why do so many insider trading investigations involve hedge funds?

where the money is

The diminutive Depression-era bank robber, Willie Sutton, was reportedly once asked why he chose banks to hold up.  His alleged reply:  “because that’s where the money is.”

Whether Mr. Sutton actually said that or not, the answer contains the essence of this post.  Hedge funds have more money to spend.  Until recently, they’ve been very far from the focus of regulatory and client attention to how investors spend client money;  even now, it seems to me they’re subject to far fewer restrictions on their trading activity than traditional long-only investors.

Finally–and this may just be my personal axe to grind–many hedge funds are the creations of professional traders, not researchers.  To me, this means they don’t have the experience or mindset to develop useful research conclusions by themselves.  Yet their own marketing claims put them under great pressure to produce superior results.  And they don’t have the compliance awareness that’s repeatedly pounded into every US-trained analyst’s head to make it clear what’s legally permissible and what isn’t.


“soft dollars”

Clients compensate money managers in two ways.  One is clear–they pay management fees.  The second is less obvious–they give their managers the power and influence with brokers that comes from controlling large trading commissions.  In my last job, for instance, in round numbers the firm spent $100 million a year in trading fees.

Managers who manage pension plans (subject to ERISA regulations) or or vehicles like mutual funds catering to ordinary individuals (subject to SEC oversight) have a fiduciary obligation to minimize the commissions and fees they pay for trading.

One exception:  they can pay extra-high amounts as compensation for research services brokers provide.  These services can come from the brokerage house itself.  Or, like Bloomberg terminals or copies of the Wall Street Journal, they can be paid for by the broker but provided to clients.  The commissions (or bid-asked spreads for OTC stocks) that pay for research services are called “research commissions” or “soft dollar” commissions.

clients’ money

The key benefit to the money manager is, of course, that the “extra” amount involved in a research commission comes out of the client’s pocket.  One might argue that the manager should pay for his own Bloomberg.  But that’s not industry practice.

Research commissions are a potential area (and, in the past, an actual area) of abuse.  So they are under increasing scrutiny.  A common rule when I was managing institutional and mutual fund money was that the percentage of research commissions for the overall asset management effort should be no higher than the average of all major money managers.  Five years ago, that was about 15%.

Trading frequency is also monitored carefully.  Managers who have above-average turnover rates risk losing their customers–and their jobs.

restrictions on use by traditional money managers…

Anyway, today’s traditional money managers have severe restrictions on the way they can use commissions to buy information.

…but not for hedge funds

On the other hand, to the degree that hedge funds manage money for wealthy individuals or non-pension institutions, they’re subject to neither asset turnover nor research commission limitations.

Hedge funds are Fort Knox to the traditional money managers’ kids’ piggy banks.

management fees

Yes, the famous ” two and twenty,” that is, a management fee of 2% of the assets per year + 20% of any investment gains, that hedge funds charge may well be fading out.  Nowadays, some may “only” collect 1.5% and 15%.  Compare that with the long-only manager charging, say, .75% of the assets annually with no profit participation.  I’m not saying we should feel sorry for traditional money managers.  But the comparison is Fort Knox vs. maybe a small-town savings and loan.

Two implications:  there’s much more at stake for hedge funds if they generate outsized returns, and here’s much more money potentially sloshing around inside the partnerships and in the partners’ pockets.

separation of research and trading

In the US, there’s a strict separation between the research and planning a portfolio manager does, and the execution of that plan through the trading room.

Typically, the PM designates the brokers he wants to receive research commissions over, say, a three-month period of time. He submits his trading orders to the trading room.  But he cannot direct a given order to a specific broker.

The idea is to prevent the PM from directing business to his friends or from taking a bribe to buy some dud stock a broker is trying to unload from his inventory.  This isn’t a cure-all.  The rules don’t end wrongdoing.  They shift the locus of possible wrongdoing to the traders, where there’s arguably less room for monkey business.  But, for good or ill, that’s the way the system works in the US.

In contrast, hedge funds haven’t typically had these safeguards.  In fact, it may well be that the chief PM is also the head trader–or sits on the trading desk right next to the head trader.  So there’s the opportunity for all sorts of under-the-table activity that would be impossible in a traditional money management firm.

PM as researcher

Scratch a successful equity portfolio manager in the US and you’ll uncover an exceptionally good securities analyst, who may have spent a decade or more polishing his craft.

In my view, the last thing a good analyst wants is inside information.  If you’re in a meeting where a company executive accidentally blurts out some piece of confidential information that you’ve already figured out for yourself, you’re stuck.  The information is suddenly transformed from the product of your creative mind to a company secret revealed.  It’s now forbidden fruit; you trade on it at your regulatory peril.

Though some hedge funds are headed by experienced analysts, others are run by professional traders or marketers.  The latter have their own strengths, but in my experience they don’t have the nerdy turn of mind a true analyst needs.  Yet they’re under tremendous pressure to come up with novel ideas to justify their high fees.  I’d imagine that this creates a big temptation to either accept–or even solicit–inside information.


Over the past twenty years or so, traditional money managers have all built sophisticated departments to supervise regulatory compliance.  Compliance rules visible every day.  Periodic training sessions are mandatory.  In my experience, emphasis is on avoiding any action that could possibly be (mis)interpreted as being intended to violate the laws.  Better safe than the subject of an SEC inquiry.

Pluck a couple of proprietary traders or a sell-side analyst out of their brokerage firms and set them up as hedge funds, and there isn’t the same awareness.  They may not know what the laws are.  They may not even see the necessity of setting up safeguards.  So the whole corporate culture may evolve into one where principals are encouraged to push the legal envelope in seeking proprietary information from third-parties about potential investments, rather than to safeguard the firm against the negative consequences of using inside information.

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