RSS
 


ZeroHedge: Why The UK Trail Of The MF Global Collapse May Have “Apocalyptic” Consequences For The Eurozone, Canadian Banks, Jefferies And Everyone Else

08 Dec

If you ever needed to understand what the ‘shadow banking’ system meant, this article should make it very clear. It should also make it clear the entire financial system of the world is now over leveraged to a degree that only one quarter of the liabilities in the system are backed by any collateral.  This is the overhang Max Keiser has been speaking of for quite a long time and it looks as if, at the present moment, it may all be coming home to roost.

Seriously important reading and required understanding for all peoples…

Why The UK Trail Of The MF Global Collapse May Have “Apocalyptic” Consequences For The Eurozone, Canadian Banks, Jefferies And Everyone Else

 

Reposting by popular demand, and because everyone has to understand the embedded risks in this market, courtesy of the shadow banking system.

In an oddly prescient turn of events, yesterday we penned a post titled “Has The Imploding European Shadow Banking System Forced The Bundesbank To Prepare For Plan B?” in which we explained how it was not only the repo market, but the far broader and massively unregulated shadow banking system in Europe that was becoming thoroughly unhinged, and was manifesting itself in a complete “lock up in interbank liquidity” and which, we speculated, is pressuring the Bundesbank, which is well aware of what is going on behind the scenes, to slowly back away from what will soon be an “apocalyptic” event (not our words… read on). Why was this prescient? Because today, Reuters’ Christopher Elias has written the logical follow up analysis to our post, in which he explains in layman’s terms not only how but why the lock up has occurred and will get far more acute, but also why the MF Global bankruptcy, much more than merely a one-off instance of “repo-to-maturity” of sovereign bonds gone horribly wrong is a symptom of two things: i) the lax London-based unregulated and unsupervised system which has allowed such unprecedented, leveraged monsters as AIG, Lehman and now as it turns out MF Global, to flourish until they end up imploding and threatening the world’s entire financial system, and ii) an implicit construct embedded within the shadow banking model which permitted the heaping of leverage upon leverage upon leverage, probably more so than any structured finance product in the past (up to and including synthetic CDO cubeds), and certainly on par with the AIG cataclysm which saw $2.7 trillion of CDS notional sold with virtually zero margin. Simply said: when one truly digs in, MF Global exposes the 2011 equivalent of the 2008 AIG: virtually unlimited leverage via the shadow banking system, in which there are practically no hard assets backing the infinite layers of debt created above, and which when finally unwound, will create a cataclysmic collapse of all financial institutions, where every bank is daisy-chained to each other courtesy of multiple layers of “hypothecation, and re-hypothecation.” In fact, it is a link so sinister it touches every corner of modern finance up to and including such supposedly “stable” institutions as Jefferies, which as it turns out has spent weeks defending itself, however against all the wrong things,  and Canadian banks, which as it also turns out, defended themselves against Zero Hedge allegations they may well be the next shoes to drop, as being strong and vibrant (and in fact just announced soaring profits and bonuses), yet which have all the same if not far greater risk factors as MF Global. Yet nobody has called them out on it. Until now.

But first, a detour to London…

As readers will recall, the actual office that blew up the world the first time around, was not even based in the US. It was a small office located on the top floor of 1 Curzon Street in London’s Mayfair district, run by one Joe Cassano: the head of AIG Financial Products. The reason why this office of US-based AIG was in London, is so that Cassano could sell CDS as far away from the eye of Federal regulators as possible. Which he did. In fact he sold an unprecedented $2.7 trillion worth of CDS just before the firm collapsed due to one small glitch in the system – the assumption that home prices could go down as well as up. Yet the real question is why he sold so much CDS? The answer is simple – in a world of limited real assets, the only way to generate a practically limitless cash flow annuity would be to sell synthetic insurance on a virtually infinite amount of synthetic underlying. Which he did. Only when it came time to pay the claims, AIG blew up, forcing the government to bail it out, and set off the chain of events where we find ourselves now, where every day could be the developed world’s last if not for the ongoing backstops, guarantees and bailouts of the central banking regime.

What is greatly ironic is that in the aftermath of the AIG collapse, the UK was shamed into admitting that it was its own loose, lax and unregulated system that allowed such unsupervised insanity to continue for as long as it did. As the Telegraph reminds us, “Conservative Party Treasury spokesman Philip Hammond called for a public inquiry into the FSA’s oversight of AIG Financial Products in Mayfair. “We must not allow London to become a bolthole for companies looking for a place to conduct questionable activities,” he said. “This sounds like a monumental cock-up by the FSA,” said Lib Dem shadow chancellor Vince Cable. “It is deeply ironic,” he added, that Brown was in Brussels last week calling for tougher global financial regulation just as the scandal over the FSA’s role in one of the key regulatory failures at the root of the global panic emerged as an international issue.” It is ironic because the trail in the MF Global collapse, where it is yet another infinitely leveragable product that once again comes to the fore, once again goes straight to that hub for “questionable activities” – London.

But before we explain why London is once again to blame for what was not only the immediate reason of the MF Global collapse, but could well precipitate the next global collapse, a quick look at rehypothecation.

As Reuters points out, it was not so much the act of creating “repos-to-maturity” that imperiled MF Global, but what is a secret gold mine for those privy to it – the process of re-hypothecation of collateral.

[h]ypothecation 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.

So far so good, assuming there was regulation, and assuming if regulation failed, that the firms that blew up as a result of their greed would truly blow up, instead of being resurrected as TBTF zombies by a government in dire need of rent collection and lobby cash (because with or without regulation, if those who fail are not allowed to fail, then the whole point of capitalism is moot). But… there is always a snag.

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.

So let’s see: a Prime Broker taking posted collateral, then using the same collateral as an instrument for hypothecation with a net haircut, then repeating the process again, and again… Ring a bell? If you said “fractional reserve lending” – ding ding ding. In essence what re-hypothecation, and subsequent levels thereof, especially once in the shadow banking realm, allows Prime Brokers is to become de facto banks only completely unregulated and using synthetic assets as collateral. Curiously enough it was earlier today that we also penned “ECB Confirms Shadow Banking System In Europe In Tatters” in which we explained that since ECB has to expand the eligible collateral it will accept, there is no real collateral left, meaning the re-hypothecation process in Europe has experienced terminal failure.  Yet the kicker is that the “safety haircut” only occurs in the US. Not in the UK. And therein lies the rub. In the UK, the epic failure of supervision has allowed banks to become de facto monsters of infinite shadow banking fractional reserve leverageevery bank’s wet dream! Naturally, Prime Brokers have known all about this which explains the quiet desire to conduct re-hypothecation out of London-based offices for every US-based (and Canadian) bank. Reuters explains:

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.

While we already mentioned AIG as an example of the lax UK-based regulatory regime, it is another failed bank that is perhaps the best example of levered failure but in the specific re-hypothecation context: Lehman Brothers itself.

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.

And now we get back to the topic at hand: MF Global, why and how it did precisely what Lehman did back then, why it did this in London, and why its failure is a symptom of something far more terrifying than merely investing money in collapsing PIIGS bonds.

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 Pledge  You 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”.

Read teh rest of Why The UK Trail Of The MF Global Collapse May Have “Apocalyptic” Consequences For The Eurozone, Canadian Banks, Jefferies And Everyone Else

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.