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Investors Punished by Never Ending Flash Crashes

A check of 2012 enforcement actions posted by FINRA shows few instances of monetary or regulatory sanctions against a firm that appears to be breaking post flash crash regulations such as the Stub Quote or Market Access rules.

Recent FINRA settlements also indicate serious allegations of market manipulation and post-crash rule breaking only warrant minor fines.

For instance, a late September fine brought by FINRA against Title Securities alleged the Chicago-based broker facilitated the unchecked and manipulative trading of its sole customer, Cyprus-based high frequency trading firm Hainy Investments.

While FINRA's complaint alleges Hainy Investments was able to use Title Securities to trade as much as three billion shares a month, oftentimes in a manner that used banned trading techniques to manipulate stock prices, the agency merely censured the brokerage and fined it a paltry $37,500.

According to FINRA's allegations, Title Securities lacked anti-money-laundering compliance and had no surveillance on trades the firm brokered -- rule violations that ultimately led to the manipulation of stocks through erroneous trades.

"FINRA also found that the firm received numerous inquiries from its clearing firm, as well as from FINRA, BATS, NYSE ARCA and NASDAQ concerning wash trading, odd lots and layering in the customer account. Despite being placed on repeated notice of potentially manipulative trading in the customer account, the firm failed to establish meaningful controls," the complaint states.

"The firm never considered whether to file a [suspicious activity report to FINRA] related to any suspicious trading activity identified, even in the instances where the firm instructed the customer's authorized representative to terminate the customer account trades for their questionable trading activity," FINRA adds.

According to a press release posted to NYSE's Web Site, Title Securities' registration remains active and there's no indication of any SEC involvement. The firm didn't admit wrongdoing in its settlement.

The fine may signal the costs of a fragmented enforcement of post-flash crash regulations.

In another late September enforcement action, the SEC, FINRA, Nasdaq and BATS Global Markets fined brokerage Hold Brothers On-Line Investment Services a total of $5.9 million for allowing an overseas trader to enter U.S. markets unchecked and allegedly manipulate stock movements.

The complaint indicates a violation of the spirit of post- crash regulations such as the Market Access rule.

Hold Brothers is alleged to have used 'spoofing' of bids outside of a National Best Bid or Offer - [mandated by the Stub Quote rule] - to manipulate valid orders in some stocks artificially higher and profit from an opposing position. The firm was also accused of 'layering' limit orders outside of National Best Bid or Offer [NBBO] rules to create the appearance of a change in the levels of supply and demand of a stock, artificially moving prices.

In both alleged violations, trade cancellations appear at the heart of the market manipulation.

"FINRA uncovered hundreds of instances where the foreign day traders used spoofing and layering activities to induce the trading algorithms of unwitting market participants to provide the traders with favorable execution pricing that would not otherwise have been available to them in the absence of the day traders' illicit spoofing and layering activities," the agency states in the Sept. 25 settlement, in which Hold Brothers neither admitted or denied wrongdoing.

As part of the disciplinary action, FINRA and the exchanges also ordered Hold Brothers to conduct an independent review of the firm's compliance with various trading laws. The SEC's settlement barred three Hold Brothers senior managers from trading.
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