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CFTC says customer-fund review comes up clean

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The futures regulator said on Wednesday that its spot check of major futures brokerages did not find any material breaches of protections for customer funds.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission conducted the sweep of the industry after the collapse of futures brokerage MF Global in late October and the ensuing search for more than $600 million in missing customer money.

The commission and other regulators are still investigating the disappearance of customer funds from accounts that MF Global was legally required to protect.

MF Global's bankruptcy and the giant hole it blew through the supposedly sacrosanct principle of client-money protections caused a crisis of confidence among futures investors, who include not only hedge funds and other financial firms but also farmers looking to minimize crop-pricing risks.

In response, the CFTC, which has long backed the idea of self-regulation for the futures industry, decided to take a closer look at the state of client-money protections among 70 futures brokerages. These include household names like Goldman Sachs and smaller boutique investment firms.

CFTC said it found a total of $166 billion in segregated accounts, about $13 billion more than what the 70 brokers were legally required to keep intact.

In its review, the CFTC worked closely with CME Group's Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the largest U.S. futures marketplace where MF Global, like many other brokerages, conducted much of its trading.

After MF Global collapsed, many futures clients criticized the CME for allegedly failing to live up to its regulatory responsibilities, a charge the exchange has vigorously denied.

Under federal law, the CME has a dual role of both facilitating futures trading, and policing clearing members, like MF Global.

The CFTC's review results would seem to bolster the belief that MF Global was an isolated case of a firm that may have dipped into client money in a failed bid to stave off financial ruin.

MF Global filed for bankruptcy on October 31 after it was forced to reveal that it had made a $6.3 billion bet on European sovereign debt, spooking investors and customers.

Facing criticism over the collapse, regulators sought to reform rules that gave brokerages some leeway in using excess capital from customer accounts.

The results of the checks are "an ingredient" in helping to restore faith in the markets after MF Global's failure, said Gerald Corcoran, chief executive of R.J. O'Brien, the country's largest independent futures brokerage and clearing firm.

The checks confirm for customers that "the regulators have stepped up surveillance activities to following rules as far as assets," he said. "I definitely think it's part of the mix of restoring confidence."

(Reporting By Philip Shishkin; Editing by Tim Dobbyn)

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