Christopher Niesche: Insider trading case big win for regulator

The trial of Oliver Curtis over the past couple of weeks has held Sydney transfixed.
Oliver Curtis has been found guilty of insider trading. Photo / AAP
Oliver Curtis has been found guilty of insider trading. Photo / AAP

This is a true Sydney tale about privilege, greed and dishonour between thieves.

The story begins in the late 1990s when John Hartman and Oliver Curtis formed a friendship at the Jesuit-run St Ignatius College in Sydney, a private school and Tony Abbott's alma mater.

The saga is now coming to a close, with Curtis facing jail for insider trading after Hartman testified against him.

Curtis and Hartman had privileged upbringings on Sydney's North Shore, where Curtis' father was a multi-millionaire mining executive and Hartman's was the so-called 'obstetrician to the stars', including to the Packer and Murdoch families.

After school they both took jobs in the finance sector and earned inordinate sums of money.

Hartman's annual earnings were A$350,000 ($370,000) while, in one year, Curtis raked in A$400,000 just in bonuses from his work advising on mergers and acquisitions at a company called Ocean Securities.

Hartman's job at Orion Equities was to place orders for shares as decided on by investment managers at daily meetings. He noticed these orders were enough to move share prices and realised he could use the information by "front running".

This involved Hartman making the same trades Orion was planning a few minutes before Orion made them, then profiting from the share price move.

For instance, if Hartman knew he was going to place an order to buy Woolworths shares for Orion, he could buy those same stocks for himself just before placing Orion's order, then quickly sell the shares to pocket the price rise.

Hartman started trading with this insider information on his own behalf, then brought Curtis in to the scheme. The first thing they did was buy Blackberry phones to communicate the inside information, because they don't leave a trail like other phones.

Markets only work when investors have faith in them.

They made quick profits, including on one occasion A$200,000 in just nine seconds.

The pair traded what is known as contracts for difference, where instead of buying actual shares, traders buy an option which can greatly magnify any gains or losses. In just 13 months, they turned Curtis' A$8000 outlay into a profit of A$1.4 million.

Curtis and Hartman had agreed to split the profits, but how to give several hundred thousand dollars to your best friend without arousing the suspicions of authorities?

The answer was presents for Hartman. An A$60,000 Mini Cooper, a A$20,000 Ducati motorbike and free board at Curtis' A$3000 a week Bondi apartment. The two friends in their early 20s were living large - a holiday to Whistler and Las Vegas for them and their friends, complete with strippers.

But it didn't last. Hartman's personal trades came to the attention of his broker, who reported him. Confronted by the regulator, Hartman confessed all, including his deal with Curtis, who until then hadn't been on the regulators' radar.

He served 15 months in jail and received a reduced sentence for testifying against Curtis.

Curtis' defence argued that by paying for the Blackberry phones with his credit card, Curtis was behaving like an innocent man, not someone involved in a conspiracy, otherwise he would have paid cash.

His lawyers also argued that the information Hartman passed on to Curtis was accompanied by aggressive and abnormal trading done specifically to benefit Hartman's personal positions in the market. Therefore, they said, the trading was not to the benefit of Orion and hence Curtis could not be regarded as acting on inside information from Orion's trading intentions.

The jury, however, found him guilty of insider trading.

Curtis' trial over the past couple of weeks has held Sydney transfixed, not least because of his wife, Roxy Jacenko.

Jacenko is a "fashion publicist" and proprietor of the weirdly named Sweaty Betty PR agency. Jacenko posted Instagram pics of the outfits she wore each day to court, ensuring the trial moved off the business pages and into the better read news section.

Hartman is now out of jail and living in Perth, working for mining magnate Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest. For the past few years Curtis has been working at Riverstone Advisory, a firm owned by his father. He has an anxious couple of weeks ahead of him as he waits to hear if he will be jailed.

Some might ask what harm was really done? Who lost out when these two boys cheated the market?

It is possibly a question the pair asked themselves, if they ever paused to ponder the morality of what they were doing. They might have answered that no one got harmed, but that's not true.

Markets only work when investors have faith in them.

If we all get the feeling that there are others who have an unfair advantage and that we can't compete on the same terms, we'll take our money out and put it in the bank instead.

And that's bad news for businesses which need capital to grow and create jobs.

Its success and the huge publicity this case has brought might just make others pause before they try to cheat the market.

Insider trading can be difficult to detect, prove and prosecute, so the Australian Securities and Investments Commission has had a great win in successfully prosecuting this case.

- NZ Herald

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