(Reuters) - Thousands of former MF Global Holdings customers may recover $520 million of cash held in their accounts by early next week, even as the bankrupt brokerage lays off more workers.
In other developments on Wednesday, a U.S. futures regulator called for robust oversight to limit the potential for another collapse, while authorities appeared no closer to finding hundreds of millions of dollars in missing MF Global customer money.
A bankruptcy judge on Thursday will consider a request by James Giddens, the trustee supervising the liquidation of the MF Global Inc broker-dealer unit, to release $520 million associated with 23,300 commodity customer accounts that contained only cash.
The amount represents 60 percent of the $869 million of cash that had been frozen, Giddens said in court papers.
Late on Wednesday, Giddens said if the transfer is allowed, distributions to nearly all of MF Global's roughly 38,000 customer account holders will be made "within three weeks" of MF Global's MFGLQ.PK bankruptcy filing. That would mean November 21, based on the company's having sought court protection on October 31.
Commodities traders and exchanges have clamored for the release of the money. They contend that the freeze punished customers who amassed the cash by liquidating their trading positions prior to MF Global's bankruptcy.
Customers may still get a payout even as investigators continue their pursuit of about $600 million that has gone missing from customers' futures accounts at MF Global.
The Commodity Customer Coalition, a group of former MF Global customers, on Wednesday said Giddens should be distributing even more money, saying the trustee has access to more than $1.4 billion.
At a hearing on Wednesday before U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Martin Glenn, who oversees the bankruptcy, MF Global lawyer Kenneth Ziman said the company has laid off another 141 people, on top of the 1,066 workers let go by Giddens last Friday.
Close to half of MF Global's workers have lost their jobs. Ziman also said talks to obtain financing to keep MF Global operating in bankruptcy have "paused," though the company has won an extension through November 30 to access $8 million of cash collateral held by JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N).
Glenn postponed until November 22 a decision on setting procedures for how to handle customer claims.
Meanwhile, Giddens' lawyer James Kobak said the trustee now estimates he has transferred 14,500 customer accounts with $1.57 billion of associated collateral to other brokerages. That compares with his earlier estimate of 17,000 accounts with $1.5 billion of collateral.
Kobak had no further details on the missing $600 million. "Exactly what happened, I don't think anyone knows," he said.
MF Global filed for bankruptcy protection on October 31 amid a liquidity crunch as customers, credit-rating agencies and counterparties worried about its $6.3 billion bet on European sovereign debt.
New York-based MF Global had been run by former Goldman Sachs & Co (GS.N) chief Jon Corzine, who resigned on November 4.
The bankruptcy was the seventh-largest in U.S. history, according to BankruptcyData.com and Reuters data.
Some of the regulatory focus has concerned whether MF Global improperly mixed customer funds with its own.
Scott O'Malia, a commissioner at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, urged his agency to help ensure that intermediaries such as MF Global properly maintain segregated accounts, and even perhaps hire independent overseers.
"Many have said that the failure of MF Global was not systemic and that we are lucky. I don't view it in the same light," O'Malia said in a statement posted on the CFTC's website.
O'Malia urged the CFTC to require greater disclosures to customers about brokerages' proprietary trading, risk exposure, and means to ensure that their funds are segregated.
"The Commission must use MF Global as its own teachable moment" and reconsider its rulemaking pursuant to last year's Dodd-Frank financial reform law, said O'Malia, one of two Republican commissioners on the five-member CFTC.
Other agencies, including the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission, are also trying to locate the missing customer funds.
Federal prosecutors in Chicago have also apparently joined the fray, with Chicago U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald issuing subpoenas in the probe over missing funds, the Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday, citing sources familiar with the matter. A spokesman for the Chicago U.S. attorney's office, Randall Samborn, declined to comment.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan has already launched its own federal grand jury probe into the missing funds, and CFTC regulators handed out a subpoena last week to Bank of Montreal's Harris Bank unit seeking information about customer accounts at MF Global, according to two people familiar with the matter.
Robert Cook, director of the SEC division of trading and markets, told the Senate Banking Committee on Wednesday that regulators are still struggling to verify MF Global's assurances that customer funds in securities accounts are accounted for.
"As you can imagine, we are not taking that at face value," he said.
Cook added that absent the futures accounts shortfall, there would have been a "significant chance" that MF Global could have been saved.
The shortfall became apparent just hours before MF Global's bankruptcy and in part prompted Interactive Brokers Group Inc (IBKR.O) to abandon talks to buy many of the company's assets.
Giddens said CME Group Inc (CME.O), which operates the world's largest futures exchange, proposed a $250 million guarantee to the MF Global Inc bankruptcy estate in case some of the payouts ultimately prove too high.
A federal insurance fund covering brokerage customers does not extend to commodities customers.