Like its predecessors, the bankrupt brokerage formerly run by Jon Corzine took advantage of an accounting maneuver to keep certain financial obligations off its books, making the firm look less indebted and thus less a risk than it really was.
On Thursday, Mary Schapiro, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, told a committee of Congress the SEC was investigating the accounting treatment that helped mask MF Global’s exposure to risky foreign sovereign debt.
The fact that MF Global was able to use the technique highlights how off-balance-sheet moves are evolving as quickly as new accounting rules intended to stop them. Earlier this year, the Financial Accounting Standards Board changed its rules to bar an off-balance-sheet loophole that had helped Lehman Brothers get into trouble in 2008.
The fixes of FASB often are too specific to keep firms from trying new tacks, said several analysts, academics and former regulators. “They keep trying to put a Band-Aid on this thing, but you’ve got this problem that is huge and requires major surgery,” said Penn State University accounting professor Ed Ketz.
WITHIN THE RULES
MF Global’s version complies with current accounting rules. Other Wall Street firms use it too, though generally for ultra-safe U.S. Treasuries, which the government promises to repurchase at face value.
In MF Global’s case, the off-balance-sheet accounting itself didn’t cause the firm’s downfall, but it allowed MF Global to use borrowed money to make billions of dollars in ultimately catastrophic bets on European sovereign debt – and obscured the risk those bets posed to the company.