December 13, 2011

How MF Global Almost Got Away With Everything

Posted in Banking, Big Banks, Europe, Finance, Foreign, investment advisor, investment banking, investments, sovereign debt, Stocks, Uncategorized tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 4:39 PM by Robert Barone

The MF Global (MFGLQ.PK) story is just another chapter in the continuing saga of the legal fleecing of America by a financial system joined at the hip in an “Unholy Washington-Wall Street Alliance.”

The rules of the game are such that the managements of large Wall Street entities are allowed to gamble with assets entrusted to them by an unsuspecting public. If the bets are successful, the spoils flow entirely to the management and the firm, with nothing going to the clients whose assets are at risk. On the other hand, if the bets fail, the clients take the entire loss! Unfair? Of course.

But, as you will see if you keep reading, MF Global’s client assets will not be “found,” and, worse, unless the NY attorney general becomes incredibly creative, no one is likely to go to jail because no laws appear to have been broken. MF Global is just another piece of evidence that the current financial system is addicted to and permits excessive leverage and is deeply flawed.

Until this is recognized and fixed, the financial system will continue to be besieged with crises spawned by Wall Street greed. There are likely other, yet to be discovered, atrocities lurking in the shadows.

Asymmetrical Borrowing Rules

It appears that MF Global, as well as every other major US investment banking firm, has taken “advantage of an asymmetry in brokerage borrowing rules that allow firms to legally use client money to buy assets in their own name,” Christopher Elias notes in a recent Thomson Reuters article.

Simply put, MF Global borrowed money, and, using that borrowed money, purchased the debt of the European periphery (Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain, and Portugal) at very attractive yields. The borrowings and the debt purchased had the same maturity date, so the proceeds of the debt maturities were to pay back the borrowings. MF collected the difference between the low rate it paid on the borrowings and the high rate it received on the debt.

The euro debt it purchased was guaranteed by the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF). To get the low rate, MF had to pledge collateral. So, it pledged the euro debt, and as additional collateral, it borrowed and pledged its clients’ assets, which assets it held as custodian. Looks like a no-brainer! So thought Jon Corzine and Co.

Margin in the US

In the US, a client with an account at a broker-dealer can place his assets in a “margin” account. The client is then allowed to borrow against those margined assets. There are rules for this called “margin requirements.” Generally, speaking, the value of the assets assigned to “margin” must be greater than the amount borrowed by a factor set by the Federal Reserve under Regulation T.

If the market value of the assets assigned to “margin” falls in value to the point where the margin requirement ratio is violated, a “margin call” is generated. The client either has to assign or pledge more assets to “margin,” or reduce the borrowing via a cash deposit. If the client fails to do either of those in the time allotted by regulation, usually three business days, the assets that were pledged to “margin” are liquidated (sold out) and the proceeds are used to offset the borrowings until the required margin ratio is satisfied.

Of relevance, clients who assign their equities to “margin” (the only other alternative is called “cash”) so that they can borrow against them also automatically grant their broker-dealer the right to “lend” their assets to another investor who wants to “short-sell” that particular asset because a short-seller must first “borrow” existing stock in order to “sell” it. The broker-dealer makes money by lending out equities in margin accounts to short-sellers. The everyday American investor is unaware of this, and earns nothing.

Leverage

So, how did MF Global lose client assets? In the US, broker-dealers can use margined assets as a funding mechanism, i.e., by borrowing those assets themselves and using them as collateral to borrow. But in the UK, those same borrowed assets can be pledged several times over (called rehypothecation), resulting in very significant leverage. That is, the client assets stand behind several borrowings rather than just one.

Buried somewhere deep in the legalese of the account forms (you know the pages and pages of legal gobbledegook that nobody reads because one has to be an attorney to understand it), the clients gave MF Global the right to transfer those client assets to its UK subsidiary and to “borrow, pledge, repledge, hypothecate, and rehypothecate” those assets.

According to the Thomson Reuters article cited above, such language is common in most large US broker-dealer agreements. That language allows the large broker-dealers to circumvent US law and take advantage of UK law where rehypothecation (leverage) is allowed.

The Impact of Margin Calls

For MF Global, the unanticipated “tail” event occurred. (“Tail” events are only supposed to occur very infrequently. However, in an unstable financial system, they occur often.) When the value of the European periphery debt declined this past fall (even that guaranteed by the EFSF), margin calls occurred. MF Global would have been okay if it hadn’t used so much leverage.

The leverage magnified the margin calls to such an extent that all of the client assets weren’t enough to meet the margin calls. All of the collateral, including the euro debt (at bargain basement prices) and the client assets were sold to offset the borrowings. The clients’ assets are gone. They are not going to be “found.”

Conclusion

No laws appear to have been broken. No one is likely to go to jail. But, as you can see, the financial system is deeply flawed and is rigged in favor of Wall Street and against the ordinary investor. The causes of the financial crisis that appeared in the US in 2009 have not been resolved, only papered over (with money printing). In order to have a “fair” and healthy financial system, the excessive use of leverage, such that success leads to untold wealth for the managers and failure is directly borne by unsuspecting clients or taxpayers, must be changed.  Until this occurs, we will continue to experience such debacles. And the volatility caused by them will continue to keep the financial system unstable and limit economic growth.

Robert Barone  and Joshua Barone are Principals and Investment Advisor Representatives of Universal Value Advisors, LLC, Reno, NV, an SEC Registered Investment  Advisor. Statistics and other information have been compiled from various sources. Universal   Value Advisors believes the facts and information to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee to the complete accuracy of this information.  Universal Value Advisors, LLC is a registered investment adviser with the Securities and Exchange Commission of the United States.   A more detailed description of the company, its management and practices are contained in its “Firm Brochure”, (Form ADV, Part 2A). A copy of this Brochure may be received by contacting the company at: 9222 Prototype Drive, Reno, NV 89521, Phone (775) 284-7778.
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December 7, 2011

Severe Europe-Wide Recession Likely for 2012

Posted in Banking, Europe, Finance, Foreign, government, investment advisor, investment banking, investments, sovereign debt, Stocks, taxes tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , at 8:25 PM by Robert Barone

NEW YORK (TheStreet) — Given the speed at which markets move, and given the volatility that accompanies the hopes and fears that occur when the key European leaders meet to try to make progress on the European debt crisis, it is somewhat risky to try to describe what will happen to the European Monetary Union (EMU) in 2012. Something that I write today, in early December, could be obsolete as early as next week. So, I will approach this with what I consider to ultimately be the most likely scenario, why it is most likely, and where the remaining dangers lie.

There are two opposing forces in Europe regarding the approach that should be taken to resolve the crisis:

  • Those that want the European Central Bank (ECB) to act just like the U.S. Fed and rapidly expand its balance sheet, either to support a strengthened European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), or directly. The ECB has no mandate in its charter to do this;
  • Those that want the causes of the crisis, overspending and out of control deficits via entitlement and social welfare spending, to be addressed. While these folks appear to be the minority among the political class, their strength lies in the fact that the politicians representing the economically strongest EMU member, Germany, hold this view.

As an aside, some have wondered why the euro has kept its value high vis-à-vis the U.S. dollar. It is precisely because the ECB hasn’t significantly expanded its balance sheet while the U.S. Fed has. In fact, the big worldwide market rally on Nov. 30 due to the “coordinated” central bank policy of insuring liquidity for Europe’s banks, was a “dollar” policy, i.e., dollars, not euros were made available. So far, the ECB appears to have remained faithful to its mandate as the guardian against inflation, and nothing else.

Most Likely Scenario

The U.S. Fed tripled the size of its balance sheet with some apparent success at keeping its financial system from collapsing and, until now, those actions appear to have had no apparent large unintended consequences. There has been some moderate inflation officially reported (and disputed by some), and some believe that the Fed’s balance sheet expansion has been behind the rapid rise in commodity and food prices. But given the apparent success in staving off financial collapse with such policies, the most likely scenario is the first one outlined above, i.e., the use of the ECB or some structure around it (including the EFSF and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)) to directly purchase or partially guarantee the sovereign bonds of the peripheral countries.

>>Saving Euro a Tall Order, Even for Germany

The “bazooka” theory appears to apply here. As long as the market knows that the ECB has a bazooka (the power and authority to print euros), and is willing to use it, it won’t have to. As U.S. Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson found out in 2009 that the “bazooka” theory doesn’t always work. Time and again, the capital markets have demonstrated that they are much more powerful than any central bank or sovereign treasury.

Verifiable Austerity

The most likely scenario, then, is an emerging consensus in Europe as follows: Through a series of bilateral agreements to avoid having to get 17 separate countries to approve changes to the treaties that govern the EMU, a painstakingly long process, the offending peripheral countries (Italy, Portugal, Spain, and perhaps, Ireland) may agree to some level of verifiable austerity with benchmarks and external audits. In return, Germany and its political allies will permit the ECB to expand its balance sheet either by directly purchasing the sovereign debt of the peripheral countries, or by making credit available to the EFSF or whatever structure emerges.

Once again, as an aside, under this scenario, you can expect the value of the euro to fall relative to other currencies. Of course, if the U.S. Fed embarks on QE3, the euro’s relative value to the dollar may well hold.

Recidivism?

Of course, once the crisis atmosphere passes and things settle down, under this most likely scenario, the peripheral countries may not feel the pressure to continue with their promised austerity. Don’t forget, politics plays a large role and austerity often leads to political defeat for those politicians who negotiated it. Already we have seen political changes in Greece, Italy and Spain as a result of this crisis.

Perhaps these countries will follow Greece’s lead and hire Goldman Sachs to help them issue off the books debt so that they have the appearance of complying with their austerity promises. That could very well buy several years, as it did for Greece. (Ireland appears to be an exception. After their bailout, they appear to have abided by their austerity promises and have made great progress in addressing their fiscal and economic issues. Then, again, none of Ireland’s shores touch the Mediterranean Sea.)

Issues Remain

So, as we enter 2012, the stage is set for some calming over Europe’s sovereign debt and the solvency of Europe’s banks. Mind you, it may be a rocky road over the near term to get there including setbacks and lots of uncertainty and market volatility. The biggest issues will likely revolve around the magnitude of the guarantees and the capacity of the guaranteeing entities. Nevertheless, the most likely scenario is coming into clearer focus.

Unfortunately, this scenario, or any other one that emerges, means recession in Europe, most likely severe recession. This has implications for markets worldwide, as Europe’s economy matches or exceeds the size of the U.S., depending on which countries you include. Once again, the recession, coupled with the austerity measures, may change the political backdrop such that the populations of some of the peripheral countries may well want to exit the EMU.

While 2012 may bring calmer conditions, even if the most likely scenario is executed, the future of the euro and the EMU is still not assured. It rests on the effectiveness of the fiscal controls. If EMU members retain sovereignty over their fiscal policies, then there has to be some mechanism to expel fiscal offenders from the EMU in an orderly manner. Without this, we may well see a replay of this crisis within the decade. Let’s hope there is enough political courage to include such measures.

Robert Barone  and Joshua Barone are Principals and Investment Advisor Representatives of Universal Value Advisors, LLC, Reno, NV, an SEC Registered Investment  Advisor. Statistics and other information have been compiled from various sources. Universal   Value Advisors believes the facts and information to be accurate and credible but makes no guarantee to the complete accuracy of this information.  Universal Value Advisors, LLC is a registered investment adviser with the Securities and Exchange Commission of the United States.   A more detailed description of the company, its management and practices are contained in its “Firm Brochure”, (Form ADV, Part 2A). A copy of this Brochure may be received by contacting the company at: 9222 Prototype Drive, Reno, NV 89521, Phone (775) 284-7778.