This article originally appeared in the May 30, 2012 edition of the Wall Street Journal.
By DAN STRUMPF
Since the financial firm collapsed last year, most customers of the brokerage have received a chunk of their money—about 72% of the total missing—and have been awaiting word on the rest. For those seeking to put the debacle behind them quickly, one possibility has been to sell the right to their remaining recoveries to traders in exchange for a portion of their claim.
Such claims-trading is common with bankruptcies and has taken place, for example, with victims of the fraud of Bernard Madoff‘s firm. But with MF Global, claims-sales are proving difficult. Companies that purchase bankruptcy claims are hesitating to close deals in part because of the complex and time-consuming nature of many MF Global customer claims, say the firms.
“These are very, very, very complicated claims,” said Brian Coppola, vice president at Fulcrum Capital, a distressed-debt hedge fund that has bought more than $200 million in MF Global claims. “When you really open these things up, each one is different. There’s potentially 1,000 moving parts that could all impact the price of the claim. It’s difficult to get comfortable.”
SecondMarket Holdings Inc., a platform for trading bankruptcy and other claims, said 242 MF Global customer claims have changed hands as of the end of April. That is a tiny figure when measured against the 26,000 claims that customers have filed with the trustee overseeing MF Global’s wind-down.
“If this were a simpler bankruptcy, I would expect 20% of the claims would trade,” said Joseph Sarachek, managing director of CRT Capital Group, a broker-dealer that trades so-called distressed-debt claims.
Part of the problem, say claims buyers, is that the MF Global claims often contain a variety of assets, like commodity futures, options on futures, or Treasurys, making them more complicated than stock accounts. Another factor: The vast majority of claims are relatively small—under $100,000—making them unattractive to some potential buyers.
Another round of payments from the trustee gathering assets is soon expected to increase customer recoveries to 80% from the current 72% of the total money that disappeared. Earlier this month the trustee overseeing the search for the missing money, James Giddens, said J.P. Morgan Chase JPM -1.67% & Co. agreed to hand over $168 million of “excess collateral” held when MF Global tipped into bankruptcy. The trustee has said he is seeking to recover even more money from the bank. J.P. Morgan declined to comment.
As a result, traders say U.S. accounts currently are fetching between 92 and 94 cents on the dollar, meaning sellers could get 94% of their assets back, up from 72% now. In February, similar claims were getting about 88 cents on the dollar, traders said.
Next week, Mr. Giddens is scheduled to release a status report that will offer updates on his search for an estimated $1.6 billion in customer money and on the claims process, said a spokesman for Mr. Giddens.
The experience of a group advocating for MF Global customers, the Commodity Customer Coalition, illustrates the challenges with claims-selling. The group earlier this year spent weeks negotiating a deal with banks and trading firms for customers interested in selling. In March, it was close to an exclusive deal with BarclaysBCS -0.30% offering 90 cents on the dollar for U.S. claims, said James Koutoulas, president of the group. The proposed deal ultimately fell through, he said. “They just really dragged their feet and kind of overpromised and under-delivered,” he said.
A representative for Barclays said the firm continues to trade claims on an individual basis. He said the bank conducted its negotiations “in good faith” with the coalition, but an agreement couldn’t be reached.
In April, the customer group reached a deal with distressed-debt trader PrimeShares to sell claims worth less than $100,000. So far, only about 10 customers have accepted the deal, said John Roe, a spokesman for the customer group. Many smaller claimants are holding out hope for higher recoveries. PrimeShares confirmed the arrangement and added it also is interested in “all claims from $3,000 to over $100 million.”
Robert Israel, a small-business owner from California, says he would like to sell his claim but is encountering obstacles. He opened an MF Global account the week before the firm’s bankruptcy filing last Halloween Eve. As he wired money to his new account, MF Global collapsed. His money disappeared in the flurry of transactions that occurred during the firm’s final days, he says. He only received a claims determination from the trustee in recent days, much later than other customers. He hasn’t received any funds.
“I want to get rid of it,” Mr. Israel said of his claim. “Give me 90%. I’ll be the happiest guy in California.”