High-frequency trader indicted under new rule

A New Jersey-based high-frequency trader is the first person to be prosecuted under a new law that cracks down on abusive commodities trading, the Department of Justice said Thursday.

An indictment was returned Wednesday against Michael Coscia, the manager and sole owner of Panther Energy Trading LLC of Red Bank, New Jersey. He marks the first federal prosecution under an anti-spoofing provision that was included in the 2010 revamp of financial regulation called the Dodd-Frank Act.

Spoofing involves an investor making a large order and then canceling it almost immediately. In the intervening period, other investors have seen the “buy” order as a sign of demand and respond to get ahead of what they think are rising prices. This seller benefits from the artificially inflated price.

Prosecutors allege that Coscia, 52, designed two computer programs that he allegedly used in trading 17 different markets on the CMO Group exchange in Chicago and in three different markets on the London-based ICE Futures Europe exchange. He traded in gold, soybean meal, high-grade copper and numerous other commodities.

What makes the prosecution different is that Coscia was a high-frequency trader, meaning his company deployed automated high-speed computer trading that relies on computer algorithms to buy or sell large volumes of orders in milliseconds.

This trading practice came under fire earlier this year with the publishing of noted author Michael Lewis’s book Flash Boys. Lewis documented what he alleged is a scheme to artificially pull up the price of stocks and other financial instruments at the expense of the retirement investments held by average folks.

Specifically, prosecutors allege that Coscia devised his programs to create a false impression about the number of financial contracts available for trade in a given market and then fraudulently induced other market players to react to the deceptive information. It allowed him, said prosecutors, to purchase contracts at lower prices than available in the market or sell them at higher prices than the market was bearing.

The Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois and the FBI’s Chicago office investigated Coscia together. Assistant U.S. Attorney Renato Mariotti is representing the government in the case that is sure to be closely watched in the financial sector.

The indictment is not Coscia’s first run-in with regulators. Britain’s financial regulator, known by the acronym FCA, fined the New Jersey man more than $903,000 in July 2013 for deploying a deceptive practice called “layering” when trading contracts for future delivery of crude oil.