Every once in a while I almost write “I don’t envy big bank CEOs,” and then I consider my own finances and the mood passes. But it does seem hard, no? The job is basically that you run around all day looking at horrible messes – even in good times, there are some horrible messes somewhere, and what is a CEO for if not to look at them and make decisive noises? – and then you get on earnings calls, or go on CNBC, or sign 10Ks under penalty of perjury, and say “everything is great.” I mean: you can say that some things aren’t great, if it’s really obvious that they’re not. If you lost money, GAAPwise, go ahead and say that; everyone already knows. But for the most part, you are in the business of inspiring enough confidence in people that they continue to fund you, and if you don’t persuade them that, on a forward-looking basis, things will be pretty good, then they won’t be.

Also, when you’re not in the business of convincing people to fund you, you’re in the business of convincing people to buy what you’re selling and sell what you’re buying, which further constrains you from saying “what we’re selling is dogshit.”1

Anyway I found a certain poignancy in Citi’s correspondence with the SEC over Morgan Stanley Smith Barney, which was released on Friday. Citi and Morgan Stanley had a joint venture in MSSB, and MS valued it at around $9bn, and Citi valued it at around $22bn, and at most one of them was right and, while the answer turned out to be “neither,” it was much closer to MS than C. Citi was quite wrong, and since this was eventually resolved by a willing seller (Citi) selling to a willing buyer (MS) at a valuation of $13.5bn, Citi had to admit its wrongness in the form of a $4.7 billion write-down, and the stock did this: Read more »

  • 19 Feb 2013 at 3:16 PM

SEC Ruins One Anonymous Swiss Person’s Lucky Day

The SEC’s Heinz insider trading complaint is a delightful epistemological puzzle. The story goes that, on February 13, some person or persons with a Swiss bank account bought 2,553 Heinz June $65 calls (255,300 shares), with the stock at just over $60, for $0.30 – $0.40 per share (around $90,000 total). The next day, Heinz announced that it was being bought for $72.50, the calls went to ~$7.33, and he/she/they made almost $1.8 million on paper. That’s a one-day return of 1,979%, or approximately Error 1 annualized.1

Which is pretty good! Except those gains are on paper, and that paper has been impounded by a federal judge at the SEC’s request, because that story is pretty much too shady not to be insider trading. But what I just told you is the whole story that the SEC appears to know: there’s no proof that it’s insider trading as opposed to just fabulously lucky trading. When I win the MegaMillions next week my one-day return will be considerably in excess of 1,979%, and no one will have leaked the winning numbers to me in advance, as far as the SEC knows anyway. Though it is suspicious that volume in the HNZ $65 calls was up just a smidge that day: Read more »

The Wall Street Journal story today about the next Libor domino to fall – RBS, which will be coughing up $700mm or so to regulators in the next few weeks – is full of quietly hilarious lines, perhaps none more so than the Journal‘s deadpan clarification that “the Justice Department has the power to file criminal charges without the bank’s blessing.” For sheer backwardness, though, I think it’s hard to top this:

As part of UBS’s settlement last month, the Swiss bank’s Japanese unit pleaded guilty to wire fraud, a felony. Justice Department officials were heartened by the lack of a negative reaction in the markets and among regulators around the world to UBS’s guilty plea. Before the settlement deal, some officials had worried it could destabilize the bank. That has emboldened officials to pursue similar actions against banks like RBS, according to a person familiar with the matter.

The way a lot of people – sometimes even people at the Justice Department! – think about criminal law goes something like this:

  • If you do something naughty, we will charge you with a crime.
  • If you are convicted of that crime, bad things will happen to you.
  • You don’t want bad things to happen to you.
  • So you won’t do anything naughty.

This is called “deterrence.” All of the parts of it are important: if you are convicted of a crime and bad things don’t happen to you, then the whole system is mostly pointless. When the Justice Department is “heartened by the lack of a negative reaction” to a criminal conviction – when they’re like “yay, no deterrent effect!” – then … then … gaaah. Read more »

  • 22 Jan 2013 at 4:07 PM

At Long Last Egan-Jones Has Been Brought To Justice

The SEC’s press release touting its triumph over rebel-without-a-cause rating agency Egan-Jones gives just the slightest impression that it was written in embarrassment. A trope of SEC press releases is “[thing we are enforcing] is among the most important things in the whole wide universe”; this is hard to say with a straight face when the defendant is guilty “essentially, of filling out forms wrong,” as Jesse Eisinger put it last year. But two SEC enforcement bigwigs give it their best shot:

“Accuracy and transparency in the registration process are essential to the Commission’s oversight of credit rating agencies,” said Robert Khuzami, Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement. “EJR and Egan’s misrepresentation of the firm’s actual experience rating issuers of asset-backed and government securities is a serious violation that undercuts the integrity of the SEC’s NRSRO registration process.”

Antonia Chion, Associate Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, added, “Provisions requiring NRSROs to retain certain records and address conflicts of interest are central to the SEC’s oversight of credit rating agencies. EJR’s violations of these provisions were significant and recurring.”

To be clear what happened in the Egan-Jones case was, as we’ve discussed before:

  • In 2008, Egan-Jones told the SEC “we have issued 200 ratings and they are on the internet.”
  • A few months later, Egan-Jones corrected the number of ABS and muni ratings from 200 to 23.
  • The correct number was actually zero, as you could tell by looking at E-J’s website.
  • Four years later, the SEC noticed.

“‘Accuracy and transparency in the registration process are essential to the Commission’s oversight of credit rating agencies,’ said Robert Khuzami, Director of the SEC’s Division of Enforcement,” though not so essential that the SEC would get around to noticing admitted inaccuracy inside of four years.

So, I mean: don’t fill out forms wrong! Read more »

Sheelah Kolhatkar’s cover story today in Bloomberg BusinessWeek about the SEC’s hunt to capture Steve Cohen is pretty amazing, and depending on your priors will leave you impressed or infuriated or both with the SEC. I vote both, but I always vote both.

The core of it is the story of how Sanjay Wadhwa, a senior enforcement lawyer at the SEC, got a tip from FBI agent B.J. Kang “that something big might have gone down during the summer of 2008 at SAC Capital,” though “It’s not clear whether Kang was motivated by information or intuition.” This nebulous tip led Wadhwa to research all previous SEC referrals about SAC. One that he found was a “multipage [September 2008] letter from NYSE Regulation … [that] said that someone from RBC Capital Markets had pointed out evidence of a market-moving information leak about Elan. ‘If there was a leak of information,’ the letter read, ‘it was probably during the ICAD [International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease] conference,’ when doctors and investors would have been mingling and socializing.” Good tip!

This thesis turned out to be incorrect, but the letter did prompt the SEC to launch one of its largest investigations. It would end up issuing 140 subpoenas and amassing 2 million pages of documents as it built a case that kept leading in the direction of SAC Capital. … They tried to piece together an explanation for the astonishing amount of money SAC had made trading Elan. … The initial stages involved painstaking work: The firm’s trading records were a jumble of activity with nothing broken out. It was also difficult to discern which of SAC’s 900 employees they should focus on. …

After sifting for months through every phone call to SAC from anyone connected to Elan, the SEC team pinpointed Martoma and his source, a neurologist and Alzheimer’s expert named Dr. Sidney Gilman, who worked as a consultant to hedge funds through Gerson Lehrman. … As they tracked Martoma further back in time, a pattern emerged: Over the course of 2007 and 2008, Martoma and Gilman had spoken every time an Elan safety monitoring committee held a meeting.

Eventually they brought the case to prosecutors who arrested Martoma. Given the public information – mostly from the SEC and prosecutors at this point, but still – it’s pretty easy to believe that the SEC and prosecutors have Martoma dead to rights; Gilman has told prosecutors that he gave Martoma tons of inside information and Martoma then traded on it. So this really is – apparently – the story of a dogged team of investigators pursuing a thin lead and, through long hours of rigorous detective work, actually catching a criminal. Not Steve Cohen, but someone one level removed from him.

That is impressive. It’s hard dogged work; I am depressing myself just thinking about reading phone records for months on end. They get points for, like, the pure arete of it.

But it also sucks, doesn’t it? Read more »

  • 09 Jan 2013 at 5:10 PM

Supremes Set To Smack SEC on Statutes of Limitations

Things aren’t going well for you when you find yourself at the receiving end of sharp words from both Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Well, that’s where the SEC finds itself in its effort to read a five-year statute of limitations creatively. Read more »

The SEC probably came to the right decision in not taking any action against David Sokol but he’s still a delightful insider trading puzzle. Sokol, you’ll recall, is a former Berkshire Hathaway executive and Warren Buffett heir presumptive who was fired because he bought $10mm of Lubrizol stock, then pitched the company to Buffett without telling him that he (Sokol) had just bought a bunch of the stock,1 and then made $3mm when Buffett ended up buying all of Lubrizol at a premium. Here are, to a first not-legal-advice approximation, some things that are probably true:

  • If Buffett had (1) decided to buy Lubrizol and (2) bought $10mm of Lubrizol stock for Berkshire’s trading account,2 and then (3) Berkshire approached Lubrizol and negotiated a deal: not insider trading!
  • If Sokol had (1) convinced Buffett to buy Lubrizol and (2) bought $10mm of Lubrizol stock for his personal account, and then (3) Berkshire approached Lubrizol and negotiated a deal: insider trading!

The difference is not the insideriness – Buffett/Berkshire are more insidery, or have more material nonpublic information, than Sokol – but rather the misappropriation of that material nonpublic information. If Berkshire trades on Berkshire’s plans, that’s sort of an epistemological necessity. If Sokol trades on Berkshire’s plans, when he has some duty not to – if, for instance, Berkshire has policies requiring him to keep its plans confidential – then that’s insider trading.

But instead, it appears that the order of operations was (1) Sokol bought the stock, (2) Sokol convinced Buffett to buy Lubrizol, and (3) Berkshire approached Lubrizol and negotiated a deal. Sokol wasn’t trading on Berkshire’s plans: he was trading on his plans to convince Berkshire to buy Lubrizol (and, probably, to convince Lubrizol to be bought).3

And those plans were probably not material, in that they were too hazy and far removed from an actual deal. Here is DealBook: Read more »