N.Y. Probes Brokerages to Analysts After BlackRock AccordChris Dolmetsch and Alexis Leondis
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said the probe that led to his settlement with BlackRock Inc. over analyst surveys is now looking at brokerage firms and individuals who provided nonpublic information that could have been used to trade.
BlackRock, the world’s biggest money manager, agreed to end its program as part of the accord. It was developed by Scientific Active Equities, an investment group within Barclays Global Investors, which BlackRock acquired in 2009.
The program relied on the willingness of analysts to provide advance information. According to statements cited in the Jan. 8 accord, analysts had an incentive to provide answers to a large client that made up a “huge chunk” of their pay.
The conduct “does not fit into the classic framework of insider trading,” Schneiderman said today in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “In the Loop with Betty Liu.” “It’s something we’re now calling insider trading 2.0. This is stuff that is not hard information. It’s just front-running what the analysts are saying.”
The attorney general said his office interviewed people at firms other than New York-based BlackRock, but declined to identify them, citing the ongoing investigation. He said he would be probing recipients of information as well as providers.
“This is a broad investigation,” Schneiderman said today.
Under the BlackRock survey, data sought included analyst views on the likelihood of a surprise to their forecasted earnings estimate and the possibility a company they cover would be acquired in a merger, according to the agreement.
“Analysts and their firms are prohibited from providing to select clients early disclosure of research reports, and are supposed to disseminate reports to clients simultaneously,” Schneiderman said at a news conference yesterday in Manhattan.
New York said analysts gave earnings predictions they had yet to make public, and that from 2009 to 2013, the survey collected about 60,000 responses indicating an earnings surprise direction other than neutral.
“This is a growing area of concern because it includes increasingly common practices,” Schneiderman said. It provides “an unfair advantage over the rest of us and creates a two-tiered system that is bad for our markets, it’s bad for our economy.”
BlackRock agreed to pay the state $400,000 to cover the cost of the investigation, according to the settlement. BlackRock didn’t admit or deny the attorney general’s findings. It has agreed to cooperate with the attorney general’s probe.
“BlackRock is committed to operating with the highest ethical standards,” Brian Beades, a spokesman for BlackRock, said in an e-mailed statement. “This survey was initiated by Barclays Global Investors prior to its acquisition by BlackRock. We have discontinued its use to avoid even the appearance of any impropriety.”
BlackRock’s conduct, according to the accord, violated New York’s Martin Act, an almost century-old law that gives the state’s attorney general broad powers to target financial fraud.
The Scientific Active Equity, or SAE, unit has more than $80 billion in assets globally and offerings include separately managed accounts, hedge funds and mutual funds. About 87 percent of the unit’s funds outperformed their benchmarks in the five years ending Sept. 30, up from 47 percent two years earlier, according to the firm’s earnings releases.
The division relies on quantitative models to make investments. It focuses on consistent and reliable absolute returns through a diversified blend of investment insights that are implemented in a systemic way, according to a marketing document from April.
Its hedge funds include European Diversified Equity Absolute Return, 32 Capital Ltd, Global Alpha Opportunities, Emerging Markets Alpha and Pan Asia Opportunities, the document stated.
Schneiderman said at the Bloomberg Markets 50 Summit in New York in September that his office was looking into combating the advantages won by securing early access to market-moving data.
The BlackRock survey program, begun in 2003, solicited from stock analysts at “dozens” of prominent brokerage firms worldwide information about the management, competitive position, earnings and views of the companies they covered, according to the agreement.
SAE said in an internal document that the program’s success depended in part on an “analyst’s willingness to really give us advance information,” according to the settlement. Another SAE document cited by the attorney general included the statement, “We’re agnostic as to whether the recommendations themselves are useful investment info. We are trying to front-run” the recommendations.
Schneiderman’s investigation concluded that brokerage firms responded to SAE’s requests while they might have been reluctant to assist retail or other small investors.
One employee said the “obvious and unsaid incentive for most brokers is that BGI is a huge chunk of your paycheck and the analysts better fill out their surveys for such a large client,” according to the settlement. New York is investigating such allegations of a quid pro quo.
“There appears to be the possibility of a benefit and we’re looking into exactly how that worked in different institutions,” Schneiderman said.
SAE rewarded participating analysts with higher ratings in financial industry magazine rankings important for name recognition and career advancement, and as a symbol of achievement, all of which could “lead to monetary gain both for those analysts and their respective brokerage firms,” according to the agreement. The filing doesn’t name any of the analysts or brokerages.
Last year, financial information provider Thomson Reuters Corp. reached a deal with Schneiderman’s office in which it agreed to stop providing consumer survey data from the University of Michigan to certain high-frequency traders two seconds before other investors. Thomson Reuters competes with Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News.