Friday, October 27, 2017

Federal Prosecutors Are Investigating Wells Fargo's FX Business

Last week, WSJ stoked fears that the Feds might be ramping up another probe into abuse and manipulation in the foreign exchange market when it reported that Wells Fargo had abruptly terminated four bankers from its FX business and transferred another. Now, Wall Street’s paper of record is reporting that Federal prosecutors are investigating Wells for abuses in its FX shop - but the scope of the investigated is limited to one disputed trade.
According to WSJ, prosecutors have subpoenaed information from Wells and from the recently fired bankers as they investigate a trade and ensuing dispute between Wells and one of its clients, Restaurant Brands International Inc.
RBI owns several fast-food franchises, including Burger King, Tim Hortons and Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen. In an amusing twist, both companies count Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway as one of their largest shareholders.
In a statement, Wells Fargo said it “learned of an issue associated with a foreign exchange transaction for a single client. The matter was reviewed, the client was promptly notified regarding the issue, and Wells Fargo leadership took steps to hold accountable the individuals who were involved. Wells Fargo remains committed to our foreign exchange business, meeting our clients’ financial needs in an ethical way, and ensuring ongoing review of this and all business operations.”
The foreign-exchange issue revolves around a trade made within the past three years that included positions running into the billions of dollars, the people said. The trade resulted in a loss to Restaurant Brands, the people added, which led to a dispute between it and the bank. WSJ pointed out that the investigation into Wells Fargo’s foreign-exchange business, which is housed within its investment bank, are separate from sales-practices issues that rocked the bank more than a year ago. Wells Fargo is planning to refund Restaurant Brands hundreds of thousands of dollars related to the trading loss, WSJ's sources said.  The Federal Reserve is also looking into the issue. Specifically, Federal prosecutors are looking into the sequencing of the trade in question and whether it could have involved so-called front-running, some of the people familiar with the matter said. That should send a chill down the spine of the fired bankers, as earlier this week a US jury found a former HSBC currency trader guilty of fraud related to front-running a large trade that netted the bank some $8 million in profits. The US is also in the process of extraditing another UK-based FX trader to face front-running related charges in the US.
Last year, a wide-ranging investigation into abuse and front-running in the global foreign-exchange market led to a rash of settlements worth billions of dollars involving Barclays and a handful of other global banks. 
While probes like this are never convenient, the investigation comes at a particularly trying time for the bank and its management. Earlier this month, WFC CEO Tim Sloan received a widely publicized tounge lashing from Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren during Congressional testimony (Sloan became the second straight Wells CEO whom Warren said should resign during a public hearing). He has also participated in a handful of media interviews lately as he tries to burnish the bank's once-wholesome reputation and bolster its lagging share price, which has never quite recovered from last year's cross-selling scandal.
However, as WSJ explains, front-running is often difficult to gauge given the ambiguity around pre-hedging strategies in currency trading. Typically a bank must purchase currency as part of a trade and price it differently than it would price a stock. Wells Fargo’s investment-banking, securities and markets division, known as Wells Fargo Securities, is a fraction of the size of its U.S. big-bank peers, as is its foreign-exchange business. The bank doesn’t break out financial results or metrics for that group or its foreign-exchange business.
And while the investigation is the latest embarassment for the bank, which over the summer disclosed that it had overcharged mortgage and auto-loan borrowers, there is, at least, one mitigating factor: Unlike the retail banking scandal, which stoked widespread public outrage, few Americans understand how the foreign-exchange market works - indeed, many don't even realize that such a market exists. This means that even in the worst-case scenario, Wells's brand should remain untarnished from this latest scandal.
The US Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of California is leading the investigation.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Ex-HSBC Trader Involved In Front-Running Scandal To Be Extradited To U.S.

It's not shaping up to be a great week for a group of former HSBC FX traders who decided to front-run a massive $3.5 billion currency trade placed by one of their clients and net their bank some $8 million in illicit profits in the process.  Earlier this week, Ex-HSBC currency trader Mark Johnson, who was unwittingly captured on an audio recording saying "I think we got away with it," was convicted by a jury in New York of fraud. 
Now we learn that Johnson's partner in crime (allegedly, of course), Stuart Scott, has lost his court battle in the U.K. and will be extradited to the U.S. to face charges.
Not surprisingly, Scott expressed some "disappointment" with the ruling shortly after being dismissed from court.
*SCOTT SAYS HE IS DISAPPOINTED BY EXTRADITION RULING
*SCOTT SAYS U.S. CASE IS FLAWED, INACCURATE
Scott
As we've noted previously, Mark Johnson was arrested at New York’s Kennedy Airport in 2016 before he could return to the U.K. but Stuart Scott has remained free at his home in the London suburbs...until now.  Per Bloomberg:
Mark Johnson, HSBC’s global head of foreign exchange cash trading in London, was taken into custody at John F. Kennedy International Airport Tuesday and is scheduled to appear before a judge in federal court in Brooklyn Wednesday morning, said the people, who asked not to be named because the case hasn’t been made public. He’s charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, the people said.

According to Bloomberg, Johnson’s arrest comes more than a year after five global banks pleaded guilty to charges related to the rigging of currency benchmarks. HSBC, which wasn’t part of those criminal cases, in November 2014 agreed to pay $618 million in penalties to U.S. and British regulators to resolve currency manipulation allegations. HSBC, which still faces investigations by the Justice Department and other authorities for the conduct, has set aside $1.3 billion for possible settlements, according to an August filing.

Rob Sherman, an HSBC spokesman, and Peter Carr, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment.
A few weeks ago, details of court filings began to leak from Scott's British extradition case which allowed us to learn exactly how much each HSBC trader made for his trading book in the illicit scheme that netted a total of $8 million in profits...Scott took second place with a total profit of $585,105.  Per Bloomberg:
"The defendant personally obtained over $500,000 profit," the U.S. Justice Department, represented by British lawyer Mark Summers, said in written arguments prepared for the hearing. "The offenses of which he is accused are highly serious. They involve a systematic and organized conspiracy to defraud, committed in breach of trust."

Scott was charged, along with his ex-boss Mark Johnson, by the Justice Department in July 2016 with using insider knowledge to front-run a $3.5 billion currency deal by Cairn Energy Plc that made the bank $8 million. Johnson is on trial in New York and a jury there could begin deliberations this week.
Here's how everyone else made out per the DOJ:
Trading Gains
For those who haven't followed the story closely, according to the original DOJ complaint, HSBC was selected by Cairn Energy Plc to execute a foreign exchange transaction – which was going to require converting approximately $3.5 billion in sales proceeds into British Pound Sterling – in October 2011.  But, before executing that trade, he tipped off a bunch of HSBC traders who loaded up their proprietary accounts with Pounds just before the massive trade sent the currency higher.
“As alleged, the defendants placed personal and company profits ahead of their duties of trust and confidentiality owed to their client, and in doing so, defrauded their client of millions of dollars,” stated United States Attorney Capers.  “When questioned by their client about the higher price paid for their significant transaction, the defendants wove a web of lies designed to conceal the truth and divert attention away from their fraudulent trades.  The charges and arrest announced today reflect our steadfast commitment to hold accountable corporate executives and licensed professionals who use their positions to fraudulently enrich themselves.”

“The defendants allegedly betrayed their client’s confidence, and corruptly manipulated the foreign exchange market to benefit themselves and their bank,” said Assistant Attorney General Caldwell.  “This case demonstrates the Criminal Division’s commitment to hold corporate executives, including at the world’s largest and most sophisticated institutions, responsible for their crimes.”
Of course, we're sure this is all just an effort to "criminalize behavior that is normal"...at least on Wall Street. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Ex-HSBC Currency Trader Convicted Of Fraud In Massive Front-Running Scandal

Ex-HSBC currency trader Mark Johnson, who was unwittingly captured on an audio recording saying "I think we got away with it," has just been convicted by a jury in New York of fraud for front-running a $3.5 billion transaction that netted his firm some $8 million in illicit profits.  Per Bloomberg:
Former HSBC Holdings Plc currency trader Mark Johnson was found guilty of fraud for front-running a $3.5 billion client order, a victory for U.S. prosecutors as they seek to root out misconduct in global financial markets.

He was convicted on Monday after a month-long trial in Brooklyn, New York.

Johnson was the first person to be tried since the global currency-rigging scandal that resulted in global banks paying more the $10 billion in penalties. The charges stemmed from HSBC’s execution of a trading order from Cairn Energy Plc in 2011 to convert the proceeds of a unit sale from dollars into pounds.

"This sends a signal to traders and banks that this type of behavior is absolutely inappropriate and will be pursued by the government," Michael Weinstein, a former Justice Department trial attorney, said. "That’s a big hammer over the banks -- it may force them to monitor and self-regulate their people."
Johnson
For those who haven't followed this particular story, Mark Johnson was arrested at New York’s Kennedy Airport in 2016 before he could return to the U.K. following a nearly 3-year investigation into efforts on the part of several large investment banks to rig FX markets but Stuart Scott has remained free at his home in the London suburbs pending the outcome of the extradition proceedings.  Per Bloomberg:
Mark Johnson, HSBC’s global head of foreign exchange cash trading in London, was taken into custody at John F. Kennedy International Airport Tuesday and is scheduled to appear before a judge in federal court in Brooklyn Wednesday morning, said the people, who asked not to be named because the case hasn’t been made public. He’s charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud, the people said.

According to Bloomberg, Johnson’s arrest comes more than a year after five global banks pleaded guilty to charges related to the rigging of currency benchmarks. HSBC, which wasn’t part of those criminal cases, in November 2014 agreed to pay $618 million in penalties to U.S. and British regulators to resolve currency manipulation allegations. HSBC, which still faces investigations by the Justice Department and other authorities for the conduct, has set aside $1.3 billion for possible settlements, according to an August filing.

Rob Sherman, an HSBC spokesman, and Peter Carr, a Justice Department spokesman, declined to comment.
According to the original DOJ complaint, HSBC was selected by Cairn Energy Plc to execute a foreign exchange transaction – which was going to require converting approximately $3.5 billion in sales proceeds into British Pound Sterling – in October 2011.  But, before executing that trade, he tipped off a bunch of HSBC traders who loaded up their proprietary accounts with Pounds just before the massive trade sent the currency higher.
“As alleged, the defendants placed personal and company profits ahead of their duties of trust and confidentiality owed to their client, and in doing so, defrauded their client of millions of dollars,” stated United States Attorney Capers.  “When questioned by their client about the higher price paid for their significant transaction, the defendants wove a web of lies designed to conceal the truth and divert attention away from their fraudulent trades.  The charges and arrest announced today reflect our steadfast commitment to hold accountable corporate executives and licensed professionals who use their positions to fraudulently enrich themselves.”

“The defendants allegedly betrayed their client’s confidence, and corruptly manipulated the foreign exchange market to benefit themselves and their bank,” said Assistant Attorney General Caldwell.  “This case demonstrates the Criminal Division’s commitment to hold corporate executives, including at the world’s largest and most sophisticated institutions, responsible for their crimes.”
As we've noted over the past couple of weeks, tidbits of the prosecution's case has made it's way into the media recently, including reports last week that Johnson used the code phrase "my watch is off" to trigger trading by HSBC traders all around the globe.  Meanwhile, as Law360 recently pointed out, jurors also had the opportunity to hear some rather damning recordings of Johnson's phone conversations with traders, including the one below in which he says "I think we got away with it."
Prosecutors played a recording of a call between Johnson and Stuart after the 3 p.m. fix as they debrief, with Johnson telling Stuart, “I think we got away with it,” but Stuart replies that HSBC executive Dipak Khot — who acted as the go between with Cairn and HSBC — thinks otherwise and suspects that Cairn will protest.

Johnson in turn argued that Cairn is still in a better position than it would have been if it had taken any other offers to execute the deal in alternate methods as opposed to the fix. “They don’t really have a lot of room to complain,” he said on the call.

But as Cahill was trading ahead of the 3 p.m. fix on the day of the transaction, Johnson sounded more concerned about “ramping it up” too much. Jurors heard another recording of a call between Johnson and Scott, with Scott talking to Cahill in the background as he trades, in which Johnson cautions against spiking the price of sterling too high out of concern that Cairn will "squeal."

“Frank, Frank if it rates above 30 at the fix, I think they’ll start to ah ... if you need to buy them, obviously, but ideally don’t ramp it above 30,” Scott tells Cahill. “Do what you need to do, but ... sorry I know I’m probably not helping much...I’ll leave you alone.”

“Is he getting a bit tetchy?” Johnson asks.

“No, he’s not,” Scott replies.

“He can’t, fucking moaning bastard,” Johnson said. “I do all the work and he gets all the glory.”

Jurors heard that days later in a call with HSBC forex trader Ed Carmichael in Hong Kong, Johnson told him that HSBC’s London forex trading desk, “just had a bonanza” on the Cairn deal, and described his response when Cairn sought an explanation on the less than stellar result for the oil and gas developer.
Of course, when HSBC's client complained about their less than stellar execution price, Johnson admits that he blamed all the usual suspects: "Russians, other central banks, all that sort of stuff."
“And they said, well you know it jumped up a bit, who else was buying? And we said the usual Russian names, other central banks, all that sort of stuff,” Johnson said on the call.
As we noted last week, nearly a dozen HSBC traders around the globe netted over $8 million in profits by allegedly front-running their own client.
Trading Gains
Of course, while the DOJ will undoubtedly celebrate their conviction in the media, there is little doubt that Mark Johnson's "pre-hedging" scandal is hardly unique for an industry that has been built on front-running clients.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Where Trump is failing to fix the economy with monetary policy

(Elite E Services) 10/17/2017 — Dover, DE — It’s no secret that the US economy has diverged into a massive 2 world system where there is also a massive gap in between; the employed and the wealthy have increasingly good lives while the poor and unemployed have a deteriorating quality of life.  As we have explained in Splitting Pennies, it is monetary policy that ‘Trumps’ all else.  Using The Gini Coefficient we can visualize what this means:
In economics, the Gini coefficient (sometimes expressed as a Gini ratio or a normalized Gini index) (/d?ini/ jee-nee) is a measure of statistical dispersion intended to represent the income or wealth distribution of a nation’s residents, and is the most commonly used measure of inequality. It was developed by the Italian statistician and sociologist Corrado Gini and published in his 1912 paper Variability and Mutability (ItalianVariabilit√† e mutabilit√†).
Taking a look at basic 2013 data (it’s worse since then) we get a picture of reality vs. what is said in the media.  Using Russia as a good example to stay with the Trump theme, USA (41) has roughly the same Gini as Russia (40.9):
forex
Remember that Russia is the unfair system that is a top-down Byzantine oligarchy, right?  Then why Russia and USA share almost identical Gini, being surpassed only by the Banana Republics in South America?
Everyone in finance knows there are several things that Trump can do to fix the economic problems of USA in about 5 minutes:
  • Surprise increase interest rates to 5% or 10%
  • Import tariffs on Chinese crap
  • Unwind USA’s Petro Dollar system (drink it!)
  • Repeal the Dodd-Frank Consumer Rip-Off Fraud Act that has caused billions to flow out of USA.  Make America the world’s banker once again.  (This is our industry – FX – we know that this alone would create thousands and thousands of jobs and be a huge boost for the economy – billions would flow into USA and we’d again be the world’s banker.  But this same approach likely applies to many industries.  Dodd-Frank regulations killed FX and have cost millions of jobs.)  We’ve outlined this in previous articles.
It’s not really practical to bring factories back to USA, however we have robot technology and the financial sector is a great example of how we can create high skilled high paid white collar jobs.  But Trump seems to be more obsessed with form not essence (and his form is not good).
Oh – you’re thinking that a President can’t do that, right?  President is a figurehead, only Congress can pass laws.  That’s true.  But Nixon did it.  Somehow, Nixon was able to accomplish all these things in 1 day and created the floating FX market as it exists today.  It was not Nixon’s only genius move, there were many.  Was Nixon’s real genius just listening to his advisors like Henry?  Either way, in practice, it fixed the problem – only to be unwound by future administrations.  Was it a temporary fix?  Of course – but that’s what we need.  We need to unwind QE which is practically impossible, so jacking up rates is a first good start.  Wall St. and the stock market will suffer.  But they’ve had a long bull run.
Winter is coming – it’s bear time.