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It seems that it takes a deal right in the heart of the business media's own backyard to focus attention on a growing problem on Wall Street. That problem is the bull market in suspicious trades that has blossomed during the recent explosion of private equity and merger activity. Insider trading has always been a fact of life on Wall Street, but lately it has become more prevalent and brazen than ever before. And many big fish are getting away with it.
In fact, U.S. stock and option exchanges have been reporting a record number of unusual trades to regulators this year. According to the Financial Times, the NYSE referred 45 instances of possible insider trading to the SEC in the first four months of the year — up 30 percent from last year's pace.
But as SEC officials will tell you, the huge increase in private equity deals and the number of high-volume hedge fund traders have only complicated the agency's enforcement actions. Save for a few dead-end investigations into trading at several Greenwich hedge funds — there has been little reporting on the extent of insider information available to those "in the know."
But that all began to change in the past few weeks, as it became apparent that this time the shenanigans were affecting the thinly traded stock and options of Dow Jones — held by hundreds of Wall Street Journal editors and reporters, and followed by scores of other journalists in the financial district.
What caught the reporters' attention was the fact that there was heavy buying of Dow Jones stock and options in the days leading up to word that News Corporation, parent of this paper, had offered $5 billion to buy Dow Jones. Not only did the U.S. Attorney's Office and the SEC launch an investigation, within days a Hong Kong couple, Charlotte and Ka-King Wong, was sued by the SEC for their very well-timed purchase of 415,000 shares in late April. The story became front page news.
But that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the curious activity in Dow Jones securities. The Wong's trades were in Dow Jones stock; meantime, suspicious options activity was even more widespread and alarming — with options designed to profit from a higher price trading at 10 or 15 times their normal volume.
The Wongs weren't involved in these turbo-charged transactions. More likely, it was plugged-in prolific traders who somehow often seem to be in the right stocks at the right time. The Dow Jones trades have gotten all the attention, but take a look at scores of other "deal" stocks, from Medimmune to Florida East Coast Industries, follows a very similar pattern.
Couples like the Wongs, who almost seemed to be begging to be caught, are typically the ones to get nabbed. Getting at the more pernicious trail of inside information that circulated among the richest trading desks in the land will be a lot harder to crack.
Fortunately, for investors, the business media loves to report on the business media — especially when it involves two big New York-based companies that might get hitched. The success of the News Corp.'s mating dance with Dow Jones remains to be seen, but already it has raised the curtain on the bull market in inside information. And that's a good thing.
Terry Keenan is anchor of Cashin’ In and is a FOX News Channel business correspondent. Tune in to Cashin' In on Saturdays at 11:30am and find out what you need to know to make your money grow and keep what you already have!