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Big Trouble For Jon Corzine?

Former New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine can’t be having a good week. First, the brokerage firm he heads files for bankruptcy protection after making a really bad bet on the Euro. Now, there’s nearly a billion dollars in customer funds missing:

Federal regulators have discovered that hundreds of millions of dollars in customer money has gone missing from MF Global in recent days, prompting an investigation into the brokerage firm, which is run by Jon S. Corzine, the former New Jersey governor, several people briefed on the matter said on Monday.

The recognition that money was missing scuttled at the 11th hour an agreement to sell a major part of MF Global to a rival brokerage firm. MF Global had staked its survival on completing the deal. Instead, the New York-based firm filed for bankruptcy on Monday.

Regulators are examining whether MF Global diverted some customer funds to support its own trades as the firm teetered on the brink of collapse.

The discovery that money could not be located might simply reflect sloppy internal controls at MF Global. It is still unclear where the money went. At first, as much as $950 million was believed to be missing, but as the firm sorted through its bankruptcy, that figure fell to less than $700 million by late Monday, the people briefed on the matter said. Additional funds are expected to trickle in over the coming days.

But the investigation, which is in its earliest stages, may uncover something more intentional and troubling.

In any case, what led to the unaccounted-for cash could violate a tenet of Wall Street regulation: Customers’ funds must be kept separate from company money. One of the basic duties of any brokerage firm is to keep track of customer accounts on a daily basis.

Neither MF Global nor Mr. Corzine has been accused of any wrongdoing. Lawyers for MF Global did not respond to requests for comment.

Now, the inquiry threatens to tarnish further the reputation of Mr. Corzine, the former Goldman Sachs executive who had sought to revive his Wall Street career last year just a few months after being defeated for re-election as New Jersey’s governor.

When he arrived at MF Global — after more than a decade in politics, including serving as a Democratic United States senator from New Jersey — Mr. Corzine sought to bolster profits by increasing the number of bets the firm made using its own capital. It was a strategy born of his own experience at Goldman, where he rose through the ranks by building out the investment bank’s formidable United States government bond trading arm.

One of his hallmark traits, according to the 1999 book “Goldman Sachs: The Culture of Success,” by Lisa Endlich, was his willingness to tolerate losses if the theory behind the trades was well thought out.

He made a similar wager at MF Global in buying up big holdings of debt from Spain, Italy, Portugal, Belgium and Ireland at a discount. Once Europe had solved its fiscal problems, those bonds would be very profitable.

But when that bet came to light in a regulatory filing, it set off alarms on Wall Street. While the bonds themselves have lost little value and mature in less than a year, MF Global was seen as having taken on an enormous amount of risk with little room for error given its size. By Friday evening, MF Global was under pressure to put up more money to support its trading positions, threatening to drain the firm’s remaining cash.

The collapse of MF Global underscores the extent of investor anxiety over Europe’s debt crisis. Other financial institutions have been buffeted in recent months because of their holdings of debt issued by weak European countries. The concerns about MF Global’s exposure to Europe prompted two ratings agencies to cut their ratings on the firm to junk last week.

The “lost” money is most likely just the result of bad bookkeeping. Nonetheless, it doesn’t look good at all and it must really stink to be Jon Corzine right about now.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Moderate Mom says:

    Jon Corzine is getting better. He had four years in which to drive New Jersey completely off a cliff and didn’t quite make it. With MF Global, he managed to complete the job of driving the company into the ground in only two years!

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  2. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Indeed this has to set a record, even by Democrat standards, for financial incompetence. MF Global is a multi, multi-billion dollar enterprise. Corzine murdered the company in 18 months. Keep in mind this miscreant only a few years ago was Chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. It boggles the mind.

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  3. Ben Wolf says:

    As a member of the elite, you can expect Corzine to walk away with impunity. After all, fraud laws are for poor people.

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