I felt bad for Jon Corzine as he took his (subpoenaed) seat at a House Agriculture Committee hearing on Dec. 8. Corzine said he was sorry that MF Global went defunct and that hundreds of millions of dollars of client money was still missing. He blamed the missing money on the “chaos” that surrounded the commodities broker-dealer in its final days as it tried to unwind its European sovereign debt holdings following a bad quarterly earnings report.
What elicited my muted sympathy was the fact that as CEO, Corzine seemed not to know what those who reported to him were actually doing. In addition to the missing client funds, did MF Global comply with a FINRA-mandated and SEC-sanctioned ruling on changing its capital structure around the repos it was holding? He thought so, but didn’t quite know. Again and again, he replied to questions by saying he wasn’t sure, didn’t know, couldn’t speak with certainty.
Two things struck me. The first is how much we rely on others in our daily work, for good or ill. We live in a complex world where we count on our colleagues, family members, government leaders and fellow citizens to do the right thing. The flip side of building a culture of ethical behavior is that to be a true leader, you have to encourage people—by deeds mostly, but also by your words—to behave at their best. Plenty of advisors have voted with their feet when they could no longer countenance the culture and actions of firms with which they’ve been affiliated. They’ll continue do so and, as I’ve written before, the options for advisors are broader than they’ve ever been.
My second thought was that MF Global’s woes will just feed into the frenzy over the perceived inability of our financial regulators—be they an SRO or a government entity like the SEC—to accurately protect the public from crooks and nincompoops.
While I’m not in the habit of quoting self-serving convicted felons, an email that Bernie Madoff sent a New York Times reporter last March caught my eye the other day. Expressing, as the article about Madoff and his legacy said, his “contempt for the SEC,” Madoff wrote: “It is not that they failed to uncover my fraud. It is the fact that for their entire existence they have spent their time and resources on the petty problems of small firms and refuse to deal with the obvious problems and outright violations of the large investment banks.”
I think the frustration that advisors of all kinds and their partners feel for regulators is exactly that: Regulators appear to be sweating the little things while the bad elephants in the room trample all over investors and the economy and markets.
The sad thing is that the culture that led to the financial crisis, even if only practiced by a relatively few people, as Mark Tibergien points out in his column this month, has come to tarnish all the ethical advisors. That’s why the head of the SEC’s enforcement division, Robert Khuzami, said the Commission is cracking down on investment advisors who lie about their credentials. “If you stop people when they commit small infractions, they are less likely to graduate to bigger ones,” he argued in a speech on Dec. 1. Do you agree?