My house was broken into this weekend. The back door was forced and when that didn’t give way the thief broke the door glass and opened the dead bolt by hand. From there he rifled through a few drawers – he or she took a laptop, small electronics, most of our jewelry, then stuffed them in my favorite backpack and was gone.
I live on the north side of Chicago about a mile away from Wrigley Field. The police came and looked over the scene, dusted for fingerprints but got nothing. I was disturbed and felt violated, edgy and angry at the guy who took our stuff. And I was hopeful the cops would catch this person and bring him to justice. But that’ll likely not happen.
In a way, it’s a metaphor for how the victims of the MF Global case and the Peregrine Financial Group (PFGBEST), and ordinary taxpayers feel today. Someone broke into their account and stole their money. Russ Wasendorf Sr. got caught, but only after 20 years of stealing customer funds and then writing a suicide note detailing the fraud. The MF Global case is still ongoing and many in the industry wonder if there will ever be charges filed against anyone at the company.Hey, Dick Fuld at Lehman got away with saying he didn’t know anything about the poor positions of the firm, or that he was inaccurately reporting the company’s financial status to his shareholders. I thought the “I didn’t know” defense went out with Bernie Ebbers at Worldcom. And with the financial collapse led by Lehman, the bailouts came from the pocketbooks of the taxpayers. Some can argue that most or all of those TARP funds have been paid back, but no one at AIG, the epicenter of the financial meltdown, got busted. Shareholders and the taxpayers got fleeced though.
And what many friends outside the financial markets tell me, is what people tell me about living in the city – you shouldn’t be there. That’s where bad stuff happens. Well, many customers of MF Global and PFG and many other futures customers are saying the same thing about the futures industry today – “Don’t go there. It’s not safe, day or night.”
So what does this all mean? All the CFTC and NFA busts of small time ponzi schemes and low-brow FX scams don’t mean a thing if you don’t bust the big-time crooks. And on that note, they are falling way short. Letting Russ Wasendorf Sr. steal customer funds while doing a lousy job auditing is reprehensible. And if many in this industry had their way, regulators would be held financially and legally accountable. Not moving forward with a case against Jon Corzine and others at MF Global who were ultimately responsible for dipping into customer funds, is frustrating and damaging to this industry. It may be the blow that cripples this industry for years.
That said, the industry is trying to address these problems with several proposals. Better electronic audit controls, more transparent reporting of customer account information, an insurance system to back up customer accounts, just to name a few. All of those and more might help customers feel a bit better about their accounts, but really, who wants to continue to be the guinea pig for the futures industry’s brand-new, reactive and piecemeal account security system?
In the meantime, customers are moving to new neighborhoods like ETFs, which are providing roughly the same type of commodity exposure with the SIPC protection of the securities world. Some are switching to large, established securities brokers who also offer futures. They can sweep futures accounts into security accounts overnight to provide that insurance protection, which seems like a bit more hassle for futures customers.
Now I’ve gone through the process of filing a police report. I called my insurance company and hope to have some of my stolen items replaced. I hope they catch the guy. I tell myself that it could happen to anybody, anywhere. And in the futures industry, that’s the problem isn’t it?