Ten questions for Jon CorzineDecember 7, 2011: 8:37 AM ET
The former chief of the bankrupt firm MF Global heads to Capitol Hill on Thursday. Here are some questions for Jon Corzine's congressional grillers.
FORTUNE -- Suggestions from management gurus or consultants that things are moving faster than ever before have always been off-putting. Things are always moving faster than ever before, and so in some sense nothing is changing at all. It's never truly different this time around.
Jon Corzine has put that notion to the test, turning an accomplished (if somewhat spotty) multi-decade career that reached the pinnacles of both finance and government into rubble at MF Global in the short span of just 18 months. That could very well be a record.
The outline of his story is all too familiar by now: After his stint as New Jersey governor, Corzine, formerly the CEO of Goldman Sachs (GS), hooked up with an old Goldman buddy, Chris Flowers, at Flowers' private equity shop, JC Flowers & Co. The financiers owned a 10% stake in relatively obscure futures trading firm MF Global -- known primarily for a rogue trader who'd lost $141 million on a 2008 bet on wheat gone bad (simpler times, they were) -- and cooked up a plan for Corzine to turn MF Global into a full service investment bank. That would not only give Corzine a chance to play in the big game again, they also planned to make some cold hard cash along the way.
But it didn't turn out that way. MF Global is bankrupt, $1.2 billion in customer money is "missing," and Corzine is headed to Washington Thursday for one of our country's finest spectacles -- the Congressional grilling.
Corzine has got to be in a panic. Prideful Wall Street guys hate to be questioned about anything, and after the whole Goldman Abacus circus last year, the odds of him getting off with a slap on the wrist seem to be pretty much zero. While we don't exactly feel sorry for the man, we can't deny a little bit of pity. So we've done what no one else is likely doing these days -- we've done him a favor. We have prepared a cheat sheet of questions he should be thinking about. It's the least we could do.
The House Agriculture Committee has subpoenaed you to a hearing Thursday. Have you called your old buddies at Goldman to ask them what the white-hot glare of televised inquisition feels like?
Speaking of Goldman, the whiff of crony capitalism is all over the MF Global mess. CFTC chief Gary Gensler—your main regulator—was an ex-colleague from the firm. He's running scared now, saying he would recuse himself from the investigation. Which is hilarious, considering he seemed to have recused himself from regulating you in the first place. Your overhaul of MF Global also put you under the purview of the New York Fed, which gave the firm the designation of primary dealer this February. William Dudley runs the New York Fed. Also ex-Goldman. Tell the truth, now. Who cut what backroom deal and when?
The bigger issue regarding MF Global isn't that it took a huge bet with company money on European debt that didn't pan out. That was the firm's prerogative. Rather, it's the missing $1.2 billion in customer money. A charitable explanation is that the money is merely lost. A cynical one is that it was stolen. Either way, how is it possible that internal controls failed so miserably?
But let's get back to the bet. Your board allowed MF Global's exposure to risky European debt to rise from $1.5 billion in late 2010 to $6.3 billion as of October. I'm all for rolling the dice, but what the hell, man? That's like putting all your chips on double zero in roulette. Where did you lose all sense of restraint?
The Wall Street Journal reported that MF Global's chief risk officer, Michael Roseman, expressed grave and growing concerns about MF Global's European exposure from the very start -- government bonds from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, and Belgium. Which would seem to be exactly his job. But you rebuffed him, on the apparent assumption that you knew better than he did. What was it that your risk officer said that didn't make sense to you?
The paper also said you told the board you would quit if they didn't trust your judgment on the bet. Where did you think you were? On an elementary school sports field? You were going to take your ball and go home? It wasn't your ball.
That said, the board of the company had to approve breaches of the firm's trading limits, something your continually increased bet is said to have done on several occasions. So it's their fault, right? Maybe the buck shouldn't stop with you but with the people who approved the higher and higher risk. Are you in a finger-pointing mood?
While I'm sure you feel terrible about everything that has happened, I wonder if you feel liable. Former MF Global employees have filed a class action lawsuit against you, other executives, and the board. Should you be writing some checks? You also helped write Sarbanes-Oxley in 2002. The missing $1 billion in customer accounts would seem a violation of that law -- you attested to firm financials that have proven false. Are you worried that they're readying the cell next to Madoff's for you?
There's a glass-half-full option here. With the CFTC looking to rein in futures firms in the wake of the debacle, you could quite rightly take "credit" for helping them out. You were obviously arguing against such change while still at MF Global, but you might now call yourself a Wall Street reformer. Maybe your next career?
I wrote an article in May 2010 suggesting that your MF Global adventure struck me as bizarre, a not-obvious step in your career. I called you a glutton for punishment, even though I obviously didn't see this coming. Remember that? You wouldn't take my calls? If you'd listened to me then, you might have avoided all this mess. Do you regret not picking up the phone?