Tag Archives: Planet Money

On the Record

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I first wrote about Scott London in April 2013, soon after he had been arrested on insider trading charges. He was sentenced to 14 months in prison and was released early, for good behavior, earlier this year. I was listening to my regular Planet Money podcast last week and, like an awesome Christmas gift, they were interviewing Scott London about what he did and why he did it.

London spoke about how, when he was an audit partner at KPMG, he started sharing non-public information on his clients with a golfing buddy. It is not as though London did not know that what he was doing was both unethical and illegal. He speaks about how much training KPMG gave to employees, training that he himself gave at times. Yet, when his friend’s business was struggling and his friend asked for just a little help, Scott London was able to rationalize what he did. In his mind, the money that Bryan Shaw, the friend, was making was small and this made what he was doing not so bad. This is something that happens often in fraud stories. Most frauds start small, either because the fraudster is testing the waters or because the fraudster initially intends to just take a little to cover their perceived need. It is generally because the initial idea of a fraud is small so it does not seem like a big deal and will not hurt anyone. it is a good reminder that when you are looking into or for fraud, you should not just look for large amounts. The fraudsters are going to do what they can to stay under the radar and many are going to be committing in ways that minimize, in their minds, what they are doing.

All in all, Shaw paid London about $70,000 in cash and gifts, while Shaw made $1.27 million from the insider trading. I was amused to hear London’s shock at how much money Shaw made trading on the information that he got from London. You see, when Shaw asked for the tips, he proposed that they share the money equally. It was funny that London was shocked to find out that the person who had partnered with him in an illegal pursuit had been less than honest with him. I suppose he had not heard that there is no honor among thieves. I am not sure if he was surprised because he realized how much more money he should have been paid or if he thinks he would have nipped the insider trading in the bud had he known just how much money was at stake (making the crime a bigger deal than he imagined).

During the podcast, the Planet Money folk discussed whether insider trading is a victimless crime. They struggled to find who is hurt by the trading. They came to their conclusions about who is hurt and you can also read various others opine. When I look at insider trading and think about who can be seen as victims, I have a long list. If you are competing in what you believe is a level playing field but where some parties know more than you do, it is just about a given that those parties are going to beat you every time. And, in this day and age where many retirement and savings plans involve trading on the stock market, why would you even bother if you knew that there were people making lots of money, primarily because they had inside information that you were not privy to?

There are so many layers in the Scott London story that could fill a book and, one such book, by James Ulvog, about Scott London’s fraud is well worth a read. Hearing from Scott London himself was a great gift and is a lesson in insider trading, tone at the top, how easily a fraud can begin and the consequences of taking the path that he took. Thank you Santa and Planet Money!

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Desperate Needs, Gouging Measures…

IMG_2231When I lived and worked in Zimbabwe, my parents and I lived in different cities, about an eight-hour drive apart. My father, however, was in town at least once a month for meetings and, when he came to town, we would meet for and evening of dinner and catching up. On one such evening, we were sitting in his hotel suite, eating dinner and watching the news. There was a piece on about an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. At the time, people were speculating that people living in the area where the outbreak had occurred had come across dead animals in the forests and had eaten them. Handling the dead animals (which had been killed by the Ebola virus) had infected them with the virus. I looked over at my father and said, “Why would they eat a random dead animal they came across in the woods? I mean, wouldn’t they ask themselves what had killed this animal and wouldn’t they be scared of being killed by the same thing?”

My father looked at me and said, “My dear, you can’t judge them. You don’t know what you would do if you were starving? Who knows what you would eat.”

Since, at that moment I was working my way through a three-course dinner, it didn’t seem like the appropriate moment to argue with my father, but I was pretty sure that no kind of hunger would lead me to eat dodgy food. I do know now that I was judging because I am fortunate enough to have many food options.

It turns out that investigators now think that fruit bats, not mysteriously dead animals are to blame for the spread of Ebola, but I thought about this conversation with my father when I read a piece in the New York Times about usury charges being brought against several payday loan companies, their owner and two of his associates. Usury is one of those not often heard words that is at home in the bible or a Shakespeare play, but it basically is illegally lending money at very high interest rates. I first heard analysis of payday loans on the NPR podcast, Planet Money, who, in 2010, discussed payday lenders. The concept of a payday loan is that people take out a small loan that is that is then paid back using the borrower’s next pay check. These loans, however, charge much higher interest rates than banks or credit cards do. The Planet Money episode referred to rates of over 500%. A more recent Planet Money piece spoke of a loan being offered at an annual interest rate of over1,300%. Many people debate payday loans and the people who take them out. Some argue that people who take out these loans are people who are irresponsible with their money and the payday loan rates are so high because the borrowers are risky. Others will talk about how payday lenders target people with low incomes and get them into a cycle where they end up spending years paying high fees and never being able to repay their initial balances.

In the state of New York, all this debate is moot because payday loans are illegal. When announcing the indictments, on 12 August, the Manhattan District Attorney, Cyril Vance, encouraged victims of payday lending schemes to call the Major Economic Crimes hotline. This is important to know, whether you received the loan at a storefront or online, the practice is illegal in New York, seventeen other states and District of Columbia. This is because, when people feel they have few options, people with few scruples like to take advantage of the situation. These are the types of people who offer to lend you $750 for a week, at a cost of $225. To make this point clearer, if you borrowed that $750 for a year and paid this interest on the loan every week, you would pay a total of $11,700 in interest. That is a lot of money to pay for $750 and I think that most people would agree that charging that kind of interest qualifies as usury.

Even if payday loans are legal where you live, the lenders still have to comply with rules that govern their industry. If you believe that you or someone you know is being taken advantage of, with regard to a payday loan, you can either call your local district attorney’s offices or get in touch with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), which is the federal agency whose mission is to protect consumers of financial products. It is important to know that there are protections in the system and there may be more options than you think, when it comes to finding ways to pay debts or make ends meet and not every option involves interest rates that would make your calculator give you the side-eye. Knowledge is power and sometimes knowledge can also save you money and keep you from having your rights violated.

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Hold On!

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A few weeks ago, I took a walk in Prospect Park with a friend. We had not caught up in a while and I had a lot to talk about. I am a judge for the Excellence in Financial Journalism Awards, presented by the New York State Society of CPAs, and I had just finished reading the many entries submitted by very talented journalists. Several submissions were on the subject of high-frequency trading and I was fascinated by the reports that I had read and watched. As I launched into my story, she interrupted me and asked, “What is high-frequency trading?”

I was less surprised by her question than I would have been three or four days earlier. This is because I had been asked that question every time I had started talking to people about high-frequency trading. Initially had been surprised that so few people knew about high-frequency trading but then I realized that I couldn’t assume that, just because I own the t-shirt, everyone else is a huge fan of Planet Money or, indeed just because I have the sweatshirt, the rest of the world is hooked on Radiolab. Both shows have covered the subject of high-frequency trading. Planet Money, in particular, has spoken extensively about high-speed trading.

That night, no joke, I tuned in to watch 60 Minutes and Steve Kroft was talking with Michael Lewis about his new book, Flash Boys, which talks about high-frequency trading and how it has negatively affected how stock markets work. Flash Boys is a popular book right now but, I wonder, though we are throwing around the term HFT (the now popular acronym for high-frequency trading) and discussing how markets are affected by HFT, how many of us really know what HFT is?

Watching television or the movies, the portrayal of the stock market has not changed much in decades. Bells ring to announce the opening and closing of the market and, in between, we see massive rooms of men (and it is just about always men) avidly watching screens of numbers, yelling madly and waving pieces of paper. Would you be shocked to discover that the stock markets are not “as seen on TV”? The markets have not operated in that way for a while now; things are far more complicated. Currently, there are 16 regulated national securities exchanges in the United States (and another 45 or so dark pools, which are not open to the public) and most of these exchanges are nowhere near Wall Street. Most trades are executed electronically and many of these trades are executed by computers using powerful algorithms. Initially, when electronic exchanges were first launched, there was a rule that, although the exchanges were computerized, orders had to be entered through the keyboard. The challenge to those using the electronic exchange, was how to be able to trade quickly and one such trader, Thomas Peterffy, built a typing robot to satisfy this requirement while increasing the speed of trading. The speed he achieved then is a joke compared to what high-speed trading looks like today.

Now there are no such rules and now the algorithms used by high-frequency traders have computers making multiple trades in fractions of a second. In addition to this, high-frequency traders can make trades and cancel them without paying fees for doing so. These traders are known to flood a market with orders, to get a feel of what is going on in that market, and then cancel the orders almost immediately. In fact, almost 97% of trades made in the US stock market are canceled and the bulk of these cancellations were from high-frequency traders. This activity tends to manipulate stock prices and, as a result, high-frequency traders can make pennies on trades. Because they can trade at incredibly high speeds and volumes, these pennies can add up pretty quickly to healthy returns. The returns are tempting enough that HFT entities are willing to pay to get information a mere two seconds before other people and are also willing to pay to get a few feet closer to the trading floor than their competition.

Now, how do two seconds and a few feet make a difference? This is because of the speed at which information can be processed and sent between traders and their markets. Any innovation that gets traders to the market before their competition so they can buy at a lower price and sell at a higher one is one worth spending on. This is the essence of high-frequency trading and traders able to execute millions of trades per second, can make many fractions of a cent add up to many dollars over a short period of time. The volume of trading has exploded in the last decade and the Nanex graphic of this activity is a very powerful visual.

Things can also go horribly wrong in markets with high-frequency trading. On May 6, 2010, at 16:42:44 (yes, down to the second) the stock market plunged 600 points in five minutes and this drop was stopped only when the market paused trading for 5 seconds and then started up again. The market regained the 600 points almost as quickly and as mysteriously as it had lost them. There is no consensus on what caused the Flash Crash of 2010, though most point to high-frequency trading as at least one of the factors responsible. That people cannot agree one what the causes of the crash were and that it took almost half a year for the SEC to come out with a report on what happened, shows just how complicated and difficult to understand trading and, in particular high-frequency trading are. I mean, once we start talking high math and algorithms, most of the world’s population is left cross-eyed and dizzy (and that means, me too).

There is no shortage of opinions to be found on high-frequency trading. Some use everyday English and exciting anecdotes to explain themselves while others employ fancy acronyms, mathematical phrases and financial-speak to put forward their thoughts. Whatever opinions and explanations you decide to explore, the first thing to do is to understand the basics of what they are talking about. How, really, can you have an opinion if you don’t even know what people are talking about? This is a very fast market. Nanosecond quick, so you better hold on!

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I Don’t Always Drink Beer…

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On Thursday morning, as I was getting ready to go to work, a Planet Money news story came on about the United States Department of Justice Antitrust Division. The Antitrust Division filed a complaint to stop the merger of the two beer companies Anheuser-Busch InBev and Groupo Modelo. Planet Money’s Caitlin Kenney began the piece by talking about what is needed to build a murder case – ballistics experts, medical examiners and so on. She then went on to say that if you are trying to determine whether an economic crime has been committed you need economists. “You need forensic accountants,” I muttered. An economic, or should we say financial, crime is a financial affair that will most likely end up in a court of law. That is the essence of what financial forensics are all about.

Caitlin then spoke about how the economists at the DOJ’s Antitrust Division analyze whether or not the merging of two companies will result in a reduction in competition. The Antitrust division’s team of economists evaluate whether or not businesses are behaving in anticompetitive ways. In addition to an economic research of whether the actions of businesses are contrary to free competition, when building cases, the Antitrust Division requests and goes through what could be millions of company documents, including emails, memos, business plans, and evaluate whether or not the businesses’ plans aim to kill competition. The process of combing through mountains of data related to an entity’s finances and emerging with straightforward information is the specialty of the forensic accountant.

I can’t blame Caitlin for not mentioning the important work of forensic accountants in antitrust cases; the Antitrust Division’s website speaks only of the lawyers and economists that are involved in resolving antitrust issues. If the Antitrust Division is not talking about what work financial forensic experts are doing, the only way a person could suspect that forensic accountants are providing their financial detective services to the Antitrust Division is if that person had an understanding of what forensic accountants do. The study of economic data and the interpretation of that data into opinions of whether or not a company is violating the economic principles of competition is, clearly, work best suited to an economist. However, the down and dirty investigation that involves combing through volumes of data and scrupulously following audit trails is the domain of a forensic accountant.

It was only when I actively searched for mentions of the involvement of forensic accountants in antitrust cases that I found them. At the conclusion of cases, when the Department of Justice issues its statement and thanks those who led to its resolution, the department has acknowledged, among others, “forensic accountants… who dedicated significant time and resources to investigating this case.” Alternatively, a search through documents on the DOJ’s site will unearth declarations filed that display the involvement of forensic accountants in antitrust cases. I’m thinking it is prime time for the input and value of the forensic accountant to be recognized.

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