Cartel: How BP Used a Secret Chat Room for Insider Tips

Wharf Pool
Those who make it to the top of the waiting list for membership of the Wharf Pool syndicate pay a fee that buys them the chance to catch a carp that weighs more than a Jack Russell. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Halfway down a muddy, secluded road on marshland in suburban Essex sits Wharf Pool, a lake stocked with some of the biggest freshwater fish you will ever see.

A white sign with red lettering reads: “Private Syndicate: Strictly Members Only.” A metal gate, a barbed-wire fence and two CCTV cameras bar the way. Anglers hoping to spend time on the lake’s carefully tended banks must join a waiting list. Those who make it to the top pay a membership fee that buys them the chance to catch a carp that weighs more than a Jack Russell. There are hundreds of them swimming beneath the surface. It’s close to shooting fish in a barrel.

An hour away by train, in London’s financial district, the lake’s owners ply their trade. Wharf Pool was purchased for about 250,000 pounds ($388,000) in 2012 by Richard Usher, the former JPMorgan Chase & Co. trader at the center of a global investigation into corruption in the foreign-exchange market, and Andrew White, a currency trader at oil company BP Plc.

With revenue of almost $400 billion last year and operations in about 80 countries, BP trades large quantities of currency each day. Traders at the company regularly received valuable information from counterparts at some of the world’s biggest banks -- including tips about forthcoming trades, details of confidential client business and discussions of stop-losses, the trigger points for a flurry of buying or selling -- according to four traders with direct knowledge of the practice.

Chat Room

Copies of messages sent to BP traders over the course of a year were provided to Bloomberg News by a person with access to the online conversations. The person, who redacted the names of banks sending the messages and dates of conversations, said they came from firms whose senior foreign-exchange traders belonged to a chat room called “The Cartel” that was set up by Usher and included dealers at JPMorgan, Citigroup Inc., Barclays Plc and UBS Group AG.

The information offered an insight into currency moves minutes, sometimes hours before they happened. The messages could drag the U.K.’s biggest energy company into a scandal that has enveloped 11 banks and led to more than 30 traders from London to Singapore losing or being suspended from their jobs. Last month six banks were fined $4.3 billion for passing along information about their clients and working together to rig foreign-exchange markets.

While there’s no evidence that any BP traders were members of the Cartel, Usher participated in at least one chat room with White, according to a person who has examined conversations that included both men. It couldn’t be determined from the messages reviewed by Bloomberg News who sent the information to BP or whether BP employees acted on any of the tips.

‘Wild West’

In the clubby, lightly regulated world of foreign exchange, traders passed around tips to their circle of trusted contacts like candy. The victims: mutual-fund investors, pensioners and day traders who took the other side of a transaction at a lower price than they would have if they had the same information.

“The authorities have made it clear in the enforcement notices accompanying the recent fines that irrespective of whether specific markets are regulated, banks cannot have pockets of business where traders behave as if they’re dealing in the Wild West,” said Janine Alexander, a partner at law firm Collyer Bristow LLP in London who specializes in financial-services litigation. “Banks have a responsibility to preserve market integrity, and traders must consider the effect of their behavior on clients and the market as a whole.”

‘Robust Framework’

Traders at BP haven’t been accused of any wrongdoing. Last year, within hours of regulators announcing probes, the chats between BP and the banks were shut down, people with knowledge of the matter said. Soon after, a compliance officer was placed on the desk for the first time, one of them said.

BP said in a statement that it conducted an internal review after regulators began probing currency markets.

“BP’s FX desk has relationships as a customer with 26 relationship banks, including JPMorgan, Citibank and Barclays,” the London-based company said. “BP has a robust framework of compliance requirements and internal controls which are constantly reviewed, and maintains an open dialogue with the appropriate regulators.”

The firm, the third-largest publicly traded company in the U.K., hasn’t been investigated by regulators looking into currency manipulation, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. Chris Hamilton, a spokesman for the U.K. Financial Conduct Authority, declined to comment, as did representatives of JPMorgan, Barclays, Citigroup and UBS.

Canary Wharf

Usher declined to comment through his lawyer. White directed calls to BP’s press office.

“BP’s Code of Conduct includes mandatory requirements for employees to disclose potential conflicts of interests internally,” the company said in response to a question about the commercial relationship between Usher and White through the fishing lake. “Following such disclosure, steps are taken to manage and monitor these appropriately. It is our policy not to comment on individuals.”

The two dozen traders in BP’s treasury trading unit are housed above a Porsche showroom on the second and third floors of the company’s office in Canary Wharf, an area of reclaimed docklands three miles east of the City of London, the historic financial district. The building, two blocks from JPMorgan’s, was completed in 2003 on the cusp of an oil boom. Lights in meeting rooms flick from green to white when someone enters, in keeping with the company’s corporate colors.

Managing Risk

As a company with global operations, BP is a major user of the $5.3-trillion-a-day foreign-exchange market. Dollars earned from the sale of crude oil are converted into local currencies to pay the salaries of employees and fund infrastructure projects from Azerbaijan to Trinidad. Refined products such as liquefied natural gas and kerosene are sold for yuan and reais.

The trading unit’s primary role is to manage the firm’s exposure to financial risks, including fluctuations in interest rates and foreign exchange, according to the company’s website. Unlike at most corporations, it also is run as a profit center, which means that in addition to hedging risks, traders can place their own bets on the direction of markets. The company doesn’t break out how much money the treasury unit makes.

White, who’s known in the market as Tubby, is one of half a dozen spot currency traders working for BP in London. He and his colleagues, most of them ex-bankers, decide which firms will carry out their foreign-exchange transactions. That makes them prized clients for banks seeking a slice of the business and a glimpse into potentially market-moving trades. Passing on information was a way to curry favor, according to the four traders, who asked not to be identified because they still work in the business.

Dollars, Yen

In an undated message seen by Bloomberg News, a trader at a bank told BP he would be buying U.S. dollars against Australian dollars at the WM/Reuters fix at 4 p.m. in London, the one-minute window during which traders around the world exchange billions of dollars of currency on behalf of pension funds and asset managers. The message was received at BP about 30 minutes before the fix. By tipping his hand, the sender was telling BP about a potential fall in the Australian currency.

At about 3 p.m. in London on a different afternoon, BP traders were informed that banks were selling dollars against the yen at 4 p.m. In a third message, this one arriving as the oil company’s traders drank their first coffee of the morning, a trader at a bank said he had just sold a quantity of an emerging-market currency, to whom and the price he received.

The four banks in the Cartel controlled about 45 percent of the global spot-currency market, according to a survey by Euromoney Institutional Investor Plc, so information about their plans was valuable. Some days they worked together to push around the 4 p.m. fix, settlements with the banks show.

Feston, Fossil

The Cartel chat room was started by Usher as early as 2009, according to a person with knowledge of the matter. Usher had risen quickly to the top of his profession. After joining HBOS Plc in 2001, he was hired by Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc in 2003 and a year later collected an industry award on his employer’s behalf. He joined JPMorgan as head of spot foreign exchange in 2010, where he became a member of the now-defunct Bank of England’s Chief Dealers Sub Group, a collection of about a dozen currency traders and central bank officials who met at restaurants and bank offices to discuss industry developments.

The four members of the chat room ribbed each other like high school buddies. Usher was referred to as Feston because he resembled an overweight version of British chef Heston Blumenthal, according to people who have seen the chats. Matt Gardiner, a UBS trader based in Zurich, was called Fossil because he was a few years older than the others. Rohan Ramchandani, Citigroup’s cricket-loving head of spot trading, was called Ruggy, while Chris Ashton, the last one to join, was dubbed Robocop.

Lawyers for Ramchandani, Gardiner and Ashton declined to comment.

‘Double-Teaming’

The settlements the banks reached with regulators reveal that in the minutes before 4 p.m. the traders would meet on chat rooms to discuss their positions and how they planned to execute them. Sometimes they also agreed to work together to push exchange rates around to boost their profits –- something they called “double-teaming.”

The collateral damage of their actions and those of other traders was the $30 trillion held in investment funds around the world whose daily value is calculated based on the 4 p.m. WM/Reuters benchmark. Passive funds managing $3 trillion transact at the fix, so their investors lost or gained depending on how much the rates were manipulated.

The party came to an end in October 2013, when regulators around the world announced they were investigating allegations of abuses in the currency market. The four members of the Cartel have left their firms, and JPMorgan, Citigroup and UBS were among banks fined in November. Individuals could face criminal charges when the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office conclude their own investigations.

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