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Andrew Waxman
Andrew Waxman
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Insider Trading Escalates At Hedge Funds, Reflecting Weak Controls

The ongoing proliferation of insider trading cases at hedge funds points to the need for more transparency into investment decisions and trading processes. One way to stop the pattern is for hedge funds to form internal control groups that scrutinize the links between investment themes and material non-public information.

Insider trading was once again center stage in 2012 with the by now usual raft of arrests, guilty pleas and high profile trials. The trend has only continued in 2013 with the charging of Matthew Martoma, a former SAC portfolio manager and the continuing swirl of speculation and rumor surrounding SAC itself. The aggressive prosecution of the crime, however, seems insufficient, leading to suggestions that more could be done by the industry to manage the issue. But what? To paraphrase Freud, understanding the problem, will go a long way towards solving it.

The infrastructure of insider trading industry is of course, by design, opaque, since it deals in an illegal substance called inside information. One can't be overly simplistic about this. Unlike drugs, for example, there is some level of ambiguity that makes going after its traffickers somewhat tricky: first, what exactly constitutes "material non-public information" (mnpi); second, how to determine who is in possession of such information and, third;how to identify those who are trading on it with the requisite intent to do so. However, prosecutors have had considerable success in overcoming these obstacles in recent years as they have adopted more aggressive methods. Much of this success has been focused on two types of financial service firms: expert networks, firms who provide consulting advice to trading firms, and hedge funds.

The middlemen in the insider trading industry are the expert networks who can (sometimes unknowingly) link the users (traders) to the suppliers (industry executives, researchers - people with access to inside information). The operation is financed by the users who are willing to pay good rates for the information. The industry is global in its scope. Many of the cases that have been brought have turned on evidence that expert networks provided mnpi to their clients.

Second, as with the drug industry, the inside information industry would not exist without the demand of the users. So who are these users? It would appear, given the number of hedge fund managers charged in recent years, that some hedge fund managers are very significant dealers and users of inside information. Cases in the last three or so years have brought down several major and well-established multi-billion dollar funds, including: Front Point Partners, Galleon Group, Diamondback Capital Management, and New Castle Funds. So what is it about hedge funds that have given rise to this trend?

Hedge funds have grown ever more ubiquitous as more and more traders from large banks, frustrated with red tape and declining pay have left to set up their own shops. These are typically aggressive types, quite different from the portfolio managers of the more traditional and conservative asset management industry. They tend to build very sleek and streamlined organizations with very little infrastructure. It is not so unusual for a young fund to have a billion dollars or more under management with relatively few staff members in operations and a fairly junior "chief financial officer" (cfo) or controller. In some cases hedge funds may take on an experienced CFO to help set up the infrastructure and systems, only to replace him or her with a more junior, and lower paid person once that goal has been achieved. In addition, compliance may be outsourced and there is likely no independent risk management function or investment committee to speak of.

Andrew Waxman writes on operational risk in capital markets and financial services. Andrew is a consultant in IBM's US financial risk services and compliance group. The views expressed her are those of his own. As an operational risk manager, Andrew has worked at some of the ... View Full Bio
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Melanie Rodier
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Melanie Rodier,
User Rank: Author
1/31/2013 | 4:23:16 PM
re: Insider Trading Escalates At Hedge Funds, Reflecting Weak Controls

Andrew, the types of controls you suggest sound like a great idea. After all, realistically there will always be hedge fund managers who won't have the ethics or self-rigor not to react to any inside information. For this reason, having compliance review the information on which an investment thesis is based sounds like a very good solution.
Greg MacSweeney
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Greg MacSweeney,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/31/2013 | 1:38:17 AM
re: Insider Trading Escalates At Hedge Funds, Reflecting Weak Controls
It seems that insider trading is the one area where the SEC is having some success when it comes to convicting people. The fines are sometimes substantial and there is often real jail time. On the flip side, however, no top executives have even been brought to trial for the risk management failures during the financial crisis.
L__P
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L__P,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/30/2013 | 11:39:42 PM
re: Insider Trading Escalates At Hedge Funds, Reflecting Weak Controls
But are you sure the people in charge want to prevent insider trading? It seems the incentives are very much set up for them to create a structure of plausible deniability which enables them to benefit from access without endangering their own skins.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, haven't the top people gotten away quite lightly, if at all?
Greg MacSweeney
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Greg MacSweeney,
User Rank: Apprentice
1/29/2013 | 7:35:48 PM
re: Insider Trading Escalates At Hedge Funds, Reflecting Weak Controls
Hedge funds have always been light on policy and infrastructure, and heavy on trading strategy. It will be very difficult for many hedge funds to switch to a model that includes a lot more oversight.
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