Spitzer: S.E.C. still asleep at the switch

Former New York Governor at a September 2009 conference

Former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer at a September 2009 conference

Seems like old times. 

Eliot Spitzer, who rose to national prominence in 2002 when he forced a sleepy S.E.C. to crack down on conflicted analyst research,  is none too pleased to hear that his old rivals recently joined 12 Wall Street banks in seeking to knock big holes in that wall.

Asked for his thoughts on this Wall Street Journal article that broke the news, this is what he had to tell Reuters in an exclusive interview:

“For the S.E.C. to join with the banks to diminish consumer protections with respect to the quality of advice and research is absolutely and fundamentally violative of their duty to the public.  This one more example of the S.E.C. being in in the tank.”

It’s almost as if we turned the clocks back seven years. Spitzer gained his crusading “Elliot Ness” reputation in 2002 when he took the unprecedented step of probing banks and threatening to prosecute Wall Street executives, stepping around a passive S.E.C.

Yet even after Mary Schapiro replaced the ineffective Christopher Cox as the agency’s chairman, the Feds still appear reluctant to get tough, he said.    

High-frequency trading: useless and manipulative?

Floor tradersThe explosion of interest in high-frequency trading has started to drag new faces to sometimes staid industry conferences. Traders who for years worked on algorithms and computer codes behind the scenes are stepping into the spotlight. They’re appearing on more and more panel discussions, feeling the need to defend their practice against the slings and arrows of politicians and regulators.

So far, they’ve managed to mix exasperation with good humor. The head of one high-frequency trading shop, speaking on a panel this week, said that if you believe everything you read in newspapers you might think the practice is “an unfair, highly profitable and socially useless trading strategy implemented by highly secretive and unregulated traders using superfast computers to compete with retail investors, manipulate markets and front run flash orders causing volatility in the financial markets and creating systemic risk.”

He argued that a more accurate definition of high-frequency trading would be, “a wide variety of highly competitive, low margin trading strategies implemented by professional market intermediaries who have invested heavily in technology that have the effect of making the markets more efficient by enhancing liquidity and transparent price discovery to the benefit of investors.”

The SEC’s missed chances to catch Madoff

U.S. securities regulators missed repeated chances to uncover Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, a sharply critical review by a federal watchdog said on Wednesday.

Read the full report below:

The case for an uber-regulator

FDIC chief Sheila Bair banged the gavel loudly this week with her op-ed piece in the New York Times railing against calls for a single regulatory body to oversee the many complex and disjointed elements of the financial marketplace. It seemed a bit odd. Even before Obama backed Ben Bernanke for another run at the helm of the Fed, it didn’t seem that anybody was seriously pushing for the creation of such a mighty organ of government. White House moves to streamline banking regulation – which Bair supports – are probably at the root of concerns about overconsolidation.

The White House wants a more streamlined approach to financial regulation and has called for one national bank supervisor through the merging of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Office of Thrift Supervision. State bank supervision would be left to both the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp and the Federal Reserve.

The debate encouraged fierce fief defense efforts at all regulators involved, and can be seen playing out elsewhere in the halls of power. Today and tomorrow, the two main U.S. agencies regulating securities and futures markets, the SEC and CFTC, try to kiss and make up after a long turf war about who gets to oversee what.

Citi still mum on Al Raya Investment

(Corrects spelling of Al-Braikan in third paragraph.)

citilogo-300x200Citi continues to refuse to discuss its 10 percent stake Al Raya Investment, four days after the Kuwaiti firm’s chief executive was found dead.

A New York-based spokeswoman for Citi declined to discuss how the investment came to be, what due diligence was done before the investment was made, and what the Citi plans to due with its stake in the embattled firm.

Al Raya chief executive Hazem Al-Braikan was found dead in an apparent suicide on Sunday after a whirlwind week in which he and two other finance firms were accused by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission of having improperly earning millions of dollars from trades in two U.S. firms.

Truth in tender offers? An eyewitness account.

U.S. Securities regulators on Thursday sued a well-connected Kuwaiti financier, saying he reaped millions in suspicious profits after false takeover reports briefly sent shares of Harman International Industries soaring this week.

Reuters reporter Ransdell Pierson was in the office working the Sunday shift when he received a fax with the purported takeover offer.  Unable to verify the authenticity of the fax, Reuters did not publish the story.  Here is Ransdell’s first person account of what happened, and a copy of the fax. Would you have questioned its veracity?

Ransdell Pierson:

I was scouring newspapers on a Sunday shift in the Reuters New York bureau and waiting for news about distressed lender CIT Group, when the phone finally rang and broke my reverie. “Newsroom,” I said, and the caller replied, “Your Jeddah bureau is closed today. Can I send you a fax?” The male caller, who I imagined to be a middle-aged office aide frustrated by the thankless chore of delivering his fax, said it was a press release about a deal. Something about one company buying another for about $3 billion.
“If it’s such a big transaction, shouldn’t this news be coming over the PRNewswire or BusinessWire?” I asked him. He explained that it was the weekend, so faxing a press release was the best route.
I gave him a fax number and he called back, irritated the document hadn’t gone through. I gave him another fax number and he soon called back again, more irritated than before. So I gave him the number of a third Reuters fax machine, but told him that it needed to include contact information for all the parties. “Otherwise, we can’t authenticate it.” “OK, you’ll have it,” he replied.

Madoff’s last scam

The SEC’s decision to let Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff off with a “no admission of wrongdoing” settlement could be defended on a number of levels, but none will be very satisfying on a day when the Obama administration is set to give the much-maligned regulatory body sweeping new powers to oversee U.S. securities markets.

Madoff pleaded guilty to a $65 billion investment scam in a separate criminal case and faces sentencing on June 29. There is no way he is ever returning to Wall Street, and he is probably going to jail for the rest of his life.

One might consider it a waste of SEC resources to pursue the case any further. And there’s poetic justice in the agency, which for decades missed the biggest fraud on Wall Street, being denied any satisfaction in the courtroom. SEC sources said the deal with Madoff is in line with a February settlement that also included no admission or denial of the findings.

Crying Uncle (Sam)

While Wall Street banks pick themselves up from the mat and start putting together the billions they owe Washington for having saved the country’s financial system from utter ruin, the government’s long knives appear to still be plenty sharp for the two biggest casualties, Citi and Bank of America. Why not? These are also two of the least likely to quickly emerge from the bailout.

The FDIC is reportedly trying to unseat Citi’s CEO Vikram Pandit, Bank of America’s Ken Lewis is likely headed back to Capitol Hill next week for another grilling, and adding a little spice to the mix is news that the SEC has charged former Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo with fraud.

Countrywide was bought by Bank of America for $2.5 billion last July, after it appears Mozilo started dumping shares in his own company, of which he is alleged to have written, “We are flying blind on how these loans will perform in a stressed environment of higher unemployment, reduced values and slowing home sales.”

Can this hybrid jump-start the IPO market?

nyse1One of the biggest criticisms made of the IPO process is that investment banks turn around and flip hot new stocks for a big, quick profit, crowding out institutional investors with a longer attention span, and showing with no regard for a company’s long term prospects.

But Menlo, California-based InsideVenture, which is backed by major venture capital firms such as Venrock and Frazier Ventures, major institutional investors such as T Rowe Price, and even the New York Stock Exchange, thinks its new Hybrid Private-Public Offering (HPPOs) method of launching IPOs, introduced this week, is a way around that problem and a way to spur a recovery in the IPO market.

Here’s how an HPPO would work: small and mid-cap companies would still have to file standard IPO registrations with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. But the company would then work with InsideVenture to allocate about half the shares to its existing shareholders and any of the 225 long-term fundamental investors that are InsideVenture members. Once it had lined up a roster made up of enough long term investors, the company would launch its IPO.

Deals du Jour

Opel remains the biggest story of the day. Marathon talks to shield it from a looming bankruptcy ended with no results, a deal is now expected by Friday. In another bankruptcy-related story, Nortel Networks is looking for a buyer for its majority stake in a South Korean joint venture with LG Electronics. For today’s top headlines on deals, click here.

This is what we found of interest in the newspapers:

* Fortress Investment Group, a listed private equity and hedge fund company, is nearing an agreement to inject $800 million in fresh capital into First Southern, a Florida bank, with other investors, the Financial Times said.

* Eircom Holdings has started detailed discussions with three potential bidders to sell its 57 percent stake in Eircom, the former Irish state-owned telecoms company, the Financial Times said.