MF Global trustee doubles estimates of shortfall

NEW YORK Tue Nov 22, 2011 7:55am EST

The sign marking the MF Global Holdings Ltd. offices at 52nd Street in midtown Manhattan is seen in New York November 2, 2011.  REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

The sign marking the MF Global Holdings Ltd. offices at 52nd Street in midtown Manhattan is seen in New York November 2, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - The shortfall of commodity customer funds at MF Global Holdings Ltd MFGLQ.PK may be around $1.2 billion, about double initial estimates from regulators, the trustee liquidating the company said on Monday.

The news was a blow to customers still hoping to get more of their cash out of frozen broker accounts and raised new questions about why the authorities managed to locate only about 60 percent of the segregated customer funds three weeks after the parent firm's October 31 bankruptcy.

"I'm flabbergasted," said Tom Ward, a retired Chicago Board of Trade member whose two sons cleared their futures trades through MF Global and have been blocked from accessing their money. "The bottom line is, there's going to be a haircut involved. It's devastating, what this has done to the industry."

Monday's announcement was trustee James Giddens' first public statement on the size of the shortfall, which regulators initially said was about $600 million.

Regulators are investigating what happened to the money and whether MF Global may have improperly mixed customer money with its own -- a major violation of industry rules. No charges have been filed.

Hours after the statement, the bankrupt MF Global parent filed court papers along with JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N), one of its key lenders, seeking the rare appointment of a separate trustee to take over the company's assets in bankruptcy.

Such appointments are reserved for cases in which a company's executives are accused of wrongdoing or when it may otherwise be in the estate's best interest. JPMorgan, which pledged $8 million of its collateral to keep MF Global afloat during bankruptcy, agreed to increase that pledge to $26 million if a trustee were appointed, according to the filing.

The request is on the agenda for a hearing tomorrow afternoon in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Manhattan.

An MFGlobal spokeswomen declined to comment on the case.

QUESTIONS RAISED

In Monday's statement, Giddens said he currently controls about $1.6 billion of the brokerage's funds that he can use to pay back customers. His plans to pay back 60 percent of customer funds by early December would nearly exhaust that amount.

The sharply higher estimate of the shortfall raises questions about the investigation, said Tim Butler, an attorney for a group of customers demanding a fuller payback.

"What did the CFTC know three weeks ago and what do they know now?" Butler said. "If the amount has changed that much over three weeks, where did the money go? What were (regulators) looking at before?"

Leaders on Capitol Hill have entered the fray with calls for hearings and accountability.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said the CFTC should "do everything possible" to get more information to customers on the status of their funds. The call comes as angry farmers and ranchers across the country begin to reconsider a livelihood in the market and how they hedge future crops and livestocks.

"Unlike the big banks, the average farmer who lost money in this fiasco can't afford to hire an attorney and attend proceedings in a Manhattan courtroom," Grassley said in a statement.

MF Global was run by former Goldman Sachs & Co Inc (GS.N) chief and New Jersey governor Jon Corzine before its bankruptcy. The Chapter 11 filing came after the New York-based company revealed it made a $6.3 billion bet on European sovereign debt. Corzine resigned on November 4.

On Sunday, Reuters reported that, based on initial reports of what was supposed to be segregated for customers, the trustee appeared to be keeping about $3 billion on hand to cover the shortfall.

Customers had been clamoring for more specifics, saying that was too large of a cushion -- a notion Giddens rejected.

"Restoring 60 percent of what is in segregated customer accounts ... would require approximately $1.3 to $1.6 billion to implement," or nearly all the money at the trustee's disposal, he said.

Giddens previously transferred more than $2 billion to other brokers, giving most customers access to a portion of their funds.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said legislators should call on Corzine to testify about his former company's actions. Roberts said in a statement on Monday that the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry should hold a special hearing on the matter.

If the trustee does exhaust the funds he now controls, his focus would shift to going after monies that may belong to the brokerage, but may be tied up in foreign depositories, or may be part of the shortfall, Giddens spokesman Kent Jarrell said.

"We can't distribute money we don't have, but we do have legal means for going after other assets," Jarrell said.

INVESTIGATION CONTINUES

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission and other regulators are investigating MF Global.

CFTC Commissioner Jill Sommers refused to speculate on how the $1.2 billion figure might compare with earlier estimates.

"From the very beginning we have tried as much as possible to never use a figure, out of fear that it's not right," said Sommers, who has been leading the agency's investigation into MF Global after Chairman Gary Gensler recused himself from the probe because of his ties to Corzine.

"Until the final reconciliation (of accounts) is done, you don't know what the shortfall is."

CME Group Inc (CME.O), operator of the clearinghouse for most of MF Global's customers, declined to comment.

Commodity customers say they have more questions than answers about MF Global's collapse and the safety of their money.

Sean McGillivray, vice president of Great Pacific Wealth Management, still has about $5 million tied up in MF Global for his customers. He was aware of the latest estimates of the shortfall, but wants exact figures.

"It would be in the best interest of all clients, brokers and anyone else caught in this mess to know just how much has been transferred ... and how much is supposed to be there," he said. "You could do this with an abacus and it would take less (time)."

A spokesman for the Commodity Customer Coalition in Chicago, which represents more than 7,000 former MF Global customers, said it was unclear how much of the trustee's estimate related to possible co-mingling of customer money.

Some of the missing money could be tied up overseas, said spokesman John L. Roe.

"We're hopeful given what was accounted for initially that more of the money will be found and that the trustee will work with us on an expedited claims process for customers," he said.

INVESTORS REACT

In a sign that even distressed investors are losing faith in a decent return, MF Global's bonds fell to an all-time low below 30 cents on the dollar, according to Tradeweb, down more than 5 cents on the day. The $325 million in 6.25 percent notes were issued at par in August.

Some investors have targeted other financial institutions. Two pension funds have sued seven banks, including Bank of America Corp (BAC.N), JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs, over prospectuses that allegedly concealed the problems that led to MF's collapse.

The trustee's case is In re MF Global Inc, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Southern District of New York, No. 11-2790.

The MF Global bankruptcy is In Re MF Global Holdings Ltd, in the same court, No. 11-15059.

(Reporting by Nick Brown and David Sheppard; additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York, Philip Shishkin in Washington and Tom Polansek and Ann Saphir in Chicago; editing by Martha Graybow, Tim Dobbyn, Edward Tobin and Carol Bishopric)

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