The obvious reaction to the collapse of futures broker PFGBest is that regulators once again dropped the ball in spectacular fashion.
It's an understandable reaction, considering that we're not even a year out from the ugly collapse of MF Global (NASDAQOTH: MFGLQ.PK) -- a debacle that made regulators look as if they were sitting around with their thumbs ... well, you know.
But there's an interesting detail in the PFGBest situation. In the wake of MF Global, regulators started pushing futures brokers to do account confirmations through an online system that would circumvent any noodling with account balances. That was a big problem for PFGBest founder and (alleged) fraudster Russ Wasendorf Sr., since he was playing regulators by intercepting snail-mail account confirmations and doctoring bank statements to show vastly different account balances.
It was only when the National Futures Association twisted Wasendorf's arm and got him to agree to online account verification that the whole thing came unraveled. Wasendorf tried to commit suicide, he left a tell-all suicide note, PFGBest slumped into liquidation, yada, yada, yada.
So we could say that new actions taken by regulators were crucial in uncovering the PFGBest fraud. We could say that. But I'm not sure we should say that.
While technically true, the fact that the NFA is just now, in 2012, requiring futures brokers to confirm bank balances with hard copy rather than online is laughable. Online banking has been available since at least 1995, and by 1999 Bank of America (NYS: BAC) had more than a million customers using online banking. Internet trading has been around just as long. A study from the Securities and Exchange Commission said there were roughly 807,000 trades taking place over the Internet per day in 2001.
And here we are, more than a decade later, with regulators seemingly just now catching up to that technology. We can only hope that the technology of 2012 is brought into regulators' toolbox sometime before 2022.
But technology wasn't the only stumbling block here. According to The New York Times, multiple tips came into the NFA and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission dating back to 2004, urging the regulators to check up on PFGBest's bank accounts. More recently, the NFA gave PFGBest a thumbs-up in the wake of the MF Global debacle. That regulators -- staring directly at a massive futures-broker failure -- didn't knock on doors at US Bancorp (NYS: USB) and JPMorgan Chase (NYS: JPM) to make absolutely sure that the money was actually there ... well, that just seems like laziness.
A proponent of regulation myself, I love seeing examples of regulators that swoop into save the day. Unfortunately, heading off a huckster early in his career doesn't make the same kind of headlines as the one that got away and caused hundreds of millions in financial losses.
But what seems perfectly clear right now is that the NFA and CFTC failed miserably on PFGBest and need to take a hard look at how they can make changes to avoid a repeat.
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