A little more than four months after the astonishing collapse of MF Global (OTC: MFGLQ), many of the same questions remain, including the one on everyone's mind: Where's the money? No account of missing customer funds has been provided, and while some of the money has been returned, the road to even partial recovery has been an arduous one.
The missing funds, the lack of government intervention, and the ongoing legal battles have fundamentally changed how customers view the industry and the world around them.
"You've got fraud here."
When MF Global announced on Oct. 31 that it would be filing for bankruptcy, several customers told us they hadn't been too worried. The futures broker had a 200-year-old lineage, which included, among other things, a bankruptcy proceeding in 2005. Many of the customers who had gone through the Refco proceedings expected more of the same. But when it was announced that $1.2 billion of customer funds were missing, all bets were off.
James Koutoulas is the co-founder and lead attorney for the Commodity Customer Coalition, established after the collapse to advocate for customers. He says the missing funds are no accident. "In 200 years, no one ever lost money in a segregated account," Koutoulas says. "You've got fraud here."
"It would be one thing if they were moving money in...suitcases."
Mahesh Desai, whose rollover IRA was being traded at MF Global, expresses disbelief that the money still hasn't been found. "In this day and age, when everything is moved electronically, that they can't figure out where the funds are is mind-blowing," he says. "It would be one thing if they were moving money in the back of a trunk in suitcases. There's no way you can move $1.2 billion electronically and not have multiple records of it."
Fingers point to JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) . The giant bank, along with Deutsche Bank (NYSE: DB ) , served as a top creditor to MF Global, and is dominating the bankruptcy proceedings. With a recent ruling denying customers access to discovery (and a potential glimpse of where the money went), the CCC is instead putting pressure on JPMorgan. "We believe they have at least $200 million in client money that they knew was [MF Global] client money," Koutoulas says.
Hilary Escajeda, a tax attorney in Boulder, Colo., who is on the board of the CCC with Koutoulas, agrees. "People just don't realize how it goes to the core," Escajeda says. "When you have JPMorgan and other entities structuring the bankruptcy in such a way that it muddies customer protections, that's outrageous."
"It took away the innocence for a lot of us."
Escajeda had left her job to form a nonprofit organization with her mother. Buffered by her investments, Escajeda planned on working for free while she created an organization that would help others find work. Her plans haven't changed, although she is now filing grant applications to supplement the massive shortfall.
Steve Meyers, owner of Grainbelt Commodities, tried unsuccessfully to get his business out of MF Global the Friday before the bankruptcy. After the collapse, he is haunted by the opportunities he sees but lets pass by, but thinks the dangers of investing in commodities outweighs the potential rewards. "It took away the innocence for a lot of us."
"Time for me to pick up my toys and go home."
It's perhaps no surprise that customers burned by the MF Global collapse have sworn off commodities, and in some cases, investing in general. Desai says, "I've stopped contributing to any 401(k) plans. I don't put any money, anywhere that's not FDIC insured. I'm buying real assets and I've quit all the trading."
It's not a good sign for the CME Group (Nasdaq: CME ) . "The CME is being penny wise, pound foolish," Desai says. "Nobody in their right mind is ever going to want to trade this stuff."
"If you can't have money in what's basically a bank account on the 31st of October and know on November 1st the money is still there, how can we as a culture, and as a society, rely on anything?" Escajeda asks. "That's what this whole thing has taught me. That you can't rely on anybody."
It's a sentiment Meyers shares. "Watching this whole thing unfold and how much disappointment I have in the industry, I think it's time for me to pick up my toys and go home. I have no faith in the system anymore."
"The whole system is broken," Desai says, "which is frustrating for an average joe in America."