Opinion

Bethany McLean

Is Steve Cohen the real target in this trial?

Bethany McLean
Feb 5, 2014 22:11 UTC

The fate of Mathew Martoma, the former SAC Capital portfolio manager charged with the biggest insider trade in history — more than $275 million in profits and avoided losses, says the government — is now in the hands of a 12-person jury, which began deliberations in a Manhattan courthouse Tuesday afternoon.

But whatever the verdict for Martoma, the trial has been bad news for someone else: Martoma’s former boss, SAC head Steve Cohen. Given the slow, but relentless, nature of the government’s actions against Cohen, it might be worth remembering the old adage: It ain’t over til it’s over.

Cohen has, to date, famously avoided any criminal charges personally — despite a string of other government actions against both him and his firm. Last March, SAC agreed to pay more than $600 million to settle civil insider trading charges, brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission, involving Martoma’s trade. Then, on July 19, the SEC charged Cohen with failing to supervise his employees, alleging that he “received highly suspicious information that should have caused any reasonable hedge fund manager to investigate the basis for trades” made by Martoma and another manager.

SAC quickly fired back. A 43-page internal white paper rebutting the SEC’s charges was leaked to the press. In it, SAC claimed that its compliance efforts were so fantastic that the SEC was just wrong, wrong, wrong in accusing Cohen of failing to supervise his employees.

Among other things, the firm’s lawyers wrote, “SAC’s compliance team, with Cohen’s full support, deploys some of the most aggressive communications and trading surveillance in the hedge fund industry.” That included a “review of trading made around market moving events and corporate access events” along with “regular reviews of the firm’s most-profitable trades.” SAC lawyers also asserted, “Cohen has frequently forwarded to compliance staff communications he receives that caused him concern.”

A tale of two SEC cases

Bethany McLean
Jan 17, 2012 23:20 UTC

Juries are sometimes told that in the eyes of the law, all Americans are created equal. But if that’s the case, then why does the Securities and Exchange Commission’s treatment of former top Fannie and Freddie executives seem to be so much harsher than its treatment of Citigroup and its senior people for what appear to be similar infractions?

Recall that on Dec. 16, the SEC charged six former executives at mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac with fraud for not properly disclosing the companies’ exposure to risky mortgages. In Fannie’s case, the SEC alleges that former CEO Dan Mudd and two other executives made a series of “materially false and misleading public disclosures.” The SEC says, for instance, that at the end of 2006, Fannie didn’t include $43.3 billion of so-called expanded approval mortgages in its subprime exposure and $201 billion of mortgages with reduced documentation in its Alt-A exposure. In Freddie’s case, the SEC alleges that while former CEO Dick Syron and two other executives told investors it had “basically no” subprime exposure, they weren’t including $141 billion in loans (as of the end of 2006) that they internally described as “subprime” or “subprime like.”

There are some gray areas in the SEC’s case. Start with the fact that there is no single definition of what constitutes a subprime or Alt-A loan, or as Mudd said in a speech in the fall of 2007, “the vague, prosaic titles that pass for market data — ‘subprime,’ ‘Alt A,’ ‘A minus’ — mean different things to the beholders.” In Fannie’s 2006 10(k), Mudd noted that apart from what Fannie was defining as subprime or Alt-A, the company also had “certain products and loan attributes [that] are often associated with a greater degree of credit risk,” like loans with low FICO scores or high loan-to-value ratios. And in a letter to shareholders in 2006, Mudd noted that “to provide an alternative to risky subprime products, we have purchased or guaranteed more than $53 billion in Fannie Mae loan products with low down payments, flexible amortization schedules, and other features.” These are the very holdings that the SEC says should have been disclosed as subprime exposure.

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