Man held over £500bn Wall Street 'flash crash'
Published 22/04/2015 | 08:35
A British man helped to trigger a £500bn US stock market crash by manipulating financial markets on a massive scale from a suburban London semi, US prosecutors have claimed.
Navinder Singh Sarao, 37, is accused of fraudulently making £27 million by using computer programmes to create fake trades on markets linked to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
US investigators say he was a major contributory factor to the so-called “Flash Crash” of May 6, 2010, when hundreds of billions of dollars was wiped off the value of the Dow Jones Industrial Average in just five minutes.
The US Department of Justice (DoJ) and the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) have simultaenously charged Navinder Singh Sarao with manipulating the financial markets, alleging he made more than $40m (£26.7m) from his activities over a period spanning more than five years.
Mr Sarao, 37, who ran his own one-man day trading company, was arrested at his parents home in Hounslow, west London, earlier today at the request of American prosecutors.
He now faces extradition to the US after separate criminal and civil charges were filed against him for illegally manipulating the markets.
Neighbours of Mr Sarao in Hounslow, west London, said he was married with two children and lived quietly in a house opposite his parents’ home, where his company Nav Sarao Futures was registered.
His parents, Nachattar Singh Sarao and Darshaw Kaur Sarao, bought the house in 1982 and have lived there ever since. Apart from a well-maintained front garden with a brick wall around it, the pre-war semi is no different from any other in the street.
One neighbour said: “They are a quiet family, they say hello and goodbye, but that’s about it. The parents both work and their son lives opposite with his wife and two daughters. No-one has ever suggested they are wealthy.”
Aitan Goelman, director of enforcement at the CFTC, said Mr Sarao was "extremely active" in the market ahead of and during the flash crash, which occurred on May 6, 2010,
"His conduct was at least significantly responsible for the order imbalance that in turn was one of the conditions that led to the flash crash," Mr Goelman continued.
Mr Sarao was "a significant factor in market imbalance,” he went on. “Market imbalance was one of the chief conditions that allowed the flash crash to occur.”
Publishing the regulator's civil complaint against Mr Sarao, Mr Goelman continued: "Protecting the integrity and stability of the U.S. futures markets is critical to ensuring a properly functioning financial system. Today’s actions make clear that the CFTC, working with its partners on the criminal side, will find and prosecute manipulators of U.S. futures markets wherever they may be.”
On that day, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by 998.5 points within a 45 minute period, before recovering to end the day down 348 points. Ripple effects were felt on markets around the world, including in the UK.
Although a final figure of the impact of the crash has not been calculated, it is estimated that hundreds of billions of pounds was wiped from the value of companies listed in the US and around the world.
The alleged actions of Mr Sarao are in part an example of the perils of high-frequency trading, a type of accelerated computer-based trading which has been blamed for increased volatility in the markets since the financial crisis.
Working alongside the CFTC, the DoJ filed a sealed criminal action charging him and his company - Nav Sarao Futures - with manipulation, attempted manipulation, spoofing and wire fraud in February.
He has been charged with one count of wire fraud, 10 counts of commodities fraud, 10 counts of commodities manipulation, and one count of “spoofing,” a practice of bidding or offering with the intent to cancel the bid or offer before execution.
The DoJ's investigation was led by the Federal Bureau of Investigations, which looked at his activities between June 2009 and April 2014, but in particular focused on his trading around the 'flash crash' in May 2010.
It is alleged that Mr Sarao "engaged in a massive effort to maniplute" the price of the E-mini S&P 500, one of the most popular financial futures markets which is based on the S&P 500 index which includes household names such as Amazon, Boeing and Bank of America.
The regulator alleges that over a course of five years, and as recently as April 6 of this year, Mr Sarao attempted to manipulate the market by a variety of "exceptionally large, aggressive and persistent spoofing tactics" - jargon for conning the market by placing false trades.
It goes on to allege that Mr Sarao used a computer-based algorithm to essentially pretend to create - or 'spoof' - sell orders, making it appear that there were multiple traders wanting to take a downward bet on the market, when in fact there were none.
The prosecuters accused Mr Sarao of using an automated trading programme to execute the scheme, which they described as "dynamic layering," involving placing a significant number of large volume sell orders at different price points at the same time to make it appear as if substantial supply existed.
Mr Sarao is then alleged to have modified the orders again and again to ensure they were close to the actual market price, only to then cancel them before they were executed.
He then profited from the turmoil which ensued through a series of well-placed bets on the futures market, it is alleged, selling futures contracts and buying them back at a lower price. Some of his actions happened within a millisecond of each other, the FBI says.
The charges have only came to light now, however, following his arrest by the Metropolitan Police on April 21, working in conjunction with the British regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority. (FCA)
Mr Sarao, who worked alone from his west London home, remains in custody, awaiting extradition to the US on the charges. A US judge has issued an order freezing the assets of both Mr Sarao, and his trading company.
However the DoJ emphasised in its statement that the charges "are merely accusations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty."
A report into the crash in September 2010, produced by the CFTC and the US Securities and Exchange Commission, found that almost 8,000 individual shares and exchange traded funds suffered price declines and subsequent rebounds as a result of the erratic trading on the E-mini S&P 500.
Many of those shares fell by as much as 15pc before recovering later in the day. However the report said that "some equities experienced even more severe price moves, both up and down."
The E-mini S&P 500 futures instrument is traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and as a result, the court filings have been made in the US District Court for the Northern District of Illionois.
According to a witness statement filed in a Chicago court by Special Agent Gregory LaBerta of the FBI, Nav Sarao Futures made £26.7m in profits between 2010 and 2014, sometimes making £500,000 in a single day.
On one day in April 2010, he is alleged to have placed around £2m of orders, then modified them 1,967 times to stay ahead of the market, before cancelling all of them.
He is said to have repeated the technique 60 times on the same day, making a profit of £550,000. His profit on the day of the Flash Crash was £588,000, it is claimed.
'Tax avoidance strategy'
Accounts for Nav Sarao Futures for the year to October 2013 - the most recently available at Companies House - show cash on the balance sheet of £7.5m.
In that year, the firm generated trading revenues of £9.07m, but the company produced a pre-tax loss of £5.7m, in part due to more than £14m of administrative expenses and costs including a £2m outflow on an unnamed capital expenditure item.
In the previous year, the company, of which Mr Sarao is the sole director, generated trading revenues of £10.5m, but posted a pre-tax loss of £28.1m due to £38.6m of expenses and costs, for which little detail is given.
However the DoJ's criminal complaint shows that Mr Sarao "took significant steps to protect his assets," which included setting up a new company, Nav Singh Milking Markets Limited, on the Caribbean island of Nevis, in late April 2010, shortly before the 'flash crash' took place.
Prosecutors also allege that two years later, in 2012, he set up International Guarantee Corporation, incorporated in nearby Anguilla, as part "of a tax avoidance strategy."
As part of the investigation in to his activities, the UK's Financial Conduct Authority sent Mr Sarao a questionnaire in May 2014. Responding to it, he claimed he was "an old school point and click prop trader" who had "always been good with reflexes and doing things quick."
In fact, the prosecutors allege he was a sophisiticated computer trader who had asked the company which provided him with trading software to deliver a number of custom automated functions, as well as asking a second software provider to build a programme "that would help disguise [his] orders more effectively."
The various filings show that in March 2010, having been contacted by the CME after placing a number of large orders which he then cancelled, he said he been showing a friend practices indulged in by "the high frequency [trading] geeks".
Two months later, he is said to have told his broker in an email that the CME had again been in touch, and this time he had "told ‘em to kiss my ass”.