On Friday U.S. District Judge Richard Sullivan will sentence former SAC Capital Advisors hedge fund manager Michael Steinberg for his conviction in December on five counts related to insider trading. Steinberg is one of two former SAC employees whom federal prosecutors believe have firsthand knowledge of insider trading by SAC’s founder, Steven Cohen. Cohen has not been charged with any crime. Though Steinberg will likely receive a lengthy prison term, neither he nor Mathew Martoma, an SAC colleague convicted in January, is — at least publicly — cooperating with the government.
Prosecutors have been targeting Cohen in their sweeping crackdown on insider trading. Yet as a deterrent against future crimes, Steinberg’s conviction — like scores of others in the past several years — is even more valuable. Conventional wisdom holds that landing the big fish in high-profile white collar cases is the best deterrent against other people breaking the same laws. Yet for would-be criminals, the arrest of a colleague or a peer at another fund has a more personal, harrowing effect than the takedown of a less-relatable outlier like Cohen.
This generation’s insider trading crackdown is different from the one in the 1980s, when prosecutors punished big names like Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken — and in doing so, sent a message. While a handful of crooked investment bankers helped bring down Boesky and Milken — though Milken for crimes other than insider trading — those investigations didn’t expand like they have today.
The current crackdown has notched scores of convictions and guilty pleas, with no end in sight. The Feds have been equally determined to pursue small-fry tippers as they have the big names. The broadness of the sweep brings it close to potential insider traders at all levels, which makes it so deterring. Their contact details are in the phones and computers of those who have been arrested or approached by the FBI, their e-mails and instant messages are on cooperators’ servers, and their trading records are one query away from positive correlations with crooked traders.
Today few people who commit crimes in finance delude themselves that their “friends” — an impermanent term on Wall Street, even in the best of times — won’t turn them in. Of the approximately 80 criminal cases filed in New York since the arrest of Raj Rajaratnam in 2009, only James Fleishman, a salesman at expert network Primary Global Research, refused to cooperate with the FBI. He paid a heavy price as a result: 14 months of a 2.5-year prison sentence.