The Securities and Exchange Commission today obtained an emergency court order to freeze assets in a Zurich, Switzerland-based trading account that was used to reap more than $1.7m from trading in advance of Friday’s public announcement about the acquisition of H.J. Heinz Company.
The SEC’s immediate action ensures that potentially illegal profits cannot be siphoned out of this account while the agency’s investigation of the suspicious trading continues.
In a complaint filed in federal court in Manhattan, the SEC alleges that prior to any public awareness that Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital had agreed to acquire H.J. Heinz Company in a deal valued at $28bn, unknown traders took risky bets that Heinz’s stock price would increase. The traders purchased call options the very day before the public announcement. After the announcement, Heinz’s stock rose nearly 20% and trading volume increased more than 1,700% from the prior day, placing these traders in a position to profit substantially.
'Irregular and highly suspicious options trading immediately in front of a merger or acquisition announcement is a serious red flag that traders may be improperly acting on confidential nonpublic information', said Daniel M. Hawke, Chief of the Division of Enforcement’s Market Abuse Unit.
Sanjay Wadhwa, Senior Associate Director of the SEC’s New York Regional Office, added, 'Despite the obvious logistical challenges of investigating trades involving offshore accounts, we moved swiftly to locate and freeze the assets of these suspicious traders, who now have to make an appearance in court to explain their trading if they want their assets unfrozen'.
The SEC alleges that the unknown traders were in possession of material nonpublic information about the impending acquisition when they purchased out-of-the-money Heinz call options the day before the announcement. The timing and size of the trades were highly suspicious because the account through which the traders purchased the options had no history of trading Heinz securities in the last six months. Overall trading activity in Heinz call options several days before the announcement had been minimal.
The emergency court order obtained by the SEC freezes the traders’ assets and prohibits them from destroying any evidence. The SEC’s complaint charges the unknown traders with violating Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and Rule 10b-5. In addition to the emergency relief, the SEC is seeking a final judgment ordering the traders to disgorge their ill-gotten gains with interest, pay financial penalties, and be permanently barred from future violations.