Inside the astonishing collapse of MF Global

We spoke with many of those affected by this act of the MF Global drama. Southwest Minnesota farmer and father of four Dean Tofteland ended up with $250,000 locked up by the broker. Without access to those funds to post margin for his open positions, all of his crop hedges were liquidated. He was also unable to jump in to start buying seed for the 2012 growing season, thereby missing out on early purchase discounts and top seed varieties.

Tofteland was not alone. Don Miller, a futures trader we spoke with, had $2 million frozen and was scrambling to pay his daughter’s college tuition bill; Elaine Knuth, the owner of a commodity-trading advisory, had to completely shut down her business; and Joe Thomas, a small Tennessee cattle rancher, believes he may lose $30,000.

The fiasco at MF Global put all of these individuals and their livelihoods at risk, but as we look to the bigger picture, the confidence blow it dealt the futures market has the potential to harm the broader economy. Efficiencies gained through the use of futures by both producers and users of commodities are often passed on to us as consumers. As such, a loss of confidence in the safety of those markets could hit the already-shaky U.S. economy right where it hurts — in consumers’ wallets.

In the chapters ahead, we will lay out the unraveling of MF Global, from the first major alarm bells heard during the 2008 wheat trading scandal to the broker’s dying days and the revelation that a significant amount of customer money had disappeared. We’ll show how a once-venerable broker was thrust into a risk-heavy strategy by a deeply conflicted leader who was trying to play both CEO and chief trader. We’ll explore why internal risk controls, the company’s board of directors, and outside regulators failed to curb the company’s reckless direction and protect its customers. And, finally, we’ll discuss the lessons that can be gleaned from this collapse, as well as the changes needed to prevent a similar disaster.