The CFTC filed a record number of enforcement actions in 2019 against market participants, the majority of which involved commodities fraud, market manipulation, and spoofing.  As a result of these actions, the CFTC reports that it obtained over $1.3 billion in monetary sanctions and disgorgement in 2019—a 39% increase over the prior fiscal year.  And at this year’s ABA Derivatives & Futures Law Committee Winter Meeting, regulators from the CFTC and ICE warned market participants to expect these enforcement trends in spoofing and market manipulation to continue into 2020.

CFTC Seeks Parallel Enforcement with Market Regulators, but Coordinated Resolutions Scarce

 The CFTC’s Chief Counsel of the Division of Enforcement, Gretchen Lowe, commented that protecting market integrity continues to be a top priority at the CFTC.  She noted that Enforcement is particularly focused on spoofing and market manipulation, as well as matters involving regulatory infractions, such as registrants’ reporting obligations, failure to supervise, business conduct standards, and adequacy of remediation efforts.

Lowe also signaled that Enforcement will continue to pursue “parallel cooperative enforcement efforts” with both domestic and foreign market regulators—including SROs and criminal enforcement authorities in the spoofing context.  ICE Futures U.S. Enforcement Counsel, Frances Mendieta reinforced that the lines of communication are “very open” between ICE and the CFTC, and that the regulators may share information with each other over the course of an investigation.

However, despite such extensive interplay between the regulators, coordinated or “global” resolutions appear to be the exception, rather than the rule.  Both Lowe and Mendieta suggested that the sequential nature of the regulators’ respective investigations can make it difficult to coordinate settlements.  Consequently, while regulators seem keen to build on each other’s investigations, the resolutions often occur months, or sometimes years apart, which can leave market participants in protracted cycle of enforcement involving the exact same conduct.
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The U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission’s (CFTC) Director of the Division of Swap Dealer & Intermediary Oversight (DSIO), alongside fellow panelist and National Futures Association’s (NFA) General Counsel, fielded wide-ranging questions from co-panelists and audience members alike in a discussion focused on Intermediaries & Advisors at the ABA’s Derivatives & Futures Law Committee Winter Meeting in Naples, Florida (January 23-25, 2020).  Chief among the topics addressed were views regarding DSIO and NFA’s evolving approach to swap dealer oversight, particularly on the heels of DSIO’s recently issued guidance on the Chief Compliance Officer Annual Report for futures commission merchants, swap dealers, and major swap participants.
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Can a software programmer be held criminally responsible for designing a program that a trader uses to “spoof” the commodity futures market?  This is the question posed to the jury in U.S. v. Thakkar, 18-cr-36 (N.D. Ill.), which trial began this week in federal court.  The case grew out of the manipulative trading activities of Navinder Sarao, a London-based commodities trader who “spoofed” (i.e., placed bids or offers with the intention of canceling them before execution) futures on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME).  Sarao’s activity allegedly contributed to the May 6, 2010, “Flash Crash” in which the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly 1,000 points within minutes.  Sarao pleaded guilty to fraud and spoofing charges in November 2016.

Jittesh Thakkar, the software programmer currently on trial, was indicted in February 2018 on charges that he conspired with Sarao to commit spoofing and that he aided and abetted Sarao’s spoofing by developing a customized software program that Sarao used to execute manipulative trades.  The indictment against Thakkar marks the first time the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has prosecuted an individual other than a trader with a spoofing-based crime.


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On June 28, 2018, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission proposed three rule changes to the Commission’s Whistleblower Program, including one that would authorize the SEC to “downward adjust” monetary awards in large actions for which an award might “exceed an amount that is reasonably necessary to advance the program’s goals”—in the view of the Commission.  The proposed change prompted an immediate response from Commissioner Kara Stein who issued a separate Statement on Proposed Amendments to the Commission’s Whistleblower Program Rules (“Statement”) in which she highlights concerns that a move towards a more subjective standard in determining monetary awards could threaten a whistleblower’s incentive to come forward, given the added uncertainty in outcome.  Additionally, Stein questions whether the SEC has the statutory authority under the Dodd-Frank Act to alter the rules impacting awards in this way.    
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Perhaps no part of the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (“Dodd-Frank”) has garnered as much attention as its whistleblower provisions, which pay corporate whistleblowers bounties under some circumstances, and prevent employers from retaliating against whistleblowing employees. Often times, the bounties paid to whistleblowers under Dodd-Frank warrant the most attention-grabbing headlines.  But Dodd-Frank’s