Citigroup ‘Idea Dinners’ Cited in Finra Fine Over Tips

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At a July 2011 dinner for Citigroup Inc. clients, a research analyst identified a stock to bet against. In his last research notes before that gathering, he upgraded the shares, advising investors to stick with them.

The analyst was among several cited yesterday in an action by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which fined Citigroup $15 million. The employee offered similar tips at six subsequent “idea dinners” on stocks that he had rated as hold or neutral, Finra said. While the regulator didn’t name the analyst, a person familiar with the matter said he’s Deane Dray, who now covers industrial firms for RBC Capital Markets.

The incident is among several examples Finra cited, alleging Citigroup failed to supervise research analysts and prevent them from sharing material, non-public information. It’s reminiscent of industry-leading fines the bank paid in 2003 to settle claims analysts published misleading stock research to win investment-banking business. The firm has paid at least $33 million over relevant violations since, Finra said.

“The egregious conflicts of interest that went on during the Internet-bubble period are much less common today, but some of the underlying economic incentives haven’t changed,” Jay Ritter, a finance professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, said in a phone interview. “When sell-side analysts at say, Citigroup, push it too far, there have to be penalties. Otherwise, the envelope will continue to be pushed.”

Foster Relations

Finra sanctioned New York-based Citigroup over its failure to adequately protect against “potential selective dissemination of non-public research” from January 2005 to February 2014, the regulator said in a statement.

The bank issued about 100 warnings regarding analyst communications with clients and sales and trading staff, Finra said. When violations were found, the firm took too long to discipline employees or didn’t do enough, according to the regulator.

Citigroup encouraged analysts to communicate with clients to foster relationships and bring in commissions, and pay policies that considered client reviews may have enticed analysts to share non-public information, according to Finra. Citigroup failed to adequately police those interactions, Finra said.

“We are pleased to have resolved and put this matter behind us,” Sophia Stewart, a Citigroup spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. “Citi takes its regulatory compliance obligations seriously, and we believe that we have strong procedures and controls in place to address the issues that Finra has raised.”

Dray hasn’t been accused of wrongdoing by Finra and had no immediate comment.

‘Improper Access’

Over three years starting in October 2010, about three dozen Citigroup analysts participated in more than 40 idea dinners attended by clients and sales and trading staff, Finra said. The events sometimes featured contests where attendees would identify stocks to buy and others they expected to underperform. Some picks were tracked, with awards given to those who fared best. In some cases, analysts offered advice that differed from their published research, Finra said.

“Citigroup did not enforce the boundaries of permissible communications to ensure that its analysts did not provide certain clients with improper access to non-public research information,” Cameron Funkhouser, executive vice president of Finra’s Office of Fraud Detection and Market Intelligence, said in the statement.

‘Fresh Look’

In 2003, Citigroup was among firms that promised to prohibit research analysts from helping to woo investment-banking clients. The company separated investment banking from its research and retail brokerage units in October of the previous year and hired Sallie Krawcheck, the former chief executive officer of Sanford Bernstein & Co., to lead a business that had more than 300 analysts globally at the time.

Under the terms of that settlement, then-Chairman Sandy Weill and investment bankers agreed to be barred from communicating directly with analysts. Weill had previously told analyst Jack Grubman to “take a fresh look” at AT&T Corp. at a time when Citigroup was seeking investment-banking assignments from the telecommunications company, according to then-New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who initiated the investigations into conflicts in the securities industry.

Road Shows

From 2011 to 2013, Citigroup didn’t stop analysts from helping clients prepare for so-called road shows, done to attract investors before initial public offerings, Finra said. In one case, an analyst e-mailed a company to suggest that it “amp up” discussions of some topics, the regulator said. That analyst was Mark Mahaney, according to the person familiar with the situation, who asked not to be identified discussing regulatory matters.

Mahaney, ranked No. 1 by Institutional Investor for the Internet industry from 2008 to 2011, was fired by Citigroup in 2012 over an e-mail he sent to a reporter without first getting approval from compliance, a person familiar with the decision said at the time. Mahaney, who also works for RBC Capital Markets and hasn’t been accused of wrongdoing by the Finra, didn’t immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

At least seven banks, including Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc., may be asked to pay a total of $50 million in fines as part of an agreement with Finra, people with knowledge of the matter said earlier this month, following claims analysts inflated estimates to win business for their firms. Bank of America Corp., Credit Suisse Group AG, Deutsche Bank AG and Wells Fargo & Co. also may face fines, the people said. Michelle Ong, a Finra spokeswoman, declined to say whether yesterday’s action is linked to that matter.

Citigroup consented to Finra’s findings without admitting or denying the charges, according to the regulator’s statement.