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What happened to MF Global’s $1.2 billion?

Kai Ryssdal Dec 13, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: Jon Corzine — once the CEO of Goldman Sachs, once a senator from New Jersey, once the governor of the Garden State — was in front of another congressional panel today, inquiring about the most recent entry on his resume: CEO of the failed brokerage firm MF Global.

In particular, Corzine’s former colleagues in the Senate wanted to know what happened to the money: $1.2 billion in customer accounts, about which Mr. Corzine said this today.

Jon Corzine: I simply do not know where the money is.

We wondered how that can be since it’s a whole lot of money. So we called a woman whose job it is to find money when it goes missing. Tiffany Couch is a forensic accountant in Portland, Ore. Welcome to the program.

Tiffany Couch: Thank you.

Ryssdal: OK, so come on, $1.2 billion? How do you lose that?

Couch: You don’t.

Ryssdal: OK. Then how did this happen?

Couch: I think there is a way to trace the money, unless the money’s withdrawn from a bank account in the form of cash and it walks out the door in somebody’s pocket or their briefcase, then there’s always a way to trace money.

Ryssdal: So let’s say Congress comes to you, the Agriculture Committees in either one of the Houses and says, ‘Listen, Ms. Couch, you are a forensic accountant — help us find this missing $1.2 billion.’ What are you going to do? How are you going to go about it?

Couch: I’m going to ask for those bank statements right away and verify whether or not the money’s still sitting there, or whether or not it was dispersed electronically. The last thing I’m going to look at are canceled checks, physical documents that would show how the money was spent.

Ryssdal: Is there any doubt in your mind that you would be able to figure it out? I mean, banking is heavily papered industry.

Couch: There’s no doubt. Might it be complicated, sure. But this kind of money is always going to be traceable.

Ryssdal: So make a guess for me: Where do you think it went? And while acknowledging you don’t know the specifics of the case, what could possibly happen?

Couch: There are so many ways money can be — might it still be sitting there? Sure. Might have investments be made that were poor, and the money was lost that way? That could be one way. Might the money have been transferred over into operating accounts in order to make payroll, pay rent and the operating expenses of a company? That’s a third way.

Ryssdal: Is it necessarily maleficent that this money’s not around?

Couch: No.

Ryssdal: Then the other choice that comes to my mind is stupidity.

Couch: Sometimes you have poor accounting practices, and it can just be a huge accounting mess. That is not necessarily a criminal act.

Ryssdal: You know, it’s funny because early on in this saga, at one point MF Global said, ‘We found the money, we found part of it, it’s at JP Morgan Chase.’ And JP Morgan Chase came back and said, ‘Oh no, that $600 million, that’s ours.’ I know, right? How common is it for this kind of thing to happen in a major financial institution?

Couch: I would say it’s extremely uncommon. When our bank statements come into our homes every single month and tells us how much money we have in our bank account, 99 percent of us rely on that number and know that if we needed to walk in the bank and withdraw that money, it’s there. So to have something like this happen, it’s got be extremely uncommon.

Ryssdal: Tiffany Couch, a forensic accountant out of Portland, Ore. Tiffany, thanks a lot.

Couch: Thank you.

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