CFTC official seeks more protection of customer accounts

WASHINGTON Wed Nov 16, 2011 12:16pm EST

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. futures regulator on Wednesday pushed for immediate action to bolster protection of customer funds in order to restore confidence in the futures brokerage industry in the wake of the collapse of MF Global.

Scott O'Malia, a commissioner at the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, backed a requirement that intermediaries like MF Global MFGLQ.PK should hire a third party, such as an independent reviewer, to make sure customers funds are kept separate from the firm's own money.

O'Malia said the CFTC must act quickly to show that rules on segregating accounts work and that the unraveling of MF Global was an isolated incident.

However, he warned about going too far with reforms without full knowledge of what happened at the failed brokerage.

"Many have said that the failure of MF Global was not systemic and that we are lucky. I don't view it in the same light," O' Malia said in a statement laying out the next steps in dealing with the aftermath of the MF Global bankruptcy.

MF Global filed for bankruptcy on October 31 after risky trades on European debt triggered its collapse.

Roughly $600 million is missing in customer accounts that the company's brokerage was supposed to keep separate from its own. The CFTC is among the authorities investigating whether MF Global may have improperly mixed that money with its own funds.

O'Malia said the CFTC must ensure that all intermediaries are in compliance with segregation requirements. The agency also must reconsider rules it is crafting to implement the Dodd-Frank financial reform law.

The CFTC said last week it would do an audit of all clearing futures commission merchants to ensure customer funds were properly segregated.

In the three-page statement, O'Malia said it's too early to hail a proposal that would limit investments of segregated customer funds "as the solution to the MF Global problem."

Gary Gensler, the CFTC's chairman, said on Wednesday he hoped the agency could vote at its rule-making meeting on December 5 on a rule that would prohibit how brokerage firms can invest customer funds. The rule needs support from at least three of five agency commissioners to pass.

"It is critical that the CFTC finish a rule that will enhance customer protections regarding where clearinghouses and futures commission merchants can invest customer funds," Gensler said in prepared remarks before the University of Chicago Law School.

In the past, the U.S. futures regulator was encouraged by MF Global and its former chief, Jon Corzine, to delay work on the rule.

In his open letter, O'Malia also questioned a plan that would have the CFTC intervene in insolvency proceedings to facilitate transfer of customer positions and collateral in the face of a shortfall.

"The Commission has not actively intervened in such a manner in MF Global, and so it is questionable whether the Commission would so intervene in the future," O'Malia said.

In light of MF Global's demise, O'Malia said the CFTC should ensure that clearing organizations are able to diversify their membership without introducing risk.

(Editing by Alden Bentley)

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