To catch a rogue quant

July 6, 2009

The case of a computer programmer accused of stealing the secret codes used in Goldman Sachs’ rapid-fire stock trading platform shows that even a titan of Wall Street can be caught napping at the switch.

Sure, it was Goldman that went to the Federal Bureau of Investigation after discovering that a former employee allegedly downloaded copies of the “source code” for the firm’s stock trading system.

Federal authorities say that a few weeks ago, Goldman began monitoring its computer network for illegal file transfers and it was during one of those electronic sweeps that the actions of Sergey Aleynikov, the former employee, were apparently detected.

Goldman, however, might be guilty of falling too much in love with technology to ferret out any bad apples. When Aleynikov told his employer that he was leaving to join a Chicago firm that engaged in the same kind of “high-volume automated trading” that he was doing at Goldman and would be paid nearly three times his $400,000 annual salary for doing so, surely that should have raised suspicions?

Goldman did have Aleynikov sign a standard confidentiality agreement when he joined the firm in May 2007. But it doesn’t appear that Goldman had any kind of agreement preventing Aleynikov from immediately signing on with a competitor.

Management at Goldman should wonder whether its great success at so-called quantitative trading has spawned a degree of jealousy among the computer geeks who make nice salaries, but don’t receive the kind of big bonuses that investment bankers and prop traders take home.

After all, as federal authorities say in the criminal complaint filed against Aleynikov on July 4, the trading platform the 39-year-old Russian immigrant worked on will “typically generate many millions of dollars of profits per year.” Bonus envy is certainly bound to crop up with someone working on a trading system that’s almost literally printing money.

Now none of this is to excuse Aleynikov if he is guilty. But with all this renewed talk about Wall Street firms getting set to resume paying fat bonuses, maybe it’s time for firms to spread around the wealth more equitably among their flocks.

Spreading around the wealth certainly seems a cheaper alternative than risking a disgruntled employee walking away with the keys to the kingdom. (Editing by Martin Langfield)

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