The lesson from MF Global for the management of a prop trading unit.

Much has been said about MF Global, the US brokerage and clearing group that filed for bankruptcy in late October. In March 2010, when Jon Corzine was brought in as the CEO, MF Global’s franchise in brokerage and clearing operations was strong, but had tallied a string of losses. Corzine was tasked with cutting expenses and returning those operations to profitability. But that wasn’t good enough for him. He wanted to transform the firm into a major league investment bank, expanding into market making in fixed income instruments as well as adding asset management, advisory and capital market services. Corzine also sought to transform proprietary trading into a major source of profit for the firm.

Proprietary trading was something more to Jon Corzine than simply another line of business. He personally stepped in to make an outsized bet on the Eurozone sovereign debt crisis. The firm took a long position in bonds of financially stretched European countries with loans secured by the bonds themselves. To avoid the risk of refinancing, MF Global arranged the trade to be funded until the maturity of the bonds. If everything went according to plan, for a ten percent haircut on the collateral, the spread between the EU high bond yields and the overnight rate would generate €400-€500 million in profit for the company.

As Aaron Lucchetti and Julie Steinberg, of the Wall Street Journal report, MF Global’s Chief Risk Officer, Michael Roseman, warned of the dangers of the trade: he “contended MF Global didn’t have enough spare cash to withstand the risks of its position in bonds of Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland and Belgium. He also presented gloomy hypothetical scenarios of what could happen if MF Global’s credit rating was downgraded because of the exposure.” Nevertheless, Corzine held firm and the Board did not restrain him.

MF Global’s lenders grew worried over the summer as the collateral lost a good deal of value. They demanded the company post additional margin, and when the company was unable to do so, they called the loans. With no additional credit available to the firm, MF Global had no choice but to liquidate the portfolio at very disadvantageous prices, for the market for bonds of highly indebted European countries is very illiquid. Ultimately, the bad bet forced the company into bankruptcy.

There are many lessons that can be drawn from the collapse of MF Global. One that we would like to highlight has to do with the proper place of prop trading in a larger business. We see no problem with standalone prop trading units – hedge funds, as they are sometimes called. When the prop traders are gambling using their own balance sheet, they are forced to fully bear any risk of failure. But when the prop traders share a balance sheet with other lines of business – like MF Global’s brokerage and clearing operations – the danger arises that they are gambling using the capital of other units without paying for it. When MF Global’s bet went bad, it lost more than the price of that bet. It wiped out the long-term health of the brokerage and clearing franchise. That is a dead weight cost produced by having the two operations share a balance sheet.

Was that potential cost factored in when taking the original bet? We doubt it. Measuring the capital at risk from proprietary trading is a difficult task. Traders habitually underestimate the risks of their trades and the capital required to run their operation. MF Global structured it’s repo-to-maturity deal to seemingly hedge out key risks, thereby benefitting from an accounting trick that kept its bet off of its balance sheet and out of sight of the market. But that accounting treatment ignored the huge liquidity risk created by the need to hold onto the position to maturity. That liquidity risk put the entire balance sheet of the firm on the line. Ultimately, one of MF Global’s regulators, FINRA, flagged the risk and demanded more capital, forcing more disclosure.

One way to discipline traders is to give them their own balance sheet. With no one to blame but their operation, the tradeoff between risk and return is more carefully scrutinized. A stand alone balance sheet isn’t the only tool for disciplining traders, but it is certainly the most reliable. Companies that decide, for whatever reason, to put the proprietary trading unit onto the same balance sheet with other activities, had better have superior disciplinary tools at their disposal than what MF Global had.

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