Posts tagged ‘Goldman’

Shrewd Research or Bilking the System?

Information is power and some hedge funds, mutual funds, and investment managers will go to great lengths to obtain the lowdown.

Integrity of the financial markets is key and recently several hedge funds (Level Global Investors LP, Diamondback Capital Management LLC and Loch Capital Management LLC) have been raided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Other large investment players, including SAC Capital Advisors, Janus Capital Group Inc. (JNS) and Wellington Management Co. have also received inquiries as part of what some journalists are calling rampant industry insider trading activity. Even investment bank Goldman Sachs (GS) is allegedly being examined for potential unlawful leakage of merger information. Little is known about the allegations, so it is difficult to decipher whether this is the tip of the iceberg or standard investigative work?

Regardless of the scope of the investigation, there is a fine line between what scoop is considered fair versus illegal. The distinction becomes even more difficult to pinpoint with the evolution of faster and more voluminous trading (i.e., high frequency trading). The internet has accelerated the speed of information transfer faster than a politician’s promise to cut spending. Data is chewed up and spit out so quickly, meaning tradable information has a very short shelf life before it is profitably exploited by someone. In the old days of snail mail and private back-office meetings, security prices would require time for information to be completely reflected.

Expert Networks Questioned

Another ingredient introduced over the last decade is the advent of the “expert network,” which are firms that connect fund managers to industry specialists, in many cases as part of a “channel check” to gauge the health of a particular industry. About 10 years ago Regulation FD (Fair Disclosure) was introduced to prevent selective disclosure of “material non-public” information (tips that will likely cause security prices to go significantly up or down) by senior company officials and investor relation professionals to investor types. Greedy (and/or ingenious) institutional investors are Darwinian and as a result figured out a loophole around the system. Hedge funds and other investment managers figured out if the senior executives won’t cough up the good info, then why not target the junior executives and squeeze the inside story from them like informants? Expert networks (read thorough description here) serve as an informational channel to service this demand. Although I’m sure there have been a minority of cases where mid-level managers or junior executives have leaked material information (intentionally or unintentionally), I’m very confident that it is the exception more than the rule. In many instances when the beans were spilled, Regulation FD protects both the person disseminating the information and the investor receiving the information.

Rigged Game for Individuals?

OK sure…hedge funds and institutional managers may occasionally have privileged access to executive teams and can afford access to industry experts. I should know, since I managed a multi-billion fund and consistently had access to the upper rank of corporate executives.  Hearing directly from the horse’s mouth and trying to interpret body language can provide insights and instill confidence in a trade, but these executives are not stupid enough to risk prison time by selectively disclosing material non-public information. This dynamic of privileged access will never change as long as CEOs and CFOs are allowed to communicate with investors. Corporate executives will naturally prioritize their limited investor communications towards the larger players.

So with the big-wig managers gaining access to the big-wig executives, has the game become rigged for the individual investors? The short answer is “no.” Over the last decade individual investors have experienced a tremendous leveling of the playing field versus institutional investors. While institutions have privileged access and have pushed to exploit HFT and expert networks, individual investors have gained access to institutional quality research (e.g., SEC filings, real-time conference calls, Wall Street reports, etc.) for free or affordable prices. With the ubiquity of technology and the internet, I only see that gap narrowing more over time.

There will always be cheaters who stretch themselves beyond legal boundaries and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. However, for the vast majority of institutional investors, they are using technology and other tools (i.e., expert networks) as shrewd resources to compete in a difficult game. I will reserve full judgment on the names pasted all over the press until the FBI and SEC reveal all their cards. So far there appears to be more noise than smoke coming from the barrel tip of the insider trading gun.

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP® 

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

www.Sidoxia.com

DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct position in GS, SAC Capital Advisors, Janus Capital Group Inc. (JNS), Wellington Management Co., or any other security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

November 23, 2010 at 11:45 pm 3 comments

Do as I Say, Not as I Do

“Be smart…but don’t pay attention to me.”

Watching Goldman Sachs (GS) executives sweat it out under the hot lamps of Senator questioning makes for gripping television (see Goldman article), but as we all know the ethical standing of a significant number of politicians calls into question whether the pot should be calling the kettle black. Ever since I was a kid, I was told by seemingly responsible adults to “do as I say and not what I do.” I suppose the Goldman execs should follow the advice of Congress, but not their actions.

Based on a recent Wall Street Journal article that studied the investment activity of Congressional members (and spouses) during the financial crisis, the analysis discovered 13 of them were betting against the market. Just as Goldman  and hedge fund manager John Paulson partnered to bet against the housing market via shorting synthetic CDOs (Collateralized Debt Obligations), Congressmen and their spouses were wagering against the market through the use of debt loaded (leveraged) exchange traded funds, which  integrate derivatives.

Were any of the Congressional investment activities illegal?  Likely not, but some question the ethical appearance of such behavior. The former head of the House Ethics Committee and past Representative Joel Hefley of Colorado believes such conduct “doesn’t look real great when the economy is tanking and people are blaming the government.” Facing similar challenges, the SEC’s (Security and Exchange Commission’s) squishy fraud charge complaint against Goldman Sachs is expected to encounter significant difficulty in proving the investment bank’s guilt.

Source: The Wall Street Journal (Yellow Dots = Shorting Exposure Trades)

Other politicians were critical of Wall Street too, despite apparent hypocritical behavior. For example, Representative Shelley Berkley of Nevada chided Wall Street for its reckless activities. “No casino on the planet behaves as irresponsibly and recklessly as Wall Street does. Wall Street ought to be ashamed, and take a lesson from the casino industry.” Nearly at the same time, Shelley’s husband Lawrence Lehrner placed 57 bearish trades.

I find it very amusing the same politicians shredding apart the Wall Street firms are in many cases the same politicians stretching the bounds of ethical behavior. Various politicians do a great job pontificating about the latest shortcomings of the financial industry, but fail to take some accountability for missing one of the greatest real estate booms of all-time. Where were the regulators and politicians when the debt bubble was bursting? Unfortunately, “reactive” is a much larger part of a politician’s lexicon than “proactive.” Responding to populist fervor is easier than leaning against consensus views, even if going against consensus makes more strategic sense.

For those having difficulty in deciphering the advice given by esteemed Congressmen, just remember to “do what they say, and not what they do.”

Read Full Wall Street Journal Article

Wade W. Slome, CFA, CFP®

Plan. Invest. Prosper. 

*DISCLOSURE: Sidoxia Capital Management (SCM) and some of its clients own certain exchange traded funds, but at the time of publishing SCM had no direct positions in GS, or any security referenced in this article. No information accessed through the Investing Caffeine (IC) website constitutes investment, financial, legal, tax or other advice nor is to be relied on in making an investment or other decision. Please read disclosure language on IC “Contact” page.

May 5, 2010 at 12:41 am 2 comments

Banking Pigs Back at the Trough

PigsTrough

Sooey! With some of the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) government loans paid back, it appears that the malnourished pigs of the banking sector are hungry again and back at the trough for loftier pay packages. A recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out Goldman Sachs is on track to pay its employees $20 billion in 2009, almost double the compensation of 2008, and forking out even a higher average ($700,000 per employee) than 2007.

Beyond gluttonous appetites, these banking execs are attempting to make pigs fly as well. Like a magician using the art of illusion to move an object from one shell to the next, or divert attention with smoke and mirrors, these large Wall Street banks are shuffling around their compensation plans. A recent Bloomberg article noted that Citigroup Inc. is moving to raise base salaries by as much as 50% to help counterbalance reductions in annual bonuses. Citigroup is particularly in hot water because the U.S. bank received $45 billion in government fund assistance. According to the Wall Street Journal, similar trends are bubbling up at Zurich-based UBS, where executives raised banker base pay by 50%. Bank of America also said in March 2009 it may boost salaries as a percentage of total compensation. The banks are hoping that reducing bonuses tied to risky behavior, while raising salaries, will appease the regulators.

The governments “pay czar,” Kenneth Feinberg, may have something to say about these inflating compensation trends. The WSJ points out:

Feinberg will have the authority to regulate compensation for 175 executives at seven companies, including Citigroup, that received “exceptional” government help.

Compensation

As a rule of thumb, securities firms generally pay out approximately 50% of revenue in employee compensation. Bonuses have traditionally made up about two-thirds of bankers’ total compensation. Compensation consultant Alan Johnson in New York says salaries typically range from $80,000 to $300,000, with bonuses often adding millions of dollars. The article goes onto highlight the five biggest Wall Street firms awarded their employees a record $39 billion of bonuses in 2007. Sparking some of this heated debate stems from the eye-popping bonuses paid out to Merrill employees before the Bank of America merger. Merrill Lynch emptied $14.8 billion out of its wallet for pay and benefits last year before it was acquired by Bank of America – the New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo is investigating $3.6 billion of the bonuses (tied mostly to payments made in December 2008).

To protect themselves, firms like Morgan Stanley and UBS have also added “clawback” provisions that allow portions of a worker’s bonus to be recouped under certain scenarios if the firms are harmed by an employee in the future. Perhaps this will create a disincentive for harmful behavior, but likely not enough to pacify the regulators

The pigs have regained their appetites and are eagerly awaiting for some more fixings at the trough. Time will tell if 2009 can produce squeals of swinish satisfaction or will regulators take the bankers to an unfortunate visit to the butchers?

July 6, 2009 at 4:01 am Leave a comment


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