On the heels of its successful prosecution of Michael Coscia for spoofing, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) recently secured a guilty plea and cooperation agreement in another high-profile “spoofing” case. By way of background, spoofing is the illegal practice of placing trades on the bid or offer side of a market with the intent to cancel them before execution in order to manipulate prices for personal gain. On November 9, 2016, Londoner Navinder Singh Sarao pleaded guilty to two criminal charges after losing his battle against extradition from the UK. Despite being charged with 22 counts, including wire fraud, commodities fraud, and spoofing, Mr. Sarao pleaded guilty to just two counts—one count of wire fraud, 18 U.S.C. § 1343 (which carries a maximum of 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine of $250,000) and one count of spoofing, 7 U.S.C. § 6c(a)(5)(c) and 13(a)(2) (which carries a maximum of 10 years’ imprisonment). He also acknowledged unlawful gains of at least $12,871,587.26 in trading profit as a result of his criminal actions and has agreed to forfeit that sum as part of his sentence. In addition, he has agreed to cooperate with the government, as discussed in more detail below. Although Mr. Sarao’s stated advisory sentencing guideline range is 78 to 97 months imprisonment, the DOJ will very likely seek a downward departure pursuant to Guideline § 5K1.1 as a result of his cooperation.

Mr. Sarao pleaded guilty to the following scheme. From January 2009 until at least April 2014, Mr. Sarao fraudulently traded E-mini S&P 500 futures contracts (the “E-mini”) on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (“CME”). During the relevant time period, Mr. Sarao placed thousands of orders to buy or sell futures contracts of the E-mini on one side of the market with the intent to not execute those orders at the times that he placed them. Thus, he intended to manipulate the impressions of supply and demand for E-minis so as to induce other market participants to react and either buy or sell E-mini futures in response to his deception. When the market reacted accordingly, Mr. Sarao would execute genuine orders to buy or sell E-Mini future contracts on the opposite side of the market so as to generate significant trading profits.

Mr. Sarao generated these spoof orders both manually and using automated programs. Manually, he used two techniques. In the first technique, he would place large spoof orders (2,000-Lot Spoof Orders) that he did not intend to execute on the opposite side of the market from his genuine orders to buy or sell, thereby inflating volume and, in turn, creating artificially high or low prices to his advantage. Mr. Sarao used this technique approximately 802 times and made at least $1,884,537.50 in profit as a result. His second manual technique involved placing hundreds of resting spoof orders one or two levels of price from the best bids or offers currently available on the market. Mr. Sarao thereby created a false sense of supply or demand and would then trade genuine orders on the opposite side of the market to take advantage of the artificially inflated or deflated price.

Mr. Sarao also used automated programs to further his scheme. He utilized a “dynamic layering technique” that generated a block of typically five “sell” orders that would appear in unison at different sequential price points above the then-current E-mini sell price. As the current sell price moved, Mr. Sarao’s five “sell” orders moved in concert to remain the same distance above the sell price as they originally began, which thus reduced the chance that his orders would be executed. He used this technique to artificially create market activity approximately 3,653 times between 2009 and 2014 and made at least $9,667,258.22 in profit as a result of trading on the opposite side of the market. Mr. Sarao also utilized a second automatic technique known as the “Back of the Queue” Function. This technique added one unit to a particular designated order to increase its size when another order from a market participant was entered at the same size and price point as Mr. Sarao’s order, thereby ensuring that his orders were always more expensive, bigger, and behind all the other more attractive orders that were available so that it would not be executed or purchased. This artificially inflated the volume and, in turn, the interest on one side of the market. Mr. Sarao activated this function approximately 758 times and fraudulently made at least $1,319,791.54 in profit as a result. In addition to his fraudulent and manipulative schemes, Mr. Sarao made materially false statements and misrepresentations to the Commodities Futures Trading Commission (“CFTC”), CME, and regulatory officials in the UK.

These are a few points of interest regarding this guilty plea:

  • The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Illinois, home of the Securities and Commodities Fraud Section that obtained Michael Coscia’s guilty verdict, was acknowledged by “Main Justice” for its assistance with the case. The efforts of DOJ Main Justice, in coordination with the Northern District’s Securities and Commodities Fraud Section and the CFTC, indicate the high level of importance that the federal government places on pursuing criminal manipulative trading cases, such as Sarao and Coscia.
  • Under the original indictment, the DOJ accused Mr. Sarao of reaping at least $40 million in profits as a result of these schemes. While the plea agreement required him to forfeit more than $12,000,000, on November 17, 2016, the CFTC announced in its parallel case that Mr. Sarao settled with the CFTC and agreed, among other relief, to pay $25,743,174.52 in monetary penalties and to submit to a permanent trading ban.
  • Despite having fought extradition for nearly 18 months, after he pleaded guilty, Mr. Sarao was released on bail and was permitted to return to London with an 11 p.m. to 4 a.m. curfew to continue his cooperation with the government. Such cooperation must be extraordinary for the DOJ to agree to his return to a foreign country immediately after it had obtained extradition and the guilty plea.

With its second successful prosecution of spoofing since it was formally criminalized by statute with the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, the DOJ is clearly making deterrence of such techniques one of its primary goals. Of course it is yet to be seen what type of cooperation Mr. Sarao can provide, but his lawyer told the court at his guilty plea hearing that despite his severe Asperger’s Syndrome, he had extraordinary abilities of pattern recognition. Such statements indicate that Mr. Sarao may provide technical cooperation to the DOJ in multiple, ongoing investigations, as opposed to the more usual cooperation of informing on others. With Mr. Sarao’s conviction and the Coscia appeal pending, DOJ’s ongoing efforts in this space are currently not public; however, Mr. Sarao’s cooperation may accelerate these pending investigations. With the DOJ’s and CFTC’s strong commitments to cracking down on spoofing and manipulative trading, we can expect that more DOJ and CFTC cases will be forthcoming.

The criminal case is United States v. Sarao, Case No. 15-cr-00075 (N.D. Ill.). The civil case is United States Commodity Futures Trading Commission v. Sarao, Case No. 15-cv-03398 (N.D. Ill.).