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Monday, December 12, 2011

MF Global and Rehypothecation

by Calculated Risk on 12/12/2011 12:46:00 PM

Initially I ignored MF Global - it seemed that MF Global had inappropriately used client money and that appeared to be an unusual event. However there is another scarier possibility ...

Last week reader jb sent me a Reuters article: MF Global and the great Wall St re-hypothecation scandal

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.
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.
[I]n the UK, there is absolutely no statutory limit on the amount that can be re-hypothecated.
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.
As a followup I read an IMF working paper this weekend by Manmohan Singh and James Aitken: The (sizable) Role of Rehypothecation in the Shadow Banking System

Note: James Aitken of Aitken Advisors correctly called the subprime implosion and has been ahead of the curve on Europe too.
Rehypothecation occurs when the collateral posted by a prime brokerage client (e.g., hedge fund) to its prime broker is used as collateral also by the prime broker for its own purposes. Every Customer Account Agreement or Prime Brokerage Agreement with a prime brokerage client will include blanket consent to this practice unless stated otherwise. In general, hedge funds pay less for the services of the prime broker if their collateral is allowed to be rehypothecated.
A defined set of customer protection rules for rehypothecated assets exists in the United States, but not in the United Kingdom. In the United Kingdom, an unlimited amount of the customer’s assets can be rehypothecated and there are no customer protection rules. By contrast, in the United States, Rule 15c3–3 limits a broker-dealer from using its customer’s securities to finance its proprietary activities.
Bruce Krasting adds: The Fed, MFG and Reg. T
I think there is sufficient evidence today to conclude that Re-Hypothecation is at the root of the customer losses at MFG. ... Let me add one additional bit of info.

The Canadian customers of MFG got their money back within 10 days of the MFG bankruptcy. The accounts that have lost money are either USA or UK based. In Canada, re-hypothecation is not permitted. I got these comments from a Canadian MFG account holder:
The trustee where segregated MF Global Canada customers' funds were held was RBC Dominion Securities. I don't think any of these funds ever left the trustee in Canada. Likelihood is if they left, the Canadian government would have made the parent Royal Bank of Canada eat up the losses and make full restitution.
If MF Global moved their US client assets to their UK subsidiary (added: moved legally with client approval), and then followed the UK rules on rehypothecated assets - the client money is gone and nothing illegal happened. That would be the worst possible outcome.