In Tumult of Trump, Jon Corzine Seeks a Wall Street Comeback

Jon S. Corzine is a 6-foot-2 bear of a man who has spent decades roaming expansive halls of power. He held the top job at the old Goldman Sachs office tower, a concrete pinnacle of American capitalism. And after that, he had the run of the governor’s mansion in New Jersey — all 18,000 square feet of it.

On a recent afternoon, however, he squeezed into a 100-square-foot office in the Flatiron district of Manhattan — no nameplate on the door — where a pair of Bloomberg terminals consumed much of the space. His eyes fixed on one, Mr. Corzine scribbled notes about his trades on a yellow legal pad as a computer chimed an imitation closing bell.

In the final seconds of trading, Mr. Corzine watched as a tiny sliver of his day’s profits slipped away, prompting him to utter a profanity or two and grumble about not ending the afternoon on more of “a high note.”

It has been years since the last major high note in Mr. Corzine’s career. In 2011, he faced the ignominy that came with the collapse of the brokerage firm he ran, MF Global, when about $1 billion of customer money temporarily went missing. It ranked as one of the largest Wall Street bankruptcies since Lehman Brothers’.

Now, here in his cramped office, Mr. Corzine is plotting his next and possibly final act: starting a hedge fund. And not just any hedge fund, but one designed to take advantage of the turmoil in the Trump era.

Wall Street’s wheel of fortune has spun plenty of comeback stories over the years, from Michael Milken to Henry Blodget. This will be the third spin of the wheel for Mr. Corzine, who won a United States Senate seat after being maneuvered out of Goldman, and who took the reins of MF Global after losing the New Jersey governorship to Chris Christie.

If the third time’s the charm, few comebacks will have had the operatic extremes of Mr. Corzine’s past decade. It is a period that includes not only MF Global’s demise but also his own near-death experience in a car accident and, later, the death of his youngest son.

In his first interview since the MF Global meltdown began, Mr. Corzine detailed his plans for a new hedge fund, saying that he will seek to anticipate what often seems unpredictable: how the Trump administration and other world leaders will enact policy and, in turn, move markets.

One of his Trump trades, for example, is designed to pay off in the event of a broad decline in the stock market, not unlike what happened Wednesday when shares swooned on Trump-related worries. On the bullish side, he hopes to ride a wave of a corporate-tax overhaul while trading in big tech, banking and industrial companies poised to gain from a policy shift.

After straddling the worlds of Washington and Wall Street for decades, Mr. Corzine, a liberal Democrat with a capitalist streak, argues that he is well suited for this strategy. He has mulled a hedge fund for years, ambitions first reported by The Times in 2012, and he believes that the populist movements sweeping the Western world (not just Trump, but “Brexit”) provide an opening.

“I think I can read between the lines more than a lot of people can on these issues,” he said last month, on the eve of a trip to raise money for his fund with wealthy investors.

In the first few weeks of marketing, Mr. Corzine has secured commitments and indications of interest in the tens of millions of dollars, according to a colleague who is helping him reach an initial goal of roughly $150 million. At a time when the stars of the hedge fund world can raise billions of dollars in a matter of weeks, Mr. Corzine’s financial ambition is modest. The real test will come, he said, if after several months the fund can demonstrate healthy returns and expand to a broader base of investors.

Wearing his trademark sweater and beard, Mr. Corzine, now 70, added, “And, you know, I am competitive.”

That competitive streak may stoke a romance with risk that has trailed Mr. Corzine’s career from Wall Street to Washington (and Trenton) and back again. A friend who works on Wall Street acknowledged that Mr. Corzine, even when placing a prudent bet, sometimes has trouble taking his foot off the gas — Exhibit A being MF Global.

During interviews, Mr. Corzine discussed new details about the final days of MF Global, including an interaction with Carl C. Icahn, as well as his regrets over not booking a big loss up front, a decision that came back to bite the firm. Still, he defended his tenure at MF Global. He noted that, despite a federal investigation, there was no evidence he misused the $1 billion in missing customer money, which was ultimately found and returned. This year, he reached a civil settlement over accusations that he failed to supervise employees who handled the money.

Mr. Corzine also spoke publicly for the first time about the death of his son Jeffrey, who was by his side during his time at MF Global and who invested his own money in the firm. Jeffrey’s death in 2014 led Mr. Corzine to name the hedge fund JDC/JSC Opportunity Fund, using his son’s initials and his own as he resumes his trading career.

“He is a legendary trader who has spent his life deeply interested and involved in markets,” Henry M. Paulson Jr., the former Treasury secretary who worked with Mr. Corzine atop Goldman in the late 1990s, said in an interview.

While MF Global investors might view some of Mr. Corzine’s trades as dangerous, his friends credit his risk-taking with scoring some of his life’s surprising victories: walking onto the basketball team at the University of Illinois having come from a tiny farming town, winning a Senate seat when he had never held even local office, and then voting against the Iraq war long before public opinion was on his side.

Sharon Elghanayan, his wife and a psychotherapist, put it this way: “It’s not risk to him. It’s conviction.”

Back in the Spotlight

Soon after MF Global imploded in the fall of 2011, Mr. Corzine was walking down Fifth Avenue when, he said, a stranger unleashed an expletive-filled assault. These days, venturing outside is no longer perilous.

Strangers greet him on the street as “Governor.” And most Sunday mornings, Mr. Corzine and Ms. Elghanayan walk to the 3 Guys Restaurant on the Upper East Side to eat breakfast among the financial upper crust. Gary D. Cohn, the former Goldman executive who is now a senior economic adviser to Mr. Trump, and Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor, are said to frequent the restaurant, where, for the price of a $20 Reuben and fries, Wall Street titans can see and be seen.

Now, Mr. Corzine is going to be seen on a much bigger stage. On Friday, he will appear at the SALT Conference in Las Vegas, the premier hedge fund schmooze-fest, where he will join Joseph R. Biden Jr., Ben Bernanke and the singer Jewel, as well as hundreds of fund managers and reporters.

That appearance coincides with Mr. Corzine’s fund-raising tour. And while it’s early days yet, there are signs his pitch is resonating with some investors.

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