High-Frequency Firm Sues Merrill Over Disappointing Trades

  • Lycalopex says Bank of America unit didn’t deliver on promise
  • High-frequency trading firm seeks $10 million in London suit

A high-frequency trading firm set up by two hedge funds sued Merrill Lynch because a tax-arbitrage strategy linked to French stocks didn’t turn out to be as profitable as expected.

Lycalopex (Dubai) Ltd., a joint venture established by Vulpes Investment Management and Tudor Investment Corp., sued the Bank of America Corp. unit in London, seeking about $10 million.

The strategy, which took advantage of a French tax treaty enabling arbitrage, became less profitable following a rule change in 2012, shortly after Lycalopex and Bank of America Merrill Lynch started the trades. The lawsuit comes as hedge funds face scrutiny over their returns, and authorities debate banks’ roles in helping wealthy individuals and companies avoid taxes.

Lycalopex appointed Merrill Lynch as prime broker because the bank promised to deliver profits of about $15 million from $10 million committed by the two hedge funds, according to court documents from May released by the court on Tuesday.

$4.6 Million

In fact, the strategy only yielded about $4.6 million before Merrill Lynch ended the arrangement. In February 2013, Bank of America’s then head of prime brokerage, Stu Hendel, sent an e-mail to Lycalopex saying: “As head of pb I would rather u find a different pb,” according to the Lycalopex documents.

Lycalopex representatives held meetings with Merrill Lynch bankers in Greenwich, Connecticut, Hong Kong and London before trading began in April 2012.

The deal involved Merrill Lynch’s structured equity finance and trading group, which has since been closed by Bank of America, according to the Wall Street Journal.

“This is a spurious claim based on the inaccurate premise that a significant level of profit was guaranteed,” Bank of America spokesman Bill Halldin said.

Dubai-based Lycalopex’s strategy involved exploiting a loophole that meant dividends on French stocks weren’t taxed if the holders were based in the United Arab Emirates, according to its claim. It would arrange in advance to buy French company shares, then sell them at a loss, using the tax-free dividend to make up the shortfall. Because the returns from each transaction were small, the strategy relied on large numbers of shares being traded.

Tudor

Tudor Investment Corp., the $11.6 billion firm run by billionaire Paul Tudor Jones, was a “largely passive” partner in the Lycalopex venture, according to its court documents that said Vulpes would take the lead in establishing the firm.

“Tudor had a passive proprietary investment in Lycalopex from April 2012 to July 2014 at which time it redeemed its interest in full at a loss,” Tudor said in an e-mailed statement. “Tudor has no role in the present lawsuit and no involvement with any aspect of Lycalopex or Vulpes.”

Field Pickering, a lawyer for Vulpes, declined to comment on the case. He said said that Lycalopex was now dormant, and that one of its Dubai-based executives had started a food business in Dubai.

Rule Changes

In early 2012 negotiations with Lycalopex, Merrill Lynch trader Raj Patel allegedly told the firm: “I can’t do $20 million, but I will definitely get you to $15 million,” according to the Lycalopex documents. The firm says Merrill Lynch didn’t execute enough trades or provide enough leverage to reach that target.

France introduced a financial-transactions tax in August 2012 to curb market speculation by imposing a levy on share purchases. Lycalopex said Merrill Lynch ended the relationship without making a proper attempt to make the trading strategy compliant with the new rules.

The case is: Lycalopex (Dubai) Ltd. v. Merrill Lynch International, High Court of Justice, Queen’s Bench Division, Commercial Court, LM-2016-000062

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