Corzine: 'Don't know' where MF Global customers' $1.2B went

— -- Former MF Global chief executive Jon Corzine apologized "to all those affected" by the brokerage's collapse Thursday as he told a congressional committee he doesn't know what happened to $1.2 billion in missing customer funds.

Testifying under subpoena at a House Agriculture Committee hearing, Corzine, a former U.S. senator and ex-Goldman Sachs chief, portrayed himself as "stunned" about the massive shortfall that emerged as regulators and federal investigators began probing MF Global's Oct. 31 bankruptcy.

"I simply do not know where the money is, or why the accounts have not been reconciled to date," said Corzine, 64, in his first public remarks since his resignation after the bankruptcy.

Corzine also said he was unaware whether there were "operational errors at MF Global or elsewhere, or whether banks and counterparties have held onto funds that should rightfully have been returned to MF Global."

The proceeding is the first of three Capitol Hill hearings for which Corzine has been subpoenaed to testify.

The brokerage's implosion, Wall Street's largest since the 2008 bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, was triggered in part by $6 billion in bad bets on European sovereign debt.

Challenging public criticism that has focused on those investments, Corzine's statement said the brokerage's decision to seek bankruptcy court protection was largely due to a $119.4 million write-off of tax benefits that could no longer be classified as assets.

Corzine called the European debt investments "prudent" and said he advocated them last year as one way to improve MF Global's flagging profits and commissions amid increased competition from online brokerages and high-frequency traders.

In his statement, Corzine told the House panel "I accept responsibility" for that investment strategy. But he pointedly added that the transactions were approved by MF Global's directors and were disclosed to the brokerage's senior officers and accountants, as well as to investors, through public filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

"As of today, none of the foreign debt securities" involved in the European debt transactions "has defaulted or been restructured," Corzine said.

The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority directed MF Global last summer to increase the brokerage's net capital with regard to the European debt. Acknowledging he tried, unsuccessfully, to change that decision, Corzine said in the statement that the brokerage "promptly complied" in August.

Addressing criticism since the bankruptcy that MF Global took on too much risk in European debt and other deals, Corzine said the brokerage's level of leverage, the use of borrowed capital for investment, was consistently around 30 during his tenure.

"In fact, MF Global reduced leverage," he said.

Until the bankruptcy, New York-headquartered MF Global had been one of the world's leading brokers in markets for commodities and listed derivatives. The brokerage, most of whose 2,870 employees have been let go since the collapse, was also a broker-dealer in markets for commodities, fixed-income securities, equities and foreign exchange.

The MF Global collapse has caused financial uncertainty and problems for many U.S. ranchers and farmers who turned to MF Global to make commodities market trades as financial hedges designed to protect them against swings in agriculture prices.

Many have had thousands of dollars tied up as a court-appointed bankruptcy trustee tries to transfer and distribute $2.1 billion in MF Global funds frozen by the bankruptcy. A bankruptcy judge in New York is scheduled to consider that issue Friday.

Darwin Rieck, 64, a Luzerne, Iowa, farmer and MF Global customer, said in a recent interview with USA TODAY he had to send more money to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to meet margin calls on several pending commodities futures trades. Although his brokerage account held sufficient excess funds, that money was frozen by the bankruptcy, he said.

"If I hadn't sent the money, they would have liquidated the trades," said Rieck, who works with his son-in-law raising corn, soybeans and feed cattle. "It just doesn't seem like the way it's supposed to be."

Trying to address such concerns, Corzine ended his statement by returning to a penitent note.

"I sincerely apologize, both personally and on behalf of the company, to our customers, our employees and our investors, who are bearing the brunt of the impact of the firm's bankruptcy," the statement said.