The Government Suffers a Spoofing Setback

On April 25, 2018, a New Haven federal jury acquitted a former trader with a global bank accused of scheming to manipulate the precious metals futures markets with “spoofing,” a trading tactic that involves the use of allegedly deceptive bids or offers to feign the appearance of supply or demand. This appears to be one of the first setbacks for the Department of Justice (“DOJ”), U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”), and futures self-regulatory organizations since they began aggressively investigating and civilly and criminally charging futures traders with spoofing several years ago. After successfully defeating Michael Coscia’s appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, this aggression accelerated with the CFTC’s and DOJ’s coordinated charges in January against several firms and traders. This verdict, however, may cause them to re-visit their aggression and certain strategies.

While it is virtually impossible to fully comprehend the decision-making process behind a jury’s decision, several of the defense strategies apparently proved successful and may present strategies for others to apply in the future. Specifically, the defense themes included strenuously arguing that:

            * The prosecution’s trading analysis was “prosecution by statistics” and that people should not be “convict[ed] with charts and graphs”; and

            * The prosecution’s trading analysis amounted to an exercise in cherry-picking a few hundred trades out of more than 300,000 without presenting them in the full context.

Lastly, while the CFTC announced new advisories touting the benefits of cooperation, another defense strategy applied here involved vigorously attacking two prosecution witnesses who had “struck deals” with the government. All of these strategies proved successful as the jury returned its not guilty verdict one day after the trial concluded with closing arguments.

We will have to wait to see what, if any, impact this verdict has on other spoofing investigations and cases. In the meantime, however, the defense strategies applied here can be studied and applied to the defense of other spoofing cases being pursued by the CFTC and DOJ.

SEC Cyber Unit Brings Groundbreaking Data Breach Case

On April 24, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced its most significant case ever filed against a respondent for one of the world’s largest data breaches. Albata, Inc., f/d/b/a Yahoo! Inc., (“Yahoo”) settled with the SEC to charges of violating Section 17(a)(2) and 17 (a)(3) of the Securities Act of 1933 (“Securities Act”), amongst other charges, and agreed to various remedies, including a $35 million penalty.

In summary, the SEC alleged that in December of 2014 Yahoo’s information security team learned that Russian hackers stole what was referred to internally as the company’s “crown jewels”: usernames, email addresses, phone numbers, birthdates, encrypted passwords, and security questions and answers for more than 500 million users. Although information relating to the breach was reported to members of Yahoo’s senior management and legal department, Yahoo failed to properly investigate the circumstances of the breach and to adequately consider whether the breach needed to be disclosed to investors. In addition, the SEC found that Yahoo did not share information regarding the breach with its auditors or outside counsel in order to assess the company’s disclosure obligations in its public filings.

The breach was not disclosed to the investing public until more than two years later, when in 2016 Yahoo was in the process of closing the acquisition of its operating business by another company. This disclosure caused a $1.3 billion fall in Yahoo’s market capitalization and a reduction in the acquisition price by $350 million.

As a result, the SEC’s order found that in Yahoo’s quarterly and annual report filings during the two-year period following the breach, the company failed to disclose the breach or its potential business impact, legal implications, and other potential ramifications. Finally, the SEC’s order finds that Yahoo failed to maintain disclosure controls and procedures designed to ensure that reports from Yahoo’s information security team concerning cyber breaches, or the risk of such breaches, were properly and timely assessed for potential disclosure.

In conclusion this SEC action provides several takeaways:

– This may be one of the first, but it will not be the last data breach case by the Division of Enforcement’s Cyber Unit created in September of 2017.

– The SEC charged Yahoo with fraud, but not with Rule 30(a) of Regulation S-P of the Securities Act. Historically, the SEC used the latter statute as the primary charge for data breaches. While these fraud charges against Yahoo are more aggressive, Section 17(a)(2) and (a)(3) are non-scienter based charges.

– Notably, the SEC did not charge any individuals.

– A study of the findings in the SEC’s order coupled with the Commission Statement and Guidance on Public Company Cybersecurity Disclosures announced on February 21, 2018, provides guidance for public companies and registrant firms to consider when assessing their cybersecurity programs, controls, policies and procedures, and disclosure obligations.

SEC Freezes $27 Million Related to a Blockchain/Cryptocurrency Acquisition

On April 6, 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) obtained a court order freezing more than $27 million in proceeds from alleged illegal distributions and sales of restricted shares of a public company, and charged the company, its CEO, and three other affiliated individuals. That same day, the Nasdaq Stock Market said it halted trading in the company’s stock. The SEC’s complaint alleges that shortly after the company began trading on the Nasdaq Stock Market and announced the acquisition of a purported blockchain-empowered cryptocurrency business that its stock price rose dramatically until its market capitalization exceeded $3 billion. The SEC further alleges that the CEO and the three other individual defendants then illegally sold large blocks of their restricted shares to the public while the stock price was excessively elevated and that they collectively reaped more than $27 million in profits.

By way of background, and as alleged by the SEC, the company went public under a scaled-down version of a traditional initial public offering known as Reg A+ late last year. In December 2017, the company’s Class A shares began trading on the Nasdaq Stock Market. Two days later, the company announced that it had acquired the purported blockchain-empowered cryptocurrency business from another entity. The SEC alleges that one of the individual defendants held at least a 92% stake in this entity. The SEC further alleges that — notwithstanding that this acquired business had no ascertainable value — the company’s stock price rose excessively and quickly after said acquisition. Specifically, by December 18, 2017, the company’s stock price rose to a high of $142.82 per share; an increase of nearly 550% from the prior day’s closing price and about 2,670% above the company’s closing price on its first day of trading just several days earlier.

This action serves as yet another example of the SEC’s heightened and aggressive focus in this area. As we discussed previously on this blog, one of the focus areas for the SEC’s Cyber Unit that was created just last September is “Violations involving distributed ledger technology and initial coin offerings.” More recently, the financial press reported that the SEC had launched a “sweep” in this area by serving subpoenas and information requests on technology companies and investment management firms and brokers doing business in the virtual currency markets.

Returning to the SEC’s $27 million freeze action here, the SEC alleged only registration offering violations against the defendants. This may not be the last of the charges, however, as the SEC described this as a “continuing investigation” in its press release.

The CFTC and DOJ Crack Down Harder on Spoofing & Supervision

Last week, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) filed their most significant and aggressive actions against spoofers and the firms employing them for failing to supervise. The CFTC filed settled actions against each of the global firms for supervisory violations, amongst other charges, and the CFTC charged six individuals with alleged commodities fraud and spoofing schemes. In the parallel criminal actions, the DOJ announced criminal charges against eight individuals (the six charged by the CFTC plus two others). The CFTC’s and DOJ’s coordinated and complex investigative efforts and filings indicate increased aggressiveness by both in this area. Further, these efforts represent the greatest amount of cooperation ever between the CFTC and DOJ. As reported previously in this blog post, with the affirmation of the conviction of high-frequency trader Michael Coscia, we are likely witnessing a CFTC and a DOJ emboldened to investigate and prosecute spoofing and related supervisory violations.

In terms of learning points from these actions, the CFTC continues to investigate and charge firms for failing to supervise this type of manipulative trading. This now appears to be a standard part of the CFTC’s “playbook” for these matters. Each of the firms settled to supervisory violations and as part of the CFTC’s remedies they further agreed to: continue to maintain surveillance systems to detect spoofing; ensure personnel “promptly” review reports generated by such systems and follow‑up as necessary if potential manipulative trading is identified; and maintain training programs regarding spoofing, manipulation, and attempted manipulation. Further, as part of its ongoing efforts to tout its self-reporting and cooperation programs, the CFTC acknowledged each firm’s cooperation during the investigations, and that one of the firms self-reported in response to a firm-initiated internal investigation. That said, it is difficult to interpret the benefits of this cooperation and self-reporting because the CFTC nevertheless levied significant penalties of $30 million, $15 million, and $1.6 million against the firms.

Another important point to highlight is that one of the individuals charged was a service provider who allegedly aided and abetted traders by designing software used to spoof and engage in a manipulative and deceptive scheme. According to the CFTC, this individual and his company aided and abetted the spoofing by designing a process that automatically and continuously modified the trader’s spoofing orders by one lot to move them to the back of relevant order queues (to minimize their chance of being executed) and cancelled all spoofing orders at one price level as soon as any portion of an order was executed. It appears from the parallel criminal complaint filed against this individual that the trader he is alleged to have assisted was likely Navinder Sarao, who previously pled guilty to criminal charges for engaging in manipulative conduct through spoofing-type activity involving E-mini S&P futures contracts traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange between April 2010 and April 2015, including illicit trading that contributed to the May 6, 2010 “Flash Crash.” He also settled a CFTC enforcement action related to the same conduct. As part of his plea, Mr. Sarao entered into a cooperation agreement with the government (previously reported here) and it appears as though these actions may be related to Mr. Sarao’s cooperation.

The DOJ’s announcement of the latest round of charges also signals a heightened focus on spoofing cases by “Main Justice” in Washington, and the Criminal Fraud Section in particular. The announcement by Acting Assistant Attorney General John P. Cronan commended no fewer than eight Fraud Section prosecutors by name (as well as a prosecutor from Connecticut). In doing so, DOJ signaled its willingness to invest substantial resources in criminal manipulative trading prosecutions that will complement and further reinforce the efforts of the CFTC and the U.S. Attorneys’ Offices in key jurisdictions, including the Northern District of Illinois (which prosecuted Mr. Coscia).

In conclusion, with the CFTC’s and DOJ’s recent spoofing and supervisory cases, they have sent several important messages. First, and least surprising, this area will remain a top priority for the CFTC and we will continue to see increased collaboration with the DOJ. Additionally, with these filings and the supervisory charges filed against other firms over the past year, it appears to now be a matter of routine that the CFTC will be pursuing any supervisory violations related to the underlying spoofing violations. A new takeaway is that the CFTC and DOJ will be investigating other entities, such as vendors, who provide services that help facilitate this violative conduct and investigating them for aiding and abetting. Finally, it is likely that the Fraud Section will take an increasingly prominent role in the DOJ’s anti-spoofing prosecutions, and will continue to develop expertise in this expanding area of criminal enforcement.

Bitcoin Prices Continue Volatile Surge Despite Increasing Regulatory Scrutiny

In recent days, Bitcoin prices have surged past $11,000 before dropping back to around $10,000. This represents a more than 1000% growth since the start of 2017. In the last month alone, the price has more than doubled. This surge follows the announcement by the CME Group, the world’s leading derivatives marketplace, to launch Bitcoin futures on December 18. CBOE Global Markets Inc. also intends to launch a Bitcoin futures soon. Both received a green light from the CFTC today, December 1, through the process of self-certification – a pledge that the products do not run afoul of the law. There are also rumors that NASDAQ will launch a futures contract based on Bitcoin in 2018.

Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, a digital asset designed to work as a medium of exchange using cryptography to secure the transaction and verify the transfer of assets with no need for a bank or other middleman. It is one of many new virtual currencies. Many startups have attempted “Initial Coin Offerings” or ICOs to raise funds in an attempt to create a new virtual currency. Other startups have attempted to launch various platforms as exchanges or ways to utilize Bitcoin and similar virtual currencies.

The SEC, CFTC, and other regulators in the United States and around the world are taking an active role in regulating Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies and bringing enforcement actions when necessary.

As early as 2013, the SEC’s office of Investor Education and Advocacy issued an investor alert on Ponzi schemes using virtual currencies. In July of this year, the SEC Division of Enforcement issued an investigative report “cautioning market participants that offers and sales of digital assets by ‘virtual’ organizations are subject to the requirements of the federal securities laws.” In March of 2017, the SEC rejected a bitcoin ETF on the basis that “significant markets for bitcoin are unregulated.” So far, no ETFs have been approved. In August, the SEC temporarily suspended the trading activity of three public companies that indicated they were likely to engage in an “initial coin offering” for a new digital currency. Earlier this month, the SEC Division of Enforcement issued a statement warning that celebrity endorsements of initial coin offerings and similar investments may be unlawful if they “do not disclose the nature, source, and amount of any compensation paid, directly or indirectly, by the company in exchange for the endorsement.”

Since 2015, the CFTC has taken the position that it views Bitcoin and other virtual currencies as commodities under the Commodity Exchange Act. Coinflip operated a trading platform with put and call options for Bitcoins in 2014 but did not follow regulations under the Commodity Exchange Act. Coinflip agreed to a settlement with the CFTC. It was not subject to a fine but was required to cease and desist from violating the act as well as subject to additional undertakings. As part of its order, the CFTC for the first time found that Bitcoin and other virtual currencies are properly defined as commodities. Aitan Goelman, the CFTC’s Director of Enforcement, commented: “While there is a lot of excitement surrounding Bitcoin and other virtual currencies, innovation does not excuse those acting in this space from following the same rules applicable to all participants in the commodity derivatives markets.” On October 4, 2017, the CFTC issued a “Primer on Virtual Currencies.” The primer warns of the extensive risk of fraud with virtual currencies and reaffirms the CFTC’s enforcement authority.

Bitcoin’s future is still uncertain. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein tweeted in October that “Still thinking about #Bitcoin. No conclusion – not endorsing/rejecting. Know that folks also were skeptical when paper money displaced gold.” Others have made up their mind. At a Barclay’s conference in September, J.P. Morgan’s Jaime Dimon called Bitcoin “a fraud worse than tulip bulbs.” A common critique of Bitcoin is that it is mostly used by tax evaders, money launders, and others wanting to avoid government scrutiny. Such secrecy may not last. The IRS recently won a court victory over Coindesk, one of the top Bitcoin exchanges, in a demand for a list of all Bitcoin users making transactions worth more than $20,000. The case is U.S. v. Coinbase, 17-01431, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).

Companies utilizing virtual currencies may be using the money of the future, but they will face the regulators of today.

7th Circuit Affirms 1st Conviction For Spoofing

Spoofing is not going away after all. Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit unanimously upheld the first-ever criminal conviction for spoofing. The case, United States v. Coscia, 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 16-3017, involved a multi-count indictment against futures trader Michael Coscia. The indictment alleged that Coscia engaged in illegal trading by employing computer algorithms that engaged in market activity that violated the anti-spoofing laws created and adopted as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. The indictment alleged that Coscia traded in a variety of futures products and made over $1.4 million as a result of his illegal trading.

By way of background, spoofing involves placing bids or offers to sell futures contracts with the intent to cancel the bids or offers before execution. By placing bids or offers, which were never intended to be executed, “spoofers” create an illusion of supply or demand that can influence prices to benefit their other positions in the markets. Accordingly, Coscia placed small orders on one side of the market and then rapidly placed large orders on the opposite side to create the appearance of increased volume pressure. This apparent increased volume on the opposite side caused other market participants to trade against Coscia’s small orders. Coscia then cancelled the large “spoof” orders, which he had never intended to be executed in the first place.

After a seven-day long trial in November 2015, an Illinois federal jury found Coscia guilty of all counts in the indictment. In July 2016, the Honorable Harry D. Leinenweber sentenced Coscia to three years in prison and two years of supervised release. Coscia is currently serving his sentence in a New Jersey federal prison. On appeal, Coscia and his lawyers argued that: the anti-spoofing statute was unconstitutionally vague; there was insufficient evidence at trial to support the conviction; and the district court erred in sentencing by improperly measuring the amount of the loss. The remainder of this article focuses on the Seventh Circuit’s denial of Coscia’s first two arguments.

The constitutionality of the spoofing laws has remained controversial since their adoption. Now, however – with a unanimous opinion – the Seventh Circuit has upheld their constitutionality.  In fact, the language of the opinion so clearly supports constitutionality that the panel appears dismissive of Coscia’s arguments. “The anti‐spoofing provision provides clear notice and does not allow for arbitrary enforcement,” U.S. Circuit Judge Kenneth Ripple wrote. “Consequently, it is not unconstitutionally vague.” United States v. Coscia, No. 16-3017, 2017 WL 3381433 at *1, — F.3d – (7th Cir. Aug. 7, 2017), available here.

The Seventh Circuit also held that based on the evidence presented at trial, a reasonable trier of fact could have concluded that Coscia had the requisite intent. The Seventh Circuit specifically reviewed the evidence of Coscia’s purposeful design and use of two computer algorithmic trading programs which were designed to repeatedly place small buy or sell orders in the market, followed by the rapid placement and cancellation of large orders on the opposite side of the market of his small orders. The Seventh Circuit pointed to the testimony of the designer of Coscia’s computer algorithms, as evidence of Coscia’s intent. At trial, this witness explained that the programs he designed for Coscia were meant to “act like a decoy.” Id. at *4. Although the Seventh Circuit noted that there was not a “single piece of evidence” (id. at *10) that necessarily established spoofing, it concluded that based on the totality of the evidence at trial, a rational trier of fact could conclude that “Mr. Coscia engaged in this behavior in order to inflate or deflate the price of certain commodities,” and “[h]is trading accordingly also constituted commodities fraud[.]” Id. at *15.

While the Seventh Circuit did not provide specific factors or elements to be cited to in the future regarding spoofing, the Seventh Circuit did detail its analysis of the evidence to support its affirmation of the conviction.

A review of the trial evidence reveals the following. First, Mr. Coscia’s cancellations represented 96% of all Brent futures cancellations on the Intercontinental Exchange during the two‐month period in which he employed his software. Second, on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, 35.61% of his small orders were filled, whereas only 0.08% of his large orders were filled. Similarly, only 0.5% of his large orders were filled on the Intercontinental Exchange. Third, the designer of the programs, Jeremiah Park, testified that the programs were designed to avoid large orders being filled.   Fourth, Park further testified that the “quote orders” were “[u]sed to pump [the] market,” suggesting that they were designed to inflate prices through illusory orders.   Fifth, according to one study, only 0.57% of Coscia’s large orders were on the market for more than one second, whereas 65% of large orders entered by other high‐frequency traders were open for more than a second. Finally, Mathew Evans, the senior vice president of NERA Economic Consulting, testified that Coscia’s order‐to‐trade ratio was 1,592%, whereas the order‐to‐trade ratio for other market participants ranged from 91% to 264%. As explained at trial, these figures “mean[] that Michael Coscia’s average order [was] much larger than his average trade”—i.e., it further suggests that the large orders were placed, not with the intent to actually consummate the transaction, but rather to shift the market toward the artificial price at which the small orders were ultimately traded.

We believe that, given this evidence, a rational trier of fact easily could have found that, at the time he placed his orders, Mr. Coscia had the “intent to cancel before execution.” (emphasis added). Id. at *10.

In conclusion, the Seventh Circuit’s opinion provides us with several takeaways:

  • Spoofing is not going away, and this ruling will embolden prosecutors and the futures regulators. This likely qualifies as the most successful prosecution to date by the Securities and Commodities Fraud Section at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois. That said, criminal investigations and prosecutions require proving violations beyond a reasonable doubt. Thus, any potential uptick in spoofing criminal cases will be tempered accordingly. Regarding the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) and the futures self-regulatory organizations, such as the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and the Intercontinental Exchange, they will continue to prioritize aggressively investigating and civilly prosecuting spoofing through their enforcement programs in light of this ruling.
  • The increased regulatory and industry emphasis on trading surveillance will continue to accelerate. For those market participants with a business model that presents a greater risk of being subjected to these investigations – if not already doing so – they need to consider implementing a trading surveillance system. Several fintech firms provide surveillance systems to market participants and other market participants (with the resources and capabilities) have developed proprietary systems internally. While not currently a regulatory requirement, the CFTC has sent messages via its enforcement program emphasizing trading surveillance by including it as part of the undertakings in two of its high-profile spoofing settlements this past year.
  • Lastly, as mentioned above, the Seventh Circuit did not provide factors or elements, but did detail the evidence that supported the conviction. In addition to the witness testimony, the Seventh Circuit discussed two quantifiable metrics that market participants can use to monitor and detect potential manipulative activity. These two metrics are the: 1) order-to-trade ratio; and 2) order duration. First, the order-to-trade compares the amount of orders entered to the amount of executed trades. Two aspects of this ratio worked to Coscia’s detriment; a) his order-to trade ratio exponentially exceeded the ratios for other market participants; and b) the large lot sizes for his placed and cancelled orders routinely and significantly exceeded the small lots sizes for his executed trades. Second, regarding order duration, the Seventh Circuit found that according to one study only 0.57% of Coscia’s large orders rested in the market for more than one second, whereas 65% of large orders entered by other high-frequency traders remained open in the market for more than one second. Thus, when compared to other market participants, the lower the order-to-trade ratio and the longer the order duration, the stronger the arguments that market participants will have to attempt to avoid investigation and prosecution. While algorithmic, high-frequency trading is very complex, these two metrics are fairly straightforward and implementing and monitoring these metrics may provide market participants with defenses to avoid a similar fate.

The CFTC Settles Another Spoofing Case

On July 26, 2017, the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”) issued an order finding that Simon Posen engaged in the “disruptive practice of ‘spoofing’ (bidding or offering with the intent to cancel the bid or offer before execution).” The CFTC’s findings, which spanned more than three years, beginning at least in December of 2011, indicated that Posen, based in New York City, had traded from his home, using his own account, in violation of Section 4c(a)(5)(C) of the Commodity Exchange Act (7 U.S.C. § 6c(a)(5)(C)), which explicitly outlaws spoofing.

The CFTC found Posen placed thousands of orders in gold, silver, copper, and crude oil futures contracts with the intent to cancel them before execution. These orders were placed so as to move the market prices so that smaller orders, which he would also place on the other side of the market, would be filled.

The CFTC permanently banned Posen from trading in any market regulated by the CFTC and from applying for registration or claiming exemption from registration with the CFTC, ordered him to cease and desist from spoofing, and penalized him $635,000. Posen settled without admitting or denying any of the CFTC’s findings or conclusions. James McDonald, Director of the CFTC’s Division of Enforcement, made clear that spoofing prosecutions remain a priority for the CFTC and people, like Posen, “will face severe consequences.”

Under the new leadership at the CFTC — the future marches on —with a continuing aggressive emphasis on the investigation and civil prosecution of manipulative trading and in particular spoofing. The CME Group had initially investigated aspects of Posen’s trading on two occasions and ordered a $75,000 fine and five-week trading bar and subsequently, for other activity, ordered a $90,000 fine and four-week trading bar. Drinker Biddle will continue to monitor the CFTC’s and CME’s actions so as to provide continuing analysis and counseling for our clients.

The Future of Futures: High-Speed Trading and CFTC Regulation & Enforcement

The future is now.

On June 29, 2017, the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry voted overwhelmingly to confirm the nomination of J. Christopher Giancarlo as Chairman of the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”), paving the way for his nomination to move forward to consideration on the floor of the U.S. Senate. Within two hours of this announcement, the CFTC announced its first non-prosecution agreements. These agreements and the related “spoofing” cases are discussed in more detail below. These same-day announcements reflect the advancing ambitious agenda outlined by Acting Chairman Giancarlo in his speech entitled “CFTC: A New Direction Forward,” given on March 15, 2017. Acting Chairman Giancarlo has since taken every opportunity to advise the industry of his goals to reduce regulatory burdens, modernize the agency, and maintain the CFTC’s aggressive enforcement efforts. All the while, the industry awaits the opinion of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in the U.S. v. Coscia criminal trial and the opinion of the Honorable Judge Richard Sullivan from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in the CFTC v. Wilson and DRW Investments, LLC bench trial.

A NEW DIRECTION FORWARD

In his “CFTC: A New Direction Forward” speech, Acting Chairman Giancarlo admonished:

So much policymaking, rulemaking, and thought have been directed at building a regulatory superstructure that ostensibly would prevent another 2008-style crisis that we’ve lost sight of the emerging challenges just ahead and what is the right regulatory response …. America’s derivatives markets are struggling, in some cases, under the weight of flawed and excessive regulation …. Accordingly, financial market regulators, like the CFTC, must pursue their missions to foster open, transparent, competitive and financially sound markets in ways that best foster American economic growth and prosperity.

Acting Chairman Giancarlo also used this platform to announce “Project KISS”:

I am today announcing the launch of Project KISS, which stands for “Keep It Simple Stupid.” Project KISS will be an agency-wide review of CFTC rules, regulations and practices to make them simpler, less burdensome and less costly.

On May 9, 2017, the CFTC officially published its request for comments for Project KISS, seeking comments in these five areas:

  • “Registration” – addressing becoming registered and regulated by the CFTC;
  • “Reporting” – pertaining to all reporting requirements, including swap data and recordkeeping;
  • “Clearing” – pertaining to clearing services with respect to futures contracts, options on futures contracts, or swaps;
  • “Executing” – relating to marketplace transactions of futures and swaps; and
  • A miscellaneous category for anything not related to the four topic areas described above.

Comments are due by September 30, 2017.

On May 17, 2017, Acting Chairman Giancarlo gave a speech entitled “LabCFTC: Engaging Innovators in Digital Financial Markets.” He described this initiative as follows, “Simply put, LabCFTC is intended to help us bridge the gap from where we are today to where we need to be: Twenty-First century regulation for 21st century digital markets.” He further advised:

The world is changing. Our parents’ financial markets are gone. The 21st century digital transformation is well underway. The digital technology genie won’t go back in the bottle. Nor should it.

Yet, despite these 21st century innovations, the CFTC remains stuck in a 20th century time warp. Most of the CFTC’s rulebook for listed futures was written for 20th century analog markets, in which trading pits in Kansas City, Minneapolis, New York and Chicago conducted open outcry trading with colorful shouting and distinctive hand signals. Today, those trading pits are dormant, largely supplanted with electronic trade execution by remote software algorithms and, increasingly, artificial intelligence. Yet, CFTC oversight is still founded on recognition of such occupations as “floor traders” and “floor brokers.”

Thus, in just a few months the Acting Chairman has started to put his agenda into action. Assuming their pending nominations are successful, Commissioner Nominees Brian D. Quintenz and Dawn DeBerry Stump will assuredly be supporters of the Acting Chairman’s plans. This anticipated support, coupled with the June 20, 2017 announcement of Commissioner Sharon Y. Bowen’s resignation, provides the soon-to-be confirmed Chairman with a virtual mandate.

“REG AT”

For almost two years, the most controversial regulatory initiative of the CFTC in decades involves its ongoing efforts for Proposed Rulemaking on Regulation Automated Trading (“Reg AT”). Below we briefly summarize this history and analyze the Acting Chairman’s views regarding Reg AT.

On November 24, 2015, the CFTC announced unanimous approval of a comprehensive proposed rule known as Reg, AT that “takes a multilevel approach by proposing risk control and other requirements for: (a) market participants using algorithmic trading systems (ATSs), who are defined as ‘AT Persons’ in the rulemaking; (b) clearing member futures commission merchants (FCMs) with respect to their AT Person customers; and (c) DCMs executing AT Person orders.”

This rule was approved unanimously, however, then-Commissioner Giancarlo publicly expressed his reservations. Despite his approval vote, Commissioner Giancarlo cautioned:

I am unaware of any other industry where the federal government has such easy access to a firm’s intellectual property and future business strategies. Other than possibly in the area of national defense and security, I question whether the federal government has similarly unfettered access to the future business strategy of any American industrial sector. Does the SEC require such access from its registrants? Do other agencies in the federal government have ready access to businesses’ intellectual property and business strategies?

In response to the comments received, on November 4, 2016, the CFTC approved a supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking to Reg. AT (“Supplemental NPRM”). This Supplemental NPRM “amends and streamlines certain requirements of the NPRM.” This time though, Commissioner Giancarlo dissented and highlighted his ongoing concerns regarding the source code issues:

I have previously said that proposed Regulation Automated Trading (Reg AT) is a well-meaning attempt by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC or Commission) to catch up to the digital revolution in U.S. futures markets. However, I have also raised some concerns ranging from the prescriptive compliance burdens to the disproportionate impact on small market participants to the regulatory inconsistencies of the proposed rule. I have also warned that any public good achieved by the rule is undone by the now notorious source code repository requirement. Not surprisingly, dozens of commenters to the proposal echoed my concerns and vehemently opposed the source code requirement.

The Supplemental NPRM was published in the Federal Register on November 25, 2016 with a 90-day comment period. At the end of the 90-day comment period on January 24, 2017, the CFTC extended the comment period until May 1, 2017, when the comment period closed.

COMPARABLE & RECOMMENDED PRINCIPLES-BASED REG AT APPROACHES

By way of background, in March 2015, the Futures Industry Association (“FIA”) published its Guide to the Development and Operation of Automated Trading Systems (“FIA AT Guidelines”) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (“FINRA”) issued Regulatory Notice 15-09 (“NTM 15-09”). Both FIA’s and FINRA’s guidance provided principles-based approaches, as opposed to the more proscriptive approaches for regulating algorithmic trading outlined in the Reg AT proposals.

In the securities industry, NTM 15-09 is applicable to FINRA member broker-dealer firms.  This regulatory notice, however, does not require furnishing source code to regulators. Rather, NTM 15-09 provides that participants: archive source code versions in a retrievable manner for a period of time that is reasonable in view of the firm’s size and the complexity of its algorithmic trading programs and maintain, at a minimum, a basic summary description of algorithmic strategies that enables supervisory, compliance, and regulatory staff to understand the intended function of an algorithm without the need to resort, as an initial matter, to direct code review. Regarding the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”), its books and records rules are very broad, but do not specifically articulate and address source code. From a policy perspective, the SEC most assuredly will interpret the current statutory language broadly to cover source code. That said, source code is not specifically required to be made available to the SEC by any statute or rule in the federal securities laws. In practice, only one group in the SEC’s Office of Compliance Inspections and Examinations seeks source code: the Quantitative Analytics Unit. The SEC’s Division of Enforcement only obtains source code on strategic occasions when warranted and by subpoena after obtaining a Formal Order of Investigation. Prosecutors in federal criminal investigations conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice only obtain source code pursuant to a grand jury subpoena. By way of perspective, in the U.S. v. Coscia case, there is no indication in the court docket or in the public record to indicate that the prosecution used source code as evidence to establish guilt.

In analyzing the recent Reg AT comment letters submitted by May 1, 2017, all corners of the industry weighed in: Futures Commission Merchants (“FCMs”); proprietary trading firms; commodity trading advisors; financial technology firms servicing the industry; the FIA; and designated contract markets (“DCMs”) / exchanges. Regarding the latter, the comment letter submitted by the CME Group Inc. (“CME”) attempted to forecast and provide for a principles-based approach for Reg AT by attaching as Appendix A to its comment letter a “Principles-Based Alternative to Reg AT.” The CME also cited the FIA AT Guidelines, “However, our recommended approach is much more in line with the best practices already developed by the industry and set forth in, for example, the Futures Industry Association’s Principal Traders Group’s Recommendations for Risk Controls for Trading Firms and FIA’s Guide to the Development and Operation of Automated Trading Systems.”

Interestingly, the CME, one of the world’s largest and primary futures DCM groups, liberally borrowed from the securities industry and FINRA’s NTM 15-09:

We find FINRA’s guidance on this topic to be instructive, and we would expect that many of FINRA’s suggested actions would demonstrate compliance with our proposed requirement. FINRA states that those engaged in algorithmic strategies should consider:

  • Implementing controls, monitors, alerts, and reconciliation processes that enable the firm to quickly identify whether an algorithm is experiencing unintended results that may indicate a failure at the firm or in the market;
  • Periodically evaluating the firm’s controls and associated policies and procedures to assure that they remain adequate to manage access and changes to the firm’s infrastructure including, but not limited to, the hardware, connectivity, and algorithms;
  • Implementing a protocol to track and record significant system problems;
  • Documenting and periodically reviewing parameter settings for the firm’s risk controls, and making any parameter changes deemed appropriate;
  • Implementing checks on downstream market impacts;
  • Making system capacity scalable to the extent a firm anticipates growth and peak levels of market activity such as messaging volume;
  • Implementing security measures to limit code access and control system entitlements;
  • Placing appropriate controls and limitations on a trader’s ability to overwrite or otherwise evade system controls; and
  • Implementing controls to manage outbound message volume via threshold parameters.

Over the years, the CFTC and CME have periodically found themselves entrenched on the opposite sides of significant industry issues. We believe that this is not one of those times – that if and when the CFTC takes further action regarding Reg AT – it will adopt a principles-based approach, in line with the CME’s proposal and NTM 15-09.

CONTINUING FOCUS ON MANIPULATIVE TRADING & SPOOFING

Acting Chairman Giancarlo has repeatedly stated that his agenda includes reducing regulatory burdens – as described above – but he has also unequivocally made clear his intent to continue the CFTC’s aggressive enforcement efforts. While at first glance these two goals may seem contrary, historically this approach has been periodically utilized at the CFTC (and SEC) when more industry-friendly regulatory agendas were pursued while strict enforcement of the laws against bad actors remained a priority. In his “CFTC: A New Direction Forward” speech, the Acting Chairman sternly advised:

But, as I mention the CFTC’s Division of Enforcement, let me take this moment to warn those who may seek to cheat or manipulate our markets: you will face aggressive and assertive enforcement action by the CFTC under the Trump Administration. There will be no pause, let up or reduction in our duty to enforce the law and punish wrongdoing in our derivatives markets. The American people are counting on us.

CFTC Enforcement’s Recent Manipulative Trading Actions

Turning specifically to CFTC enforcement efforts, one of the most pressing enforcement priorities remains investigating and prosecuting manipulative trading and, more specifically, spoofing. The CFTC’s Enforcement Division’s efforts in this area have continued to be aggressive from the start of Acting Chairman Giancarlo’s tenure. Specifically, on January 19, 2017, the CFTC settled a spoofing case against a large, well-known FCM affiliated with a U.S.-based global bank. The manipulative trading occurred in U.S. Treasury futures and this FCM also settled failure to supervise charges. In settling the charges, the FCM paid $25 million in penalties and agreed to certain undertakings. The undertakings related to the failure to supervise charge. They included “Procedures and Controls to Detect Spoofing Activity.” More specifically, this undertaking includes a requirement that this FCM maintain systems and controls that: are reasonably designed to detect spoofing; at a minimum be designed to detect and generate a report regarding patterns of trading that “might” constitute spoofing activity, such as the placement and rapid cancellation of large-lot futures orders; and that the FCM’s personnel shall promptly review such reports and follow-up as necessary to determine whether spoofing activity has occurred. In short, the CFTC required this FCM to implement/maintain a manipulative trading surveillance system to detect and prevent spoofing (as was the case with the CFTC v. Oystacher and 3 Red Trading LLC settlement).

On March 30, 2017, in related individual cases, the CFTC charged two of this FCM’s traders with spoofing. The traders both agreed to a six-month ban from trading in the futures markets. That same day, Acting Chairman Giancarlo appointed former federal prosecutor, James McDonald, as the Director of the CFTC’s Enforcement Division. Under Director McDonald’s leadership, on June 2, 2017, the CFTC permanently banned another individual trader from trading in CFTC regulated markets for engaging in spoofing and other manipulative trading. Director McDonald used the announcement of this case as the first platform for him to share his views on this priority area for CFTC enforcement: “Today’s enforcement action demonstrates that the Commission will aggressively pursue individuals who manipulate and spoof in our markets.”

On June 29, 2017, three additional traders for the FCM matters described above entered into the CFTC’s first non-prosecution agreements, while each also admitted to engaging in “spoofing.” Director McDonald credited these traders with – readily admitting their own wrongdoing, identifying misconduct of others, and providing valuable information – “all of which expedited our [the CFTC’s] investigation and strengthened our cases against the other wrongdoers.”

Industry-Impactful Opinions Are Coming

As mentioned at the start, the industry awaits the Seventh Circuit opinion for the U.S. v. Coscia criminal trial and the opinion of the Hon. Judge Richard Sullivan from the CFTC v. Wilson and DRW Investments, LLC bench trial. Within a matter of days, weeks, or months of each other, these two opinions will be issued and may provide case law analyses and interpretations of legal standards that may impact how the government investigates and prosecutes manipulative trading in the futures industry.

The Seventh Circuit previously heard oral arguments in the appeal of Michael Coscia’s criminal conviction from U.S. v. Coscia . Regardless of the appellate victor, it is unlikely either party will obtain a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, likely giving the Seventh Circuit the “final say.” Thus, when issued, this opinion will provide a precedential-setting legal discussion and analysis for spoofing. The bench trial for CFTC v. Wilson and DRW Investments, LLC wrapped up at the end of last year. A bench trial almost always results in a written opinion issued by the trial judge to support his or her ruling. When the Hon. Judge Richard Sullivan issues his ruling and opinion, he will provide an important legal analysis of the CFTC’s charged manipulative trading theories, including “banging the close.” If the Court rules in the CFTC’s favor, an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is virtually guaranteed. If the Court rules in the Defendants’ favor, then the Acting Chairman and his Enforcement Director will have a critical decision to make regarding whether to appeal to the Second Circuit for a case that was investigated, approved, and charged under the prior regime.

CONCLUSION / TAKEAWAYS

The future of futures continues to unfold before us as we await: a final CFTC rule for Reg AT; the comments for Project KISS; Mr. Quintenz and Mrs. Stump to take their chairs at the Commission; and the Coscia and DRW Investment LLC opinions, amongst other developments. As discussed above, Acting Chairman Giancarlo’s agenda will be the driving force behind where the agency’s priorities take the industry. For firms and traders to attempt to address all of these evolving dynamics, here are some recommended takeaways:

  • Reg AT will likely be finalized and passed in some form. Virtually all commenters repeatedly agreed that some form of rulemaking and increased regulation for high-speed, algorithmic trading is appropriate. That said, based on the Acting Chairman’s repeated public statements, we should anticipate that Reg. AT may ultimately look very different from how the CFTC first proposed it. These authors, along with numerous commenters and industry participants, believe that it will ultimately be principles-based.
  • With Project KISS, industry participants should anticipate reduced regulatory burdens and a more modernized regulator, monitor these developments, and adjust their business models accordingly.
  • While regulatory burdens may be reduced, the CFTC will continue to aggressively pursue investigations into manipulative trading and, in particular, spoofing. The prospects of traders being investigated for this conduct do not appear to be declining. Thus, for every order and cancel entered, a bona fide and reasonable basis to support that trading decision is a must. A possible appropriate way to justify and defend these trading decisions may be by preparing a daily or weekly log appropriately describing the contemporaneous, bona fide reasoning for the trading strategies. As for the firms, the CFTC is investigating and charging firms with failing to supervise related to these violations. It also is requiring surveillance as an undertaking. Firms should heed the messages the CFTC is sending and assess their compliance and supervisory processes, policies, and procedures to obtain appropriate assurances that they can reasonably detect and prevent manipulative trading and spoofing.

Acting Chairman Giancarlo and his ambitious agenda make this an exciting time for the futures industry and, from a regulatory perspective, the future looks bright. But for those continuing to manipulate or attempt to manipulate the markets, their futures remain bleak.