The Chilling Effect Of The Bear Stearns Prosecution

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At the heart of the indictment of former Bear Stearns hedge fund managers Matthew Tannin and Ralph Cioffi is an email exchange in which Tannin questioned the performance of the funds. Federal prosecutors are treating those those emails as the smoking gun in the case against them, saying the men privately knew the funds were in trouble while they publicly reassured investors that the funds were healthy. At least one former prosecutors has described the email exchange between the two men as "dumbfounding."
Of course, the exchange could also be read as exculpatory. As far as we can tell, the emails detail a discussion about fund performance and strategy and do not discuss attempts to deceive investors. The junior Tannin was nervous. His boss Cioffi instructs him to hold steady. These are the kind of frank and open discussions investors should hope occurs between those entrusted to manage their money. But this case seems likely to make those discussions too dangerous to hold.
The prosecution of these two Bear Stearns executives offers a bad lesson for Wall Street: If you have doubts about your strategy or returns, never put it in an email.