China handed down a US$101 million (NZ$138m) penalty and two suspended prison sentences in its first criminal case against a high-speed trading firm.
The case had been closely watched by the trading community on the mainland, looking to shed light on Chinese authorities' stance on high-frequency trading, which remains a controversial practice in jurisdictions across the world.
Yishidun International Trading was fined 300 million yuan (NZ$50m) for manipulating China's futures markets and ordered to disgorge 389 million yuan in profits. As well as the suspended sentences, two of its executives were fined a total of 1.8 million yuan, according to an announcement Friday by the Shanghai No. 1 Intermediate People's Court.
Yishidun, also known as Eastern Dragon, said that it was one of a number of foreign-owned firms that China probed after the $5 trillion market crash in 2015.
An independent audit of the company's trading model did not find "anything consistent with 'market manipulation,' as this term is understood outside China," the firm said Friday.
"The court's verdict does not suggest that Eastern Dragon's trading strategy distorted the market, but that the trading system ED employed merely gave it a speed advantage over other traders," firm said in an emailed statement after the ruling.
"Because of this holding, the fine imposed by the court was at the lowest end of the options available to it."
The ruling came a month after three brokers were fined for illegally facilitating trading for the securities unit of Citadel LLC, and is a sign that penalties are starting to trickle down from China's investigations following the market rout.
Dutch speed trader IMC BV was also investigated, Bloomberg reported last year.
Compliance with market rules has been a focus of China Securities Regulatory Commission Chairman Liu Shiyu since he joined the agency in February 2016, in the wake of the turmoil.
Gao Yan, an Yishidun executive, was given a three-year suspended prison sentence and fined 1 million yuan, while Liang Zezhong was given a two-and-a-half-year suspended sentence and fined 800,000 yuan, according to the court's announcement.
Jin Wenxian, a broker at China Fortune Futures, was sentenced to five years in jail and fined 600,000 yuan, the court said.
"The sentence today is not as harsh as expected," said Han Qian, an associate professor of finance at Wang Yanan Institute for Studies in Economics at Xiamen University, whose area of focus include high-frequency trading.
"People viewed the case as very serious in nature."
Gao's lawyer declined to comment on whether her client would appeal the ruling. Lawyers for Liang and Jin weren't named by the court.
Yishidun, controlled by two Russians, illegally plugged its proprietary trading system into the China Financial Futures Exchange in early 2015, the court found. From June 1 to July 6 that year, the firm capitalised on the speed advantage gained by circumventing brokerage systems to trade futures on the CSI 300 Index and CSI 500 Index. In total it traded 3.77 million contracts and made illicit profit of 389 million yuan, according to the statement.
Yishidun also borrowed or purchased a total of 26 accounts for trading, according to the court. Last month, the CSRC fined three domestic brokerages a total of 416 million yuan for violating margin financing and short-selling rules when facilitating trades for Citadel during the 2015 rout.