The Hunt for Steve Cohen, founder of SAC Capital, the $14 billion hedge fund, who some regard as the most successful stock picker of his time.

June 2013

The Hunt for Steve Cohen

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With arrest after arrest in a massive, seven-year insider-trading investigation, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara is getting closer to the biggest fish of them all: Steve Cohen, founder of SAC Capital, the $14 billion hedge fund, who some regard as the most successful stock picker of his time. C.E.O.’s have fallen, lives and companies have been upturned, but Cohen has thus far escaped. Bryan Burrough and Bethany McLean go deep inside Bharara’s probe—and SAC’s org chart—to reveal just how much blood is in Wall Street’s waters.

By Bryan Burrough AND Bethany McLeanIllustration by André Carrilho

THAR SHE BLOWS Steve Cohen has become a focal point of a seven-year probe into insider trading, led by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara. So far, 71 people have been convicted or admitted guilt.  Twenty-five years ago Wall Street, and much of America, was transfixed by a sweeping set of insider-trading investigations centered on the greatest financier of the age, junk-bond king Michael Milken, of Drexel Burnham Lambert. Day after day, week after week, month after month, stories of U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani’s relentless investigation dribbled out to the press. One by one, Giuliani picked off Milken’s minions, confronting them at their homes, handcuffing them at their offices, pulling them before secret grand juries, indicting a few, pressing for evidence that Milken had broken the law. It all took on an inexorable quality. In their hearts, most everyone knew that Milken was going down sooner or later—and he did, paying more than $1 billion in fines and spending 22 months in prison. He was banned for life from the securities industry, and his firm was dismantled.Twenty-five years later it’s all happening again. Once more a relentless U.S. attorney, this time 44-year-old Preet Bharara, has seemingly targeted the billionaire investor Steve Cohen, founder of SAC Capital Advisors, the $14 billion hedge fund based in Stamford, Connecticut. One by one, Bharara has picked off onetime SAC traders and analysts, confronting them at their homes, pulling them before grand juries, bringing criminal cases, and pressing them for evidence that Cohen has broken insider-trading laws. So far Cohen has not been charged with anything, but there is the same sense that Bharara, like Giuliani before him, has too much invested in all this to lose. “If Steve Cohen gets off,” one hedge-fund manager observes, “he will be the O. J. Simpson of insider trading.”

In almost every way, though, today’s scandal surpasses the one that brought the Roaring 80s to an end. There have been more arrests, many more convictions; C.E.O.’s have fallen, lives and companies have been ruined, all in a campaign that has increasingly put one man in the government’s crosshairs: Steve Cohen, thought to be the most brilliant trader of his generation.

Simply reading the headlines this spring, one could be forgiven for being a bit confused. In mid-March, after years of scoffing at every suggestion any of its traders might have done something untoward, SAC agreed to pay, without admitting guilt, the largest fine in the history of the Securities and Exchange Commission, a stunning $616 million, to settle charges of insider trading in only two trades. Some on Wall Street called it a victory for Cohen, who paid a pittance—for him—to make a messy situation go away. Others were not so sanguine, observing—correctly—that blood was finally in the water, that an S.E.C. fine did nothing to curtail the ongoing criminal investigation, which has already led to guilty pleas from and convictions of at least five onetime SAC employees.

Cohen seems determined to ride it all out with sheer bravado. A week after the settlement, news broke that he had paid the casino owner Steve Wynn an astounding $155 million—a record sum for a U.S. collector—to buy Picasso’s Le Rêve (which Wynn had accidentally put his elbow through in 2006). Days after that revelation Cohen paid $60 million for a 10,000-square-foot, seven-bedroom mansion with ocean views, on Further Lane in East Hampton. Taken together, it all had a “Let them eat cake” quality, as if Cohen were waving his billions in the government’s face, daring it take him on.

Their looming showdown draws on themes of money, privilege, and class that define the era. Steve Cohen isn’t just another hedge-fund billionaire; he is the hedge-fund billionaire. He doesn’t live in just another Greenwich, Connecticut, mansion; he lives in the largest of them all, complete with its own two-hole golf course and Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dogsculpture adorning the driveway. Inside, the walls are festooned with paintings from his fabled collection of Impressionist and contemporary art, which includes Francis Bacon’sScreaming Pope, hanging just outside his bedroom. Doughy and clerk-like, Cohen is nevertheless the Gatsby of our age, a middle-class kid from Long Island who caught the gambling bug fleecing his high-school pals in all-night poker games. Today he tosses around his winnings in transparent attempts to join the social elite that’s never quite accepted him and his 48-year-old Puerto Rican second wife, Alex, whom he met through a dating service.

On Wall Street everyone knows the Cohen legend. The awkward kid who stood outside Merrill Lynch offices in college studying the green digital stock prices as they slid silently across screens in the window, finally deducing patterns no one else could see. The years as a wunderkind at little Gruntal & Co. during the 1980s, screaming at assistants who couldn’t keep up with his flood of trading orders.

Then came the formation of SAC at the dawn of the hedge-fund age, in 1992, its returns so enormous Cohen could demand as much as double the industry average 1.5 percent management fee and take 50 percent of investment gains, as opposed to the usual 20 percent. The jaw-dropping 70 percent returns he piled up riding the high-tech wave of 1998–99, then the even more mind-boggling 70 percent he earned betting against the very same stocks in 2000, inspired BusinessWeek to crown him “The Most Powerful Trader on Wall Street You’ve Never Heard Of.”

Cohen never wanted the attention, even after buying his Greenwich mansion and moving SAC into its new brick-and-glass headquarters on Long Island Sound. Taking a page from Milken’s book, he bought the copyright to photographs of himself—so the press couldn’t run them. He dodged reporters for years, until SAC’s name began popping up in stories about this new insider-trading investigation, at which point, in 2010, he sat for a series of exclusive interviews with Vanity Fair. “I feel like Don Quixote fighting windmills,” he groused. “There’s a perception, and I’m trying to fight that perception. I find it offensive that they lump SAC into these articles. I really do. The press, I mean, they don’t understand what the hell—they don’t understand what they’re writing about.”

Yet even Cohen would admit that this “perception”—that SAC had to be doing something illegal to make such astounding returns—had been around for a while. In the 1990s, SAC earned a reputation for pumping brokerages for advance notice of analyst recommendations, a rumor that was never proved. In the early 2000s it was known as a fund that hoovered up all available information on every conceivable stock, to the point where some of it crossed the line into illegal insider information, another suspicion that was never proved. In response Cohen beefed up SAC’s compliance department (its internal police) and began hiring a new breed of trader. The stereotypical Wall Street trader, the hard-charging, foulmouthed kid from Staten Island, began to disappear from SAC’s halls; in his place came Ph.D.’s from Harvard and Stanford, traders always referred to as “super-smart,” who took jobs at SAC over offers from Google or Microsoft. In his interviews withVanity Fair, Cohen all but admitted SAC had once steered too close to legal boundaries, necessitating a change in its culture. “Things were different then,” he acknowledged. “This was a learning process.”

But the whispers about Cohen continued to spread as SAC grew to become one of the world’s largest hedge funds, with $14 billion under management.

What you’ll hear from SAC’s supporters or Cohen’s friends is that of course the government is trying to get Steve Cohen. Why? Well, anyone who has earned those kind of returns, who charges the highest fees in the industry, who is personally worth over $10 billion, and who has done all that by trading, well, he must be using inside information to be that good, that rich.

No doubt some of the whispering is fueled by envy, as well as personal distaste—Cohen, people who know him say, can turn nasty on a dime—but SAC courted it by assembling what is by any measure one of Wall Street’s greatest information-gathering machines. It’s fueled, many believe, by the exorbitant fees SAC pays scores of Wall Street firms for processing its trades and other services; whereas other hedge funds trade via computer at fractions of a penny per share, SAC still does it the old-fashioned way, paying three to five cents, making it, by wide agreement, the largest payer of fees on Wall Street, $400 million a year by some estimates. That kind of largesse, some charge, spurs a blizzard of tips from Wall Streeters eager to ingratiate themselves with Cohen. In addition, former SAC employees have started at least 31 other funds, in which Cohen often invests, and the expectation is that the former traders will continue to feed SAC information, which is why one SAC alumnus calls Cohen “the Godfather.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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