In many ways, Wednesday’s House Financial Services subcommittee hearing on the eighth largest bankruptcy in US history was as much about what was not said than what was said.
Much attention was focused on MF Global assistant treasurer Edith O’Brien and her widely anticipated move of declining to answer questions during the hearing. Ms O’Brien has been at the center of questions surrounding her role in questionable money transfers of nearly $1 billion during the final days of MF Global’s existence. Speculation is Ms O’Brien received instructions from top officers at MF Global to transfer the money, a charge which has been denied by the executives, who generally claim either to not be aware of “where the money went” or claim they did not provide specific instructions to dip into customer segregated funds. A handful of money transfers were sent to the likes of JP Morgan and related MF Global overseas brokerage units in the final days of the firm’s existence. The staggering size of the money transfers makes it impossible for such transfers to have occurred without dipping into customer segregated funds, as the reported $1.6 billion “missing” from MF Global far exceeds the company’s net worth at the time.
While O’Brien was up-front about not answering questions, the remaining panelists might have just taken “the fifth” because their responses often didn’t answer questions.
In a contest for the most absurd answer of the hearing, MF Global chief financial officer Henri Steenkamp may be the winner. When asked about the historic money transfers in the final week of existence, Mr. Steenkamp claimed he was unaware of fund transfers due to his “global role” and he was engaged in “other serious matters” that apparently took his attention away from the draining of $1.6 billion in assets from the firm.
While the transfers were initially painted by quotes in news reports as due to “chaos” and implications were made that money vanished due to clerical errors, questions remain as to how $1.6 billion in cash â€“ an amount in excess of MF Global’s total liquidation value at the time â€“ could have escaped the notice of top executives. In fact, testimony highlighted how the bankruptcy trustee clearly identified October 26 as the date the segregated funds short fall was officially identified, while in testimony Mr. Steenkamp claimed learning of the transfers several days later.
“The height of absurdity is thinking that $1.6 billion simply vanished without the CFO’s knowledge,” noted Stanley Haar, who runs a managed futures hedge fund and has been a leader in bringing the MF Global issue to the attention of Congress.
When asked an obvious question regarding the role of creditor’s bankruptcy trustee Louis Freeh and his stated motivation to deliver assets to creditors as opposed to customers, Steenkamp answered with “I’m not an expert in bankruptcy.” Mr. Freeh is effectively Mr. Steenkamp’s employer and has authorized bonuses be paid to MF Global executives such as Steenkamp who have remained at the firm while it is being liquidated.
If Mr. Steenkamp was consistent in one area, it was avoidance of questions â€“ and this drew the ire of Committee Chairman Randy Neugebauer, who flatly questioned Mr. Steenkamp’s honesty. At one point Congressmen queried Mr. Steenkamp regarding relatively arcane details of his college life, which he remembered. Then the Congressman proceeded in asking why the CFO of a financial firm couldn’t remember details regarding what were likely the most significant money transfers in MF Global’s 224 year history.
Ferber Confirms Investigators Finally Questioning Top Executives
While MF Global chief legal officer Laurie Ferber was generally evasive, one interesting piece of information to emerge is that investigators are beginning to question the firm’s top executives. Unlike MF Global’s back office, which had been questioned by executives early in the process, Ms. Ferber acknowledged that she will be questioned for the first time in April â€“ close to six months after the fact. Mr. Steenkamp confirmed that he has not spoken to investigators, although his lawyers have answered questions. MF Global’s chief financial officer for North America, Christine Serwinski, who worked in the Chicago back office, confirmed in testimony she had been previously questioned twice by investigators. “I’m shocked,” said Congressman William Posey, speaking of the fact investigators have not interviewed MF Global’s top executives until long after the potential crime had occurred.
Ferber also made statements confirming that Mr. Corzine was involved in MF Global’s questionable money transfers to JP Morgan and she acknowledged she was responsible for compliance and disclosure to regulators. One issue in the MF Global case is that proper disclosure of segregated account balances was not made to regulators during the final week of the firm’s life.
Finger Pointing to Steenkamp, Serwinski, O’Brien
During a rare moment of candor, at one point Mr Steenkamp was asked who would have authority over money transfers and he apparently pointed a finger at Ms Serwinski, who proceeded to point the finger at an absent Ms. O’Brien. When Ms Serwinski was asked if she would have approved the wire transfer in question had she been in the office, she said she would not have approved the transfer.
Committee Treats JP Morgan to Soft Questions
Among other panelists was JP Morgan, which played a number of reported conflicting roles as MF Global’s primary lender, provided clearing services and was custodian of certain MF Global customer funds. Questions that might point more specifically to JP Morgan’s intimate knowledge that such money transfers took place from customer funds were left alone in the testimony.
Mark Melin is author of three books, including HIgh Performance Managed Futures. He taught managed futures at Northwestern University in Chicago and has consulted for a variety of futures exchanges, hedge funds and professional traders. He can be reached at: markhmelin(at)yahoo.com
Contents Copyright (C) 2012 Mark H. Melin all rights reserved.