Audit Notes: WSJ Scoop, SAC’s Golf Guy, Two Old Guys Flailing

The Wall Street Journal has a big scoop out this evening, reporting that the federal government is winding up a huge, three-year investigation into widespread insider trading, “criminal and civil probes (that) authorities say could eclipse the impact on the financial industry of any previous such investigation.”

In the crosshairs: Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, UBS, Prudential Financial, and many others.

This is particularly interesting:

One focus of the criminal investigation is examining whether nonpublic information was passed along by independent analysts and consultants who work for companies that provide “expert network” services to hedge funds and mutual funds. These companies set up meetings and calls with current and former managers from hundreds of companies for traders seeking an investing edge.

If you want to know more about that, go read Laurie Cohen’s excellent Journal piece from 2006 (the lede of which was: “Marlin Kilgore’s day job is purchasing parts for Penske Truck Leasing Co. in Memphis, Tenn. His second job, which pays $100 an hour, is to answer questions from hedge funds and other big investors about the truck-parts makers he buys from.”)

It’s worth noting that there’s a lot of hedging in this story tonight, and it’s important to remember this is about an investigation—not actual charges. Check out all the weasel words in these two sentences.

Some charges could be brought before year-end, they say.

The investigations, if they bear fruit, have the potential to expose a culture of pervasive insider trading in U.S. financial markets…

But you have to bet charges are coming, and if they’re anything close to the Journal’s language here—“sweeping,” “across the nation,” “a culture of pervasive insider trading”—then pass the popcorn.

— Somewhat related, Matthew Goldstein of Reuters has a fun story out reporting that Stevie Cohen’s giant hedge fund SAC Capital employs a guy to go out and golf with corporate executives and set up other golf outings for SAC traders. SAC says it just wants to have better relationships with companies and that it puts their stocks on a no-trade list for a while after such meetings, but the story raises some good points:

Yet, the ability of a big hedge fund to get several hours alone with a corporate executive on a golf course reveals the great information disparity that exists between ordinary investors and the savviest of traders. “To some extent, the notion of a level playing field and a truly public market is a myth,” said Donald Langevoort, a Georgetown University Law Center professor…

Still, securities experts say a savvy trader can glean a lot from a long golf game with a company executive even if the talk on the greens has nothing to do with business. They point out that an astute trader can learn a lot from a person’s body language and demeanor.

“Sometimes you can watch a person for four hours and get an idea of how things are going at a company,” said Georgetown’s Langevoort. “You can learn a lot from what he doesn’t want to talk about.”

It can’t hurt.

— Remember when everybody overplayed the Two Old Guys’ Report, also known as the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission?

It doesn’t look like it’s going so well, and Medicare is the holdup:

The bipartisan commission examining how to cut the federal debt ended three days of closed-door meetings Thursday without a firm agreement among its 18 members, with several saying the panel was still at odds over how to contain the ballooning costs of health care.

Several panel members said time is starting to run out. The meeting was the group’s last until Nov. 30, just one day before they are scheduled to issue their recommendations. Mr. Conrad called a deal a long shot, but other members held out hope.

When the deficit commission folds without reaching an agreement, I’m guessing the New York Times won’t go with a three-line, two column headline leading A1 like it did when the Two Old Guys, those savvy press manipulators, leaked their own plan early.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,