MF Global's Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, released on Monday when the company filed for creditor protection in a Manhattan federal courthouse, is more or less what you'd expect to see if you peeked into the crater left behind when a large Wall Street firm fails.
The company, which estimated it'll be able to cover its obligations to its creditors, listed some $701 million in unsecured liabilities, with 98.6 percent of these claims belonging to bondholders, specifically JP Morgan Chase and Deutsche Bank, who together hold $691 million of the non-senior corporate debt the company currently has in circulation. Following these are the claims normally known as belonging to "trade credit": claims from the lawyers, risk managers, IT consultancies, expense account managers and headhunters that a broker-dealer of MF Global's size would deal with on a daily basis, most in the tens of thousands. (A company director, Eileen Fusco, is owed $105,000.)
But there's a kind of unsecured creditor that stands out. An analysis of the firm's Chapter 11 filing by the International Business Times has found slightly over $2 million of the $10.17 million the company hasn't paid others for delivered good and services is owed to media companies, public relations firms, branding advisers, Web advertising specialists and marketing experts. Taken together with other recent developments, the information on these creditors suggests that, even as it stared into the abyss of sinking share prices and possible bankruptcy, MF Global was engaged in a major initiative to promote its core brokerage business and increase brand awareness, particularly online.
A Different Kind of Creditor
The largest unpaid claim from a media company is owed to cable business news channel CNBC, a unit of NBC Universal. The bankrupt company owes them $845,397 for running its TV commercials.
Six other media-centric concerns are owed more than $100,000 and include Chicago-based Dean Media Group, a 17-employee full-service marketing firm that had created an online advertising campaign for MF Global's agricultural commodities trading platform, and which is owed $309,000. The New York office of The Gate Worldwide, a global boutique branding firm which had been engaged in a channel marketing effort with MF Global since May, hasn't been paid $229,739 for services.
Illinois-based Lever Interactive, a marketing management outfit that specializes in search engine optimization and Web analytics, holds a claim of $178,900. RR Donnelley (NASDAQ:RRD), a Chicago-based 58,000-person integrated marketing and communications company that had been MF Global's go-to resource for managing investor communications, has an outstanding bill for $118,600.
New York-based Infinia Group, a graphic design firm whose long relationship with MF Global includes designing their "global identity," hasn't collected on $115,001. ADK America, an advertising firm owned by British giant WPP plc (NASDAQ:WPPGY), which had worked on print campaigns for the company's industrial commodities trading platform, is on the hook for $101,958.
Other outstanding debts are smaller, though the companies that hold them might not see them that way. The Chicago office of St. Louis-based Fleischman Hillard, an international public relations firm that has handled MF Global's communications in the past, is owed $42,000. Marketing automation and analytics concern Eloqua, whose direct business with MF Global is unknown, hasn't been paid $33,000. Raleigh, North Carolina-based Media Two, which designed Web sites for MF Global and advised the firm on search strategy, hasn't been paid $25,000 for its work.
Even more significant than the yet-unpaid work, the potential loss of a client is firmly on these companies' minds.
"I don't even know where that relationship is going right now in terms of what we're doing with them," said Chris Gilmartin of Lever Interactive, who, like all companies approached, declined to comment about further specifics.
Debts Paint a Different Picture
The high amount of branding- and marketing-related debts (which can be considered investments in the firm's core brokerage business) in proportion to other non-financing liabilities stands in contrast to the image of MF Global presented in various news reports: of a drifting Goliath whose bond-trader-to-the-end chief executive was neglecting the steady but boring brokerage business to push forward the highly-volatile, highly-profitable proprietary trading unit.
In a Reuters article that squarely placed the blame of MF Global's demise on his strategic direction, for example, outgoing MF Global chief executive Jon Corzine is painted as pushing a previously-sleepy proprietary trading unit's appetite for risk into the red by leaning heavily on traders to deliver higher margins.
"He basically told us that it was up to us to drive the profits of the firm," an unidentified former MF Global trader told Reuters.
While it was indeed the actions of the firm's trading unit, the accumulation of over $6 billion in highly-risky European sovereign debt, which when judged on its face as reckless by MF Global's counterparties, unleashed the series of events leading to Monday's bankruptcy, it's not necessarily true that recklessness was accompanied by inattention to the corporation's core business.
Under Corzine's watch, which began after the MF Global's fiscal 2010 quarter, the company grew commission revenue 5.4 percent. While that growth was both slow and choppy, and was undermined by a steadily rising ratio of fees-to-revenue, other areas of the quarterly profit-and-loss statement changed more dramatically.
Payroll was slashed by 27.5 percent, while non-compensation expenses were managed strategically. Communication and technology expenses, a key area of investment, jumped.
"We are working very hard to find the right balance of investing in our future while delivering shareholder returns," said Corzine in reference to operational costs during the second fiscal quarter earnings conference call on Oct. 25.
Part of the "right balance," Corzine went on to say, was a $2 million advertising and branding campaign that had been undertaken in the quarter.
Indeed, it isn't only from the unpaid bills, now public to the world in the bankruptcy filing, that that branding push is obvious.
An ad campaign started Oct. 17 began running a series of TV commercials across various business-focused channels in India. That followed an effort to bring acquired business into a unified brand earlier in the year.
Value in the company
The picture of Corzine promoting a branding initiative as an example of strategic investment in the future will likely only add ammunition to critics, who might cry Corzine's focus on promoting name recognition while shares of the company were plummeting is further proof the captain was rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic while the ship went under.
A more charitable view would be to see that, while indeed exposing it to reckless positions on the proprietary trading front, MF Global was doing all it could to increase the value of its core brokerage.
Which could explain why the company directors preferred to go bust Monday rather than accept a lowball offer from a competitor.
While the shareholders, who will likely get wiped out when all is said and done, might see no value in MF Global, Jon Corzine and his board did.
And so will those media companies, if they ever get paid.