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FERC Imposes Whopping Penalty Against Bank and Traders for Allegedly Manipulating Western Power Prices

by Dan Watkiss

In a July 16 order, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) assessed civil penalties of $453 million against a British banking conglomerate (BCL) and four of its power traders for manipulating western electricity markets from from November 2006 to December 2008 in violation of the Federal Power Act (FPA) and Commission regulation 1c.2.  The bank has 30 days to pay its $435 million penalty and disgorge $34.9 million in profits plus interest from its manipulative trades; likewise, the traders have 30 days to pay penalties ranging from $1 million to $15 million each.  The bank announced that it will not pay and instead will contest the finding of market manipulation in federal court.  The penalties are among the highest FERC has ever assessed under the authority Congress conferred on it in 2005 to police market manipulation.

FERC’s Office of Enforcement launched its investigation of BCL in July 2007, culminating in an October 2012 FERC order directing the bank and its traders to show cause why they should not be found guilty of market manipulation and assessed penalties.  Following the investigation, FERC concluded that the bank and traders traded fixed price products not to profit from the relationship between the market fundamentals of supply and demand, but rather to move the daily Index Price in favor of BCL’s long or short financial swap positions at the four most liquid western trading locations:  Mid-Columbia, Palo Verde, North Path 15 and South Path 15. According to FERC’s July 16 order, Enforcement Staff’s investigation unearthed a trove of communications among the BCL’s traders describing the allegedly manipulative scheme and affirming their intent to effectuate it, including so-called “speaking” documents in which traders describe their efforts “to drive price,” “move” the Index and “protect” their swap positions.

As amended to include an anti-manipulation rule modeled on the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Rule 10b-5, the Federal Power Act and FERC’s implementing regulations prohibit an entity from: (1) using a fraudulent device, scheme or artifice to defraud or to engage in a course of business that operates as a fraud or deceit; (2) with the requisite intent; (3) in connection with the purchase, sale or transmission of electric energy subject to the jurisdiction of the Commission.  The Act also empowers FERC to assess a civil penalty of up to $1 million per day, per violation against any person who violates Part II of the FPA (including section 222 of the FPA) or any rule or order thereunder.  As it has in other prosecutions for market manipulation, FERC rejected BCL’s defense that “open market” trading is per se not manipulative.

The July 16 order is noteworthy not only for the amount of penalties FERC assessed, but also for the procedural history of the BCL investigation.  The bank and traders chose to forego their right to an evidentiary hearing before a FERC judge and instead had the Office of Enforcement’s proposed findings of manipulation submitted directly to the Commission for its determination.  The [...]

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ACER Publishes Second Edition of Guidance on REMIT

 by Prajakt Samant, Thomas Morgan and Simone Goligorsky

On September 28, 2012, the Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators (ACER) issued the second of two pieces of non-binding guidance on the Regulation on Wholesale Energy Market Integrity and Transparency (REMIT).  REMIT imposes requirements aimed at preventing and detecting market abuse, and more specifically, market manipulation and insider trading in the wholesale energy market.

The guidance considers, inter alia,:

  • The scope of REMIT;
  • The application of the definitions of wholesale energy products, wholesale energy market and market participants; inside information;and market manipulation; and
  • The application of the obligation to publish inside information; the prohibitions of market abuse and on possible signals of suspected insider dealing and market manipulation; and the implementation of prohibitions of market abuse.

Considering the scope of REMIT, it should be noted that the guidance stipulates that intra-group transactions, i.e. over-the-counter contracts entered into by counterparties which are part of the same group of companies, would come within the scope of REMIT, given that the definition of wholesale energy products specifies that REMIT will apply to contracts irrespective of how and where they are traded. 

Regarding penalties that will be imposed in the event that a market participant is found to be in breach of REMIT, the guidance states that the national regulatory authorities (NRAs), i.e. the bodies from each member state working with ACER to monitor market participants, should penalize not only breaches of the market abuse prohibition, but also:

  • Any breaches of the obligation to notify ACER of any delayed disclosure of inside information;
  • Any breach of the obligation to provide ACER with a record of wholesale energy market transactions; and
  • A breach of the obligation to register with the competent NRA. 

The first piece of guidance on REMIT was published by ACER in December 2011, a few days before REMIT entered into force.  The guidance focused particularly on the definition of inside information, and what activities ACER would consider to be market manipulation, or attempted market manipulation.  The guidance also gave examples of the types of activities that may indicate insider dealing and suspicious transactions.

It is expected that REMIT will be fully implemented by summer 2013.  In the interim, member states will be required to enable NRAs with the means and powers necessary to investigate suspicious cases, and the prosecute confirmed cases of insider trading and market manipulation.  By summer 2013, it is expected that both ACER and the NRAs (Ofgem in the UK) will start collecting data, and monitoring market participants that come within the scope of REMIT. 

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European Market Abuse Regulation Extended to the Commodities Sector

by Thomas Morgan

The Market Abuse Directive (MAD) was adopted by the European Parliament and the European Council in early 2003, introducing a framework to combat market abuse in the European Union (EU).  On June 2, 2010, the European Commission (EC) announced that MAD would be updated and strengthened, with one of the key objectives being to enhance the regulation of commodity and commodity derivatives markets to deal with insider dealing and market manipulation.  On October 20, 2011, the EC published its provisional drafts of the amended MAD and a new Market Abuse Regulation (MAR).  MAR sets out rules and administrative sanctions in relation to insider dealing and market manipulation (market abuse), while the amended MAD introduces criminal sanctions. The amended MAD and MAR are referred to jointly as MAD II.

In its current form MAD II broadens:

  • the application of the legislation to include financial instruments traded on organised and multilateral trading facilities and any traded over-the-counter (OTC), including spot commodity markets and emissions allowances.
  • the market abuse ban to cover attempted insider trading and attempted market manipulation.
  • the insider dealing restriction to cover amending or cancelling an order, even if this is done to avoid trading on the basis of inside information.
  • the market manipulation prohibition to cover all behaviour, not just entering into orders or transactions, and some high frequency and algorithmic trading strategies.
  • the scope of the legislation by phasing out the defence of behaviour being accepted market practice.

The MAD II package of proposals, like the complementary Markets in Financial Investments Directive proposals published on the same day, will now undergo negotiation by the EC, the European Council and the European Parliament before becoming law.  One of the main discussion points during these negotiations will be the definition of “inside information.” Market participants want the definition to align with the definition of inside information in the regulation on wholesale energy market integrity and transparency (REMIT), thereby ensuring that inside information concerning physical products that are covered by REMIT and inside information concerning commodity derivatives covered by MAD II are regulated in the same way. It is not yet known whether the current definition will be amended accordingly.      

The final form of MAD II is unlikely to enter into force before the end of 2012, but commodities businesses need to start preparing by reviewing all policies and procedures connected to their trading practices.  The implementation of procedures to detect incidents of potential market abuse, and policies for reporting and co-operating with regulators, will serve to minimise corporate and individual sanctions.

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FERC Enforcement Priorities Unchanged for 2012

by Elizabeth Philpott

Fraud and market manipulation, serious violations of the reliability standards, anticompetitive conduct, and conduct that threatens the transparency of regulated markets will continue to be the focus of FERC investigations and enforcement actions in 2012 according to the 2011 Annual Report on Enforcement.

The 2011 Report, issued November 17, 2011, describes the agency’s efforts in fiscal year (FY) 2011 to make its investigations more transparent through public notices of alleged violations and consistent implementation of penalty guidelines in settlements and adjudications.

The Enforcement Office (the Office) received 107 self-reports in FY 2011, up from 93 in FY 2010.  In its 2010 Report the Office predicted that the leniency afforded to self reporters by the penalty guidelines would drive this increase.  Enforcement staff closed 54 self-reports in 2011 after an initial review; 53 self-reports remain open.  These self-reports came from a variety of market participants — regional transmission organizations (RTO) and independent system operators (ISO), natural gas companies, electric utilities and marketers.  Most self-reports involved violations of tariff provisions, particularly open-access requirements.  Other infractions involved filing requirements, behavioral rule and conduct violations, and natural gas pipeline shipper restrictions.

The 2011 Report provides insight into the kinds of findings that will persuade the Office not to pursue enforcement actions against self-reporters.  Those findings include: 

  • the violation caused no harm to markets or parties or was isolated, inadvertent or unlikely to reoccur;
  • the self-reporter took prompt remedial action or instituted measures to ensure future compliance;
  • the self-reporter already paid penalties, refunds, or voluntarily disgorged profits; and
  • the self-reporter had an adequate compliance program in place.

Enforcement staff opened slightly fewer non-self-reported investigations in FY 2011 (12 investigations and two inquiries) than it did in FY 2010 (15 investigations).  The 2011 investigations were instigated on referrals from RTO/ISO market monitoring units, market oversight committees and program offices, and calls to the Office of Enforcement Hotline.  While most investigations addressed alleged tariff violations, others targeted suspected market manipulation, false statements to FERC, hydropower license violations and standards of conduct violations.

Enforcement staff closed slightly more investigations in FY 2011 (19 investigations) than it did in FY 2010 (16 investigations and one inquiry).  Nine of the 2011 investigations ended in settlements and five ended with no enforcement action.  Factors persuading the Office not to pursue enforcement even when the investigation found a violation included finding the violator received no economic gain or caused no economic harm, and finding the violator committed to implement improved compliance and training programs.

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