Reading Steve A. Cohen’s White Paper in the SAC Insider Trading Case

I’ve followed hedge funds – pooled fund structures that engage in active management often uncorrelated with financial markets – for about a decade.

 

Almost 12 years ago I wrote a Masters paper on Long-Term Capital Management (PDF) in Swinburne University’s Strategic Foresight program. I read Sebastian Mallaby’s history More Money Than God (PDF) and MIT’s Andrew Lo. Hedge funds appeared to be exemplars of Richard Slaughter‘s Institutes of Foresight thesis. More recently, I have thought of hedge funds as possible examples of meso-level, organisational strategic subcultures.

 

Today, I re-watched the PBS Frontline documentary ‘To Catch A Trader‘ (2014) and read the white paper (PDF) from SAC founder Steve A. Cohen’s lawyers in the now-notorious Elan and Wyeth insider trading case. Cohen’s portfolio manager Matthew Martoma was convicted of insider trading and sentenced to jail. Cohen’s SAC was fined millions and is now basically a family office.

 

I’ve had the white paper for over a year but only today got a chance to have a close read of it with an eye on how Cohen’s lawyers describe his trading strategies. I learned to do this when studying strategic foresight methodologies.

 

Some of my summary notes from the white paper:

  • Back of envelope estimate of Steve Cohen’s trading portfolio size in July 2013: $US1,253,000,000.
  • Cohen trades over 80 individual securities a day.
  • Algorithms, direct market access, and dark pools are routinely used for trade execution.
  • The PBS Frontline documentary describes Edge as an informational advantage about market activity.
  • The white paper describes the following as Events: (1) corporate access (competitor announcements; adverse developments); (2) market moving (catalysts, technical analysis); (3) analyst convergence (broker-deal reports; ratings such as downgrades); and (4) market rumours (false market).
  • SAC portfolio managers develop a Company Investment Thesis. This may involve: (1) trimming positions whilst going into earnings announcements; (2) using option hedges to offset long/short positions using a market neutral strategy; (3) anticipating slippage: incremental shifts in share prices due to the timing of executed trades; and (4) responding to risk reviews of large positions.
  • Market price-psychology patterns that Cohen has identified: (1) increases in individual share prices versus S&P 500 declines (deteriorating market) over specific time periods; (2) tests of if positive market reaction is sustainable (possible mean reversion); (3) company news that is ambiguous or less-than-spectacular information that will trigger a decline; and (4) rapid stock appreciation that creates high expectations and the probability of a price decline.

 

The Steve A. Cohen white paper illustrates how to potentially reverse engineer a hedge fund’s trading strategy – as a strategic foresight example – and to not be a Muppet-like naive retail trader.

Steve Cohen’s Black Edge

Steve Cohen (Forbes)
Steve Cohen (Forbes)

On 19th July 2013, the Securities & Exchange Commission filed an Enforcement Notice (PDF) against SAC’s Steve Cohen, alleging failure to supervise the hedge fund’s investment managers. The SEC has targeted Cohen for over a year. Its pre-case featured in Charles Gasparino’s book Circle of Friends (New York: HarperBusiness, 2013). Veteran business journalist Bryan Burrough interviewed Cohen in 2010, and then looked at the US prosecution case in 2013. Cohen’s lawyers later released a ‘white paper’ rebuttal of the SEC’s claims (PDF).

 

Cohen has a fearsome reputation as a trader. He hired the late performance psychologist Ari Kiev to mentor traders, and featured in Kiev’s book The Mental Strategies of Top Traders: The Psychological Determinants of Trading Success (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2010). But now the SEC claims that Cohen’s trading prowess comes from ‘black edge’: insider trading based on material, non-public information from expert networks and other sources.

 

The case is filled with interesting details for hedge fund and trading watchers. It might become a PhD case study or academic paper for me.

 

Reuters’ Felix Salmon has a great overview of Cohen’s influence and why the SEC’s case may shake up hedge funds:

 

Cohen has never been easy to invest with. He deliberately charges some of the highest fees in the industry — his 3-and-50 makes the standard 2-and-20 seem downright generous. And even then it has historically been very hard to get him to agree to manage your money. Cohen makes his fund inaccessible for a reason: he knows how hard it is to scale the astonishing results he’s been posting, year after year, and that at the margin, the bigger he gets, the lower the returns he’s likely to see.

But at the same time, there’s no way that he can run a $15 billion trading book on his own. He has roughly 1,000 employees, of which about 300 are investment professionals. And if you’re one of those professionals, you have one of the hardest jobs in the business.

The way that SAC works is that Cohen gives his individual traders, and teams, their own trading accounts, with millions or billions of dollars: the traders who make the most money get the biggest allocations. Traders get paid a percentage of the profits they make, which makes them compete against each other: in order to be successful at SAC it isn’t good enough to make good profits. Instead, you have to make better profits than any of the other traders — who themselves are some of the best in the business. If you can’t do that, you get fired. If you can do that, you get to manage ever-increasing amounts of money — plus, Cohen will mirror your positions in his own account, the largest at the firm, giving you a shot at extra profits over and above the ones generated by your own positions. In the immortal words of David Mamet, first prize is a Cadillac El Dorado. Second prize is a set of steak knives. Third prize is you’re fired.