The Bitcoin price correction most of us expected seems to be occurring
So what is next for Bitcoin? I predict death by lawyer. In modern America, no one loses this much value this fast without calling an attorney, because such losses can't possibly be due to one's own poor decision-making (e.g. buying an illiquid currency after a 5x runup in its price), it must be due to GETTING HOSED. I am not a securities attorney, but my guess is that someone will argue Bitcoin was not a currency but a digital commodity and that commodity trading laws were not followed. Or something like that. The CFTC, which left MF Global customers hang out to dry, will launch a simultaneous investigation to gain pub for themselves and support the civil suit. Because it will be a much higher priority for this Administration to kill an incipient competitive currency than to go after a major Obama bundler.
Anyway, the main entertainment value will be to see if there is actually someone who can be sued, given the dispersed nature of the Bitcoin network. But expect people to try. I would even bet we see the suit in days -- "entrepreneurial" tort houses probably have already drafted the paperwork and gotten some schlub to buy 1 bitcoin so he can be lead plaintiff (preferably in a hand-picked jurisdiction) in the class action and are just waiting for the bubble to burst to file.
Whether crimes were involved in the failures of Enron, Lehman, & Bear Stearns is still being debated. All three essentially died in the same way (borrowing short and investing long, with a liquidity crisis emerging when questions about the quality of their long-term investments caused them not to be able to roll over their short term debt). Just making bad business decisions isn't illegal (or shouldn't be), but there are questions at all three whether management lied to (essentially defrauded) investors by hiding emerging problems and risks.
All that being said, MF Global strikes me as an order of magnitude worse. They had roughly the same problem - they were unable to make what can be thought of as margin calls on leveraged investments that were going bad. However, before they went bankrupt, it is pretty clear that they stole over a billion dollars of their customers' money. Now, in criticizing Wall Street, people are pretty sloppy in over-using the word "stole." But in this case it applies. Everyone agrees that customer brokerage accounts are sacrosanct. No matter what other fraud was or was not committed in these other cases, nothing remotely similar occurred in these other bankruptcies.
A few folks are talking civil actions against MF Global, but why isn't anyone up for criminal charges? Someone, probably Corzine, committed a crime far worse than anything Jeff Skilling or Ken Lay were even accused of, much less convicted. This happens time and again in the financial system. People whine that we don't have enough regulations, but the most fundamental laws we have in place already are not enforced.
Investors everywhere were shocked to see that MF Global seems to have lost over a billion dollars of their customers capital. In most cases, this capital was cash customers thought was sequestered as collateral for their trading accounts. MF Global took its customers money and used that money as collateral in making risky, leveraged bets on European sovereign debt, bets that fell apart as debt prices fell and MF Global faced margin calls on its bets that it did not have the liquidity to cover.
Certainly it strikes most folks as unethical to lose the assets in your customers' brokerage accounts making bets for the house. But it turns out, it may have been entirely legal. This article is quite good, and helps explain what was going on, what this "hypothecation" thing is (basically a fancy term for leveraging up assets by using them as collateral on loans), and why it may have been legal.
In short, the article discusses two regulatory changes that seemed to be important. The first was a 2000 (ie Clinton era, for those who still think these regulatory screwups are attributable to a single Party) relaxation in how brokerages could invest customers' collateral in their trading accounts. The second was a loophole where brokerages created subsidiaries in countries with no controls on how client money was re-used (in this case mostly the UK) and used those subsidiaries to reinvest money even in US brokerage accounts.
The increase in leverage was staggering. Already, cash in most commodities trading accounts is leveraged - customers might have only 30% of the value of their trading positions as collateral on their margin account. Then the brokerage houses took this collateral and used it as collateral on new loans. Those receiving the collateral on the other end often did the same.
MF Global would be bad if it were fraud. But it is even worse if MF Global is doing legally what every other brokerage house is still doing.
Here is the minimum one should do: Diversify brokerage accounts. We diversify between bonds and stocks and other investments, but many people have everything in one account with one company. I am not sure anyone can be trusted any more. My mutual funds are now spread across three firms and, if I grow my brokerage account for individual stocks and investments (right now it is tiny) I will split that as well.
Via Zero Hedge
today, in a unanimous vote, "The U.S. futures regulator approved on Monday a rule that puts tighter limits on how brokerage firms can use customer funds, a measure that the now-bankrupt MF Global had encouraged the agency to delay." In other words, while before commingling client accounts was assumed to be a clear violation of every logical fiduciary imperative, now it is set in stone. For real. The CFTC means it.
In the past, I believed that a lot of financial regulations were honest (though often misguided) attempts to create transparent and trustworthy markets. I am increasingly being pushed to the cynical conclusion that financial regulations, like, say, licensing of funeral homes, are mainly aimed at making it impossible for small competitors to survive, while larger competitors either have the scale to pay for compliance departments, or in the case of MF Global, have the political muscle to get themselves exempted (by Administrations of both parties, I should be clear, though the current one certainly gets a hypocrisy award for standing beside OWS while handing out finance and health care law exceptions to the powerful).
MF Global is far worse in my mind than, say, Enron. In Enron's case, the management was at least mostly pursuing the activities and investments that they were supposed to be pursuing. They were making bets of the type shareholders expected, though they were likely masking the cost and risk of these bets by aggressive pushes at the margins of accounting rules.
MF Global was doing exactly what everyone supposedly knew to be an absolute no-no, ie using client funds to make leveraged bets for their own account. If Joe Schmoe in Florida did the same thing, he would already be incarcerated. In the case of MF Global, no one even seems to be interviewing Corzine and so far the bankruptcy committee has put a higher priority on repaying JP Morgan and Goldman for Corzine's bad bets than on getting investors' money back.