– Goldman to pay $22 million to settle ‘huddles’ case (Reuters, April 12, 2012):
Goldman Sachs (GS.N) agreed to pay $22 million to settle civil charges arising from company procedures that created the risk select clients would receive market-sensitive information, such as changes to Goldman’s recommendation lists and its ratings of stocks.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority said the charges stemmed from Goldman’s weekly “huddles,” at which the bank encouraged its stock research analysts to share trading ideas with the company’s traders.
Those traders then passed tips to a select group of top clients, the SEC said, but the agency’s charges did not include any allegations of insider trading.
Instead the SEC said that Goldman policy required broad distribution of any “new material statements,” such as changes to ratings, price targets, earnings forecast and coverage views.
But Goldman revised the policy in 2006, as the company was placing more emphasis on its huddles programs, the SEC said, to exclude “internal messages commenting on short-term trading issues or market color.”
“Higher-risk trading and business strategies require higher-order controls,” said Robert Khuzami, the SEC’s enforcement director.
“Despite being on notice from the SEC about the importance of such controls, Goldman failed to implement policies and procedures that adequately controlled the risk that research analysts could preview upcoming ratings changes with select traders and clients.”
Goldman agreed to pay the penalty, split between the two regulators, and revise its policies to correct the problem.
A spokesman for the bank, Michael DuVally, said Goldman was pleased to resolve the matter.
The regulators said the weekly huddles took place from 2006 to 2011 and that analysts would discuss “high-conviction” short-term trading ideas and other “market color” with traders.
Then in 2007, Goldman launched a program called the Asymmetric Service Initiative that allowed research analysts to call a select group of priority clients.
According to the settlement with FINRA, Goldman at times failed to properly monitor the conversations that took place in the huddles to determine whether any previews of upcoming research changes were discussed.
In late 2008, for instance, FINRA said one analyst had received approval to add a company to a Goldman’s list of best investment ideas.
The next day in a huddle, the analyst told the others that the company remained a “favorite idea.”
The following day, FINRA said, Goldman published a report adding the stock to its “conviction buy list.”
Goldman settled a parallel civil case over the huddles with Massachusetts securities regulators in 2011 in which the bank paid a $10 million fine and admitted to certain factual findings, an unusual occurrence for civil settlements.
In the SEC and FINRA statements on the settlement, the bank admitted to the same facts it admitted in the Massachusetts case.
Goldman’s settlements follow a major 2003 deal, wherein a group of big Wall Street firms including Goldman negotiated a $1.4 billion settlement over allegations that they issued overly optimistic research on companies to win their investment banking business.
As part of that settlement, 10 banks agreed to separate their research and banking businesses with a so-called “Chinese wall” to avoid conflicts of interest.
At issue in the Thursday agreement is whether Goldman was meeting the terms and spirit of the earlier settlement.
The SEC said it considers “a variety of factors, including prior enforcement actions,” to determine what sanction to impose.