The fastest growing segment of the financial services industry was the one hardest hit by MF Global’s suspicious demise and overt fraud at Peregrine Financial Group (PFG).
The managed futures industry, which had grown from $14 billion under management in 1991 to over $329 billion to end 2012, was a shining star of the new economy. Offering the unique ability to zig when other investments zagged, the lack of correlation and performance during crisis were key points of attraction. This attraction came to a screeching halt with the MF Global and PFG criminal incidents. Not only were investors getting acquainted with the asset class shocked to learn their accounts were looted of assets, but more troubling criminal behavior appeared the cause - casting a shadow over all participants.
“There is a severe loss of trust, a loss of confidence. There is incredible anger and frustration. Things need to change,” said Diane Mix Birnberg, president of Horizon Cash Management. Her firm just released a study, The Aftermath of MF Global and Peregrine Financial Group Meltdowns: A Crisis of Trust, showing that a whopping 91% of respondents believed there was a breakdown in audit procedures.
The study themes that emerged included:
- The laws and rules that govern the industry need to have ‘teeth’ â€“ and those involved in fraud and theft need to be punished.
- Customer segregated funds must either be kept completely out of the FCM and/or be verified in real-time by regulators.
A strong and rare female voice inside a Type A male dominated industry, Ms Birnberg’s firm, Horizon Cash Management, has become the top cash management firm for participants in the managed futures industry. Starting in the 1970s as a secretary in a stock brokerage firm in Atlanta, where “women generally didn’t think about career aspirations,” she later joined Lehman Brothers in the bond business. After moving to New York City to work on Wall Street, she was recruited in 1980 by investors to operate a cash management firm in the futures industry and in 1991 founded Horizon Cash Management, which currently has $2 billion under management.
In MF Global “there was very little institutional leadership (from exchanges, regulators and major firms),” she said. “This resulted in rumor, innuendo and ultimately a lack of trust. The void in leadership is terrifying.”
Looking back on the MF Global and PFG disasters, Ms. Birnberg has the experience of witnessing 10 FCM implosions. “In every FCM implosion it has negatively touched the CTA / CPO segment of the industry.”
“Think about a plane crash,” she said. “When it happens? Key issues and facts are addressed by the airline, the FAA and even the US president. Information is available regarding what happened, why it happened and steps being taken to address the problem.”
With MF Global a plane crashed and there was silence.
This is the first part of a two part article.
Mark Melin is author of three books and taught a managed futures course for Northwestern University’s Executive Education program. To read additional blog posts visit www.UncorrelatedInvestments.com (requires free registration).