MF Global was not running on vapor


The lead story on the front page of the Jan. 30 Wall Street Journal reported “that a ‘significant amount'” of an estimated $1.2 billion in customer money that disappeared when investment bank MF Global Holdings Ltd. collapsed “could have ‘vaporized’ as a result of chaotic trading … the week before the company’s Oct. 31 bankruptcy filing.”

Oh, baloney.

Did it vaporize?

MF Global may have sank into a vapor-filled cauldron of Greek bonds, dumb bets and major hubris, but the customer money it used to get there didn’t vaporize. It existed before the company’s Halloween implosion and it exists today. You know it, I know it, they know it.

The only folks who don’t seem to know it, however, occupy swivel chairs at the Wall Street Journal. Even as the paper was alerting its masters-of-the-universe readers that they — again — might slip the noose of accountability, Linda Smith, the markets editor at DTN, reported the opposite.

“(I)t appears the missing client funds were transferred to MF Global’s UK subsidiary to be used in purchasing the $6.3 billion in European sovereign debt that led to the firm’s financial problems,” Smith noted on her Market Matters Blog at DTN the very day the Journal reported the oops-it’s-all-gone version.

MF Global

Furthermore, Smith went on, “The good news is that KPMG, the firm handling the break-up (of MF Global) in the UK, reports that the majority of the funds have been accounted for.”

A day later, on the evening of Jan. 31, the New York Times not only confirmed DTN and Smith’s reporting, it expanded it: “Investigators have determined what happened to nearly all the customer money that disappeared from MF Global around the time of its bankruptcy last Oct. 31.” The story made the Times’ Feb. 1 front page.


Funny how these competing versions of the same story appeared the day before, the day of and the day after final client claims against MF Global’s bankruptcy were due. Not so funny was that it took three months to file all the customer claims against the firm; plenty of time for a billion or so of client money to, oh, maybe vaporize.

“Futures customers — including farmers, ranchers, and manufacturers — have been suspended in excruciating limbo, wondering when they will receive their funds,” Scott O’Malia, one of five commissioners of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, opined in a Jan. 31 speech in New York.

“This situation is intolerable and unacceptable,” the Times reported him saying.

Account examination

No it’s not. Doing it wrong is intolerable and unacceptable; just ask the Journal. Sorting through the ashes of MF Global required examination of 38,000 customer records and 10,000 emails by warring sides of the disaster. Time is the one thing all had.

Besides, there’s never anything wrong in getting things right, even if it takes 30 or 60 more days to do so.

After that misstep, O’Malia then stumbled even worse. He chided his colleagues for their “all consuming fixation on swaps regulation,” the task given the CFTC after Dodd-Frank, the banking law passed by Congress in the wake of the 2008 financial market meltdown. That crack-up was built on the shaky sands of little-understood, unregulated swaps.

Swaps regulation

Whoa there, cowboy. All consuming fixation on swaps regulation?

The CFTC standing firm in the MF Global mess until “the majority of the funds have been accounted for” is not a fixation on anything but doing its job right.

Thousands of farmers and ranchers will likely agree.

Rather than being quick on the draw and wrong, let’s take our time and get it right. Like MF Global and all new swap laws.

After all, no one wants to see their money vaporized.

© 2011 ag comm


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Alan Guebert was raised on an 800-acre, 100-cow southern Illinois dairy farm. After graduation from the University of Illinois in 1980, he served as a writer and editor at Professional Farmers of America, Successful Farming magazine and Farm Journal magazine. His syndicated agricultural column, The Farm and Food File, began in June, 1993, and now appears weekly in more than 70 publications throughout the U.S. and Canada. He and spouse Catherine, a social worker, have two adult children.


  1. Hi Alan, Great work as always.
    I see that CFTC Commissioner, Bart Chilton, (Formerly with NFU) has just published a new book entitled “Ponzimonium”. Just ordered, but not read yet. Could be interesting.
    Thanks again.


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