Tag Archive: Securities and Exchange Commission

May 21 2014

The SEC and Private Equity

Naked capitalism‘s Yves Smith appeared in RT news Boom/Bust to discuss the risky business and abuses of private equity in the real estate rental market. Her segment starts at 3:45.

In her article, Yves also noted this piece from an article on private equity from Friday’s Bloomberg News:

PE Slump

Private-equity transactions overall have fallen 22 percent to $53 billion through April, data compiled by Bloomberg show, led by the drop in buyouts of public companies. The value of those leveraged buyouts declined to $3.2 billion compared with an average of $34 billion in the 10 years through 2013.

The peak for buyouts came before the financial crisis, when U.S. funds struck $659 billion of deals from 2005 through 2007, including the purchases of HCA Inc., Hilton Worldwide Inc. and Biomet Inc., the data show. Buying inexpensive public companies was generally easier for the funds than carve-outs are, said Raymond Lin, a mergers and acquisitions attorney at Latham & Watkins LLP.

“The easy days for private-equity buyers are over when they profited from buying undervalued companies,” he said. “Carve-out deals require a lot of up-front work that would incur additional costs and could affect returns.”

The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, which reached a record this week, trades at 17.4 times reported profit, the highest level since 2010, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

PE’s Limits

While high valuations haven’t scared off dealmaking between companies, buyout firms are motivated by different factors, said Gordon Caplan, chairman of the private-equity practice group at law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP.

“If business growth slows, companies have to buy things,” he said. “Private-equity buyers can’t create synergies like company mergers can in most cases.”

Corporations are more willing to spin off divisions as management continues to clean up underperforming businesses and pay down debt following the financial crisis, said Tom Franco, a partner at Clayton Dubilier.

SEC Official Describes Widespread Lawbreaking and Material Weakness in Controls in Private Equity Industry

Posted on May 8, 2014 by Yves Smith

At a private equity conference this week, Drew Bowden, a senior SEC official, told private equity fund managers and their investors in considerable detail about how the agency had found widespread stealing and other serious infractions in its audits of private equity firms.

In the years that I’ve been reading speeches from regulators, I’ve never seen anything remotely like Bowden’s talk. I’ve embedded it at the end of this post and strongly encourage you to read it in full.

Despite the at times disconcertingly polite tone, the SEC has now announced that more than 50 percent of private equity firms it has audited have engaged in serious infractions of securities laws. These abuses were detected thanks to to Dodd Frank. Private equity general partners had been unregulated until early 2012, when they were required to SEC regulation as investment advisers. [..]

Bowden pointed out that private equity is unique among the investment advisers the SEC supervises. The general partners’ control of portfolio companies gives them access to their cash flows, which the GPs can divert into their own pockets in numerous ways. Naked Capitalism readers may recognize that this arrangement is similar to the position mortgage servicers are in: they control the relationship with the funds source, and they are also responsible for records-keeping and remitting money to investors. And as we’ve chronicled at considerable length, servicers have shown remarkable creativity in lining their wallets and investors have been unable to discipline them. [..]

Needless to say, this overly cozy arrangement has proven to be a ripe breeding ground for illegal conduct.

Apr 10 2014

Breakfast Club: 4-10-14 (Pakistani Edition)

by angel d, I just cleaned it up- ek

Welcome to The Breakfast Club! We’re a disorganized group of rebel lefties who hang out and chat if and when we’re not too hungover  we’ve been bailed out we’re not too exhausted from last night’s (CENSORED) the caffeine kicks in. Join us every weekday morning at 9am (ET) and weekend morning at 10:30am (ET) to talk about current news and our boring lives and to make fun of LaEscapee! If we are ever running late, it’s PhilJD’s fault.  

(Truth be told, friends, we’re really not that disorganized; the fact that we’ve managed to put this series together and stick with it disabuses the notion that we’re disorganized, right?  Also, I wish I had a censored night once in awhile, but alas, this is something my producers made me say.)

 photo bunnycake.jpg

This Day in History

This bit was also cross-posted at Voices on the Square, The Stars Holllow Gazette and, probably at Docudharma.

Feb 04 2013

DOJ Turns A Blind Eye to Shockingly Bad Behavior

Matt Taibbi on Big Banks’ Lack of Accountability

Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi joins Bill to discuss the continuing lack of accountability for “too big to fail” banks which continue to break laws and act unethically because they know they can get away with it. Taibbi refers specifically to the government’s recent settlement with HSBC – “a serial offender on the money laundering score” – who merely had to pay a big fine for shocking offenses, including, Taibbi says, laundering money for both drug cartels and banks connected to terrorists.

Taibbi also expresses his concern over recent Obama appointees – including Jack Lew and Mary Jo White – who go from working on behalf of major banks in the private sector to policing them in the public sector.

Matt has more on Mary Jo White and her involvement with squashing the insider trading case against future Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack by Sec investigator Gary Aguirre.

There are a few more troubling details about this incident that haven’t been disclosed publicly yet. The first involve White’s deposition about this case, which she gave in February 2007, as part of the SEC Inspector General’s investigation. In this deposition, White is asked to recount the process by which Berger came to work at D&P. There are several striking exchanges, in which she gives highly revealing answers.

First, White describes the results of her informal queries about Berger as a hire candidate. “I got some feedback,” she says, “that Paul Berger was considered very aggressive by the defense bar, the defense enforcement bar.” White is saying that lawyers who represent Wall Street banks think of Berger as being kind of a hard-ass. She is immediately asked if it is considered a good thing for an SEC official to be “aggressive”:

   Q: When you say that Berger was considered to be very aggressive, was that a positive thing for you?

   A: It was an issue to explore.

Later, she is again asked about this “aggressiveness” question, and her answers provide outstanding insight into the thinking of Wall Street’s hired legal guns – what White describes as “the defense enforcement bar.” In this exchange, White is essentially saying that she had to weigh how much Berger’s negative reputation for “aggressiveness” among her little community of bought-off banker lawyers might hurt her firm.

   Q: During your process of performing due diligence on Paul Berger, did you explore what you had heard earlier about him being very aggressive?

   A: Yes.

   Q: What did you learn about that?

   A: That some people thought he was very aggressive. That was an issue, we really did talk to a number of people about.

   Q: Did they expand on that as to why or how they thought he was aggressive?

   A: I think and as a former prosecutor, sometimes people refer to me as Attila the Hun. I understand how people can get a reputation sometimes. We were trying to obviously figure out whether this was something beyond, you always have a spectrum on the aggressiveness scale for government types and was this an issue that was beyond real commitment to the job and the mission and bringing cases, which is a positive thing in the government, to a point. Or was it a broader issue that could leave resentment in the business community or in the legal community that would hamper his ability to function well in the private sector?

It’s certainly strange that White has to qualify the idea that bringing cases is a positive thing in a government official – that bringing cases is a “positive thing . . . to a point.” Can anyone imagine the future head of the DEA saying something like, “For a prosecutor, bringing drug cases is a positive, to a point?”

Somehow this sounds like more of the same at the from the Obama administration.  

Jan 28 2013

New SEC Head is a Fox

Pres. Barack Obama nominated former US Attorney of the Southern District of New York, Mary Jo White, to head the troubled Securities and Exchange Commission. The announcement comes a day after the damning PBS Fraontline expose of the Department of Justice’s failure to prosecute bank fraud and the resignation of Lanny Breuer, the head of the DOJ criminal division. Ms. White certainly has a fine reputation of being a tough prosecutor during her tenure as US Attorney, she managed something Rudi Guiliani failed to do, finally putting notorious mobster John “The Teflon Don” Gotti behind bars. However, in the 10 years since she left that office, Ms. White has worked diligently to protect the heads of the “Too Big To Fail” banks. In his Salon article, David Sirota called her a “Wall Street enabler” and goes on to enumerate the evidence:

Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone contributing editor, in his article “Why Isn’t Wall Street in Jail,” recounts how during her tenure as head of litigation at the New York law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, Ms. White defended some very high profile bankers and played a key role in the “squelching of then-SEC investigator Gary Aguirre’s investigation into an insider trading incident involving future Morgan Stanley CEO John Mack

   The deal looked like a classic case of insider trading. But in the summer of 2005, when Aguirre told his boss he planned to interview Mack, things started getting weird. His boss told him the case wasn’t likely to fly, explaining that Mack had “powerful political connections.”…

   Aguirre also started to feel pressure from Morgan Stanley, which was in the process of trying to rehire Mack as CEO … It didn’t take long for Morgan Stanley to work its way up the SEC chain of command. Within three days, another of the firm’s lawyers, Mary Jo White, was on the phone with the SEC’s director of enforcement…

   Pause for a minute to take this in. Aguirre, an SEC foot soldier, is trying to interview a major Wall Street executive – not handcuff the guy or impound his yacht, mind you, just talk to him. In the course of doing so, he finds out that his target’s firm is being represented…by the former U.S. attorney overseeing Wall Street, who is going four levels over his head to speak directly to the chief of the SEC’s enforcement division…

   Aguirre didn’t stand a chance. A month after he complained to his supervisors that he was being blocked from interviewing Mack, he was summarily fired, without notice. The case against Mack was immediately dropped: all depositions canceled, no further subpoenas issued.

In February of 2012 on a panel at a New York University School of Law even, Ms White expressed her doubts about whether banks had committed crimes ahead of the financial crisis stating that care should be taken to “distinguish what is actually criminal and what is just mistaken behavior, what is even reckless risk-taking, and not bow to the frenzy.”

Another point of conflict is Ms. White’s husband. Yves Smith at naked capitalism notes that “John White, who headed the SEC’s corporate finance section under Chris Cox and was heavily involved in detailed Sarbanes Oxley rulemaking, and now that he is back at Cravath, has been lobbying against regulation.”

Nor does Ms. White have a background in finance or the “inner workings of the trading system:”

Although she has represented many executives accused of financial crimes, White is not an expert on the inner workings of trading systems, a lack of knowledge that may not serve her well as the SEC struggles to keep up with rapid changes in increasingly complex financial markets.

“The problem with the SEC is that they don’t seem to have a grip on” high-frequency trading and other major issues affecting modern financial markets, said Joe Saluzzi, co-head of equity trading at independent brokerage Themis Trading and a frequent critic of high-speed trading. “We’re concerned about cleaning up the market, and we need the SEC to take the lead here.”

Her background puts to question how aggressively White might prosecute financial fraud and enforce new rules under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law — most of which have not yet been adopted by the SEC.

Matt Taibbi recounts a conversation he had with a head fund manager regarding Ms. White’s:

His point about White is simple and it makes a lot of sense. She may very well at one time have been a tough prosecutor. But she dropped out and made the move a lot of regulators make – leaving government to make bucketloads of money working for the people she used to police. “That move, being a tough prosecutor, then going to work defending scumbags, you can only make that move once,” was his point. “You can’t go back again, you know what I mean?”

Think about it: how do you go back and sit in S.E.C.’s top spot after all of those years earning millions as a partner for a firm that represented Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Goldman, Sachs, Deutsche, Chase, and AIG, among others? Think that fact that his firm has retained her firm has anything to do with Jamie Dimon coming out and saying that White is the “perfect choice” to run the S.E.C.? Think of all the things she knows but can’t act upon. Could she really turn around and target Morgan Stanley after being their lawyer for all those years?

Ms. White is not only another example of the government’s revolving door from public service to private practice back to public service but of Pres. Obama’s signal to Wall Street that they are safe to continue with business as usual. Mary Jo White is the fox in the hen house.  

Sep 26 2012

Putting the Brakes on High Speed Trading

High Speed Frequency Trading (HFT) has been known to rattle traders and disrupt the stock market but has yet to be harnessed by regulators, until now.

Germany Acts to Increase Limits on High-Speed Trades

by Melissa Eddy and James Kanter

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government approved draft legislation on Wednesday that foresees imposing additional controls on such trading. The proposed measures include requiring that all high-frequency traders be licensed, requiring clear labeling of all financial products traded by powerful algorithms without human intervention and limiting the number of orders that may be placed without a corresponding trade. Traders who violate the limits, which would be set once the law took effect, would face a fine.

“Computer-generated algorithmic transaction involves a variety of new risks,” Germany’s finance ministry said in a statement. “Germany is reacting to these risks with legislation that will create more transparency, security and a better overview.”

The legislation, which is subject to approval by both houses of Parliament, was written with an eye toward similar legislation being discussed in Brussels that could eventually apply across the European Union, which has 27 member nations, the official said.

A prime example of what happens when HFT runs amok occurred in August this year by Knight Match, a system used by high speed trades, nearly bankrupted the trading company Knight Capital that lost $440 million in 45 minutes.

Knight was saved by a hastily assembled $400 million from a consortium of investors, but it appears the damage to Knight’s reputation with customers, particularly high frequency traders, will take longer to repair. Knight says the volume numbers, which were compiled by stock market and technology research firm Tabb Group, exclude the trading glitch, which happened on August 1st. Knight was forced to shut down its systems for part of that day. The volume drop shows that traders shied away from Knight longer than just in the days following the trading glitch. A Knight spokeswoman says the company won’t comment on whether trading volumes rebounded in September until early next month.

The HFT system has caused some concern in Washington. At a Senate Banking Committee hearing trading professional expressed the the fears of investors:

It no longer is your parents’ or grandparents’ stock market. Rather, it’s become a Wild West of trading, with errant technology too often in control and setting stocks, commodities, currencies and futures up for violent moves that could make the $1 trillion flash crash of May 2010 look tame by comparison, testified David Lauer, who has designed trading technology and worked as an analyst for Allston Trading and Citadel Investment Group.

“U.S. equity markets are in dire straits,” Lauer said. “We are truly in a crisis.”

He noted that “retail investors have been fleeing the stock market in droves” and that the Chicago Booth/Kellogg School Financial Trust Index shows “investor confidence is nonexistent – with only 15 percent of the public expressing trust in the stock market.”

Rather than buying a stock and holding onto it, institutions using high-frequency trading buy and sell stocks constantly in milliseconds, or much faster than a blink of the eye. Lauer said about 50 to 70 percent of the volume of trading in the stock market now takes that form. Often trading systems send out phony trades aimed at manipulating others into buying or selling. The activity can mislead legitimate traders working for mutual funds, pension funds or individuals to buy a stock at too high a price or sell it at too low a price.

The system is also riddled with fraud:

A New York-based brokerage allowed overseas clients to run a scheme aimed at distorting stock prices by rapidly canceling orders, according to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Clients of Hold Brothers On-Line Investment Services were “repeatedly manipulating publicly traded stocks” by placing and erasing orders in an illegal strategy designed to trick others into buying or selling, the SEC said today in a release. Hold Brothers, its owners, and the foreign firms Trade Alpha Corporate Ltd. and Demonstrate LLC agreed to settle allegations that the New York broker failed to supervise customers and pay $4 million in total SEC fines.

The SEC complaint targeted practices that abused high-speed computer trading on American equity venues. As high-frequency activity has grown in recent years, the agency’s efforts to stop fraudulent practices such as “layering” or “spoofing” have extended to the automated trading tactics.

However, the SEC has been called the “Barney Fife” of regulators when it comes to regulating HFT and their competence has been questioned:

But the agency is clearly outgunned when it comes to dealing with high-frequency trading, many experts agree. And a new lawsuit goes so far as to accuse the SEC of covering up high-speed fraud so nobody will know just how incompetent it really is, Courthouse News reports.

In the suit, a Wisconsin company called EMM Holdings accuses the SEC of not investigating a Houston high-speed trading firm called Quantlab Financial. According to EMM, Quantlab is perpetrating fraud amid all the high-speed churning and burning it does in the stock market. EMM notes that Quantlab has been flagged six times in the past eight years by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, the brokerage industry’s self-regulatory body, for not properly documenting its trades. EMM thinks this is evidence that Quantlab is trying to cover up some fraud, and it has asked the SEC (pdf) for any documents showing an investigation of Quantlab. The SEC has refused (pdf), on the grounds that doing so might interfere with law-enforcement activities. EMM has sued the SEC to force it to give up whatever goods it has on Quantlab.

Trouble is, it’s not entirely clear if the SEC is actually investigating Quantlab at all. EMM argues in its complaint that the only way the SEC could deny its record request is “if there is an on-going and active investigation.” And EMM accuses the SEC of letting this investigation fester, hoping the statute of limitations will run out.

“Given [the SEC’s] near complete abdication of its prosecutorial duties during the 2008 financial crisis, inaction and delay may unfortunately have become [the SEC’s] modus operandi for dealing with complex financial malfeasance,” EMM said in its complaint.

At least the Germans are willing to take the “bull by the horns” by limiting the ability of these trades to disrupt the market with rules that would slow trading, curb the volume and make it more expensive for traders to cancel large volumes of orders.  

Dec 22 2011

Investigating Fannie & Freddie But Not The Banks

Another slap on the wrist by the government for the banks that caused the housing bubble and the crash that sank the economy world wide with unregulated derivatives and credit default swaps:

DoJ Settles – Again – With Countrywide on Fair Lending Claim

by David Dayen

The Department of Justice has announced a $335 million settlement with Countrywide, the former subprime mortgage giant now subsumed into Bank of America, on claims of housing discrimination.

   The Justice Department on Wednesday announced the largest residential fair-lending settlement in history, saying that Bank of America had agreed to pay $335 million to settle allegations that its Countrywide Financial unit discriminated against black and Hispanic borrowers during the housing boom.

   A department investigation concluded that Countrywide had charged higher fees and rates to more than 200,000 minority borrowers across the country than to white borrowers who posed the same credit risk. It also steered more than 10,000 minority borrowers into costly subprime mortgages when white borrowers with similar credit profiles received prime loans, the department said.

   The pattern and practice covered the years 2004 to 2008, before Countrywide was acquired by Bank of America.

   “The department’s actions against Countrywide makes clear that we will not hesitate to hold financial institutions accountable, including one of the nation’s largest, for discrimination,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said. “These institutions should make judgments based on applicants’ creditworthiness, not on the color of their skin.”

I’m waiting for someone to hold financial institutions accountable for discrimination against every one of its customers, by defrauding them and destroying the residential home mortgage market. That’s obviously not going to happen here.[..]

Here’s the settlement agreement, and once again you see that Countrywide doesn’t have to admit wrongdoing for their crimes.

But the Department of Justice and the Securities and Exchange Commission will enthusiastically pursue the one agency that didn’t cause the crash but just inherited it, at tax payers expense:

FBI Now Investigating Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac

by David Dayen

The walls have closed in over the past couple weeks on mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The SEC charged former CEOs and executives at the companies with fraud. California Attorney General Kamala Harris sued them for imformation (sic)in a wide-ranging fraud investigation. And now we learn that the FBI is investigating them[..]

If Fannie and Freddie are guilty of misleading investors, they deserve to pay the penalty. And yet, I do sense more enthusiasm to go after these government sponsored enterprises than to go after the private banking firms which were far more responsible for subprime. This feeds a false narrative that government somehow caused the financial crisis by forcing lending to poor people. Fannie and Freddie followed the market in subprime and did not originate it.