Steve Cohen’s (Allegedly) Corrupt “Information Gathering Machine”

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Steve Marcus / Reuters

Hedge-fund manager Steven A. Cohen, founder and chairman of SAC Capital Advisors, responds to a question at the SkyBridge Alternatives Conference in Las Vegas on May 11, 2011.

When I first met Steve Cohen back in 1999, we were discussing SAC’s vaunted trading strategies, the ones that made his hedge fund one of the most successful in the finance world and burnished Cohen’s rep as one of the world’s best traders.

I said that based on my reporting — I was working for the Wall Street Journal at the time — Cohen started SAC in 1992 with a technique that wasn’t that much different than a day trader: He was trading huge blocks of stock by looking for “teenies,” or small price increments, that he could magnify into massive returns because of the sheer size of his trades.

It was the only time Cohen seemed angered during our discussion, as I recall. “No,” he shot back emphatically, “we employ real trading strategies around here. We do research.” Cohen went on to explain how his firm, SAC, had transformed itself into something much more than a day-trading sweat shop — it was now, he claimed, essentially the biggest and best information gathering machine in the world.

That information machine has now been deemed by the U.S. Department of Justice to be a criminal enterprise. Today’s indictment, filed in Manhattan federal court, of the once mighty hedge fund accuses SAC a multi-year “scheme” to profit from the use of illegal tips—also known as inside information.

It’s interesting to note that, according to prosecutors, the alleged scheme began in 1999—around the time Cohen was boasting of the firm’s new information edge. It’s also interesting to note that while Cohen himself wasn’t charged in the indictment, references to him in the documents are everywhere, which means all those headlines of Cohen himself being “out of the woods” are probably wrong.

(MOREInsider Trading: Bad, But Not the Real Scourge of Wall Street)

In other words, don’t be surprised if you see an indictment of Cohen in the coming weeks as well.

If you don’t believe me, read the indictment. “The SAC Owner had sole trading discretion over his portfolio and made these decisions principally based on trading recommendations from SAC [portfolio managers],” it says. “In particular, at all relevant times the SAC Owner required each [portfolio manager] to share ‘high conviction’ investment ideas–i.e., the investment  recommendations in which the SAC [portfolio managers] had the greatest confidence–with the SAC Owner. In fact, providing such ideas to the SAC Owner was an express part of a SAC PM’s duties and was emphasized to SAC [portfolio managers] in the hiring process and once working at SAC.”

As my book about the Fed’s relentless pursuit of Cohen, Circle of Friends, explains, the Feds believe having a “high conviction” investment idea is code for trading on material, non-public information, a.k.a. insider trading. They also believe almost no major trade gets done inside SAC without Cohen’s blessing — and based on my sources inside the government, they believe it’s just a matter of time before they connect the dots to Cohen himself.

I should point out that Cohen maintains his innocence and that the information machine he created runs for the most part on information and research of the legal variety. His people tell me the few bad apples at SAC that have used inside information — as many as 9 former or current company executives have been implicated during the insider trading crackdown — are anomalies.

The Feds, of course, feel they have proof that SAC, under Cohen’s watch, is a dirty shop.

One thing is certain: The mounting pressure from the government probe that’s been investigating the firm since at least 2007 is taking its toll on Cohen, both professionally and personally. Money from outside investors has been fleeing the fund for months as the government’s scrutiny has intensified.

With the indictment, SAC is basically being put out of business, though Cohen could still conceivably manage his own personal fortune of around $9 billion. But the Feds are looking for a chunk of that as well. The indictment says the scheme occurred over an 11-year period and that SAC has to give back its illegal profits.

Since most of the money now in SAC in Cohen’s, that means his net worth could take the hit and that hit could amount to billions.

A friend of mine of who knows Cohen personally said he ran into him at the MLB All-Star game at Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets, in which Cohen owns a small stake. Cohen “looked terrible…and he’d gained 15 pounds” since the time the two met just a month or so earlier. More than that, my source told me, Cohen conceded that his business was basically finished and “at this point my No. 1 goal is not getting personally indicted.”

If that’s the case, he should have stuck with trading teenies.

(MOREBusting Steve Cohen: How a Minor Charge Threatens a Major Figure)