Growing up on a small dairy farm in west Michigan, the bankruptcy of a New York brokerage firm wasn't something that I thought would affect my family. All that changed on October 31, 2011, when MF Global, the commodities broker run by Wall Street superstar Jon Corzine, filed for bankruptcy and my father, a fourth generation farmer, discovered that he was one of those people whose accounts had been plundered during the firm’s collapse.
Farmers, of course, don't just plant crops; they run businesses, and as part of their business they trade financial commodities through brokerage firms like MF Global as a way to hedge against any future price changes for their crops. My dad’s hedging typically takes place each fall and spring, when farmers buy grain so they can “lock in” at a price when the crop sales actually take place. In recent years, my father has also dabbled in the gold market, buying and selling futures contracts on the metal as a future hedge against inflation.
And yet, the inner workings of Wall Street weren’t something that we typically worried about. Like most farmers I know, we take risk on our business, not on whether the money in our brokerage account is safe from possible theft.
The best comparison I can give you is how the common consumer puts money in a checking account at any bank; you simply assume that the money will be there.
Following MF Global's demise, farmers can no longer assume their money is safe. As most people who have followed this story know, about $1.6 billion in customer money went missing when the firm declared bankruptcy. In the end, my father lost a relatively small amount -- $3,000 -- but we know people who are out a lot more.
Criminal and civil authorities are investigating the matter.The firm’s bankruptcy trustee James Giddens today issued possibly the most detailed report so far on the whole sorted affair.
This is a big Wall Street story on so many levels. The firm was headed by a Wall Street titan, Jon Corzine, who ran Goldman Sachs (GS) before embarking on a political career as New Jersey governor and US senator.
And yet, based on Corzine's testimony before Congress, he has no idea where my father’s money went. To give you some perspective, during the financial crisis customer money was relatively safe at firms like Bear Stearns and the others that imploded before the government bailouts during the 2008 financial crisis.
All of which makes the loss of customer money at MF Global fairly unprecedented, even by Wall Street standards, and just as big in the heartland since farmers like my dad were among the firm's biggest customers who lost money in the debacle.
Here's how it went down, at least from my father’s perspective: He contacted his broker sometime during the week of October 4, 2011, expressing his concerns about MF Global's stability after hearing a report on FOX Business that Corzine had made a fairly risky bet on sovereign debt issued by at least two troubled European countries, Italy and Spain.
In other words, MF Global was doing more than simply buying commodities for farmers and ranchers; it was betting big in the global markets. Taking big bets in the markets is exactly how Bear Stearns and Lehman Brother got into trouble in 2008. His broker said that there was nothing to worry about because customer money is supposed to be segregated. He assured my father that if anything went wrong, his money would be there and he could simple transfer his account to another firm.
But by the end of the month, the situation at MF Global had grown progressively worse. I remember waking up for class one morning in late October and hearing the reports that MF Global had imploded and was ready to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as it prepared to be bought by another company to avoid complete liquidation. I had talked to my parents the day before the filing. It was a Sunday, and I asked what was going to happen. They were obviously concerned but said that their broker had assured them based on what he knew, their money was safe.
But when I called them that Monday the situation had changed again, and not for the better. They said their accounts were now frozen and the deal to avert liquidation fell through at the last minute because customer funds were missing, apparently used to pay the firm's debts during MF Global's final days.
To put this into perspective, my father had about $10,000 that had largely vanished in thin air. It wouldn’t land us in the poor house, but it was enough to put a small dent in our finances. My father needed to open another account; like I said, farmers are businessmen and they're constantly faced with the need to pay for everything from machinery to seeds, and hedge their crop prices. Costs fluctuate with the markets, so having access to cash and capital is critical.
In the days and weeks that followed, news coming from the bankruptcy trustee was getting even worse; the money that was taken from the customer accounts was likely gone forever since it had been moved both overseas or used to pay off creditors with legitimate claims.
It would have been easy to blame our broker for the mess, but it clearly wasn't all his fault. During those initial days, he told my parents that he was doing everything possible to get back their money and have their accounts moved to another firm. Brokerage firms are supposed to segregate customer accounts, keeping customer money from being mixed with company money even under the most difficult circumstances.
In the aftermath of MF Global, our broker lost customers, capital and even his own money. It was, as he put it, "the worst week in my career."
Like I said, my family will survive. We received roughly 72% of what was a relatively small amount of money, which is better than many other farmers we know. We still don’t know if we will get all of our money back.
But an even bigger question that no one seems capable of answering is this: where exactly did our money go?
From the European financial crisis to the Facebook (FB) IPO mess, average investors have lots of reasons not to trust Wall Street, and keep their money out of the markets, and under the proverbial mattress.
Unless someone can explain what happened to my father's money, you can add MF Global to that list.
Julie VerHage is an intern at the FOX Business Network.