By now, it has been well established that Corzine’s former firm, MF Global, committed the sin of sins for a broker-dealer. In late October, during the final, desperate days before it entered bankruptcy proceedings, its executives took money from segregated customer accounts — money that belonged not to MF Global but to the farmers and commodities traders that were its clients — and used it to prop up its rapidly collapsing business. Nor was this petty cash: of the $6.9 billion in customer assets that MF Global held, a stunning $1.6 billion is missing. There is virtually no chance that the full amount will ever be recovered.
Let’s not mince words here. These executives committed a crime. Virtually every knowing violation of the Commodities Exchange Act is a crime, but taking money from segregated customer accounts is at the top of the list. And for good reason. Customer money is supposed to be sacrosanct. If a broker-dealer goes bankrupt, the segregated accounts are supposed to remain safe, a little like the way bank deposits remain protected if a bank goes under. Indeed, customers need to be able to trust the fact that their money is segregated and protected at all times. Otherwise, the markets can’t function.
Yet, a few weeks ago, Azam Ahmed and Ben Protess, who have done a remarkable job covering the MF Global bankruptcy for The Times, wrote an article suggesting that prosecutors were having trouble putting together a criminal case against anyone at MF Global. So far, wrote Ahmed and Protess, they’d been “unable to find a smoking gun.” In fact, they continued, “a number of federal prosecutors have expressed doubts” that MF Global “intentionally misused customer money.” Apparently, the current theory is that it was all just a big accident, the chaos of those final days causing the firm’s executives to tap into customer funds without realizing it.
Excuse me while I roll my eyes. Of course there isn’t a smoking gun. As a general rule, financial professionals tend not to write e-mails that say, “Hey, we’re desperate. Let’s break into the customer accounts!” And, of course, they are always going to say it was unintentional. They are saying it already, starting with Corzine, who told Congress last year that “there was no intention to violate segregation rules.”