By Christopher Elias (UK)
Business Law Research Note: This version of the article has been modified from the original to make it clear that re-pledged collateral may come from straight repos and not just re-hypothecation. Some of the financial figures from banks' disclosures have been adjusted accordingly.
(Business Law Currents) A legal loophole in international brokerage regulations means that few, if any, clients of MF Global are likely to get their money back. Although details of the drama are still unfolding, it appears that MF Global and some of its Wall Street counterparts have been actively and aggressively circumventing U.S. securities rules at the expense (quite literally) of their clients.
MF Global's bankruptcy revelations concerning missing client money suggest that funds were not inadvertently misplaced or gobbled up in MF’s dying hours, but were instead appropriated as part of a mass Wall St manipulation of brokerage rules that allowed for the wholesale acquisition and sale of client funds through re-hypothecation. A loophole appears to have allowed MF Global, and many others, to use its own clients’ funds to finance an enormous $6.2 billion Eurozone repo bet.
If anyone thought that you couldn’t have your cake and eat it too in the world of finance, MF Global shows how you can have your cake, eat it, eat someone else’s cake and then let your clients pick up the bill. Hard cheese for many as their dough goes missing.
Current estimates for the shortfall in MF Global customer funds have now reached $1.2 billion as revelations break that the use of client money appears widespread. Up until now the assumption has been that the funds missing had been misappropriated by MF Global as it desperately sought to avoid bankruptcy.
Sadly, the truth is likely to be that MF Global took advantage of an asymmetry in brokerage borrowing rules that allow firms to legally use client money to buy assets in their own name - a legal loophole that may mean that MF Global clients never get their money back.
First a quick recap. By now the story of MF Global’s demise is strikingly familiar. MF plowed money into an off-balance-sheet maneuver known as a repo, or sale and repurchase agreement. A repo involves a firm borrowing money and putting up assets as collateral, assets it promises to repurchase later. Repos are a common way for firms to generate money but are not normally off-balance sheet and are instead treated as “financing” under accountancy rules.
MF Global used a version of an off-balance-sheet repo called a "repo-to-maturity." The repo-to-maturity involved borrowing billions of dollars backed by huge sums of sovereign debt, all of which was due to expire at the same time as the loan itself. With the collateral and the loans becoming due simultaneously, MF Global was entitled to treat the transaction as a “sale” under U.S. GAAP. This allowed the firm to move $16.5 billion off its balance sheet, most of it debt from Italy, Spain, Belgium, Portugal and Ireland.
Backed by the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), it was a clever bet (at least in theory) that certain Eurozone bonds would remain default free whilst yields would continue to grow. Ultimately, however, it proved to be MF Global’s downfall as margin calls and its high level of leverage sucked out capital from the firm. For more information on the repo used by MF Global please see Business Law Currents MF Global – Slayed by the Grim Repo?
Puzzling many, though, were the huge sums involved. How was MF Global able to “lose” $1.2 billion of its clients’ money and acquire a sovereign debt position of $6.3 billion – a position more than five times the firm’s book value, or net worth? The answer it seems lies in its exploitation of a loophole between UK and U.S. brokerage rules on the use of clients funds known as “re-hypothecation”.
By way of background, hypothecation is when a borrower pledges collateral to secure a debt. The borrower retains ownership of the collateral but is “hypothetically” controlled by the creditor, who has a right to seize possession if the borrower defaults.
In the U.S., this legal right takes the form of a lien and in the UK generally in the form of a legal charge. A simple example of a hypothecation is a mortgage, in which a borrower legally owns the home, but the bank holds a right to take possession of the property if the borrower should default.
In investment banking, assets deposited with a broker will be hypothecated such that a broker may sell securities if an investor fails to keep up credit payments or if the securities drop in value and the investor fails to respond to a margin call (a request for more capital).
Re-hypothecation occurs when a bank or broker re-uses collateral posted by clients, such as hedge funds, to back the broker’s own trades and borrowings. The practice of re-hypothecation runs into the trillions of dollars and is perfectly legal. It is justified by brokers on the basis that it is a capital efficient way of financing their operations much to the chagrin of hedge funds.
Under the U.S. Federal Reserve Board's Regulation T and SEC Rule 15c3-3, a prime broker may re-hypothecate assets to the value of 140% of the client's liability to the prime broker. For example, assume a customer has deposited $500 in securities and has a debt deficit of $200, resulting in net equity of $300. The broker-dealer can re-hypothecate up to $280 (140 per cent. x $200) of these assets.
But in the UK, there is absolutely no statutory limit on the amount that can be re-hypothecated. In fact, brokers are free to re-hypothecate all and even more than the assets deposited by clients. Instead it is up to clients to negotiate a limit or prohibition on re-hypothecation. On the above example a UK broker could, and frequently would, re-hypothecate 100% of the pledged securities ($500).
This asymmetry of rules makes exploiting the more lax UK regime incredibly attractive to international brokerage firms such as MF Global or Lehman Brothers which can use European subsidiaries to create pools of funding for their U.S. operations, without the bother of complying with U.S. restrictions.
In fact, by 2007, re-hypothecation had grown so large that it accounted for half of the activity of the shadow banking system. Prior to Lehman Brothers collapse, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) calculated that U.S. banks were receiving $4 trillion worth of funding by re-hypothecation, much of which was sourced from the UK. With assets being re-hypothecated many times over (known as “churn”), the original collateral being used may have been as little as $1 trillion – a quarter of the financial footprint created through re-hypothecation.
BEWARE THE BRITS: CIRCUMVENTING U.S. RULES
Keen to get in on the action, U.S. prime brokers have been making judicious use of European subsidiaries. Because re-hypothecation is so profitable for prime brokers, many prime brokerage agreements provide for a U.S. client’s assets to be transferred to the prime broker’s UK subsidiary to circumvent U.S. rehypothecation rules.
Under subtle brokerage contractual provisions, U.S. investors can find that their assets vanish from the U.S. and appear instead in the UK, despite contact with an ostensibly American organisation.
Potentially as simple as having MF Global UK Limited, an English subsidiary, enter into a prime brokerage agreement with a customer, a U.S. based prime broker can immediately take advantage of the UK’s unrestricted re-hypothecation rules.
In fact this is exactly what Lehman Brothers did through Lehman Brothers International (Europe) (LBIE), an English subsidiary to which most U.S. hedge fund assets were transferred. Once transferred to the UK based company, assets were re-hypothecated many times over, meaning that when the debt carousel stopped, and Lehman Brothers collapsed, many U.S. funds found that their assets had simply vanished.
A prime broker need not even require that an investor (eg hedge fund) sign all agreements with a European subsidiary to take advantage of the loophole. In fact, in Lehman’s case many funds signed a prime brokerage agreement with Lehman Brothers Inc (a U.S. company) but margin-lending agreements and securities-lending agreements with LBIE in the UK (normally conducted under a Global Master Securities Lending Agreement).
These agreements permitted Lehman to transfer client assets between various affiliates without the fund’s express consent, despite the fact that the main agreement had been under U.S. law. As a result of these peripheral agreements, all or most of its clients’ assets found their way down to LBIE.
MF RE-HYPOTHECATION PROVISION
A similar re-hypothecation provision can be seen in MF Global’s U.S. client agreements. MF Global’s Customer Agreement for trading in cash commodities, commodity futures, security futures, options, and forward contracts, securities, foreign futures and options and currencies includes the following clause:
“7. Consent To Loan Or PledgeYou hereby grant us the right, in accordance with Applicable Law, to borrow, pledge, repledge, transfer, hypothecate, rehypothecate, loan, or invest any of the Collateral, including, without limitation, utilizing the Collateral to purchase or sell securities pursuant to repurchase agreements [repos] or reverse repurchase agreements with any party, in each case without notice to you, and we shall have no obligation to retain a like amount of similar Collateral in our possession and control.”
In its quarterly report, MF Global disclosed that by June 2011 it had repledged (re-hypothecated) $70 million, including securities received under resale agreements. With these transactions taking place off-balance sheet it is difficult to pin down the exact entity which was used to re-hypothecate such large sums of money but regulatory filings and letters from MF Global’s administrators contain some clues.
According to a letter from KPMG to MF Global clients, when MF Global collapsed, its UK subsidiary MF Global UK Limited had over 10,000 accounts. MF Global disclosed in March 2011 that it had significant credit risk from its European subsidiary from “counterparties with whom we place both our own funds or securities and those of our clients”.
Matters get even worse when we consider what has for the last 6 years counted as collateral under re-hypothecation rules.
Despite the fact that there may only be a quarter of the collateral in the world to back these transactions, successive U.S. governments have softened the requirements for what can back a re-hypothecation transaction.
Beginning with Clinton-era liberalisation, rules were eased that had until 2000 limited the use of re-hypothecated funds to U.S. Treasury, state and municipal obligations. These rules were slowly cut away (from 2000-2005) so that customer money could be used to enter into repurchase agreements (repos), buy foreign bonds, money market funds and other assorted securities.
Hence, when MF Global conceived of its Eurozone repo ruse, client funds were waiting to be plundered for investment in AA rated European sovereign debt, despite the fact that many of its hedge fund clients may have been betting against the performance of those very same bonds.
OFF BALANCE SHEET
As well as collateral risk, re-hypothecation creates significant counterparty risk and its off-balance sheet treatment contains many hidden nasties. Even without circumventing U.S. limits on re-hypothecation, the off-balance sheet treatment means that the amount of leverage (gearing) and systemic risk created in the system by re-hypothecation is staggering.
Re-hypothecation transactions are off-balance sheet and are therefore unrestricted by balance sheet controls. Whereas on balance sheet transactions necessitate only appearing as an asset/liability on one bank’s balance sheet and not another, off-balance sheet transactions can, and frequently do, appear on multiple banks’ financial statements. What this creates is chains of counterparty risk, where multiple re-hypothecation borrowers use the same collateral over and over again. Essentially, it is a chain of debt obligations that is only as strong as its weakest link.
With collateral being re-hypothecated to a factor of four (according to IMF estimates), the actual capital backing banks re-hypothecation transactions may be as little as 25%. This churning of collateral means that re-hypothecation transactions have been creating enormous amounts of liquidity, much of which has no real asset backing.
The lack of balance sheet recognition of re-hypothecation was noted in Jefferies’ recent 10Q (emphasis added):
“Note 7. Collateralized Transactions
We pledge securities in connection with repurchase agreements, securities lending agreements and other secured arrangements, including clearing arrangements. The pledge of our securities is in connection with our mortgage−backed securities, corporate bond, government and agency securities and equities businesses. Counterparties generally have the right to sell or repledge the collateral. Pledged securities that can be sold or repledged by the counterparty are included within Financial instruments owned and noted as Securities pledged on our Consolidated Statements of Financial Condition. We receive securities as collateral in connection with resale agreements, securities borrowings and customer margin loans. In many instances, we are permitted by contract or custom to rehypothecate securities received as collateral. These securities maybe used to secure repurchase agreements, enter into security lending or derivative transactions or cover short positions. At August 31, 2011 and November 30, 2010, the approximate fair value of securities received as collateral by us that may be sold or repledged was approximately $25.9 billion and $22.3 billion, respectively. At August 31, 2011 and November 30, 2010, a substantial portion of the securities received by us had been sold or repledged.
We engage in securities for securities transactions in which we are the borrower of securities and provide other securities as collateral rather than cash. As no cash is provided under these types of transactions, we, as borrower, treat these as noncash transactions and do not recognize assets or liabilities on the Consolidated Statements of Financial Condition. The securities pledged as collateral under these transactions are included within the total amount of Financial instruments owned and noted as Securities pledged on our Consolidated Statements of Financial Condition.
According to Jefferies’ most recent Annual Report it had re-hypothecated $22.3 billion (in fair value) of assets in 2011 including government debt, asset backed securities, derivatives and corporate equity- that’s just $15 billion shy of Jefferies total on balance sheet assets of $37 billion.
With weak collateral rules and a level of leverage that would make Archimedes tremble, firms have been piling into re-hypothecation activity with startling abandon. A review of filings reveals a staggering level of activity in what may be the world’s largest ever credit bubble.
Fuelling hyper-hypothecation and joining together daisy chains of liability through the pledging and re-pledging of collateral have been banks around the world. Once in the system collateral is being pledged and re-pledged over and over again either through sale and repurchase agreements or re-hypothecation as demonstrated by a review of SEC filings. For instance, Goldman Sachsdisclosed recently that it had re-pledged $18.03 billion of collateral received as at September 2011, Oppenheimer Holdings re-pledged approximately $255.4 million of its own customers’ securities in the same period, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commercere-pledged $72 billion in client assets, Credit Suissesold or re-pledged CHF 332 billion of assets (received under resale agreements, securities lending and margined broker loans), Royal Bank of Canadare-pledged $53.8 billion of $126.7 billion available for re-pledging, Knight Capital Groupdelivered or re-pledged $1.17 billion of financial instruments received, Interactive Brokers re-pledged or re-sold $7.9 billion of $16.7 billion available to re-sell or re-pledge, Wells Fargo re-pledged $19.6 billion as at September 2011 of collateral received under resale agreements and securities borrowings, JP Morgansold or re-pledged $410 billion of collateral received under customer margin loans, derivative transactions, securities borrowed and reverse repurchase agreements and Morgan Stanley re-pledged $410 billion of securities received.
The volume and level of re-hypothecation suggests a frightening alternative hypothesis for the current liquidity crisis being experienced by banks and for why regulators around the world decided to step in to prop up the markets recently. To date, reports have been focused on how Eurozone default concerns were provoking fear in the markets and causing liquidity to dry up.
Most have been focused on how a Eurozone default would result in huge losses in Eurozone bonds being felt across the world’s banks. However, re-hypothecation suggests an even greater fear. Considering that re-hypothecation may have increased the financial footprint of Eurozone bonds by at least four fold then a Eurozone sovereign default could be apocalyptic.
U.S. banks direct holding of sovereign debt is hardly negligible. According to the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), U.S. banks hold $181 billion in the sovereign debt of Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain. If we factor in off-balance sheet transactions such as re-hypothecations and repos, then the picture becomes frightening.
As for MF Global’s clients, the recent adoption of an “MF Global rule” by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to ban using client funds to purchase foreign sovereign debt, would seem to suggest that it was indeed client money behind its leveraged repo-to-maturity deal - a fact that will likely mean that very few MF Global clients get their money back.
Written with contributions from Nanette Brynes.
(This article was first published by Thomson Reuters’ Business Law Currents, a leading provider of legal analysis and news on governance, transactions and legal risk. Visit Business Law Currents online at http://currents.westlawbusiness.com.