U.S. Market-Manipulation Cases Reach Record (#GotBitcoin?)
Federal regulators have ramped up their pursuit of traders who use a bluffing tactic known as spoofing to manipulate market prices, enforcement officials said, leading to a record number of manipulation cases.
CME handles around 85% of total U.S. futures-markets trading by volume. Regulators for the first time now have access to daily trading data with a one-day delay, giving them a much broader window into trading activity—and possible manipulation. Previously, the CFTC largely relied on CME staff and whistleblowers to spot spoofing.
The data-sharing agreement, effective as of February, comes as the CFTC and Justice Department both pursue traders engaged in spoofing, a practice outlawed by the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act. When spoofing, traders place fake orders to create the illusion of supply or demand, causing prices to swing up or down. The traders then profit from the move back as the market reverts to normal levels.
The CFTC brought a record 26 cases related to manipulative conduct and spoofing in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30. Several of those civil cases were accompanied by criminal charges filed by the Justice Department. Between 2009 and 2016, the average number of such cases brought was just five a year.
While spoofing is a problem in stock, bond and futures markets, it has been a particular focus of futures regulators and exchanges since the 2010 stock-market flash crash. Navinder Sarao, a British trader whom U.S. authorities charged with fraud, used an automated trading program to manipulate the market for S&P 500 futures contracts.
Regulators say having broader access to trading data makes it easier to identify spoofing and other market manipulations.
“Our ability to evaluate that data has helped us identify misconduct,” said James McDonald, the CFTC’s enforcement director.
In one recent case, the Justice Department charged three traders with manipulating stock-futures contracts that resulted in more than $60 million in losses for the firm that traded with them.
The data-sharing deal with CME came after the CFTC in 2014 pressed CME-operated exchanges to “continue to develop strategies to detect spoofing.” The regulator had grown frustrated by CME’s work in spotting and flagging manipulation.
Regulators and exchanges typically use statistical analysis to determine if a trader’s strategy relies on spoofing. In addition, they examine emails and other communication for signs of intent to spoof.
CME also has implemented new automated surveillance programs to monitor trader-messaging activity. This can help determine whether traders intended to engage in manipulation. The exchange employs more than 50 investigators who have experience working on anti-spoofing programs.
“Policing the market for disruptive trading practices continues to be a huge part of our regulatory investment and effort,” Thomas LaSala, CME’s chief regulatory officer, said in an email.
Cooperation between federal agencies was boosted by the government’s conviction of Mr. Sarao, whose 2016 guilty plea to criminal charges set a precedent for future spoofing cases. It spurred the Justice Department’s antifraud division to take on more spoofing cases, according to Mr. McDonald and Aitan Goelman, who was CFTC enforcement chief during the Sarao case. Meanwhile, the lead CFTC trial attorney on the Sarao case, Jeff Le Riche, moved to the Justice Department last year to help bring spoofing cases.
Tower Research to Pay $67 Million to Settle Spoofing Claims
Good morning. High-speed trading firm Tower Research Capital LLC agreed to pay $67 million to settle regulatory allegations that its traders manipulated the price of stock-index futures, the biggest penalty ever imposed by the U.S. derivatives watchdog in such a case.
New York-based Tower, which has been one of the most active participants in equity and derivatives markets, also signed a deferred-prosecution agreement with the Justice Department, which has worked closely with the Commodity Futures Trading Commission on such cases.
The resolution follows the guilty plea of two former traders at Tower who were involved in the scheme. Kamaldeep Gandhi and Krishna Mohan pleaded guilty to conspiracy to engage in wire fraud, commodities fraud and spoofing, while a grand jury indicted a third trader, Chinese citizen Yuchun “Bruce” Mao, on similar charges.
Messrs. Gandhi and Mohan are scheduled to be sentenced in February. Their lawyers didn’t immediately respond to messages seeking comment. Mr. Mao couldn’t be reached. Tower said it was “deeply disappointed” by the allegations and added that all three traders left the firm nearly six years ago.
Justice Department Presses Ahead With ‘Spoofing’ Prosecutions Despite Mixed Record
Crackdown in futures markets is yielding new wins for prosecutors, but several coming trials will show if tactic is ultimately successful.
A yearslong crackdown on cheating in futures markets is yielding new wins for the government, but several trials to come will show whether the Justice Department’s focus on a tactic known as “spoofing” is ultimately successful.
Prosecutors have doubled down on their effort to curtail this form of market manipulation, with four former traders scheduled to stand trial this year. The Justice Department’s Fraud Section, which focuses on white-collar crime, dedicated a special team last year to rooting out the conduct.
In recent weeks, two former traders alleged to have deceived markets with spoofed orders were sentenced to time served. On Tuesday, a federal judge in Chicago allowed one of them, Jiongsheng “Jim” Zhao, to return home to Australia. Mr. Zhao spent 10 months in an Australian prison before being extradited to the U.S. and pleading guilty.
“We need to flush this trading behavior out of the system in these markets in order to protect the integrity of them,” said Assistant Attorney General Brian Benczkowski, who oversees the DOJ’s criminal division.
Critics of the government’s campaign say prosecutors have turned routine, if cunning, behavior into a crime on par with insider trading. Some traders say spoofing, a form of bluffing that entails entering bogus orders and quickly canceling them, is hard to distinguish in markets where algorithmic traders constantly post, cancel and update prices.
The spoofing defendants are mostly manual traders at Wall Street banks accused of posting phony orders that trick high-speed traders, such as Citadel Securities and Quantlab Financial LLC, into making bad trades.
“It sounds like a moral issue because deception is involved, but that is what trading is all about,” said Jerry Markham, a professor at Florida International University and former regulator who has testified on behalf of traders accused of spoofing.
Other officials say the DOJ’s involvement has boosted the enforcement efforts of the regulators who supervise derivatives markets. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission has occasionally assigned its employees to temporarily work at the DOJ to assist the probes. The CFTC has already fined arms of Wall Street banks that employed some of the traders accused of spoofing, including Deutsche Bank AG and Merrill Lynch Commodities Inc.
“We know there is no deterrent like, in the appropriate case, the prospect of criminal prosecution in parallel with the underlying CFTC action,” CFTC enforcement director James McDonald said in November.
The Justice Department has aggressively pursued what it believes are the worst examples of spoofing, including charging four former JPMorgan Chase & Co. precious-metals traders with a range of offenses including racketeering conspiracy, said Aitan Goelman, a former CFTC enforcement director.
“Labeling that part of the bank a racketeering enterprise was an escalation that is unprecedented,” Mr. Goelman said.
A JPMorgan spokeswoman declined to comment.
Spoofers typically enter large orders on one side of the market—an order to sell, for instance—thereby fooling other traders into thinking supply or demand has changed. If it works, another participant will adjust prices and trade with a smaller order that the spoofer wants filled. The spoofer then cancels the bigger order, prices revert back to their previous level, and the spoofer makes money.
Done systematically, spoofing can generate a lot of income. Navinder Singh Sarao, whose spoofing was blamed for destabilizing markets in 2010, was sentenced last week and agreed to forfeit $12.8 million in illicit gains as part of a guilty plea.
Prosecutors believed they could detect deceptive orders in futures markets by using the same type of data analysis used to identify Medicare-billing fraud, people familiar with the matter said.
The prosecutors later hired their own consultants, the Boston-based Analysis Group Inc., to analyze spoofing signs in terabytes of futures-market data and prepare for trials. DOJ’s criminal division has paid the company at least $4.5 million since 2017 for work tied to the spoofing crackdown, according to federal contracting data.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on its use of consultants. An officer of Analysis Group couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
Mr. Benczkowski said the government’s use of data, work with the CFTC, and its ability to recruit cooperating witnesses who knew where spoofing occurred led authorities to discover more cases. “As we continue to see those trading patterns and manipulative conduct, we’re going to work to try to stop it,” he said.
Winning at trial has proven difficult, though, because juries have to be convinced of a trader’s intent to enter bogus orders and that others were harmed. The victims in spoofing cases are often high-speed traders, such as Citadel Securities and Quantlab, whose computers rely on the order data they ingest from exchanges to drive their own super-fast trading decisions. Prosecutors have prevailed at trial in one case but lost two others. A Citadel spokeswoman declined to comment.
“There is no question it takes money from algorithmic trading firms like us, who rely on the market data,” a Quantlab spokesman said.
A jury two years ago acquitted a former trader at UBS Group AG accused of spoofing after a federal judge in Connecticut had already dismissed several counts against the defendant, Andre Flotron, because the trading occurred outside the state.
The prosecutors who tried the case, Robert Zink and Avi Perry, continued to pursue cases of spoofing despite the Flotron loss. Mr. Perry, 37 years old, moved from the Connecticut U.S. Attorney’s office to Washington, overseeing a team of attorneys focused on commodities fraud. Mr. Zink, 41 years old, was promoted to head the fraud section and continues to oversee spoofing prosecutions.
Defense attorneys say the government has filed sharper cases since losing the Flotron case and failing to convict another defendant—who programmed spoofing algorithms but didn’t trade—in Chicago.
“If they are smart, they learned a lot of lessons from Flotron,” said Marc Mukasey, who represented Mr. Flotron and beat the government at trial. “I think they are being more focused and targeted.”
More recently, prosecutors have charged former traders at JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Deutsche Bank. Spokesmen for Bank of America and Deutsche Bank declined to comment.
In the case involving former Deutsche Bank employees, prosecutors charged the defendants with conspiracy and wire fraud because the trading at issue predated the law that prohibited spoofing. Defense attorneys argued that was an unfair attempt to criminalize conduct before the market knew it was forbidden.
The federal judge in the Deutsche Bank case, John J. Tharp Jr. in Chicago, has so far agreed with the government. The two traders, James Vorley and Cedric Chanu, are scheduled to go to trial in May.
An attorney for Mr. Vorley declined to comment, while Mr. Chanu’s lawyer didn’t return messages seeking comment. Deutsche Bank has said it cooperated with the government’s investigation and improved how it spots questionable activity by traders.
In separate cases, two other former traders who pleaded guilty to spoofing were sentenced in the past week.
Mr. Sarao, 41 years old, was sentenced to time served. Prosecutors said his attempts to rig prices weren’t motivated by greed but were related to his autism and “an obsessive or addictive desire to excel at electronic trading.”
A lawyer for Mr. Sarao said the judge’s decision was a “wonderful outcome” and that Mr. Sarao was “overjoyed to put this behind him.”
Mr. Zhao, who like Mr. Sarao traded e-mini S&P 500 futures, was sentenced Tuesday in Chicago. Prosecutors said he earned $21,000 from deceptive trading and spoofed to close out positions when he wanted to leave work for the day.
Mr. Zhao stood in a Chicago courtroom Tuesday and told Judge Tharp that he understood the consequences. Judge Tharp called spoofing “quite a serious crime.”
While Mr. Zhao may not have been motivated by greed, Judge Tharp told him: “You weren’t doing this to lose money.” The judge added: “You were doing this … to move the market in your favor.”
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