response to its proposed rules for the credit rating agencies; she made the case that the NRSRO designation for the rating agencies should be revoked for structured financial products.

Ms. Tavakoli is frequently published and quoted in financial journals including The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, Business Week, Fortune, Global Risk Review, RISK, IDD, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, LIPPER HedgeWorld, Asset Securitization Report, Journal of Structured Finance, Investor Dealers' Digest, International Securitization Report, Bloomberg News, Bloomberg Magazine, Credit, Derivatives Week,, Finance World, and others.

Frequent television appearances include CNN, CNBC, BNN, CBS Evening News, Bloomberg TV, First Business Morning News, Fox, ABC, and BBC.

Tavakoli is a former adjunct associate professor of finance at Chicago Booth (the University of Chicago's Graduate School of Business) where she taught "Derivatives: Futures, Forwards, Options and Swaps".

Janet Tavakoli is the former Executive Director, Head of Financial Engineering in the Global Financial Markets Division at Westdeutsche Landesbank in London. She headed market risk management for the capital markets group for Bank One in Chicago. Tavakoli headed the asset swap trading desk at Merrill Lynch in New York, headed mortgage backed securities marketing for Merrill Lynch in New York, and headed mortgage backed securities marketing to Japanese clients for PaineWebber in New York. She also worked for Bear Stearns heading marketing for quantitative research.

She is the author of: Credit Derivatives & Synthetic Structures (1998, 2001), Collateralized Debt Obligations & Structured Finance (2003), Structured Finance & Collateralized Debt Obligations (John Wiley & Sons, September 2008), and Dear Mr. Buffett: What An Investor Learns 1,269 Miles From Wall Street (Wiley, 2009).

During her career, she has been registered and licensed with the SFA, NASD, ASE, CBOE, NYSE, PSE and the NFA and has passed the series 7, 63 and 3 qualifying exams.

Ms. Tavakoli has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Illinois Institute of Technology and an MBA in Finance from University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.

Visit: Tavakoli Structured Finance

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