The SEC’s Ultra-High-Tech Insider Trading Robot Leaves No Plumber Unprosecuted

The SEC's got a cool new toy.
Author:
Publish date:
SEC_CAT2

In the brave new world of insider trading enforcement, the SEC has a (until-recently) top-secret weapon: Artemis.

Like the mythological goddess of the hunt for which it is named, the system targets its prey with superhuman accuracy, using reams of trading data to algorithmically identify possible securities miscreants. Just like she did in Ovid.

In an exclusive for Reuters, the SEC played show-and-tell with its nifty new toy. Enforcement director Andrew Ceresney called the system “the new frontier” in insider trading detection, trawling billions of lines of data to discern questionable trading patterns. Yet of the nine insider traders reportedly fingered by Artemis, the SEC chose to give Reuters a relatively unassuming face for the story: a Long Island plumber named Gary Pusey.

You gotta start somewhere.

You may remember Pusey, who is not to be confused with the star of Eye of the Tiger and Bulletproof, as they guy who pleaded guilty in May to conspiring with a boating friend and Barclays banker to trade ahead of big M&A deals. Those trades came to the attention of the SEC not through gumshoe investigatory tactics, but by pressing the big green button on Artemis. (It was probably human detectives who found that Pusey paid off his friend with bundles of cash placed in a gym bag.)

In an age of light-speed trading and robot hedge funders, it’s about time the SEC hopped aboard the tech train. But what’s remarkable about this story isn’t so much the strength of the SEC’s data-crunching, but the weakness of its data.

According to the report, the SEC “collects trading information on an ad-hoc basis,” patching together a quilt of brokerage records “gathered in various investigations.” In other words, the nation’s top securities regulator has to rely on picking up scraps of data from past investigations in order to feed its futuristic insider trading algorithm.

Despite what you might imagine, the SEC doesn’t have a direct tap on the stock market. Such a system, called the consolidated audit trail (CAT), is in the works, but likely remains a long way off. Budget woes and bureaucratic delays have hamstrung the project, which regulators proposed all the way back in 2010.

The SEC hopes to have the CAT up and running by 2017, but industry insiders consider that wishful thinking. As of this summer, the agency still hadn’t chosen from among three bidders hoping to win the CAT contract. To get the process underway, twenty different exchanges, from BATS to the NYSE, have to agree on a processor for the system. Given how famously the various exchanges get along, we can only guess how long that process will take.

So until the exchanges can get in line behind a processor, regulators are going to remain in the stone-age of insider trading detection. One former SEC official told Reuters the agency’s current technology is like “the early days of the automobile.” When the CAT finally arrives, he said, it will be like the flying car.

Which, unless you’re Uber, is something you probably shouldn’t hold your breath for.

On the flip side, when CAT does become a reality, it’s not hard to imagine the SEC’s insider trading prosecutions to multiply even beyond the feverish pace they’ve kept of late. Which might be bad news not just for plumbers, but electricians, public-school teachers and any other unassuming schlub with a friend on the inside.

Who knows, someday they might even get Steve Cohen.

This is Owen Davis' last weekly column for Dealbreaker. Starting Monday November 7th, he will join us full-time as a staff reporter. 

Related