Clearing Up Some MF Misconceptions–And Raising a Question

There are many misconceptions about the CME’s responsibilities in the MF Global (MF) situation, and the implications of this situation for the CME’s longstanding claims that no customer has lost money as a result of a clearing member default.  These misconceptions are epitomized by this Sun Times article:

CME owns the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Chicago Board of Trade and the New York Mercantile Exchange, where much MF Global business took place. It legally clears, or guarantees, the trading on its markets and often boasts that no customer has ever lost money because a trading firm failed.

That more than 100-year record may be in jeopardy with MF Global, one of the largest brokerages on the Chicago and New York commodity markets. Former New Jersey governor and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. chairman Jon Corzine led the firm but made a disastrous investment in European debt.

The claim is true, and regardless of what happens with MF it will remain true.  The clearing guarantee is not in play here.

If clearing firm A defaults, customers of clearing firms B, C, etc., will get paid as long as the clearinghouse is solvent.  That has always been the case in the past, and it is true now.

It is possible that customers can lose money under the omnibus account system employed in the US, if there is a default on A’s customer account, and A cannot cover it, then A’s customers bear some of the losses.  As an example of this, the London customers of Griffin trading lost money when that firm went bust in 1999: no US customer customer lost.  (Customers of a COMEX member, Volume Investors, did lose when that firm went under).

There was no default in either MF Global’s house or customer accounts, so the clearinghouse guarantee never came into play.  So the Sun Times account–like many others–is fundamentally misleading.

Moreover, 60 percent of customer margin associated with open positions was transferred to other clearing members.  Most of the missing money in question, from what has been reported, was customer money on deposit at MF Global but not margin associated with open positions.  (That is the case with two MF customers I know personally.)  The CME clearinghouse guarantee has nothing to do with that money.

CME has raised the amount that it is willing to commit to cover any shortfalls from the bankruptcy trustee’s distribution of cash to customers.  This is not the CME’s legal obligation, but is, as I said in an FT article a couple of weeks ago, an indication of the importance of this situation to CME’s reputation.

CME will be subject to scrutiny primarily for its role as the MFer’s Designated Self-Regulatory Organization (and hence responsible for auditing it) prior to the firm’s rapid implosion.  Moreover, as Jeff Carter (a one-time CME floor trader and board member) writes, CME has not done itself any favors with its handling of the “public perception of the crisis.” (Though I have also heard that CFTC is attempting to control what the exchanges–CME and ICE–are saying.  As well it might, as it will also come under considerable scrutiny.)

A big question in my mind is why Corzine isn’t getting the Madoff treatment from the Feds and the media.  He has been called to testify in front of a House committee.  I wonder if he’ll invoke the amendment that comes right after the one about unreasonable searches and seizures.  But it is amazing to me how little critical coverage he has received.  Especially given the bad press that rich bankers are getting these days.

Oh, I forgot.  He’s a progressive Dem in good standing.  What was I thinking?  My bad.

So there are two major things wrong with coverage of the MFer’s tale.  The first is that the role of the CME’s guarantee to its customers is being misrepresented with some regularity–including by the home field rag.  The second is that the most likely culprit–and certainly the person ultimately responsible for the firm’s collapse, and anything that occurred as the firm crashed and burned–is all but invisible.

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About Craig Pirrong 238 Articles

Affiliation: University of Houston

Dr Pirrong is Professor of Finance, and Energy Markets Director for the Global Energy Management Institute at the Bauer College of Business of the University of Houston. He was previously Watson Family Professor of Commodity and Financial Risk Management at Oklahoma State University, and a faculty member at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Washington University.

Professor Pirrong's research focuses on the organization of financial exchanges, derivatives clearing, competition between exchanges, commodity markets, derivatives market manipulation, the relation between market fundamentals and commodity price dynamics, and the implications of this relation for the pricing of commodity derivatives. He has published 30 articles in professional publications, is the author of three books, and has consulted widely, primarily on commodity and market manipulation-related issues.

He holds a Ph.D. in business economics from the University of Chicago.

Visit: Streetwise Professor

1 Comment on Clearing Up Some MF Misconceptions–And Raising a Question

  1. There was probably no clearing default because Mf Global illegally used the customer money for that purpose – with the hope of buying time to sell the firm. You are correct that continued confidence in any bank or market transaction will depend on the full recovery of the customer money in this case.

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