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10.31.11

Corzine Had It Coming

The ex-governor’s screw-up at MF Global, which filed for bankruptcy protection following bad bets on euro-zone debt, is not surprising given his poor track record as a Wall Street boss, says Charles Gasparino.

Jon Corzine is many things: Erudite, down to earth, and well-meaning being chief among them, people who know him tell me. But is he a good businessman? Not even close, these same people openly admit.

In fact, based on his long years in the financial business, from CEO of Goldman Sachs to his current job as chief executive of the failing MF Global, Corzine is proof positive that on Wall Street you don’t have to be very good at your job to get paid a lot of money, which is why hatred of fat cats remains a bipartisan pastime—and will for the foreseeable future. 

I say this as someone who both personally likes Corzine and who has covered his career from his days as a successful bond trader at Goldman Sachs, when it didn’t take much more than a balance sheet and a phone to make money—and Corzine did, a lot of it. So much in fact that people I know put his net worth at around $500 million, more than enough money to buy multiple elections in New Jersey as U.S. senator and then as governor. 

But his record of achievement on Wall Street as someone who had to run something? Pretty poor and it goes beyond his latest flop at MF Global, which was forced to declare bankruptcy Monday morning following massive losses tied to its investments in sovereign debt. 

In fact, Corzine’s career has failure written all over it. Yes, he made a lot of money trading bonds over the years, but also lost a lot of money managing people who trade bonds, which made his latest screw-up at MF Global all the more inevitable.  

Even friends of Corzine say his management style is erratic at best. For all his affability, he consults with almost no one except a small coterie of advisers, and often makes decisions based purely on gut instinct. 

Gut instincts might be good for a trader, but they are lousy in management; particularly when you’re the manager in charge of reining in risk-taking traders from losing so much money that it might imperil the franchise.  

At Goldman, that’s exactly what happened. It was Corzine who led Goldman into its first major financial morass (its second one would come just 10 years later and nearly destroy the firm) in 1998, when as chief executive he approved money-losing trading positions along the lines of those committed by the faltering hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management.  

Those trading losses were costing the firm nearly $500 million, and forced the delay of its long-awaited initial public offering, in which Goldman wanted to transform itself from a private partnership to a public company that enriched it partners to no end (Corzine included). 

Goldman eventually would go public once the Long-Term Capital storm passed and the losses subsided, thanks in large part to a government-led bailout of the hedge fund. But Corzine wouldn’t survive the ordeal. He was ousted by his second-in-command, Hank Paulson, when it became clear that Corzine wasn’t just a lousy manager, he was lousy at the very skill you get paid big bucks at Goldman to possess—risk management. 

With that, Corzine left Goldman with $500 million to indulge his second-biggest passion after making money on Wall Street: politics of the left-wing variety. A longtime liberal Democrat, Corzine used his Wall Street winnings to launch successful campaigns first as U.S. senator from New Jersey, and then as the state’s governor.  

In 2009, when the voters of New Jersey had enough of him, as people did at Goldman, Corzine was back to where he started, looking for a job on Wall Street. At first, most of the big firms wanted nothing to do with him, particularly in the aftermath of the financial crisis, where risk-taking bond traders like Corzine were the cause of the collapse of Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers—and absent the taxpayer bailouts, probably nearly every other major firm and bank, including his old one, Goldman Sachs. 

But Corzine was undeterred. His friend, former Goldman executive and now-private-equity honcho Chris Flowers, owned a chunk of a midsize brokerage firm named MF Global, and persuaded the board that Corzine was the right guy to ramp up profits and the firm’s share price, mired in single digits after a trading scandal. 

Corzine’s plan to remake the firm was to make it be like the old Goldman. He argued that because of the new Dodd-Frank financial reform, the big Wall Street firms were constrained as to how much risk they could take in trading stocks and bonds. Goldman, for instance, was about to disband its proprietary trading desk and other firms weren’t far behind. 

MF Global could emulate Goldman’s success over the years in trading all sorts of things, from derivatives to bonds to plain old stocks—and make a lot money at it because of a huge loophole in the Dodd-Frank provisions in which the trading ban only covered large “systemically important” firms, not midsize players such as MF Global. 

It all sounded good on paper, until you consider that all that money Goldman and the rest of Wall Street made over the years didn’t mean much in the fall of 2008, when risk-taking caused such massive losses that the entire financial system was on the brink.  

Obviously Corzine didn’t consider any of this, and then oversaw one of the worst bets in modern financial history, buying into the teeth of the European financial crisis debt of Italy and Spain, two of the countries considered most likely to default after Greece.

Corzine’s spokeswoman didn’t return repeated calls for comment, but here’s what we know right now: MF Global has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and is quickly heading for liquidation because Corzine can’t find buyers willing to pay enough money for those parts of the firm that don’t take risk.   

In fact, Corzine’s career has failure written all over it.

Some 3,000 people stand a good chance of losing their jobs in the coming days. Investors are demanding answers about Corzine’s risk controls, and whether the firm’s board had any inkling what he was doing. Even worse, federal regulators are investigating whether the firm in its final hours used customer money to support its trading activities—when such funds are supposed to be kept separate. As this column goes to press, regulators still can’t locate hundreds of millions of dollars in client funds, making a messy situation even messier. 

As for Jon Corzine’s future, fellow CEOs say MF Global will likely be his last job on Wall Street; that having left Goldman in a similar fashion, he really has nowhere else to go. But I doubt Corzine is through. Wall Street is one of the few places where failure of great magnitude is an accepted way of life: Almost no CEO of a major Wall Street firm was forced out over the events that led to the 2008 financial collapse. 

So my bet is Jon Corzine will be back and people, from Tea Partiers to Occupy Wall Street protesters, will find common ground having even more reason to hate Wall Street.