Galleon’s edge

October 17, 2009

The arrest of hedge fund millionaire Raj Rajaratnam on charges that he and his $7 billion Galleon Group hedge fund profited from illegal insider trading will no doubt feed suspicion in some corners about the way hedge funds generate fat profits.

But for anyone to assume that all hedge fund managers owe their success to getting information on the sly is unfair and wrong. The overwhelming majority of hedge funds are only as good as the quality of the research performed by their analysts and traders.

And the truth is the vast majority of hedge funds are rather ordinary. If the majority of hedge funds managers were so crafty, not so many funds would have gone bust last year–or lost bundles of money for their wealthy investors.

The true standouts in the industry are a real minority. Anyone can put together an offering statement, call themselves a hedge fund manager and go out and raise money. That’s one reason why wealthy people and pension funds who throw money blindly at hedge funds without doing adequate due diligence are being plain foolish.

Still, the charges against Rajaratnam and five co-defendants are disturbing. Hubris and greed are powerful motivators. And some hedge funds will stretch, even break the rules to get an edge–even if it’s to book just another $20 million for a fund with nearly $7 billion in assets.

Indeed, it’s worth noting that this isn’t the first time Galleon has been accused of skirting the rules to get an edge.

In 2005, Galleon paid an $800,000 fine to the SEC to settle a civil investigation into allegations it improperly profited from shorting 17 stocks. The SEC alleged the hedge fund violated securities rules by using shares obtained in a secondary offering to cover, or close out, a pre-existing short position on a stock. Regulators claimed that impermissible strategy called “collapsing the box” essentially was a risk-less one and generated $1 million in trading profits for Galleon.

Maybe the 2005 settlement put Galleon on a watch-list for prosecutors. It appears from the criminal complaint prosecutors began focusing on Galleon and its co-founder in 2006. Dealbreaker’s crack investigative reporter Teri Buhl has a good speculative piece on whom at Galleon might have been cooperating with investigators.

Also, Galleon always has had something of a cowboy culture. Years ago, the fund recruited a former Bank of America technology analyst who was fined and suspended by securities regulators because he allegedly issued misleading bullish research reports on stocks he was simultaneously advising hedge funds to sell short. I broke the scandal when I was still at TheStreet.com.

However, what may be most troubling about this latest case brought by federal authorities in New York is that one of the people allegedly providing illegal tips on leveraged buyouts and other deals was an analyst with Moody’s Investors Services, the credit rating agency. The alleged tipster got $10,000 for his work.

The allegation about the Moody’s analyst raises serious questions about safeguarding the flow of information from credit rating agencies to traders on Wall Street. We’ve already seen evidence in a civil lawsuit against UBS that suggests some at Moody’s may have discussed potential rating changes on CDOs with some Wall Street banks.

Insider trading is a problem that has been around as long as people have traded stocks. And it’s almost impossible to stamp-out insider trading, given the premium someone will put on getting inside information.

But aggressive law enforcement like the kind done in this case should serve as a deterrent–hopefully.

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