News leaked out today that the feds will soon be herding a whole pen full of Wall Street firms into court on insider trading charges, including, reportedly, our old friends Goldman, Sachs.
The basic charge here is that investment banks and other firms were leaking insider info about things like mergers to closely-allied hedge funds, who in turn placed the requisite bets on or against the companies in question.
The most interesting detail in the WSJ piece, to me, was a bit about an email sent by one John Kinnucan, a principal at an Oregon-based company called Broadband Research, to a number of his clients. The email reads, in part, as follows:
"Today two fresh faced eager beavers from the FBI showed up unannounced (obviously) on my doorstep thoroughly convinced that my clients have been trading on copious inside information… (They obviously have been recording my cell phone conversations for quite some time, with what motivation I have no idea.) We obviously beg to differ, so have therefore declined the young gentleman's gracious offer to wear a wire and therefore ensnare you in their devious web."
Aside from the amusing detail here in which Kinnucan brags about turning down an offer to cooperate with the feds (I ain't no stinking rat!) the thing to note here is the list of clients he sent this email to. Those include hedge-fund firms SAC Capital Advisors LP and Citadel Asset Management, and mutual-fund firms Janus Capital Group, Wellington Management Co. and MFS Investment Management.
Those are some interesting MF-ing names.
Citadel and SAC, along with Goldman and David Einhorn's Greenlight Capital, were among the firms subpoenaed by Lehman Brothers lawyers after that latter firm exploded in 2008. The allegation then was that a number of hedge firms worked with banks and other companies to spread rumors about Lehman at the same time some of those funds were holding big short positions.
Similar allegations, involving many of the same players, were made after Bear Stearns was blown apart in March of that year. There were multiple storylines in the that business, including one set of allegations that some hedge funds with short positions in Bear leaked information about Bear having a liquidity problem during that fateful week in March of 2008. Another extremely interesting detail, which I and others have reported on, involves the fact that all the big banks on Wall Street (including Goldman) and many of hedge funds (including Citadel) had a meeting at the Fed with Ben Bernanke just three days before the Fed announced its plan to subsidize the sale of Bear to JP Morgan Chase. This was on March 11, 2008; the only big bank that was not invited to this meeting was Bear, Stearns. It strains all credulity to imagine that the rescue of Bear was not discussed at that meeting and that none of the players at that meeting made moves based on those conversations.
The other crimes on Wall Street have been so pervasive and so massive in scope in the past decade or so that good old-fashioned insider trading — hedge funds and other gamblers robbing the great mass of uninformed investors by acting on exclusive intelligence not available to the rest of us — seems almost quaint. Compared to a situation in which the entire economy was based on fraud schemes like the mass sales of mismarked AAA-rated mortgage-backed assets, worrying about hedge-fund gamblers skimming a few billion here and there off of insider info seems almost misguided.
However there is a mounting pile of evidence suggesting a sort of widespread culture of insider trading in which a few players (specifically the major banks and a few of the biggest and best-connected hedge funds) have milked a seemingly endless stream of exclusive information, not occasionally or opportunistically but as an ongoing commercial strategy. I get about two or three letters a week from people in the finance business complaining that this or that company is openly advance-trading on a) information from the Federal Reserve about things like interest rate changes, or b) info about big client orders in things like commodities, or c) mergers and the like. Certainly there is a great deal to be suspicious of with regard to the behavior of certain companies in advance of major events like the rescue of Bear Stearns, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the AIG bailout, the acquisition of Merrill Lynch by Bank of America, the emergency conversions to bank holding company status of Goldman and Morgan Stanley, and the announcement of major bailout programs like the TALF and the P-PIP.
Anyone who knew in advance how or when these deals were going down could make billions almost without trying, and we know that the heads of many of the major banks were in contact with key federal officials during this entire period. So there's that.
That's why it'll be interesting to see how far this federal probe goes. Many of the people I talk to insist that the insider-trading problem is a pervasive, systemic issue, not something that is isolated and limited to a few bad apples. So it'll be interesting to see if the Justice Department has a less indulgent view of insider crime than, say, Ben Bernanke's Federal Reserve. Not that I'm holding my breath for a huge roundup, but boy, wouldn't it be something if they aimed as high as this thing probably goes?