MF Global stole its customers' money, plain and simple. So why did the authorities refuse to act?
So the Senate Banking Committee is beginning hearings today on the MF Global scandal, hearings entitled, "The Collapse of MF Global: Lessons Learned and Policy Implications." Apparently the government has already moved to the reflective, introspective, South Park-ian, "You know, I learned something today!" stage in its examination of the scandal, despite the fact that the government’s official "response" hasn’t even started yet, i.e. authorities have yet to arrest a single person in this brazen billion-dollar theft story.
To make an obvious comparison: Much like the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, the outrage here goes beyond the fact of the horrific crime. An equally profound insult in both cases lay in the fact that that serious crime obviously had been committed, and yet authorities refused to act for months. This situation with former Goldman chief and U.S. Senator Jon Corzine and the officials of MF Global involves a less physically savage offense, but the authorities' refusal to act is every bit as incredible.
Nobody disputes the fact that MF Global officials dipped into customer accounts and took over $1.6 billion of customer money. We not only know that company officials reached into customer accounts, we know they brazenly lied to bondholders, ratings agencies and investors about the firm's financial condition ("MF Global's capital and liquidity has never been stronger," wrote the CFO of MF Global’s holding company, on the same day Moody’s downgraded it to junk status).
We even know that eighteen days before the firm went bust, company officers discussed how quickly to return money to customers, and even contemplated, in writing, the possibility of not returning the money right away. This is from a risk-assessment document prepared by company officers entitled "Break the Glass":
…Who do we want to be after the storm? How quickly do we want to send cash back to clients, what is the message if we do not send immediately, what is the strategy if we want to keep the customer and wait until the storm passes?
In the wake of the 2008 crash it’s often been said that one of the major problems in getting the public to grasp the crimes committed by banks and financial companies is the extreme complexity of the transactions used. The mortgage-backed-securities scam by itself was really just a common fraud scheme, but it was cloaked in the extremely complex verbiage and advanced math of derivatives transactions, which made it possible for bankers to bluff their way through an argument that no crimes had been committed.
But MF Global is different. This is not complicated at all. This is just stealing. You owe money, you don’t have the cash to cover it, and so you take money belonging to someone else to cover your debts. There’s no room at all here for an argument that this money was just lost due to a bad investment, an erroneous calculation based on someone's poor understanding of a complex transaction, etc. It’s straight-up embezzlement.
Nonetheless, there’s been an intense effort at trying to convince the public that no crime has been committed. Whoever is handling MF Global’s P.R. (according to Pam Martens in this excellent piece, it’s APCO worldwide, a former Big Tobacco spin factory) appears to have convinced the company’s officers to emphasize the word “chaos” in describing the last days of the firm – as though $1.2 billion wasn’t intentionally stolen, per se, but simply lost in a kind of uncontrolled whirlwind of transactions that magically carried the money out of accounts off to worlds unknown.
I call this the “Wizard of Oz” defense: a Big Twister hit the firm’s customer accounts, chaos ensued, and when the dust settled, no one knew where the heck little Dorothy and her money had gone.
You started to hear this more and more as the winter progressed. Reuters shamefully ran a piece earlier this year quoting an unnamed source who insisted, hands over his anonymous heart, that there just wasn’t any crime in the MF Global story:
A source familiar with the work of Louis Freeh, trustee for the MF Global holding company that filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, says investigators have yet to find evidence of fraud in the multi-faceted and complex investigation.
The source, who declined to be identified because Freeh's office is still conducting its inquiry, says there was plenty of "chaos" at MF Global in its waning days, but "no evidence of fraud."
Corzine himself reached for the Wizard of Oz defense in his infamous "How the hell should I know?" testimony before the Senate Ag committee last year, throwing up his hands and pleading helplessness before the "extraordinary number of transactions" in the last days of MF Global – although he was perfectly willing to consider the possibility that the losses were someone else’s fault:
I simply do not know where the money is, or why the accounts have not been reconciled to date. I do not know which accounts are unreconciled or whether the unreconciled accounts were or were not subject to the segregation rules. Moreover, there were an extraordinary number of transactions during MF Global’s last few days, and I do not know, for example, whether there were operational errors at MF Global or elsewhere, or whether banks and counterparties have held onto funds that should rightfully have been returned to MF Global.
Almost every story written about MF Global by any financial news outlet will contain the word "chaos," and describe the bookkeeping challenges of the firm’s last days as just too overwhelming for mere human beings to handle. The sources are almost always unnamed, but they all say the same thing – it was just too much math, too much! The Times’s Dealbook page offered one of the most humorous examples:
A flurry of transactions engulfed the firm in the week before it filed for bankruptcy, as $105 billion of cash shuttled in and out. Amid the chaos, the employees became overwhelmed.
''It's like being at the bottom of Niagara Falls,'' recalled one employee in a meeting with federal authorities, according to one of the people involved in the case.
It’s incredible that people are offering as a defense the idea that a financial company could be so overwhelmed by transactions that it could just lose track of $1.6 billion. If you’re so terrible at managing money that you can honestly lose a billion dollars – especially after swearing up and down to the whole world that you were the right choice to manage the cherished millions and billions of scads of farmers, ranchers, and other investors – you should go to jail just for that, just on general principle.
But most pundits aren’t saying that. Instead, it seems like like every financial reporter both in this city and in Washington is talking to the same five or six defense lawyers, buying their weak arguments, and offering the same lame excuses for the missing money, which should tell you a lot about how the Wall Street press corps managed to miss the warning signs for 2008 and other disasters.
Somebody from MF Global has to be arrested soon. The message otherwise to middle America is so galling that it boggles the mind.
It would be one thing if this was a country with a general, across-the-board tendency toward leniency for property crime. But we send tens of thousands of people to do real jail time in this country for non-violent offenses like theft. We routinely separate mothers from their children for relatively petty crimes like welfare fraud. For almost anyone who isn’t Jon Corzine, it’s no joke to get caught stealing in America.
But these people stole over a billion dollars, right out in the open, and nobody is doing anything about it. Instead, we get a lot of chin-scratching legislative hearings, and an almost academic-style public discussion about whether or not a crime even took place. If there aren’t arrests in this case soon, ordinary people will correctly deduce that it simply isn’t a crime to steal in America, if the thefts are executed with a computer by white people in suits.
Just as it was incredible when Florida authorities dragged their feet in the Zimmerman case, it’s incredible that people in Washington don’t see the implications of this continual non-decision on MF Global. Apparently they hope no one notices. The sad thing is, they might be right.