SEC asks court to freeze accounts in Heinz insider trading inquiry

From The Guardian UK:

Regulators chasing ‘highly suspicious options trading activity’ that may have earned traders $1.7m over Buffett’s Heinz deal, Friday 15 February 2013

US regulators investigating potential insider trading in Thursday’s $23bn takeover of Heinz have asked a court to freeze the Swiss bank accounts of unnamed traders who may have speculated on the deal before its announcement.

Less than 40 hours after Berkshire Hathaway and 3G Capital announced they were together buying Heinz, the Securities and Exchange Commission said it was seeking an emergency court order freezing the Zurich-based assets of the traders and prohibiting them from destroying any evidence. The SEC said it was chasing “highly suspicious options trading activity” that may have earned the traders as much as $1.7m.

The SEC alleges that the traders knew details of the Heinz acquisition before they had been made public. “The SEC alleges that the unknown traders were in possession of material non-public information about the impending acquisition when they purchased out-of-the-money Heinz call options the day before the announcement.”

On Wall Street, the only surprise in the SEC’s announcement was its speed. The issue of insider trading was widely discussed among investors interested in Heinz after the deal. Immediately after the deal was announced, savvy investors noticed that something was odd about the Heinz option contracts.

Options are a way for investors to bet on the future price of the stock. Traders noticed that the afternoon before the deal was announced, an unusual number of Heinz options contracts – 2,593, to be exact – were bought, particularly betting that the stock would be worth at least $65 in June. Previously, Heinz stock had not been worth more than around $60 in over year.

Traders familiar with Heinz options said the contracts were bought starting at 2.22 pm on February 13, the day before the deal, and that they were bought in small lots. If that proves to be the case, the small lots may have been designed to evade attention.

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